Portland Public Schools board approved the teacher contract with no amendments, despite worries from outside groups on transparency issues.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Portland Association of Teachers President Suzanne Cohen chat before Thursday evening's vote to approve a three-year contract. Portland Public Schools board of directors unanimously approved a three-year deal with its teachers, turning the page on the district's long struggle with teacher relations.

But the board declined to hear public testimony when it met to approve the deal Thursday evening. Open government groups said they felt that certain provisions would make it harder for the public to learn about bad teachers put on administrative leave.

District officials categorically denied that the deal would do that, saying language quashing the ability of "school and program administrators" to communicate that teachers were on paid administrative leave only applied to principals and similar, not to central office staff nor board members.

Human Resources Director Kylie Rogers admitted to the Tribune that other school officials might interpret the contract language differently but that negotiators in this case did not intend for the restriction to extend across the district.

This runs contrary to earlier statements by district spokesman Dave Northfield, who said Thursday he originally misunderstood that the language would extend to the Human Resources and others.

Board members repeatedly asked staff if the contract would make it harder for the public to learn about bad actors.

Rita Moore, a board member who joined the district's side of the negotiations in July, asked: "In light of a number of unfortunate instances that have become known where students safety was jeopardized, how can parents and teachers and community members be reassured that similar siutations are not going to reoccur?"

Laird Cusack, the district's senior labor relations manager, admitted that the district's past practice in investigating teachers had been "inconsistent." But, he said the district's employment relations team was now fully staffed with four people.

"That has not been the case for longer than anybody can identify," Cusack said.

"I am confident that with the consistent practices we have employed … that there is no new or previous language that prevents us from upholding student safety (at) the center," Rogers added.

Read previous coverage:

PPS reaches 3-year contract agreement with teachers

PPS teachers win caseload limits, retroactive raises in new contract

Documents show PPS union anger over making jailed teacher records public

Board chair Julia Brim-Edwards asked pointedly if the contract would restrict the district's ability to release the names of people on paid administrative leave. Cusack said no. Brim-Edwards then asked if anything in the contract would impact the district's lawsuit against a reporter and a citizen that asks the court to determine whether a list of people on paid administrative leave is a public record. Cusack again said no.

However, there is a provision in the new contract that documentation of an employee's paid administrative leave be put in an investigatory file, rather than their personnel file. An investigatory file is typically not released to the public, except at the board's discretion and then usually after the investigation is complete and has judged there to be wrongdoing.

More instructional time

School board members spent much of the hour-and-a-half-long board meeting praising the new superintendent, each other, teachers and staff for reaching a deal that they feel will spark a new day in the district's teacher relations.

"I think this is a ground-breaking contract in many ways," Moore said. "This is actually the first time in the entire time that I have been watching PPS that I am optimistic."

Board members credited the ability to finally bring 20 months of negotiations to a close with the addition of Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, who started Oct. 1.

"What were you guys talking about all that time?" Guerrero joked to the board.

"You don't want to know," Moore responded.

The contract gives teachers future and retroactive raises for each of the three years in the contract: July 2016 to June 2019. Guerrero revealed in a presentation at the meeting that those raises will cost the district $7.3 million for 2016-17, $14.2 million for this school year and, due to compounding interest, $27 million for 2018-19.

The contract also adds an instructional day to next school year, plus numerous other teacher supports and paid planning time. Administrators are planning a new "family friendly" schedule with fewer late starts and early releases. Rogers said the additional minutes add up to 16 hours over the course of the year for elementary and middle schoolers and eight to 10 hours for high schoolers.

Guerrero told the Tribune after the meeting that he is undertaking a reorganization of the district administration, starting from the top down.

"To afford all of this, this building (PPS central office) is going to have to thin out a little bit," he said.

Disclaimer: Reporter Shasta Kearns Moore is a member of Society of Professional Journalists and Open Oregon, which both submitted testimony to the Portland Public Schools board on concerns of secrecy in the contract terms.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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