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January 30th, 2008 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

State of a Union

Another big presidential election—for the head of the Portland teachers’ union.

     
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Miller time no more?: Portland Association of Teachers president Jeff Miller at Monday night’s school board meeting.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

Eight out of the Portland Association of Teachers’ nine board members have endorsed the challenger in the powerful union’s upcoming presidential election, signaling a widespread desire to change the role of the union’s top brass.

The shift favors Rebecca Levison, a sixth-grade teacher from Clarendon-Portsmouth School, over incumbent Jeff Miller, a history teacher from Cleveland High who has a two-year track record of successful yet aggressive dealings with Portland Public Schools.

Beyond the obvious effects on the PAT’s internal politics, the possible change-over would be significant for the school district’s 46,000 students, their parents, other district employees and taxpayers.

Unseating Miller would indicate the teachers’ union may take a less confrontational tone, one that would trickle down in public to everything from contract negotiations to curriculum development.

“Most of the interactions between the [school] board and the union goes through [the president], even when there’s a negotiating team,” says former board member Sue Hagmeier. “The president’s style has a lot to do with the quality of that relationship.”

If there’s a change at the top of the 3,000-member teachers’ union, it wouldn’t be the first noteworthy torch-passing recently at the district. It would come on the heels of several administrative changes that started in October with the hiring of new superintendent Carole Smith. An ally of former superintendent Vicki Phillips (who worked as Phillips’ chief of staff), Smith is nonetheless considered a kinder, gentler version of “Hurricane Vicki”—a soft breeze compared with gale-force winds.

Now some people are saying the union must change along with the district and that the combative union techniques to air teachers’ concerns when Phillips was superintendent should give way to more collaboration.

“I think we’re going in a new direction,” says Jan Peterson, one member of the union’s executive board who endorsed Levison. “I think it’s time for new leadership to go that direction.”

Only union members may vote in the mail-ballot election, which will be decided Feb. 28 by teachers, counselors and school psychologists with Portland Public Schools.

Their choice between Miller and Levison is clear-cut.

Miller is an imposing 51-year-old figure whom several insiders described as sharp but antagonistic, and the union’s newsletter, The Advocate , is a running catalog of this characteristic. For example, in the first newsletter after Smith’s hiring, Miller wrote about the union’s expectations for her, saying “To preserve vital relationships, the Superintendent must take care to respect the limits of employees’ capacity.”

Some members found Miller’s overall message to be too forceful.

Levison is a 37-year-old activist with a reputation among teachers for building coalitions. A member of the younger generation of Portland teachers, Levison has served on union committees.

Whomever is selected will face several key issues, all of which could be spun in new ways by a different president.

Though the teachers’ current contract doesn’t expire until June, when Miller’s term as union president is also up, contract negotiations begin in March. The election of a new president could shift the focus of the bargaining team.

Meanwhile, district leaders are trying to re-imagine as part of those negotiations how those teachers are hired and assigned to their schools. It’s a Herculean task that requires taking on the union’s preference for hiring and transferring teachers based on their seniority. This is nonetheless a high priority for advocates such as Stand for Children, a statewide lobbying group for improving schools.

Finally, a multimillion-dollar facilities-bond issue is looming. If the bond went before voters in November, it would require the support of the union membership—and its contributions—to convince voters to support the tax hike. Yet the union could use the threat of not supporting the bond as leverage to win more concessions in its own contract.

Several education leaders, inside and outside of the union, declined to discuss the election.

“I want to continue our election process without outside media influence, so I am not willing to talk with you at the present time,” Cheyne Cumming, an executive member of the board from James John Elementary School, wrote in an email to WW .

Miller did not return phone calls. Levison said she would not talk about the election until it ended.

Parent groups and other insiders were equally cautious, even though some of them expressed strong reservations about Miller’s stewardship.

Two years ago, at the height of the school closures and reconfiguration storm under Phillips, the union needed a leader whose strong voice could be heard above the din, teachers say.

Peterson, the executive board member who would discuss the election, says the union needs to take a different approach with Smith than it did with Phillips, one that outsiders might describe as softer.

“We don’t need to alienate her,” Peterson says. “We need to work with her.”

 
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