The Portland school district's request for a state mediator to become involved in contract negotiations with its teachers union means that there probably will be no further talks on the teachers' expired contract until after the first of the year.

It also means that the talks probably will become less public.

Either side in a labor dispute can call for a mediator after 150 days of negotiations, and district leaders did on Tuesday Ñ after about 165 days of negotiations.

The district's request came a week after the last bargaining session, during which Superintendent Jim Scherzinger proposed cutting 15 days from the school year to help the district deal with a $50 million budget deficit. Union officials responded at the public session by severely criticizing district officials for mismanaging district finances over the last several years.

Generally, once a mediator becomes involved, each side will meet separately with the mediator in private.

'It avoids the posturing,' said Salem attorney Bruce Zagar, the district's lead negotiator.

Wendy Greenwald, one of three mediators with the state's conciliation service, said the mediation service has a current load of about 25 to 30 cases Ñ including 15 school districts Ñ and a mediator probably won't be able to meet with both sides before Jan. 1.

After 15 days of mediation, either side can declare an impasse, with each side having seven days to submit a final offer.

After a 30-day cooling-off period, the union can call for a strike and the district can announce that it is implementing its final offer. If the two sides began mediation in early January, that could happen as early as late February.

Ñ Todd Murphy

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