Teacher strike looms at Portland Public Schools
Several hundred teachers, parents, students and supporters rally outside the headquarters of Portland Public Schools leading up to a packed Oct. 21 school board meeting. The district is demanding concessions in the PAT contract, and announced in September it would no longer meet face-to-face with the union, setting in motion a process that could lead to a strike.
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Portland Public Schools (PPS) — Oregon’s largest school district — appears to be headed for a teacher strike.
Oregon law says public employers have to negotiate with a union for at least 150 calendar days. Often in the past, bargaining between PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) continued many months beyond that minimum. This time, almost exactly 150 days after bargaining began April 18, PPS chief negotiator Brock Logan told PAT he would no longer meet face-to-face with them after Oct. 9. The district moved to the next legally-required step — mediation. In mediation, a state-appointed mediator shuttles back and forth between bargaining teams, seeking agreement. One mediated bargaining session took place Oct. 14, and further sessions with the mediator are scheduled for Nov. 4 and 5.
Under the law, 14 days after mediation begins, the district could declare an “impasse” and move to impose its contract proposal on 2,975 teachers, librarians and counselors, who would have to either accept those terms or strike.
We don’t want to go on strike, but the board is forcing the issue.” — Grant High School chemistry teacher Bill Wilson
Teachers are in no mood to accept the district’s terms. The district proposes to remove limits on teacher workload and class size, require teachers to pay 100 percent of health insurance premium increases, eliminate pay scales that reward additional training, and give wage increases of 1 percent, less than inflation.
Advised by a $15,000-a-month consultant, the district has adopted a bellicose posture. It has lawyered up, waged a public relations effort against the union, and refused to discuss a union proposal to limit class size.
“We don’t want to go on strike, but the board is forcing the issue,” Grant High School chemistry teacher Bill Wilson told participants at a PAT rally before an Oct. 21 school board meeting. Wilson — who has served as a member of the union bargaining team three times before — says this time the district is taking a “minimalist” approach to bargaining: meeting only the minimum 150 days, and refusing to discuss subjects it’s not required by law to discuss. The law says the two sides must discuss “mandatory” subjects like wages, hours, and working conditions, and may discuss “permissive” subjects like class size, curriculum, and evaluation criteria. In July, Logan presented the union a legal memo listing all the items that PPS now considers “permissive” subjects of bargaining and refuses to discuss, including many longstanding provisions of the union contract, which the district insists be deleted. When PAT negotiators tried to discuss those items during bargaining, Logan would raise his voice and threaten the union with legal action.
“Sitting down at the table was not yielding movement toward an agreement,” said PPS spokesman Rob Cowie. “The district felt having a mediator come in and reach an agreement was the right next step.”
PAT President Gwen Sullivan said mediation can help parties go the final mile toward agreement, but in this case, the two sides were far apart on major items when PPS ended direct talks. Here are some of the key flash points:
- COST-OF-LIVING INCREASES. In principle, cost-of-living raises protect worker buying power against inflation. But Portland teachers have gone without cost-of-living increases in three of the last five years, losing ground to inflation that has averaged 2 percent a year. PPS started out proposing no cost-of-living increases at all for the next four years, but later increased its offer to 1 percent a year for the next four years. A separate unit of 1,200 school clerical and support staff represented by American Federation of Teachers (AFT) agreed to 1 percent raises in a two-year agreement reached in August. In September, PAT learned that PPS gave its administrators raises ranging from 5 to 10 percent. Now PAT is proposing 11.2 percent over two years, a figure Sullivan says matches raises given to some administrators.
- STEP INCREASES. Portland teachers are paid according to a salary schedule that rewards years of experience and additional education. Under this “step” system, teachers with a master’s degree start at $42,794 and receive annual “step” raises until they reach the top salary after 12 years — $64,199. Teachers also move to the next pay scale for each additional 15 graduate credits they earn (roughly the equivalent of a term and a half of full-time study). PPS is proposing to eliminate the “Masters+15” and “Masters+30” pay scales, so that teachers wouldn’t get the education-incentive increase until they reached 45 credits, the coursework equivalent of a doctorate degree. PAT disagrees.
- HEALTH INSURANCE. Like many other employers, PPS used to offer fully-paid health insurance for teachers and their dependents. Since 2004, teachers have paid 7 percent of the premium. Now, the district wants to cap its current contribution at $1,431.32 per employee per month, a limit which would rise by 2 percent a year. If insurance costs go above that cap, teachers would have to pay 100 percent of the increase. PAT disagrees, and proposes that the 93-7 split be continued.
- WORKLOAD. Teachers have summers off, but during the school year they work long hours: Beyond the hours they’re required to be at school, they spend time at home preparing lesson plans and grading schoolwork. Large class sizes increase that “off-the-books” workload — and decrease the quality of the classroom experience. But the existing Portland teachers contract holds the line against overcrowding with a clause that says work load “shall be generally comparable to that which existed in the 1997-98 school year.” Last year, an arbitrator interpreted that to mean, for high school teachers, no more than 180 students, or an average of 30 students per class, since high school teachers teach six classes. PAT proposes to update the clause to refer to the 2010-2011 school year. PPS proposes to eliminate the work load restriction altogether.
