Q&A: Crucial Meetings Coming In Portland Teachers' Contract Negotiations

<p>Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith</p>

Oregon Public Broadcasting

Portland teachers have been in talks with the state's largest school district for 140 days. At 150 days, Portland Public Schools could go into mediation -- the first step on a long path toward a potential teacher strike.

OPB's education reporter, Rob Manning, has been talking to leaders on both sides of the negotiations and joins me now.

So, Rob, we saw a handful of teacher strikes in Oregon over the last few years, but state lawmakers increased school funding in the last session. Are we likely to see a teacher strike in Portland?

Rob Manning: Neither side wants that. But in the past talks have blown past the 150-day deadline without going into mediation. So it hasn't been a big deal. But mediation is the step that can lead to impasse, and then the district can implement a final offer, or the union can strike. This time around, the district sounds more interested in moving to mediation quickly. Here's how Superintendent Carole Smith addressed that issue when I spoke to her this week:

Carole Smith: "You know, we're really looking for a negotiated settlement, and we're working hard to make that happen. And it could be if we meet that 150-day deadline, and we haven't reached that yet, that we'll seek mediation to help us get there."

Beth Hyams: What have the two sides been doing over the first 140 days?

Rob Manning: Basically, the Portland Association of Teachers submitted a proposal that the district in July said was full of subjects that it doesn't have to negotiate - and chose not to negotiate. The union didn't have a backup plan. And since it was summer - its teachers weren't around to craft a new plan. I'm told that the union is going to have a counter-proposal tomorrow that sticks to the district's guidelines. But time isn't the only problem - the two sides have disagreements over fairly big issues.

Beth Hyams: What are those? Salary, health care?

Rob Manning: There is a difference in what the two sides see as appropriate increases -- the union wants more than three percent, the district one percent pay raises per year. The district plans to cap health insurance payouts, but union leaders haven't raised a fuss about that to me.

They're more concerned about two issues that the district would rather discuss outside of contract bargaining: one is teacher evaluations. The two sides have been working to implement a new multi-faceted teacher evaluation, and the union wants to beef up that evaluation system with some contract language. The district says on this issue and others "right conversation, wrong venue."

Beth Hyams: You said two issues -what's the other one?

Rob Manning: It has to do with class size and work loads.

If you recall, the district re-jiggered the high school schedule a few years ago, in an unpopular move that opened up holes in students' days, often resulting in unhappy teens in study halls. The teachers union also challenged the schedule change, and an arbitrator concluded that the district was forcing teachers to see too many students. The arbitrator set limits of 180 students for a high school teacher.

The district doesn't want any workload limits in the contract.

The union has proposed further limits to 150 students. The union says class sizes are also too large at the lower grades, and has proposed hard limits there, too.

The union gives the district a few years to reach those limits. But the district says hiring the teachers necessary just to ramp-up to those limits would cost $60 million, over the next two years.

The union's proposal tomorrow is likely to cost out the class size and teacher work loads differently, but I'm told the dollar figures will still be quite large.

Beth Hyams: So, the two sides sit down tomorrow?

Rob Manning: That's right, tomorrow after school. The district says the next two meetings are key - tomorrow, and a week from Saturday. Day 150 is the day after that - Sunday. District officials say that if they don't see progress from the union, they're prepared to call for a state mediator, after they hit Day 150.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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