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Tigard-Tualatin schools cooling off period ends Friday

Teachers, district work to avoid strike and overcome impasse
by: Jaime Valdez Tigard High School Spanish teacher Catherine Thurber Brown was one of more than 100 teachers who packed the Tigard-Tualatin School Board meeting Monday. Teachers were there to discuss potential layoffs and to bring an end to teachers union negotiations with the 
district.

Concerned educators flooded the Tigard-Tualatin School Board meeting Monday evening for the second week in a row to show their support for protecting staff jobs and finding a resolution to negotiations that have raged for more than a year.

Since last year, the two sides have been negotiating a contract for 700 teachers and librarians in a very public battle over health insurance benefits, teacher workload and working conditions. Teachers have been working without a contract since July.

While district and teachers union representatives have shied away from talk of a potential strike, the idea has crept up in schools across the district and in public testimony at School Board meetings.

Both sides have said they are working hard to avoid a strike, and Superintendent Rob Saxton told the packed crowd Monday that he believes an end to negotiations is in sight.

The teachers union declared an impasse last month and entered a 30-day 'cooling off' period, where the two sides could present final offers and negotiate further.

The cooling off period ends Friday, and Saxton said that he hopes to have a contract by that deadline.

'We met for three days before spring break, and we're meeting for three days this week,' he said.

The two groups are scheduled to meet in all-day negotiations Thursday and Friday.

After Friday the district could choose to impose its latest offer, at which time the teachers union could vote to strike.

The district does not have plans to impose its latest offer, said district spokeswoman Susan Stark Haydon.

'Our intent is to continue negotiations,' Stark Haydon said. 'We feel we are making progress and if April 1 comes and we still have no contract, then we will continue negotiations.'

The final proposals from both groups included more than 30 articles of negotiation. Saxton said that many have tentative agreements in place.

'The bottom line is that we have about five articles still open,' Saxton said. 'The number of items still under consideration is relatively small.'

One area that has not been agreed on is teacher compensation. Teachers have requested a 1.45 percent increase in salaries retroactive to July 1, 2010; a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in 2011-12 and 2 percent increase in 2012-13.

The district's proposal includes no salary increase this year, a 0.75 percent cost-of-living increase in 2011-12 and makes no proposal for the 2012-13 school year.

Both proposals would keep annual 'step' increases, an annual pay raise for teachers during their first 15 years of employment.

Fine balancing point

Adding to the issue is next year's expected $9.5 million budget shortfall. The district has discussed laying off about 52 teachers - and all elementary school librarians - to help balance the budget.

Teachers at Monday's meeting spoke passionately about the need for teachers and librarians.

'The library is an irreplaceable resource,' said Deer Creek teacher Katherine Radcliff. 'It is at the center of our school and at the center of our school experience.'

Administrators have said that every dollar spent on increased teacher benefits is one less spent in other areas such as the classroom.

'There is a very fine balancing point between compensating our teachers who work hard - and we want to make sure they are well paid - and the fact that we know we are cutting millions from next year's budget,' said Board Chairwoman Jill Zurschmeide earlier this month.

The school board approved a reduction-in-force declaration March 14, which starts the process in laying off district employees. Pink slips could be issued in May or June.