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March 8th, 2006 Ian Demsky | Q & A
 

Ann Nice

Departing head of Portland teachers' union paints a pretty gloomy picture.

     
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Ann Nice
IMAGE: CAMERON BROWNE
Ann Nice's 35-year-plus teaching career ramped into overdrive the past four years when she became the public face for the Portland Association of Teachers.

During her time as president of the 4,000-person union, Portland lurched through school-funding crises driven largely by the lingering aftermath of Measure 5, the 1990 measure approved by Oregon voters to cap property taxes and transfer responsibility for school funding from local governments to the state. And the Legislature has proven unwilling to send Portland and other Oregon school districts the money they want to avoid regular cuts.

Now three years after the last crisis when a strike was averted with a deal that included teachers working 10 days for free, there's a new crisis du jour: Portland Public Schools must plug a $50 million hole left by the end of the Multnomah County income tax.

With the 57-year-old Nice stepping down last week as part of her retirement from teaching, and with a mayoral task force scheduled to deliver its school funding recommendations this week, WW asked Nice what she thinks lies ahead for the schools where she made her career.

WW: What's different now from the last crisis three years ago?

Last time [the district] had created the mess by relying on one-time monies and, basically, spending it down until they ran out of money and had to close down schools early. I actually believe that administration and board wanted us to strike because that would get them off the hot seat and make the teachers look like the bad guys.

Will that happen this go-round?

I don't think so. I believe we'll have some very difficult discussions, but I don't believe they'll be handled in the same way.

What should teachers be prepared to give up?

I don't believe that the solution can completely be on the backs of the people who have tried to keep this district as whole as possible. We've been part of the solution all along: We've taken salary cuts, salary freezes, given up sabbaticals, reduced our health-care costs. We buy most of our school supplies, we work hundreds of hours every year beyond our work day. Do I think there will be some layoffs in our ranks? Unfortunately, yes. Do I think there will be some schools closed? Unfortunately, yes.

So is the answer "Nothing"?

I don't have an answer to that. That is something that will happen at the bargaining table.

Sounds really gloomy. If that's the case, what would you tell somebody who wants to be a teacher in Portland?

I would tell them they need to be realistic, but at the same time, that teaching, when you close that classroom door and have that interaction with kids, is still magical—even in Portland.

Yes, but is that "magic" worth the trouble?

We'll have to wait and see how many more sacrifices are asked of Portland teachers this year.

What would you tell a parent looking for a reason to keep their children in a Portland public school?

We have absolutely fabulous teachers.

What's been your hardest challenge?

Trying to strike the balance during the 2003 contract negotiations. I didn't want to stand with a camera in front of my face and a microphone to my mouth and call out all the awful things that were going on to Portland teachers. At the same time, I had an obligation to be honest. The teachers knew what's going on—on a day-to-day basis—in the schools, yet it wasn't wise to air all of Portland Public Schools' dirty laundry.

Can you give me an example?

No. [chuckles]

When voters approved the Multnomah County income tax, the plan was for schools supporters to use the time to go to Salem and get more money. Why didn't it work?

If I had the answer to that, I'd sell it and retire much richer than I'm going to be.


Nice began as a elementary-school teacher in the southern Oregon town of Winston. After moving to Portland, she earned $21,770 in her first year as a full-time teacher in 1983. Nice now makes $65,564 as a senior teacher and an additional $13,802 for 40 additional days linked to her union duties, all paid for by the union.

Nice's successor as union president is Cleveland High School teacher Jeff Miller.

 
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