Murmurs: Teachers Get Back Pay and Restored Benefits

In other news: State funds barely half of county’s request to expand diversion courts.

TEACHERS GET BACK PAY AND RESTORED BENEFITS: Portland teachers who were pinching pennies during the Portland Association of Teachers’ strike Nov. 1-26 are experiencing some “financial whiplash,” as one educator calls it. Relief is on the way. As part of their reentry settlement, teachers will be back-paid for the entire month of November. Not only will that help educators pay their bills as planned, it also restores their eligibility for December health benefits, which were at risk when the strike stretched past Nov. 16. That’s the day Portland Public Schools mailed out information to teachers about how to enroll in spendy COBRA insurance plans. If a teacher already filled out the COBRA paperwork and submitted payment, they will be refunded. One other perk: Teachers get to keep the $120 in daily strike relief funds they earned from the Oregon Education Association, on top of their now-restored salaries.

STATE FUNDS BARELY HALF OF COUNTY’S REQUEST TO EXPAND DIVERSION COURTS: Earlier this year, Multnomah County asked the state for $7 million to fund expansion of its four “specialty courts.” These courts allow people facing criminal charges to stay out of jail or prison by agreeing to undergo counseling or behavioral health treatment. But, to the disappointment of county officials, they were awarded barely half their request: $4 million, even less than they’d gotten in the prior biennium budget cycle. “We were a little dismayed,” Chief Criminal Judge Cheryl Albrecht told county leaders at a meeting in October. “I think everybody agrees, across the board, of the importance of the treatment courts, and with our lessening ability to engage in that work, it’s not promising.” The reason for the limited state grant allocation: competition from other counties. “We had more applicants this cycle compared to previous cycles (around an 11% increase). Unfortunately, our funding pot did not grow at the same rate (around a 4% increase), so more applicants were competing for funding,” says Ken Sanchagrin, head of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which hands out the grants. The county says it’s looking for other sources of funding to help make up the gap. “One of the largest impacts is to treatment services,” says spokeswoman Jessica Morkert-Shibley. Increased attention has been given to one specialty court in particular: drug court. Multnomah County’s drug court, called STOP, was eliminated following the decriminalization of small amounts of hard drugs. But the widespread use of fentanyl on downtown Portland streets has invigorated calls to bring it back. Officials have shifted resources to focus on “higher-risk individuals,” Albrecht explained, including a new court designed to divert Measure 11 offenders from jail that has been highly touted by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. That court, called STEP, was awarded less than half the $2 million officials asked for. “We will ultimately be turning people away,” says Circuit Judge Heidi Moawad, who oversees STEP. The county’s mental health court was also hard hit, receiving only 40% of the funding requested.

NO LAUGHING GAS MATTERS: Patients looking to get knee operations, hernia repair or any other non-emergency surgery at Providence hospitals are in for a monthlong wait because the nonprofit system doesn’t have enough anesthesiologists. Providence Portland on the eastside and Providence St. Vincent in the West Hills are taking only emergency, urgent and pregnancy-related cases through the end of the year, a Providence spokeswoman confirmed. The shortage started Nov. 22, when Providence dumped its local contractor, Oregon Anesthesiology Group, and hired Sound Physicians of Tacoma, Wash. “Unfortunately, the new group will not have enough credentialed anesthesia providers to fully cover the ORs at those facilities when the contract begins,” Providence managers told staff in an email Nov. 14. “We thank you for your understanding and support as we move through this difficult time.” Beyond patients, the clumsy switchover hurts surgeons, who can’t operate, and the nurses who assist them. “Surgeons are pissed,” says one source who works at St. Vincent. Meantime, the Providence spokeswoman said, nurses can do special projects, work temporarily in other departments, use vacation time, or take unpaid time off.

FIELD STILL UNSETTLED FOR BLUMENAUER SEAT: For years, political insiders speculated about the long list of ambitious politicians hoping for a shot at succeeding U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has represented Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District since 1996. But in the month since Blumenauer announced he would not seek reelection, only two serious candidates, former Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal and Gresham City Councilor Eddy Morales, have filed to run in the district’s Democratic primary. State Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland) has also been mulling a run and says she will make a final decision next week. Even if Dexter enters the race, as many expect, the three leading candidates will have a total of 13 years of elected experience between them—little more than half of the 23 years Blumenauer served in the Oregon Legislature and on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and Portland City Council before he first went to Washington, D.C.

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