The recent release of a fact-finding report from an independent panel regarding the ongoing contract negotiations between RSU 20 teachers and the district gives us reason to believe that while the fight isn’t over yet, it is heading into the final rounds.

Resolving the teacher contracts is a necessary step in the ongoing process of consolidation. Even though RSU 20 was formally created by combining the former SADs 34 and 56 in 2009, the fact that there are still two sets of teachers working in the same district under two vastly different contracts suggests the merger is anything but complete.

As it stands now, two teachers with identical qualifications and the same level of experience could see an annual difference in salary of up to $10,000 — just because one used to work for SAD 34 and the other was employed by the former SAD 56.

Each additional day that the district and the teachers union battle over how best to bring all RSU 20 teachers onto a level playing field is another day that the pay inequity continues. We know that has not been good for morale across the district, and we have to question how much that negatively impacts the educational experience for our children.

As the panel noted in its report, the poor job market, rising health insurance costs and the struggles taxpayers are experiencing as a result of those factors are not the faults of either the district or the teachers who serve it. Even so, the issue must be resolved.

That can be accomplished in one of two ways: Through a mutual agreement or by way of arbitration, which RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said could then be followed by an imposition from the school board regarding salaries and benefits if no agreement is reached. We would urge both sides to do all they can to avoid the latter option, simply because it will do little to further a feeling of unification among RSU 20 teachers.

The fact-finding panel appointed by the Maine Labor Relations Board offered recommendations that asked those on both sides of the bargaining table to make concessions in order to resolve the 18-month contract dispute.

One recommendation in the majority report, for example, suggested the district cover 80 percent of teachers’ health insurance costs in 2011-2012 while teachers foot 20 percent of the bill. In the following years, the district’s share would decrease slightly and the staff member’s share would increase by the corresponding amount.

While a departure from past practice in the school system, that kind of cost split is not unfair — in fact, many people (those who work for small businesses, for example) would be glad to have their employer shoulder that much of the health insurance burden.

Other suggestions from the fact-finding panel seem less reasonable.

The attached minority report, for example, encourages the district to use $735,000 worth of cash resulting from staff turnover and a budget carryover to put teachers from the two former school districts on an even playing field in terms of pay.

While we support the idea of pay equity, this is not a practical way to achieve it. It is no secret the district — faced with declining state and federal funding — is expecting a budget shortfall of at least $1 million for the coming year. That $735,000 would be best used to soften the overall budget blow for the taxpayers.

Regarding pay equity, the majority report offers a more reasonable approach to attaining that goal, by bringing staff from the former Searsport school system up to 90 percent of what their counterparts from the former SAD 34 are being paid, within three years. Undoubtedly, those in the former SAD 56 would like to see this happen sooner, but it seems financially impractical for that change to take place overnight.

If folks on both sides can work together — maybe teachers pay a bit more for health insurance while the district puts a specific plan in place to provide pay equity, for instance — the end result could mean better working relationships for everyone moving forward.