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October 26th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

One Fine Mess

Portland schools face a financial hole, ticked-off teachers and an end to the local income tax. Now what?

     
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IMAGE: LUKAS KETNER
When Ann Nice says, "I don't think it's going to be a pretty spring," the Portland Association of Teachers president isn't referring to the weather.

At Portland Public Schools, budget and morale issues are coming to a head at a time when the honeymoon for Superintendent Vicki Phillips—who's headed the district for more than a year now—appears to be over.

The Oregon Supreme Court recently carved a hole in future PPS budgets, finding that the district's 2002 decision to replace its full-time custodians with contract ones was unlawful.

The court did not specify how to solve the problem, but back pay could run in the tens of millions. District spokesman Bob Lawrence says PPS hopes for more guidance, either from the courts or the state Employment Relations Board, within the next month.

The problem is that the district, with a $400 million general-fund budget, already has another hit coming on like a speeding truck—next year's end of the voter-approved Multnomah County income tax, which brings Portland schools $50 million a year.

To plug the gap, local officials are pursuing a new income tax for schools that could go before voters as early as May. In the next few weeks, depending on polling in Beaverton set to begin this week, a decision will be made whether to seek a regional tax that includes Washington and Clackamas counties, or a more localized one.

The tax measure aside, the district faces another problem: The next round of teacher contract negotiations expected to begin in February is going to be yet another school knife fight; and recent press releases laden with combative rhetoric suggest the Phillips administration is already sharpening its blades.

For instance, when the court released its ruling on the custodians two weeks ago, the district unleashed two press releases devoted to court-bashing, a pursuit normally left to conservative tax activists like Don McIntire.

"This is a troubling decision on several counts, and the wrong decision for students, taxpayers and our schools," said the Oct. 13 release sent by spokeswoman Sarah Carlin Ames. (The spin was echoed by an Oregonian editorial two days later that attacked the Supreme Court's judgment.)

Then the district unleashed another two press releases questioning the "integrity" of a support-staff union for "refusing to honor" a tentative labor agreement.

Asked about the new tone, Lawrence says Phillips wants to send a clearer message to the public. But Nice thinks the district is gearing up for a showdown. "Several of the press releases seem to be building up to our contract negotiations," she says.

Teachers, who last year agreed to reduced benefits and to pay more of their health care, are in no mood for more concessions. Says Nice: "Members have made plenty of sacrifices over the last many years."

Nice's 4,000 members also appear increasingly disillusioned with Phillips for other reasons. The superintendent recently tried to standardize curriculum between schools by issuing "anchor assignments" including writing-intensive class exercises and a new grading system.

This week, staff at Grant, Wilson, Cleveland and Franklin high schools prepared letters blasting the changes—which came midsemester and with no training—as top-down, redundant and misguided. In an unusual move, Cleveland teachers have elected to defy the curriculum change entirely.

Ames, Phillips' spokeswoman, thinks teachers' grumbling is overblown. The changes "can fit right in with the work they're already doing. It's not additional work."

 
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