Teachers' strike looms at Portland schools

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

When Portland Public Schools (PPS) and its teachers union entered mediation Jan. 7, a timetable was set for a showdown that could end in a teachers' strike as early as March 3.

Leaders of the 3,400-member Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) say they've made significant concessions; they say district administrators can point to no similar flexibility. Consider salary: Eleven years ago, Portland Public Schools had the third or fourth-highest teacher pay scale among the 14 school districts in the metropolitan area. Today it has the lowest. Now, to cope with a $50 to $60 million shortfall, the district is proposing a cut in teacher pay.

For six months, the union bargaining team rejected a district proposal to reduce teacher pay 5 percent by cutting nine days out of the school year. In November, citing a worsening budget situation, the district upped its demand to 15 days (an 8 percent loss of pay).

On Jan. 7, the union agreed to accept a wage freeze and the nine-day cut if the district would demand no other concessions. Teachers union leaders say they expected their concession would prompt some reciprocal movement on management's side. The district didn't budge from its position.

On almost every issue, the administration is asking teachers to give up something. For example, teachers enjoy fully-paid health coverage for themselves and their dependents through the district's self-insured plan. The administration proposes to cap its contribution at $600 a month, leaving teachers to pay any amount over that out-of-pocket.

The district's 150-page contract proposal contains scores of changes to contract language, including:

* Ending the right to one year of unpaid family leave for probationary teachers (teachers in their first three years);

* Terminating the right to arbitration as an alternative to the state's appeals process in discipline cases;

* Eliminating the transfer rights of senior teachers and narrowing protections against layoffs, giving much greater discretion in hiring and layoff to principals; and

* Removing a provision called "maintenance of standards" that requires the district to get the union's permission to change work conditions like the maximum number of students in a classroom or the length of the school day.

The administration's chief negotiator, Bruce Zagar, a partner in the Salem law firm of Garrett Hemann Robertson, said these changes are necessary to improve the district's ability to manage personnel, but the union views them as an attack on the hard-won rights and prerogatives of the district's primary workforce.

"We knew there was a budget crisis, so we expected they would ask us to take some cut in pay," said PAT internal organizer Virginia Ross. "What we didn't expect is that on top of massive economic concessions, they would demand that we give up many longstanding provisions of the contract."

Zagar said shortening the school year is intended to be a one-year-only solution, preferable to mass layoffs; with half the school year over, the number of layoffs could be high if the district tried to balance the budget that way.

"We're not playing any games with the budget," Zagar said. "We can't run a deficit."

Union leaders say teachers are being asked to pay for the failures of legislators and district administrators. They say the district ignored their suggestion to put away a reserve fund during "good" times, and that it rapidly increased administrator salaries, made numerous widely criticized hiring mistakes and expensive buyouts of top administrators, and spent $10.5 million renovating its headquarters building from technology bond money, money which later had to be repaid from the General Fund after a court ruling on the matter.

"We've been suggesting they use attrition wisely for at least seven years, because we sensed that if the district was not more prudent we'd find ourselves in this situation," said Ross, who came back from retirement to work on the PAT contract campaign. Now, the union is suggesting that the district sell its underutilized headquarters building in North Portland near the Rose Garden, and cut all non-essential personnel.

Zagar said there's no use talking about what should have happened before, and that all parties have to deal with the situation as it is now.

But union leaders lack confidence in the district's leadership.

"We've tried to hold this school district together," said PAT President Ann Nice. "We've made concessions over the years, because we thought it was worth it to keep this quality urban school district. But we have a whole new management team this time, and they're working against us." PAT leaders describe a "new regime" at Portland Public Schools in which "union-buster" Steve Goldschmidt, PPS human resources chief, calls the shots, and is backed up by the board. Goldschmidt is best known for leading the Eugene School District into a strike in 1987 that lasted 22 days.

The lesson of Service Employees Local 140 does not inspire trust. In July, the district fired its 330 custodians after six months of "bargaining" during which management never budged from its initial offer on any issue. The custodians, many of whom had decades of experience, were replaced with privately contracted janitors earning $7.20 to $9 an hour. Then the district took aim at Local 140's 318 cafeteria workers. In November they accepted a pay freeze, a $600 a month cap on employer contribution to health coverage, and a provision that allows the district to contract out their jobs with 30 days notice.

To lead the PAT negotiations, last June Goldschmidt (who makes $132,000 a year plus a $25,000 a year performance bonus) retained Zagar - at $100 an hour plus $60 for travel from Salem. Zagar said he's a longtime associate of Goldschmidt, dating from the days when Goldschmidt served on the State of Oregon Employment Relations Board in the 1980s and Zagar worked for the board as an administrative law judge. Goldschmidt was appointed to the board by his brother, then-governor Neil Goldschmidt.

Zagar told the NW Labor Press he was brought in because of workload issues - presumably Goldschmidt was tied up handling negotiations with custodians and cafeteria workers, and a full-time negotiator position had been vacant since spring.

Zagar is a one-time union representative for the Oregon Nurses Association who for the last 15 years has represented numerous Oregon school districts on employment issues. Only once, Zagar said, has he faced a teachers' strike - in Coos Bay in the in mid-1980s.

Under state law governing public employee collective bargaining, PAT and the district began mediation Jan. 7. Two more sessions were scheduled - Jan. 14 and 22. If there is no movement toward a deal, impasse could then be declared, and the two sides would make their final offers public after seven days, followed by a 30-day cooling off period, at the end of which, if there's still no agreement, teachers could strike or the district could implement its final offer. Both sides say this timetable can be extended if there's progress toward an agreement.

To show unity and support for the bargaining team, the union staged a candlelight vigil at dusk Jan. 14 (after this issue went to press). It's also calling on supporters to join teachers Monday, Jan. 27, at 5:45 p.m. for a rally at the district headquarters, 501 N. Dixon, just before the regularly-scheduled school board meeting.

January 17, 2003 issue

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