The abrupt closing of public schools due to labor disputes ought to be unacceptable to Oregonians. Citizens should demand that public officials do something to lessen the chances that schools in this state will continue to be threatened with strike-related closures.

In the past few weeks, Gresham-Barlow schools were closed for a day due to a teachers' strike. Another teachers' strike closed Eagle Point schools for a week. And now, in Reynolds School District, schoolchildren have had no classes to attend so far this week because the School Board and the teachers' union were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract.

Meanwhile, other districts -- such as Parkrose -- have carried their negotiations to the very edge of a strike before settling. There is a definite trend toward more contentious negotiations throughout the state, which means more communities will have to endure the emotional damage caused by these showdowns.

An essential service disrupted

The closures and threats of closures remind us of the 1980s, when Oregon schools too often were shut down because local voters failed to approve an operating levy.

In 1987, voters statewide said they'd had enough with such funding-related closure threats and they approved a school safety-net law that guaranteed a minimum level of funding to keep individual districts open. The safety-net law has since been rendered irrelevant by other initiatives and school-finance reforms. But the idea behind it -- that schools are an essential service -- ought to remain in place today.

It's time for Oregonians to identify and approve reforms that will prevent entire school districts from being placed in jeopardy by labor disputes. Such reforms can start at the local level, or they can be imposed by the state. But no student, teacher, school district or community in Oregon should have to endure the disruption that's been evident in districts the past few months.

One approach to better negotiations is what's known as interest-based bargaining. This is being tried in several Oregon districts -- including North Clackamas and Gresham-Barlow. The idea is for union representatives and district officials to identify areas of common concern and actually talk about the issues, to try to come to solutions that are mutually acceptable to both sides. This may seem like a common sense process, but it stands in contrast to the position-based bargaining that is producing such poor results right now for Oregon schools.

Districts that are trying interest-based bargaining are reporting encouraging results, but pressure must be applied to districts and unions to abandon the old ways and try new techniques. To that end, the 2013 Legislature should consider if changes to the state's collective-bargaining laws would offer better protection for Oregon's students and communities. The state could set stricter parameters for bargaining and establish negotiation ceilings. After all, Salem lawmakers, not local school boards, control the money.

Damaging to public education

Legislators also should discuss with greater seriousness ideas such as statewide bargaining or binding arbitration to remove the possibility of local strikes. These concepts come with their own potential risks, but they also could further the goal of eliminating the threat of district-by-district closures.

People, of course, will point out that the Legislature could help avoid strikes by providing better funding for schools. We agree, to a point. Even with more money, school districts still must negotiate the fundamental question of how much to spend on teacher salaries and benefits vs. books, classroom assistants and other resources necessary for schools to function.

The lack of a renewed contract does not constitute an emergency worthy of closing schools. That's not a criticism of teachers. They, of all people, deserve good pay and working conditions. But the current process for negotiating teachers' contracts in Oregon is broken. When schools are closed and communities are torn apart by teacher strikes, everyone -- including students, teachers, parents and administrators -- is harmed.

Along the way, the damage to public education is immeasurable.

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