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Teachers union looks out for itself

MY VIEW •ÊHere come the 'educators' who forsake kids for their bottom line

There's an old folk parable in which a scorpion asks a frog for a ride across a lake.- 'Come on, don't be selfish!'

'But you will sting me.'

'I promise not to sting if you give me a ride.'

'Promise?'

'Cross my heart!'

The frog reluctantly lets the scorpion climb onto his back and gives him a dry ride across the water. Climbing down, the scorpion stings the frog.

'Hey! You promised!'

'Yeah, but stinging is my nature.'

For some reason this story came to mind when I read that yet another Portland school board is making yet another attempt to 'get along' with the Portland Association of Teachers.

The trouble is, it is not in the association's nature to get along. Nobody wants to believe this. Every new school board and every new board member has to learn this fact the hard way. When I began my eight-year tenure on the board, I was the same way.

It's appropriate for the school board to hope for the best, but it's also important to be prepared for the same old thing. To understand this, you have to 'follow the money, follow the power.' If you pay attention to the words of the teachers association leaders, you'll be distracted from where the action is.

First, the association derives its power from the perception that it represents the interests of the teachers who do good work every day in the classroom, in the proud tradition of labor unions that brought us the 40-hour workweek and other protections from profit-hungry employers. Their words portray district representatives as fat-cat bosses striving to oppress teachers, although it's never clear why.

But what do the actions and positions of the association's leaders tell us about their intentions? Hiding in plain sight, their one goal is to preserve and strengthen the PAT's control over operation of the district. They are willing to compromise the education of Portland schoolchildren to that end.

Why would they lead their members into a divisive, disruptive buildup toward a strike that would have cost their members dearly in money, professional esteem and public support? Why would they mislead their members about the content and timing of the district's contract proposals? Because conflict inflates their importance.

Why would they lead their members to the brink of a strike to protect a wasteful health insurance system and a dysfunctional process for assigning teachers to schools? Because both of those things serve to enmesh the association in the management of the district, to a degree scarcely seen anywhere else.

Has anyone asked whether PAT leaders benefit from the operation of the current health insurance system? Has anyone asked about the salaries of Portland Association of Teachers and Oregon Education Association employees? (They won't tell you; they don't have to.) If they were not so occupied with district management, some of them might not be needed. Yes, they are protecting livelihoods Ñ their own.

Last spring, I watched relatively new teachers tearfully defend the association's positions on health benefits and salary, and tearfully condemn the district's positions on the same. The tears came from real love of their profession and real fear for their future. The bizarre part was that the group's proposal would in fact have traded their jobs away in exchange for higher salaries and benefit costs for the more senior teachers.

In every school board election, the Portland Association of Teachers asks candidates to make commitments in return for support in their campaigns. Last spring, the group sought candidates who would advocate to fire the district's human resources director. Make no mistake, they want him gone because he's effective, knows his business and is on the district's side. Unforgivable.

All of this, as I said, is hiding in plain sight. The trouble is, 'balanced coverage' won't reveal it. Objective reporting would, but that is a lot more work. We need columnists who will shed light on a difficult subject, not just call for everybody to try harder. We need insight and investigation, not cheap shots and urban myths. Otherwise, only those of us who get close enough to see and feel the stinger will understand the nature of our burden.

Susan Hagmeier served as a member of the Portland school board from 1995 to 2003. She lives in Southeast Portland. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..