Portland Public Schools declares impasse, triggering timetable for strike

Done with mediation: Portland Public Schools declares impasse. Above from left, PPS Board Chair Greg Belisle, PPS Human Resources Director Sean Murray, and PPS Superintendent Carole Smith declare that talks with Portland Association of Teachers are at an end.
Done with mediation: Portland Public Schools declares impasse. Above from left, PPS Board Chair Greg Belisle, PPS Human Resources Director Sean Murray, and PPS Superintendent Carole Smith announce that talks with Portland Association of Teachers are at an end.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) declared impasse Nov. 20, triggering a timeline that could result in a teacher strike as early as Jan. 6, when students return to school from Winter Break.

Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) bargaining chair Bill Wilson said the district’s move came as a shock.

“We really felt we were making progress,” said Wilson, who teaches chemistry at Grant High School. The two sides had just met Monday, and had talked about setting dates later in the week.

At a press conference announcing the move, PPS human resources director Sean Murray said impasse is a “bargaining tool” that the district used successfully in 2010 to bring about agreement.

Once impasse is declared, the two sides have a week to deliver their final offers. Then there’s a 30-day cooling off period. After that, the district could impose its final offer with seven days notice, and teachers could strike with 10 days notice. The earliest a strike could occur is Dec. 27, but schools are closed for Winter Break until Jan. 6.

During the previous contract cycle, bargaining lasted 22 months. This time, exactly 150 days after the first negotiation session, the district ended face-to-face bargaining and called for mediation. Then 14 days after the first mediation session, the district declared impasse. Those two time frames are the legal minimum under Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act.

Why such a rush? Murray told reporters that prolonged bargaining “becomes disruptive to our students, our schools, and community.” But neither he nor Board Chair Greg Belisle nor superintendent Carole Smith had a convincing explanation of how staying at the bargaining table would be disruptive: Murray and Belisle said it would cause “anxiety,” while Smith said drawn-out bargaining “distracts people from the business of teaching and learning.”

PAT President Gwen Sullivan, at a press conference called to respond to the district.
PAT President Gwen Sullivan, at a press conference called to respond to the district.

“I think a strike would be much more of a disruption to student learning,” said PAT president Gwen Sullivan later in the day. And, Sullivan added, any time PPS makes quick decisions, it doesn’t end well.

Murray said the district is open to further face-to-face meetings, and is not looking to force a strike.

But the two sides will have a lot of ground to cover if and when they meet.

Murray called the district’s wage offer “competitive,” saying teacher salaries would increase from 6 to 17 percent under its proposal. But Wilson said the 17 percent figure is “really misleading,” because it includes annual increases under the district’s step pay schedule, which incentivizes teachers to stay with the district. The majority of PPS teachers have at least at least 11 years of experience and are thus at the top of the pay scale. Those topped-out teachers would get annual raises of 2, 1.5, and 1.5 percent under the district’s proposal (5 percent in three years), plus another 1 percent bump for the two additional days a year the district wants teachers to work. The union is proposing across-the-board raises of 4.8 and 3.75 percent.

Sullivan said the wage discussion can’t be separated from the health insurance. The district is proposing to cap its contribution and have teachers pay any premium increase over that amount.

“When you bring those together it’s really a pay cut that they’re offering,” Sullivan said.

Likely the biggest flash point is a disagreement over class size limits. The current contract has language limiting teacher workload, which works out to no more than 180 students for high school teachers. PPS proposes to get rid of that limit, and instead form a committee, which would meet, discuss, and make non-binding recommendations to the superintendent about a class size policy.

A final mediation session is scheduled for Dec. 5, which would be after PAT and PPS are supposed to present final offers.


BACK STORY: See here for previous Labor Press coverage of the dispute


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