'We're definitely preparing for that,' says Portland Association of Teachers union president Suzanne Cohen.

THE PORTLAND TRIBUNE - David Child, a member of the Portland Association of Teachers bargaining team, held a sign outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in February 2014 during a rally to support teachers as a possible strike loomed. The teachers union voted to authorize a strike on Feb. 5, 2014.Portland Public Schools teachers are preparing for a possible strike, as contract talks with district administrators continue to deteriorate.

"Our hope is to get a fair settlement and sooner rather than later, so the district can focus on myriad other issues," said Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers union. "I don't want to say the word 'strike' yet, but we're definitely preparing for that possibility."

All of which means that Portland Public Schools, which lacks a permanent superintendent, may soon find itself in the same position as three years ago. That's when the district narrowly avoided a February 2014 strike that teachers overwhelmingly supported.

Here's what parents and community members need to know as the clock continues to tick on negotiations.

1. A strike could happen as soon as September.

The two sides started negotiating in March 2016 using a framework known as "interest-based bargaining," basically a gentler, more collaborative form of contract talks.

On May 25, the teachers' union publicly signaled that things were going very badly with interest-based bargaining. That's when it filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, alleging the district was violating state law with some of its proposals.

On June 6 came proof that talks had broken down. That's when state authorities officially came onto the scene to help the district mediate with the teachers' union, at the district's request.

'Mediation' sounds soft and fuzzy, too. But that request triggers a timeline under state law that puts the possibility of a strike in motion.

Based on that timeline, teachers could strike as soon as late September, just as children are returning to their school routines.

2. Workload is still the major point of contention.

As in 2014, the two sides are divided over teachers' workloads. A provision in the current contract, which expired in 2016 but is still in effect, spells out limits on teachers' duties, saying their workloads must be "generally comparable" to what existed in the 2010-11 school year.

Not surprisingly, the two sides have not definitively agreed on what constitutes "generally comparable." So the district would like to strike that provision.

"This language is dated, vague and could be used to allege a violation due to any change in work processes," wrote then-Superintendent Bob McKean in a May 26 email to principals. "We remain committed to working through mediation to address workload concerns, but the current language is unsustainable in our current fiscal situation and will hold the district back."

Calculating teachers' workload is incredibly complicated, in part because different teachers carry different loads. So when teachers talk about workload they often point to class size, because that's something parents see and care about.

In any case, teachers nearly struck over this issue three years ago. PPS kept the provision. Today, there's no sign teachers are ready to cave. "Our members are not interested in gutting our workload language," said Cohen.

3. The two sides did resolve one aspect of the unfair labor practice complaint teachers filed in May.

We end with good news. Sort of. There were three components to the teachers' unfair labor practice complaint in May. In June, the district resolved one of the issues—the length of the school year—in accordance with what the teachers' union wanted.

The union had argued that under its existing contract PPS couldn't lengthen the school year while also laying off teachers, as the district proposed. So now the district is making the 2017-18 school 190 days, instead of 192.

As a result, the union agreed to postpone a hearing on the other two components of their complaint, which have to do with workload and snow-day pay. The hearing had been set for this summer. But now it's no longer a distraction.

"Both sides can focus on bargaining," said Laird Cusack, senior director of labor relations for PPS.

If PPS and the teachers' union can hammer out an understanding on the other two issues during bargaining and avoid a strike, the union could drop the complaint entirely.

Yousef Awwad, the district's new interim superintendent as of July 1, argues that the district is offering teachers "a very attractive" contract that includes cost-of-living increases for all three years of the agreement.

Beth Slovic
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