Battling corporate education reform
Beyond work rules and compensation, there’s another dimension to the dispute. It’s a battle over what public education will look like in years to come.
Teachers are feeling attacked nationally.” — PPS board member Steve Buel
Teachers perceive that they are under attack by a well-organized national movement, funded by billionaires and hedge fund managers, that is pushing a corporate ideology on public school systems. Core assumptions of this movement are that schools are failing, and that teachers and their unions are to blame. Proponents of what has come to be called “corporate education reform” place great stock in ratings and rankings: They believe that educational achievement can and should be measured by extensive use of standardized tests, and they believe teachers and schools should be judged, ranked, punished and rewarded, for student test scores. Schools and teachers are told they must increase student test scores year after year, with no new resources, or face dire consequences. Principals are assumed to be competent and fair: They can tell good teachers from bad ones, and they should be given greater power to fire bad ones — or to force good ones to teach in bad schools. And if “outdated” teachers union rules on discipline or transfer get in the way, those must be swept aside. That’s the nature of the “reform” sweeping through public education in Oregon and around the country, as teachers perceive it.
“Teachers are feeling attacked nationally,” says PPS board member Steve Buel. “We need to be sensitive to that, and I haven’t seen us be very sensitive to it.”
Buel, a retired teacher, is founder of Oregon Save Our Schools, a group critical of the corporate education reform model. Buel says when teachers look at the district’s bargaining stance, they see the district following the national corporate education reform template. District bargaining proposals would expand management rights, and diminish teachers’ rights.
In contrast, PAT proposed an alternate model of education. In a contract proposal titled “providing the schools Portland students deserve,” PAT invites the district to join a fight for new sources of revenue to restore electives, asks the district to commit to reduce class sizes, and asks the district to ally with the union and parents to push back against educational reforms that narrow the curriculum.
PAT president Gwen Sullivan
“This is really a stepping-off point to figure out what we as teachers, parents, and community think public education should look like,” Sullivan says. “We want to be education justice fighters. And maybe we don’t get a raise this year, but we do get a counselor in every single building and a licensed media specialist, and help for kids. I think they don’t know what to do with that.”
PPS refused to discuss what PAT termed its “student-focused” contract proposal, deeming it a permissive subject of bargaining. In response, PAT submitted what it called a “district-mandated” proposal, inserting economic impact to some of its proposals. For example, the union proposed that the district give teachers a steep bonus if class size exceeds allowable limits. Since pay issues are mandatory subjects of bargaining, Sullivan says the proposal was intended as a way to force the district to talk about class size. The bonus isn’t the point, Sullivan said; the point is to prevent unreasonable class sizes. But PPS painted PAT’s class size bonus proposal as a money grab.
Meanwhile, the district is paying $15,000 a month to labor relations consultant Yvonne Deckard. Deckard is a retired City of Portland human resources manager who is well-known to union members there for her aggressive style. Thus far, PPS has paid $240,000 for Deckard’s advice, on top of what it pays for its in-house HR director and director of labor relations. PPS is also paying outside law firm Miller Nash upwards of $800,000 while also employing in-house counsel. For months, PAT asked during bargaining to see the district’s outside legal bills, but received nothing but excuses.
And in press releases and other public communications, the district has gotten aggressive with the union, calling parts of the previous contract “outdated,” and suggesting PAT was not serious about bargaining because it declined to meet during the summer. Sullivan says bargaining has never taken place during the summer: That’s when teachers work other jobs, take vacation, and enroll in classes.
Reaching out to parents and the community
With a strike beginning to seem likely, PAT has begun working to build community support. On Oct. 4, it launched a web site created by political consultant Mark Wiener. The site asks teachers, parents, and community members to sign up to receive email updates, and to spread the word about the dispute on social media.
A group of high school students — the Portland Student Union — has formed to support teachers. Several of its members have addressed the School Board, calling on the district to listen to teachers.
“Please, set aside your reckless union-busting agenda, and do your job,” Cleveland High School senior Ian Jackson asked board members Oct. 21. [See video below at 17:15] The group is also circulating an online petition asking the district to return to the bargaining table.
“I think it’s important to see the teachers union struggle in the larger context of the attack on workers,” said Madison High School social studies teacher Adam Sanchez, chair of PAT’s external organizing effort. “The teachers union is being attacked because it’s the largest unionized sector in the United States.”
TIME FOR A COURSE CORRECTION? At its Oct. 21 meeting, the Portland Public Schools Board heard an hour’s worth of highly critical comment from parents, students, teachers, and union officers as a packed house of PAT supporters looked on. In the video below, it goes from 8:30 to 1:07:00. Highlights include student testimony at 8:30, some shocking complaints about administrator abuses from parents at Metropolitan Learning Center and Beach Elementary at 29:30, and an appeal from PAT president Gwen Sullivan at 59:30.