Breaking The Cycle

Showdown in the OEA's corral: Lawmakers want to limit teacher comp to money available.

School districts across Oregon are preparing to lay off thousands of teachers next fall.

Inevitably, those teachers and their supporters will march into rallies and meetings, wearing T-shirts and carrying placards with words like "trust" and "respect."

State Reps. Mark Johnson (R-Hood River) and Chris Harker (D-Beaverton) want to end the cycle of teacher hiring and pay raises in boom times followed by layoffs, pay cuts and chopping of instructional days when tax revenues fall short of forecasts.

"It's one of the most contentious discussions that exists in local communities," says Johnson, a rookie legislator and current chairman of the Hood River School Board.

But his bipartisan proposal with Harker riles the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union representing 48,000 members. And that means the measure is shaping up as a litmus test for pledges both by Gov. John Kitzhaber and lawmakers to reform education (see "Your Teacher Is F'd" WW, March 23, 2011).

"We've had multiple conversations with OEA," says Johnson. "They don't like the bill. But it resonates with [Kitzhaber]."

The proposal, House Bill 3539, tries to address a fundamental disconnect in school finance—which accounts for about 38 percent of state spending. Oregon's 197 school districts get about 70 percent of their money from the Legislature, which writes a budget every two years. 

School districts, however, negotiate labor contracts, typically lasting two to four years, on their own cycles. Those local district cycles are not connected to the Legislature's budget cycle.

After seeing a January Oregonian op-ed piece by human resources director Ken Bucchi of the Oregon Trail School District, Johnson and Harker decided to fix that disconnect. In practice, Bucchi says, what happens is that school districts often grant raises based on current economic conditions. Yet those economic conditions can decline dramatically before the contract is up, causing turmoil, pay cuts and layoffs.

Under HB 3539, lawmakers would tell school districts how much they could increase total employee compensation (meaning salaries, healthcare costs and pension benefits), which accounts for the vast majority of school spending. The bill limits compensation increases to 5 percent annually but says compensation would never be reduced.

Bucchi says his analysis of his own district in Sandy over the past 10 years shows teacher compensation would have actually risen more than it did if the measure had been in effect. And he says the Oregon Trail district, which endured a 2005 teacher strike, would have had far less strife.

"The problem we have now is a timing issue," Bucchi says. "The term of local contracts often puts us out of phase with the business cycle."

OEA spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau, however, says the bill would take away the local control that is a hallmark of Oregon K-12 education.

She says districts in the Portland area, for example, often compete with each other for teachers and thus need flexibility to structure their compensation. Similarly, remote districts may need to pay up to attract teachers.

"Applying a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't make any sense," she says.

Uherbelau adds that aggregating all of the state's teachers under one compensation system strips away one of the primary benefits of collective bargaining. OEA also worries the bill, which allows merit pay increases, is a back-door approach to that controversial practice.

She does not deny there's a problem, but she says Johnson and Harker are looking at the wrong solution.

"We would agree that the current system doesn't work," Uherbelau says. "They should be focusing on what really doesn't work: the revenue system and the lack of a rainy-day fund."

Harker, a Democrat, is taking a political risk by crossing his party's most reliable financial supporter. But he says he cannot watch the school-funding roller coaster any longer.

"My primary reason for being in the Legislature is having had to watch the demise of public education," Harker says. "I support teachers and think we should pay them more. But we should also pay them differently."

Kitzhaber, who rolled out his educational vision in legislative testimony April 5, supports the concept in HB 3539 because it targets school funding instability, says his spokesman, Tim Raphael. 

"The governor is committed to finding a solution this session to the post-Measure 5 disconnect between what is bargained for at the local level and the actual fiscal condition of the state," Raphael says. "He thinks there needs to be a link and continues to discuss options with legislators and stakeholders."

Proponents of HB 3539 say their bill is a start.

“I don’t want to say it’s a panacea,” Bucchi says, “but it would be a huge step in the right direction.” 

FACT: Although HB 3539 concerns K-12 education, it will get its first hearing in the union-friendly House Business and Labor Committee rather than House Education.

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