The abrupt closing of public schools due to labor disputes ought to be unacceptable to Oregonians, and they should demand that their public officials do something about it.

In the Reynolds School District, students - including seniors worried about wrapping up graduation requirements - recently missed a full week classes while the school board and teachers union struggled to reach agreement.Earlier this spring, Gresham-Barlow schools were closed for a day due to a teachers strike. Another teachers strike closed Eagle Point schools for a week.

Meanwhile, other districts - such as Portland's Parkrose - have carried their negotiations to the very edge of a strike before settling. This trend of contentious negotiations throughout the state means more communities will have to endure the emotional damage caused by these showdowns.The closures and threats of closures remind us of the 1980s, when Oregon schools too often were shut down after local voters failed to approve an operating levy.In 1987, Oregonians responded in a statewide vote, approving a school safety-net law that guaranteed a minimum level of funding to keep individual districts open. The safety-net law has since been rendered irrelevant by other initiatives and school-finance reforms, but the idea behind it - that schools are an essential service - is still valid.

The lack of a renewed contract does not constitute an emergency worthy of closing schools. That's not a criticism of teachers who, of all people, deserve good pay and working conditions. But the current process for negotiating teachers' contracts in Oregon is broken.It's time for Oregonians take steps to prevent entire school districts from being placed in jeopardy by labor disputes, without impinging on employees' right to bargain collectively.

Such reforms can start at the local level, or they can be imposed by the state. But no student, teacher, school district or community in Oregon should have to endure the kind of disruptions seen in the past few months.One approach to better negotiations is what's known as interest-based bargaining. This is being tried in several Oregon districts, including North Clackamas and Gresham-Barlow. The idea is for union representatives and district officials to identify areas of common concern and focus on solutions mutually acceptable to both sides.

This may seem like a common-sense process, but it stands in contrast to the position-based bargaining that is now producing hard feelings and poor results in Oregon schools.Reports from districts trying interest-based bargaining are encouraging, but pressure must be applied to districts and unions to abandon the old ways and try new techniques. To that end, the 2013 Legislature should consider if changes to the state's collective-bargaining laws would offer better protection for Oregon's students and communities.

The state could set stricter parameters for bargaining and establish negotiation ceilings, since Salem lawmakers, not local school boards, now control the money.Ideas such as statewide bargaining and binding arbitration - with the latter removing the right to strike - should be discussed with greater urgency than they have been in the past.

These concepts come with their own potential risks, but they also could further the goal of eliminating the threat of district-by-district strikes.Of course, the legislature could help avoid strikes by providing better funding for schools. We agree.

But even with more money, school districts still must negotiate the fundamental question of how much to spend on teacher salaries and benefits vs. books, classroom assistants and other resources necessary for schools to function.

Those negotiations must be conducted without holding communities hostage.When schools are closed and communities are torn apart by teacher strikes, everyone - including teachers - is harmed.

Contract Publishing

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