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Strike threat propels eleventh-hour ideas

Frantic talks involve city, teachers union and school district

With a Portland teachers' strike vote scheduled for tonight, city leaders were meeting frantically with school district and teachers union leaders Monday afternoon and evening to get the two sides to agree on a tentative contract and avoid the first teachers strike in Portland's history.

Both sides appeared to be focused Monday on a proposal forwarded by city Commissioner Randy Leonard. According to Portland school board Chairwoman Karla Wenzel, the proposal calls for the two sides to agree to a two-year contract that would in some ways delay solving major labor-management issues.

But the proposal calls for the establishment of a special committee of school district, union and city leaders to work on issues relating to Portland teachers' salaries, health care benefits and district management. The work of that committee would be used as a framework for the next teachers contract that would begin in the 2004-2005 school year.

Leonard said the proposal would take advantage of the union's unusual offer late last week for teachers to work 10 days for free this year to help avoid the proposed 24-day cut to the school year. District leaders say the cut is necessary to deal with the district's budget shortfall.

The proposal, which Leonard said is supported by at least two other city commissioners, would have the city pay for another 14 school days Ñ meaning no days would be cut from this year's school calendar.

Teachers would get a raise of less than 1 percent next year and would keep their current health benefits while the special committee studied teacher pay and benefits, according to Wenzel.

Leonard did not describe all aspects of his proposal Monday but said that teachers union leaders 'have reluctantly and with great hesitation signed off on it.' He and Wenzel said school board members were scheduled to consider the proposal Monday night at a closed executive session.

Wenzel would not comment on whether she supported the proposal or thought the other board members would support it.

'The bottom line is, we're really, really close to an agreement,' Leonard said. 'But the old saying, 'So near, yet so far,' comes to mind.'

On Monday, Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn and Portland Mayor Vera Katz cleared their afternoon and evening schedules to act as shuttle mediators between school board and union leaders, who were to meet in two rooms at City Hall.

Sam Adams, Katz's chief of staff, said Linn, Katz and the union and district representatives would not necessarily be working on one specific proposal but on 'all ideas to get the two sides to agree.'

The flurry of activity came as the teachers union scheduled a strike vote for tonight at the Oregon Convention Center, where 3,300 Portland teachers were almost certain to vote to walk out. The proposed strike date is March 10. It was unclear Monday afternoon whether the negotiations would avert a strike vote tonight.

Two big issues

School district and teachers union leaders for months have been conducting largely fruitless negotiations on a teachers contract. Teachers have been working under a contract that expired last summer.

Besides the prospect of having their pay cut by 24 days Ñ or about 12 percent Ñ the two most vexing issues in the contract negotiations have been teachers' health insurance benefits and the district's teacher hiring and transfer policies.

District leaders Ñ and many community and business leaders Ñ say the district needs to get control of its health insurance costs. The costs have been increasing by millions of dollars each of the last few years, and the district says they would increase by another $10 million next year with no change in the contract.

The district, which now pays almost $800 per month for each teacher's health insurance, has proposed a three-year contract to cap its monthly contribution at $600 for the first two years and $615 for the third year.

District officials say such a cap is in line with insurance benefits provided by other area school districts.

But keeping their current health benefits might be the most important issue to district teachers, union leaders say. They point out that Portland teacher salaries have moved from being among the best in the metropolitan area to among the worst in the area; the good health benefits have helped make up for some of that loss in pay, teachers say.

District leaders also are proposing to change how teaching vacancies in district schools are filled. They say principals and administrators need more power to assign some of the districts' best teachers to some of its worst schools.

Teachers union officials say the changes would give too much power to administrators to assign teachers to different schools against their will.

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .