December 03, 2002 11:00 pm

The Oregon Education Association is one of the state's largest and most powerful political lobbying organizations. The teachers' union collects millions of dollars in dues each year and uses that money to influence and affect educational issues in every corner of the state.

The OEA is on a campaign that seems at odds with the current financial crisis affecting Oregon's public school districts. That campaign is one of using the potential of a strike to increase teachers' wages and benefits.

ThE discussion comes at a time when tax revenues are declining at every level of government, and when the Public Employee Retirement System is billions of dollars in debt, creating the potential for catastrophic financial problems for every government agency in the state. PERS is the system that OEA members use for their retirement.

Across the state, OEA members in local districts who have contracts that are due to be negotiated are trying to swing a heavy hammer against local school boards, demanding raises and no cuts to the teachers' benefit packages.

Obviously the individuals running the OEA and mapping its strategy are not focusing on the financial freefall that Oregon's tax revenues are in. Oregon already pays its teachers better than most and provides smaller classroom sizes than the vast majority of the other states. Taxpayers are paying employee benefit packages that cost more than $700 per month, providing for family medical, dental and vision coverage. Because of tough negotiating on the part of unions in the past, taxpayers through PERS have been providing annual guarantees on retirement investments, even when the market has been down.

The idea of using the tactic of striking a school district when the district's financial situation is precarious is reprehensible. Teachers should be working with the districts to stabilize the current financial problems and work to find long-term funding solutions and appropriate and fair wage and benefit packages.

This may mean that teachers will have to pay a fair share of the medical costs and even see wages frozen on the short-term. But this would be better than cutting hundreds of teaching positions across the state or shortening the school year in some districts. Teachers may also have to take the lead in pushing for consolidation of Oregon's 300-plus school districts to ensure maximum efficiency for the dollars spent.

We need leaders in the unions who are as concerned about education in Oregon as they appear to be about getting the upper hand in contract negotiations.