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February 26th, 2003 The Nose | The Nose
 

Dealing with the teacher shuffle.

     
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Twenty years ago, Ron Herndon turned the tables on the Portland School Board. He's still shaking things up today.
IMAGE: richard brown
Forget what you see or read elsewhere.

The impasse between Portland teachers and the school district isn't about a greedy union. Nor is it about a hard-headed school district, seeking to balance its budget on the backs of teachers' health insurance.

Instead, it's about a Reed College grad who, for two decades, has refused to let the Portland School Board dodge the twin bogeymen of polite conversation: race and poverty.

Ron Herndon has long been the most eloquent and uncompromising critic of the Portland Public Schools. The chairman of the national Head Start board of directors is also the reason why, as the Nose delivered his column to his editors, school-board members were still looking down the barrel of a strike gun. On Monday, Mayor Vera Katz proposed a city bailout to stave off Portland's first-ever strike.

Twenty years ago Herndon climbed up on a desk at a Portland School Board meeting and used a megaphone to take over the meeting. Twelve years ago, the same Herndon organized a one-day boycott of the Portland school district. Last year he again disrupted board meetings.

Herndon hasn't been involved in the negotiations between teachers and the district. But the large shadow he casts is a huge factor in the current impasse. And it has nothing to do with health insurance.

The luxurious medical benefits Portland teachers currently enjoy are dominating the headlines. But there is another issue that has become just as serious to both sides: the ability to shuffle teachers around without permission.

Currently, the district cannot take a teacher from Ainsworth Elementary School (on the prosperous west side) and move her to Vernon Elementary (in a decidedly less upscale Northeast neighborhood) without her OK.

Yet the district is trying desperately to change that and is demanding, as part of its current negotiations, to have that right written into the contract. The teachers union is just as adamant that it will not cave in and grant what are called "involuntary teacher transfers."

Where does Herndon fit in? In more than two decades, his beef hasn't changed: Poor and minority students in Portland don't do as well as white kids.

Herndon is convinced that one of the key reasons for the gap is that poor and minority kids get the worst teachers. The inexperienced. The inept. If a position opens up at a low-achieving school, teachers with seniority are unlikely to transfer there. And, under the current contract, administrators can't force them to.

That's why this issue has become so important in the current contract bargaining. "How can we attack achievement without affecting teaching transfers?" asks board member Marc Abrams. The Nose can almost feel Herndon's warm breath on Abrams' back.

If you will forgive him for sticking his schnozz into the collective bargaining process, the Nose has a couple of observations.

First, although Herndon's concern about the achievement gap may be legitimate, it's not clear that "involuntary teacher transfers" are the answer. Consider Jefferson High School, which had a staffing overhaul in 1998. At the time, the "reconstitution" gave district administrators a free hand in choosing which teachers would work there. Today Jeff, by nearly any measure, is worse off than it was before the changes. Test scores remain abysmal, and enrollment has dropped 16 percent, while Grant's and Benson's student populations have grown during the same period.

Second, even if the right to assign teachers is a laudable goal, is it worth risking a strike over? The school board needs to find some way to cut costs, and health care is the only big-ticket item it controls. If the district sacrificed the goal of ordering teachers around, the union would be far more likely to make some concessions on its overly generous health insurance plan. The union would save the district needed millions, avoid a strike and place this impending crisis behind us.

The alternative is a protracted labor battle that could lead to a district that looks like those in most big-cities: a system where only poor and minority kids attend. Come to think of it, that's one way to get rid of the gap.

 
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