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Teachers union says PPS 'pushing us closer to a strike'

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Emma Christ, a senior at Cleveland High School, chants with other students and parents at a Jan. 13 rally supporting teachers before a Portland Public School Board meeting. Contract talks between teachers and the school district have sputtered as both sides are far apart on several important issues, such as salary increases and workload.Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers appear to have had their last mediation session, and the possibility of strike is looming.

After a 14-hour session Thursday, Jan. 16, talks between the two sides made no progress and are stalled after nine months, according to the district.

The Portland School Board could vote as early as Tuesday's meeting to give a 7-day notice of intent to impose a contract on the union.

If that happens, PAT President Gwen Sullivan says union organizers and representatives would gather and assess what to do.

They could accept the imposition or vote to strike, an action the union takes seriously, Sullivan says. State rules require that the union hold a minimum of two pre-strike assessments before they can vote to strike. They've already had one, and the result was "unbelievably united for not letting them impose" the contract, Sullivan says.

"Whatever comes out of this has to be strong," she adds. "We've got to be united."

A line in the sand

PPS officials say items of contention are a longer school year for students, salary increases for teachers and early retirement benefits. They say they've offered a three-year contract based on frameworks negotiators for both sides discussed during intensive sessions recently.

“We have had intensive talks that have generated movement on many issues, from teacher hiring to work load relief," says Superintendent Carole Smith. "We addressed the issues the association told us were their top priorities: workload and health care. We believed we were getting close to an agreement, but we are disappointed that we are now seeing a widening gap. Tonight we informed the association that we are not able to move beyond the frameworks that had us close to a settlement last week.”

Sullivan, who represents the union of 2,900 members, told the Tribune Friday afternoon, Jan. 17, that the district is mischaracterizing the union's proposal.

"I'm just baffled why they said we are far apart and that we've changed things," Sullivan said. "There's not been a change. We've said since April that we need a reduction in class size and that class size matters."

As recent as the all-night bargaining session Jan. 6, she says, "we've worked on the same proposals and the same framework. We have the same language. The only change we presented to them yesterday was a framework for paying for it. ... We didn't suggest anything that's not in their budget, and not sustainable."

Added Sullivan: "They drew a line in the sand. They basically said that's as far as they can go. They're the ones that are pushing us closer to a strike."

PPS officials said they're awaiting a response from the teachers union.

Sullivan says the union had offered to meet Friday and Saturday, but the mediator wasn't available until Tuesday. "They said we're done talking," so no further talks have been scheduled.

The school district proposal would:

• Reduce class sizes and work load: The school district agrees to maintain a workload limit in the contract. PPS also commits to hire 88 additional elementary, middle grade and high school teachers for the 2014-15 school year, a 4.6 percent reduction in teacher work load based on PAT’s work load calculation methodology.

The school district would commit PPS’ entire $7.8 million share of the funds legislators added to the K-12 budget in the recent special session to hiring PAT-represented educators. The Legislature designated the funds to be used to add school days and hire staff, including teachers. Further increases to school staff would be included as part of the regular annual budget process, and not defined in a labor contract with one employee group.

• Add school days for students: The school district’s offer adds two instructional days for K-8 students and three for high school students (resulting in a 1 percent pay raise for teachers and school staff from the additional days.)

• Improved teacher hiring and retention: Shift PPS hiring practices to one round of internal hiring and incorporates competence as a factor in teacher assignments and layoffs.

The school district’s offer also provides what they say is sustainable compensation and benefits to teachers, which give PPS better ability to maintain financial stability and continue to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers.

• Salary increase: A 2 percent cost-of-living increase in each of the three years of the proposed contract, plus an additional 1 percent increase to compensate teachers for added school days. In total, teachers would receive salary increases of between 7 and 17 percent, depending on whether they receive seniority increases.

• Health insurance: Maintain current insurance provision of 93 percent contribution from PPS and 7 percent contribution from PAT members.

• Early retirement: Sunset early retirement benefits at the end of the 2015-16 school year, but maintain eligibility for the $425 a month early retirement stipend for employees who have 15 years or more of service, and progressive reductions in the length of time retiring employees could receive insurance payments.

Smith calls the proposal a "fair and responsive" one.

"It’s time for us to reach a settlement and turn our attention back toward serving our students and families," she says.