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Teachers settlement stumbles on a detail

The contract settlement between the Portland school district and its teachers might not be so settled after all.

Six weeks after school district and teachers union leaders narrowly averted a teachers strike and agreed on a tentative contract, the two sides are arguing over one detail of the proposed contract Ñ the salary for beginning Portland teachers.

And the arguments seem to be coming from a strange direction: The teachers union says beginning teachers should be hired at lower salaries than district leaders want them to be.

'It's so ironic. We want to put more money in their members' pockets,' said school board chairwoman Karla Wenzel Ñ who added that she considers the dispute a 'minor thing.'

But Portland teachers union president Ann Nice said that the issue is about all Portland teachers' pay and that giving beginning teachers more pay without changing the rest of the teacher salary structure would mean 'there's nothing to reward people for dedicating years to this district.'

'This is a major deal,' she said, adding the union may file an unfair labor practices petition with the employment relations board to resolve the dispute.

Neither side said the dispute appears to endanger the contract settlement, which has been tentatively but not finally approved by both sides.

But Nice said the disagreement is frustrating, coming as the campaign for new local school taxes heats up.

The dispute centers on a special agreement that was part of the 1999 teachers contract that expired in June.

The special agreement allowed the district to hire new Portland teachers at the third 'step' of the contract Ñ in essence, giving new teachers credit for two years of teaching experience and hiring them at a slightly higher salary.

District leaders said the agreement was necessary to keep the district's beginning salaries competitive. Union leaders argued that all teachers' salaries were too low and the entire salary structure should be changed.

They reluctantly approved the agreement four years ago Ñ with the inclusion of wording that the practice 'will not continue beyond 2001-2002 unless mutually agreed upon by the Association (the union) and the district.'

The tentative deal reached six weeks ago continued the then-current salary schedule with slight increases and set up a new committee to work on larger compensation issues of salaries and employee health insurance.

And the 1 1/2-page tentative agreement said 'all other language' in the new contract would remain the same as in the earlier agreement.

District leaders said that means the special salary agreement should continue, as did other special additions to the last contract; union leaders said the agreement ended with the expiration of the last contract and should not continue.

Wenzel suggested that the school district and teachers union could jointly ask the employment relations board to rule on the issue.

'The most important thing É if there's a dispute, is to get this resolved as quickly as possible,' she said.

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