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November 25th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Contract Killers

What’s holding up a deal between Portland Public Schools and teachers?

     
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RAISE ME: PPS teachers rally at the Nov. 9 school board meeting.

November marks the 17th month that teachers in Portland Public Schools have worked without a new, two-year contract.

So what’s the holdup?

Some of the reasons should be obvious.

Since June 2008, the statewide unemployment rate has nearly doubled—from 5.7 percent to 11.3 percent. And state funding for education has plateaued.

“If the economy hadn’t gone in the tank, we would have had an agreement in December or January,” says Rick Liebman, the district’s lead negotiator, a partner at Barran Liebman LLP.

The Portland Association of Teachers union, whose 3,200 members worked without pay for 10 days in 2003, says teachers shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the recession by again forgoing raises and agreeing to furloughs.

As the district struggles with high-profile tasks to reduce its dropout rate and redesign its high schools to better serve more teenagers, the protracted contract disagreement has gotten much less public attention. But as evidenced by a union rally Nov. 9, the unsettled contract could hold up progress on the district’s larger goals if teachers remain unhappy.

“There’s been one thing that’s been stable in this district, and that’s the teaching force,” says Nancy Arlington, chief negotiator for the union.

Negotiations entered state-supervised mediation on Aug. 25. Here’s a deeper look at what has and has not been accomplished so far as the district and union prepare for their next mediation session Dec. 10.

Performance Evaluations

Perhaps the one bright spot in negotiations is a new, preliminary agreement on teacher evaluations, the primary tool PPS uses to identify and get rid of bad teachers.

The union and PPS have both agreed they want to change how teachers are evaluated. In fall 2008, both sides tentatively agreed to create a joint committee to update PPS’ method for reviewing teacher performance.

Salary

This year, pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree starts at $34,492 and goes up to a maximum of $69,944 for a teacher with a Ph.D. The union’s initial salary proposal in May 2008 is a reminder of how much has changed in Oregon’s economy since negotiations started.

The union initially wanted salary increases of 5.7 percent (inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, plus 2 percent) for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. By January 2009, it had reduced the request to 4 percent in both years.

PPS first proposed a 3 percent increase for 2008-2009. Now it’s proposing a 2 percent cost-of-living increase in the first year, plus what’s known as a “step,” a pay bump based on experience. In the second year, the district is proposing no cost-of-living increase but wants to offer steps again. This means everyone would get a pay raise in the first year, but only about half of all teachers would get a raise in the second year because half of PPS teachers are at the top step.

The union wants everyone to get raises in both years.

Meanwhile, the district has backed away from a demand that teachers (and all other employees) agree to five furlough days. The district now says it reserves the right to implement two furlough days, if state funding for public education takes another hit this winter should Oregon voters overturn statewide tax increases on corporations and the wealthiest Oregonians. PPS currently has a 177-day school year—five more days than last year.

Instructional Time and Workload

On paper, teachers work 7 1/2 hours a day. At the outset of negotiations, PPS wanted teachers to increase that obligation to eight hours a day. The idea was to increase how much time teachers are in contact with students. But in recognition of the fact most teachers work far more than their contract dictates, PPS dropped that portion of its proposal.

Instead, it’s asking for changes in how PPS can schedule classes. Currently, teachers can work only between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm with 30 minutes for lunch. The district would like to stagger the start and end of teachers’ workdays to squeeze in more classes, particularly at high schools. For example, to add a section of advanced English at Lincoln High School, one teacher could begin work at 7 am and end her day earlier, too. Under the current contract, this is not allowed unless a majority of the teaching staff agrees to it by vote and it’s approved by the union leadership and district.

There’s a second barrier to this proposal, and that’s the current 6 1/2-hour cap on the student day. The district would like to raise this to seven hours, so that students can take additional classes that start early or late.

Finally, teachers now have 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. This time is officially “duty free.” Initially, PPS wanted to assign work to teachers during those two periods. It then dropped its request to one period. The union countered. It said it would agree to two periods of 7 1/2 minutes, an amount of time the district says is unworkable.

 
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