Teachers' union, school board struggle to find common ground

This is a promising and pivotal time for Portland Public Schools.

Enrollment is climbing, and for the first time in years, schools are adding staff and programs. Portlanders continue to step up for local schools, from volunteering in classrooms to passing measures that pay for teachers or upgrade school buildings.

Yet, our schools need to improve to help each student achieve academic success, regardless of race or income. One critical approach to accomplishing this goal is to work in partnership with our teachers to change an outdated and restrictive contract that limits our collective ability to serve and educate our students.

That is why the Portland School Board wants to reach an agreement with the Portland Association of Teachers on a new contract that is in the best interest of students. Unfortunately, after six months of bargaining, it’s disappointing that PPS and PAT are still far apart on key issues. Last month, the school district asked a state mediator to join the talks and help us reach an agreement.

Both PPS and PAT want students, teachers and schools to be successful. Whether you are a parent, an educator or a neighbor, we can all agree: Portland students need and deserve a longer school year. They need and deserve the best teacher in front of each classroom. They need and deserve smaller class sizes. Our students need and deserve a 21st century education that both reflects the evolving demands of our learners and responds to our growing global society.

We can also agree that teachers need more planning time, especially in elementary grades. PPS should offer competitive raises and benefit increases that are fiscally responsible and in line with state funding, allowing schools to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes, and attract the best possible educators to lead our classrooms.

As a school board, we are addressing these priorities, starting with lowering class sizes and lessening teacher workload.

Since 75 cents out of every dollar PPS receives comes from Salem, class sizes are largely determined by state funding. For years, roller-coaster K-12 funding has led to larger class sizes and fewer enrichments, electives and athletics for students in Portland and other school districts across Oregon. For teachers, this has meant more demands added to an already difficult job.

However, in Portland, the tide has shifted. This fall, the school board affirmed taking immediate steps to reduce class sizes, within our resources, using $16 million in funds from unexpected increases in revenue and district belt-tightening. This year PPS has added:

• More than 120 staff members directly into PPS schools to reduce class sizes and offer students more classes (other added positions provide mentors and supports to help classroom teachers).

• Educational assistants and other staff at 68 schools to ease workload by relieving teachers of noninstructional duties.

Dollars that state leaders added for Oregon schools next year will help sustain these reductions in class sizes. Although Oregon is still far from providing adequate education funding, for the first time in years we are moving in the right direction.

The school board also is seeking changes in the PAT contract so

schools can operate more effectively for students:

• Adding three additional instructional days for students, which would make PPS’ shorter-than-average school year longer than the school year in most surrounding districts.

• Giving schools a better ability to recruit and retain the best teachers.

• Increasing planning time for elementary grade teachers, and maintaining one full period of planning time for high school teachers.

• Offering more than $15 million in salary and benefit increases to keep teacher compensation competitive with other area districts.

In contrast, PAT’s proposal runs counter to what students and families want in their schools. The union’s proposal bars schools from adding instructional time, reduces teaching time and restricts parent-teacher interactions.

PAT also would lock in unsustainable compensation and benefit demands, including salary increases of 9.5 percent during two years. Along with new workload compensation demands, these terms would cost the school district more than $225 million.

• To fund this demand, Oregon would need to add nearly $3 billion in K-12 funding this biennium, added to the $6.5 billion already approved (including the $100 million lawmakers added in the special session).

PAT also has demanded to bargain issues, such as standardized testing, that are defined in federal and state law and to lock educational advocacy stances into a two-party labor agreement, shutting parents and community members out of the discussion.

PAT and PPS need to find common ground in an agreement that helps our schools provide the best and most effective educational environment for students. Reaching this agreement is the best way to give students, families and all of Portland the schools our community deserves.

Matt Morton is a parent and a member of the Portland School Board.

Contract Publishing

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