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Change could be in the air at district

New union head, superintendent mean a new era at PPS
by: L.E. BASKOW, Clarendon-Portsmouth teacher Rebecca Levison will take over as president of the Portland Association of Teachers this summer.

Tony Franciscone has seen the good and bad in Portland Public Schools since 1983, when he began his teaching career in the district.

At Benson Polytechnic High School since 1994, he has seen that school's programs chipped away and diluted by policy changes, budget cuts and staffing decisions - many of which have made no sense to him.

He places some of the blame on the Portland Association of Teachers, which, he says, hasn't gone to bat for some of the teachers who have been cut in recent years, choosing to protect teachers with more seniority over others with more technical expertise in their industries, for which Benson is known and valued.

'I talked with PAT; their answer was they're just protecting jobs,' he said.

Franciscone also blames much of the recent damage on former Superintendent Vicki Phillips, who 'created a lot of animosity, was a top-down manager and showed a lack of value of the technical fields,' he said. 'With (new Superintendent) Carole Smith, it's a different world.'

Franciscone said he and a number of other teachers at Benson have hope that the new leadership - of the district as well as the teachers' union - will usher in a new era for teachers.

Many will agree that teachers association President Jeff Miller, a veteran social studies teacher at Cleveland High School, has been a fierce advocate for the union's 3,800 members.

Yet during the union's February election, district teachers voted to elect Miller's challenger, Rebecca Levison, 37, a sixth-grade teacher at Clarendon-Portsmouth School. Miller will return to teaching next year, although he doesn't yet know where.

'I think there's going to be an improvement,' Franciscone said. 'It's just been a few hard years, at this school in particular.'

Leader is committee veteran

Levison, who'll begin her two-year term as president July 1, said she simply felt it was her turn to step up to the plate, having led the teachers association's legislative committee and local and statewide political action committee, as well as having served as a building representative and bargaining organizer.

'I have a real passion for organizing,' said Levison, a 14-year teacher who's spent the last six with the district. 'I don't have all the answers, but I know where they are. They're in the trenches. … I'm a strong advocate for teachers and all Portland educators. … I'm really looking forward to building a positive relationship with the district.'

Many veteran teachers say that while they don't know Levison personally, they've heard of her promise of collaboration and look forward to it - especially at a time when they're reeling from a number of changes, including the K-8 reconfigurations, new curriculum adoptions and testing requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

'The big thing I think is possible right now - with a new superintendent who is homegrown and with a new PAT president - is that there's a potential for beginning a partnership that I think can be very, very fruitful,' said Peter Thacker, a 27-year district veteran who retired five years ago and now is an assistant professor at the University of Portland's School of Education.

Under previous association leaders, some teachers have felt alienated from their union.

'I really felt they were more concerned about teachers' rights, teacher contracts, than going out and fighting for the kids' programs,' said Ron Norman, a 32-year district veteran who retired from the district two years ago, before Miller took office.

'It's always us versus them (the district). There's got to be something else in the middle. … The bottom line is, it's got to be about the kids.'

New hiring process for '09

There's a lot at stake for district teachers, and their new leader. District leaders now are engaged in discussions about how to reform the district's high schools, which aging school buildings to upgrade and replace, how to narrow the achievement gap and how to make schools more equitable for kids across the district.

While those issues remain unresolved, there's one long-standing issue the teachers association and district leaders have come to some resolution on: the way teachers are hired, assigned and transferred within the district.

On March 31, the school board unanimously approved an agreement that made changes to that process, which is called Article 10 in the union contract.

The agreement - which board members lauded as 'thrilling,' 'exciting' and an 'incredible accomplishment' - includes three major changes.

First, the district will start its hiring process six to eight weeks earlier in the year, to be more competitive with other school districts since teachers can't wait around for slots to open up.

The change will open the door to newer teachers who are eager to work in inner-city schools but often are lost to other districts because of timing.

Second, the new agreement offers monetary incentives to teachers who announce their retirements earlier in the year, so that the district may begin to fill those positions earlier.

Finally, the agreement has teachers interview for available positions at a school, so they can be matched appropriately rather than forcibly placed. The presumably small number of teachers who still aren't placed then will be assigned their positions.

The agreement took from September to February to hammer out during collective bargaining sessions, and will take effect at the start of the 2009-10 school year.

Local advocacy groups like Portland Stand for Children and Community and Parents for Public Schools have pointed to problems with the existing system in recent years, making it one of their top priorities to push for reforms.

Both groups spent a lot of time organizing volunteers and gathering research to lobby for their desired changes to the system. But while they worked to raise public awareness of the issue, in the end their proposals were not considered.

Only the district and the teachers association were involved in the final outcome, according to Miller.

'The suggestions offered by outside groups, to the extent they did, really had no part in our discussions,' he said. 'The district finally made it clear to us what they thought the issues were, and we began thinking together how we might make some changes. … We don't bargain with anyone but the employer. The process has worked well for a long time.'

Doug Wells, president of Community and Parents for Public Schools, said the agreement represents 'real progress,' but wished his group and others could have had a more vocal presence at the table.

'We certainly were shunned in a lot of ways,' he said, acknowledging that many teachers with whom they tried to talk had been told by the teachers association not to cooperate.

'That wasn't nice. When we were able to talk with teachers, they overwhelmingly said, 'I appreciate what you're saying and this is good work.' It was frustrating to get shut out. But I think this is new territory for all of us - community groups involved in labor negotiations,' he said.

Wells added he realizes that teacher hiring is a contract issue, but 'when we're talking about our public schools and kids, there's an inherent twist to it. … We have a very vested interest in our kids' education. There's nobody at the bargaining table to speak for the kids. You could argue that the district and union are there for that, but they're really at the bargaining table to take care of their organizations. That's the way Stand and CPPS approached it.'

Are changes enough?

Rachel Langford, Portland director of Stand for Children, said only that the reforms - while a positive step forward - should have gone further.

'Our conversations with 150 teachers, novice and veteran, in 42 schools across this district, showed us that our teachers overwhelmingly want what is best for children,' she said. 'They are supportive of substantial reforms and innovation to get the best outcomes for our children.In a district where over 40 percent of our students drop out, everyone … should be open to doing things differently.'

Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a New York-based advocacy group, also had done some surveys with Portland teachers and published a paper calling for reforms to Article 10.

He agreed that some progress has been made, but it's not enough just to make changes on paper. He said the district must keep monitoring the process, continue to collect data and make adjustments as necessary.

Levison said she hears the refrain by teachers and community members about wanting to be partners on issues, and she's up to the task.

According to the data, she said, Portland teachers are the most experienced and highly educated teaching force in the state, and Portland is one of the best urban school districts in the country.

They've just been hit with a lot. 'In the drastic changes that happened when Vicki was here, it's clear people didn't feel listened to or involved,' she said. 'We're left with the mess.'

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