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Schools call back fired custodians

After court ruling, district offers to rehire most or all workers

The Portland school district has formally sent notice that it will 'recall' most - if not all - of the roughly 300 school custodians fired four years ago.

But nine months after the Oregon Supreme Court sided with the custodians and against the school district on the firings - and three months after the court refused to reconsider the ruling - there still are plenty of disputes between the two sides.

A few of the disputes are even contained in the recall notice school district lawyers sent to lawyers for the custodians last week - including that the district is giving the former custodians a deadline of Thursday to accept the rehiring offer.

'The deadline they're trying to impose is a little unrealistic, simply because of the logistics involved in tracking down people,' said Grant Walter, former head of the school district custodians union, who was a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits custodians filed against the district.

Walter and Mark Griffin, a lawyer who represents most of the fired custodians, said they won't be meeting the district's deadline.

'We'll let the district know in due course and as expeditiously as possible what people want to do,' Griffin said.

The district has indicated that some of the fired custodians could be hired back in district schools as early as August.

Still unresolved, and still subject to another lawsuit, is the question of whether the custodians should be given back pay and benefits for the four years they were off their jobs - back pay that could cost the school district tens of millions of dollars.

Also uncertain is what happens if a large percentage of the 300 custodians, most of whom have found other jobs, actually want their jobs back with the Portland school district.

$10 million allegedly saved

The July 6 letter from school district lawyers to lawyers for the custodians said that 'depending on the number of your clients who elect to be recalled and the budgetary constraints of the District, it is possible that not all of your clients who elect to be recalled will in fact be recalled.'

Griffin said that he believes the Supreme Court decision means all custodians who want their jobs back are legally entitled to them.

However, he said, there may end up being no real dispute on that question because, even with the district's budgetary constraints, there probably will be more district custodian jobs than there will be former custodians who still want them.

Asked whether all of them will take their jobs back, Griffin said, 'It's doubtful.'

School district officials said this week that they would not comment about the custodians, other than what the district said in the letter sent to the custodians' lawyers and another to school principals.

The district laid off all of its school custodians in 2002 to deal with a $36 million budget shortfall. The custodians say it was no layoff, but mass firings, because the district had no plans then to ever recall them.

The district replaced the custodians with contract employees working for a nonprofit that focuses on hiring disabled workers. A 2004 audit said the district saved more than $10 million over the first two years of the nonprofit's custodian contract.

After the mass layoffs, custodians sued, charging the district had violated state labor law. The Multnomah County Circuit Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals sided with the school district.

But in October of last year, the state Supreme Court agreed with the custodians, and reversed the lower courts. The Supreme Court did not specify a remedy, however, or detail how the issue of back pay might be resolved.

It's not a small issue.

The district paid the fired custodians about $16 million in salary and benefits in the last year of their contract in 2002. That potential tab of $64 million for four years' back pay would likely be reduced, however, by the money the custodians made in other jobs in the last four years.

A custodians lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland regarding the back pay issue is currently active. Both sides have said they are open to having a mediator help them try to resolve whether the district is on the hook for back pay and, if so, how much.

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