Teachers' union, school board struggle to find common ground

As a Portland parent, what would you say if you knew your school board was shelling out at least $1 million a year of your tax dollars to a high-priced consultant and team of corporate lawyers? The purpose: To bully teachers, limit their voice, and make it harder for them to give our students the individual attention they need and deserve.

You would be outraged. Well, get ready to be outraged.

As background, Portland teachers have been in contract negotiations with the Portland Public Schools since last spring. This happens every few years, most often without incident or acrimony. Negotiations provide an important opportunity for the school board and district leaders to hear directly from educators about the teaching and learning conditions in our classrooms.

Our schools are facing mounting challenges, including overcrowded classrooms, disheartening graduation rates, and growing inequity among our neighborhood schools.

To address these challenges, educators got together and worked to create a shared vision of what we believe on behalf of our kids. The idea is to have educators, administrators and parents work together to create the schools our students deserve.

We were hopeful that together with the district, we could move the ball forward for our kids. So far, the school board and superintendent are proving us wrong — dead wrong.

Teachers wanted to talk about class size, opportunities for kids, the overreliance on standardized testing, equity and school closure, and allowing teachers to lead their own classroom to personalize instruction for their students.

A majority of the school board and Superintendent Carole Smith refuse to talk about these issues with us. In fact, they’ve gone to extremes by proposing to strip dozens of provisions from our existing contract that are critical to helping teachers to do their jobs well.

The district leadership is so far out of touch with what’s happening in our classrooms that it thinks the answer to the serious problems facing our schools is to pay a private labor consultant $15,000 per month to lead a strategy that School Board member Matt Morton describes as “getting aggressive” with teachers.

What does getting aggressive with teachers mean to the school board? It means gutting the contract of all language protecting teachers from unmanageable class sizes and workloads. It means eliminating any protections against the overuse of standardized testing, and it means reducing teachers’ rights to have a say in where they work. The district leadership wants to make this contract all about money. It’s not. Even Smith has said that we are not far apart on salary. In our recent proposal, we reduced our salary proposal by 2 percent and reduced other provisions that would save millions of dollars.

On a related note, the district just announced it found an extra $16 million. Despite having more money in the budget this year, the district wants to reduce teachers’ take-home pay by drastically increasing the cost of health care for teachers’ families.

The school board’s expensive and aggressive strategy is to push through a new contract as quickly as the law allows that reduces teachers’ voice about how to best meet the needs of their students.

The district leadership shut the door to the public by calling for mediation and, at our only mediation session to date, the district offered no new proposals and no response to our concessions.

It’s clear that as soon as they can, Smith and the school board plan to call an impasse. Why the rush? Because once they do, they trigger a timetable that allows them to impose upon teachers any contract that they want. Not a compromise, not a mediated settlement, but whatever contract they want. Teachers will be forced to accept the unacceptable or go on strike.

If you agree that these actions don’t represent Portland values, we hope you’ll join us. Teachers remain committed to working toward a contract that creates the schools Portland students deserve. But we need the help and support of parents to get there.

Gwen Sullivan is president of the Portland Association of Teachers, and has two children attending Portland schools.

Contract Publishing

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