Portland teachers and the state's largest school district are headed toward mediation, assuming the two sides can't strike a deal in meetings later this month. Portland Public Schools announced Monday that it is calling for a state mediator, in case there's no contract agreement by Oct. 1.

Bringing in a mediator has two big implications. It changes the structure from face-to-face talks at a public table, to behind-closed-doors through a third party. And it starts a several-week clock toward Portland Public imposing a final contract, possibly, or toward a potential teachers strike.

"We really don't want to focus on a strike at this time," said Sean Murray, the school district's chief human resources officer. "We're focused on getting a negotiated agreement. Right now, we feel our best option to reaching a negotiated agreement at this time, is through the assistance of a mediator."

District officials have emphasized for some time the significance of Day 150, the point when they could call for a mediator.

Here's superintendent Carole Smith on the first day of school: "It could be that if we hit the 150-day deadline and we haven't reached that yet, that we'll seek mediation in order to help us get there."

Still, the Portland Association of Teachers says it's surprised and disappointed by the announcement. President Gwen Sullivan said the two sides were making progress in face-to-face talks last Saturday.

"After the spokesperson for the district said that it was their intent to go to mediation, I sat there for I don't know how many minutes, just shocked that this is the tactic they'd take," Sullivan said.

In the past, the district has blown past Day 150, and continued with face-to-face talks. District leaders say the union wasn't available enough to negotiate over the summer.

Teachers say they were blindsided by the district's refusal to discuss many of the issues it wanted in the contract, such as workloads and class size.

The union rolled out a new offer a week ago Friday. District HR director Murray said that proposal would cost $250 million.

"That is out of line with state funding and would lead to larger class sizes and fewer programs for our students," he said.

But the union says much of the $250 million cost of the proposal would actually go toward hiring teachers to reduce class sizes and limit teacher work loads.

Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan said the union attached dollar figures to force a discussion about policy issues like class size.

"We had to take our class size language, where we looked at working together with the district to try to get some lower class size numbers as a norm, since they refused to even talk about that," she said. "When we added a dollar value on it, then they needed to talk about that."

Sullivan said going through a mediator, and forcing the parties into separate rooms, interferes with constructive communication.

"Part of what happens at the negotiating table, is to be able to hear each others' perspective," she said. "Once you can hear why somebody wants to change something, and vice-versa, then you can go back and re-write some language that maybe you had written."

But that kind of back-and-forth can potentially go on indefinitely, in the eyes of some on the Portland school board, that means it isn't the right course.

Matt Morton: "We need to be aggressive about this, and the business as usual is not something that has gotten us to a place that's going to be tolerable any more," said school board member Matt Morton.

Not everyone on the school board feels the same way.

Steve Buell, a retired teacher and one of the newest board members, said he disagrees with the school district.

"I think it's the wrong way to go," he said. "I think we should just continue bargaining, since we're making progress, without putting a hammer over the head of the people. I think there's real progress that can be made, and it's the wrong decision."

The two sides have scheduled three more face-to-face meetings for next Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.

If those don't yield an agreement, mediation could start Oct. 1. Mediation has to last at least 15 calendar days. If that process doesn't lead to a contract agreement, either side could declare an impasse. Then, a cooling-off period would precede either the district implementing a contract or teachers voting to strike.

Portland's not the only place having trouble finalizing a teacher contract. Another of the state's largest districts, Medford, has also started mediation with its teachers union.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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