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Following the negotiations over the wage agreements for elementary school teachers, it appears the teachers could be heading for a 30 percent increase in wages over the next few years, if they agree to education reforms.

The wage agreement crisis reached a crossroads this weekend. Either the deal will be signed in the coming days or the teachers will join the strike already begun by high school teachers.

The finance and education ministries are offering elementary school teachers significant reforms, which would both raise their salaries substantially and add to their work hours. Teachers are being offered a 22 percent raise, to be spread over five years. Teachers had demanded a 50 percent raise at the start of negotiations, but sources close to the talks believe the final figure will be closer to 27 percent. Intervention by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could bring the figure to 30 percent, the sources say.

The condition for raising salaries is teachers' acceptance of educational reforms. They would provide principals with greater administrative authority, including hiring new teachers, firing unsuitable ones, and raising the salaries of outstanding teachers.

The second important change consists of increasing the number of teachers' frontal hours. The teachers union claims teachers now have 24 frontal hours on average per week, while the Finance Ministry claims they teach 25.5 frontal hours on average. In any event, it's agreed that the number of frontal hours will be raised to 26 per week.

The most significant change regarding salaries would involve new teachers, who now start at NIS 2,800 per month. Because of the minimum wage law, these teachers receive additional pay to bring the amount to NIS 3,900. Reforms would raise their monthly gross pay to NIS 5,000. The teachers union is demanding a salary of NIS 5,500 per month.

The pace of raises for starting teachers would also pick up thanks to reforms. For the first time in the history of wage agreements with teachers, an independent professional salary scale will be constructed, which would promote teachers based on their roles and standards of excellence - and not just seniority. School principals would have a separate salary scale with special conditions for compensation.

In the current situation, it takes a teacher 15 years to reach the average salary in the economy (NIS 7,200 per month). The new scale would cut that down to 10 years. After 15 years a teacher's salary would match that of a civil servant with a college degree - NIS 10,500. The cost of the pay raises will be around NIS 4-5 billion annually.

This agreement concerns only elementary school teachers, who make up about 90,000 of the 120,000-strong workforce of teachers. The Education Ministry believes that if secondary school teachers sign on to the agreement, the cost would reach NIS 6-7 billion annually.

The state budget would finance this cost, but the Education Ministry would also be asked to share some of the burden. The government would be expected to approve cuts across all ministries as well.

Education Ministry officials believe if the union signs this deal, the secondary school teachers will also sign on.