Teachers are putting up decorations and kids are learning holiday songs, but there's not a lot of cheer at Portland Public Schools right now.

Contract talks between teachers and the district are careening toward an impasse, setting up what could be the district's first-ever teachers' strike.

It's a stark change from two years ago, when the district and the 3,600-member teachers' union, the Portland Association of Teachers, negotiated their last contract. Both sides reached a consensus in barely two weeks, a record time that left teachers and administrators smiling and proclaiming the start of a new collaborative relationship.

This go-round, the two sides arrived at the bargaining table with radically different proposals, unable to agree even on what they will negotiate.

District and union representatives have instead spent the last six months talking past each other—and blaming the other side for wanting to force a strike.

The current standoff is, in part, the result of both sides grappling with change. For example, district officials say the contract is too rigid when it comes to setting starting and ending times to instructional hours.

"The district is ineffective in orchestrating change, and the union is unenlightened in responding to it," says John Hirsch, co-chairman of 80%ers for Educational Excellence, advocating for the 80 percent of Portlanders who don't have children in local public schools.

"The real theme of this whole negotiation is dealing with change," says Hirsch of the 80%ers. It's the clash of the titans, and the community and students may suffer for it."

How did it get so bad so fast? It largely comes down to the three T's: terms, trust and transparency.

[For a breakdown of what's at stake in the contract, go here.]


For years, Portland Public Schools has traded contract concessions for money. The district has often given the union what it wanted on issues such as hiring, transfers and class size. And the union often took these concessions in lieu of better pay and benefits.

But many of these issues are also outside the mandated scope of the contract and have given the union a bigger say in what the district says should be management decisions.

This time, the district has refused to discuss more than 50 so-called "permissive" issues the union raised and is working to remove existing language from the contract.

District officials say that's made it more complicated to do even simple things, such as requiring teachers to regularly post student progress online, or getting teachers to reschedule conferences when parents miss appointments.

"Changing contract language around workload is a priority," says district spokesman Robb Cowie. "Those tradeoffs have handcuffed our ability to get better results for students. The School Board has been clear from the outset that they see the current contract in many ways as putting up barriers to more effective teaching and learning."

The union, by contrast, arrived at the bargaining table with a wide-ranging manifesto on education reform. Union leaders say they don't trust PPS to work with them on issues without the hammer of the contract.

"We wanted to talk about the things that are most important to teachers," says union president Gwen Sullivan. "The district was starting in a different place than we were. It couldn't have been more opposite."


It turns out the district couldn't afford the last contract it signed in March 2011 with teachers,  who gave up cost-of-living increases but were supposed to get 2-to-5-percent raises, depending on their seniority and education.

Within two weeks, however, district officials were talking about covering a $10-million shortfall by laying off more than 100 teachers.

The following school year, teachers agreed to forgo part of the small raise they had just received and to donate $400,000, 40 percent of a recent arbitration award, to help bail out PPS. Sullivan says teachers also agreed to a change in health plans that has upset many teachers while saving the district nearly $1 million.

"Cuts have been predominantly on the backs of teachers," Sullivan says. "We don't want a strike, but our teachers won't accept an unacceptable contract. We are at a breaking point."

The last contract helped create the atmosphere of incredulity toward the district's promises, especially when it comes to money.

As the district pleads poverty, for example, it continues to spend millions on racial-sensitivity training (which has yet to show any meaningful benefit for students) and alternative programs that hire non-union teachers and have abysmal graduation rates. (See "Expel Check," WW, Sept. 25, 2013; and "Flunk Factories," WW, Nov. 13, 2013.)

"Trust is frazzled right now," says Otto Schell, legislative director for the Oregon PTA. "No matter how this works out, there's going to be a lot of work to be done on that."


In 2011, the district proposed a new "six of eight" high-school schedule, in which teachers would have six classes a day instead of the previous five of seven.

The result was intended to save money. But the union challenged the plan, and an arbitrator ruled it violated contract provisions (based on 1997 baselines) that limit teachers to 180 students per day-—six periods with 30 students per teacher.

District officials felt burned by the union's challenge and are determined to eliminate class limits in the contract. Teachers, in turn, feel as if the district tried an end-run around the contract.

"They are all trying to do what they think is best," says Andrew Davidson, a senior at Grant High School and PPS's student representative on the School Board.

Davidson notes everyone wants to carry out the union's slogan: "Schools Our Students Deserve."

“It’s what’s in the contract or how we go about getting there that’s different,” he says.