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November 20th, 2013 RAMONA DENIES | News Stories
 

Take and Give and Take

What’s really at stake in the contract fight between the Portland schools and teachers.

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Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, has troubles enough as it is.

It’s under fire from its auditor for abysmal graduation rates, facing a formal complaint from parents that it’s shorting high-school students on class time, and under scrutiny for its heavy spending on alternative programs and consultants.

The last thing the 47,000-student district needs is for its teachers to walk out.

But the rumblings over current talks with its union, the Portland Association of Teachers, have both sides saying the other is trying to force a strike.

Negotiations between PPS and the union have dragged on since April—one month before the current teacher contract expired—with both sides digging in their heels.

In September, PPS called in a state mediator to assist, to no avail. The bargaining period is now well past the state-mandated 150-day threshold, meaning that either side could declare an impasse—the first step to triggering a strike.

Parents are justifiably looking for answers—and clarity. WW sets the record straight.


Pay

Portland Public Schools: The district is offering a 5-percent cost-of-living increase spread over a three-year contract. 

Portland Assn. of Teachers: The union wants more: an 8.55-percent increase over two years.

History: Teachers recently agreed to delay a step increase for half a year after the district threatened to lay off 100 teachers and cut 10 days from the school year.

Analysis: The district says its proposal would cost $15 million over the first two years. The teachers’ proposal, priced at $200 million, includes the projected cost of extended work time. Union officials say the pay is catch-up for what they were promised before.


Benefits

Portland Public Schools: The district would cap monthly health-insurance contributions at $1,431 a month, with inflation adjustments over the next two school years; and it would eliminate early retirement incentives for employees retiring after June 30, 2014.

Portland Assn. of Teachers: The union wants to maintain current provisions, with 93 percent of teachers’ health insurance covered by the district, and the early retirement package that bridges the gap between Social Security and Medicare.

History: PPS states that eliminating the early retirement incentive would “free up” $5 million a year. The union claims the package saves the district money by encouraging the most-senior (and highest-paid) teachers to retire ahead of schedule.

Analysis: Any employer who subsidizes health-care costs—let alone pays 93 percent of them—knows they’re offering something sweet. And PPS can claim its leaner benefits, however much they hurt, are still competitive with neighboring school districts’.


Workload

Portland Public Schools: The district wants to add three days to the school year.

Portland Assn. of Teachers: Union officials say their focus is on fighting the elimination of longstanding “workload” caps on how many students  teachers can instruct.

History: The state’s largest school district stands out for its shorter teacher workdays,  far fewer instructional hours available to high-school students, and a classroom “cap” based on 1997-98 standards.

Analysis: More class time might help high-school students recoup some of the nearly 200 hours the district now shorts them. But with the district pushing to eliminate the workload cap, the union may be rightly suspicious of PPS’s claim that lower class size is a priority.


Job Protections

Portland Public Schools: The district wants to expand its powers to reassign teachers and redefine “competence” in teacher assignment and layoff  decisions.

Portland Assn. of Teachers: The union wants to prohibit the district from using student grades to evaluate teacher performance.

History: PPS asserts that changes to hiring, grievance and transfer procedures will free it to hire the best teachers, regardless of seniority. The union sees them as “aggressive” attempts to gut job security.

Analysis: With the nation increasingly focused on the metrics of public education—from standardized tests to slipping student grades—it’s no wonder PPS seeks more flexibility to hire, juggle and dismiss teachers based on performance. 

[For context on how negotiations between teachers and PPS got so bad, go here.]

 
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