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  • 22 Oct 2014

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Teachers challenge PPS on class size in labor talks

The Portland Association of Teachers on Monday filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Portland Public Schools, alleging that district leaders are violating the law by refusing to talk about class size, a fundamental issue for the union.

The union filed the complaint with the the Oregon Employment Relations Board 12 days after PPS declared impasse in their bargaining process. Both sides submitted final offers last week and the 30-day cooling down period ends Dec. 27, at which time PAT could vote to strike.

Now the Employment Relations Board will give the district a few weeks to respond, and if needed, hold a hearing.

A ruling in the union's favor will set the clock back to Nov. 30 and negotiations would continue.

PPS on Monday said they have yet to receive the complaint, but dispute the allegation.

“Portland Public Schools is doing something about teacher workload and class sizes," says Human Resources Director Sean Murray in a statement.

"This school year, the board and superintendent added more than 100 teaching positions in schools, based on an increase in state funding and cost savings in our budget. We also offered proposals to PAT that would maintain teacher workloads at current levels or less for the next two years. Portland cannot hire more teachers and reduce class sizes while PAT continues to seek pay raises that outpace state funding increases."

Teacher workload is a mandatory subject in bargaining, but class size is not, PPS says. PPS says it's a "permissive subject," meaning they can refuse to talk about it during negotiations. PAT disagrees.

"This is not a prohibitive subject," says John Bishop, the attorney representing PAT in the contract process. "The district claims it's a permisive subject. Our position is it's mandatory, which means the district just has to have the discussion; they don't have to agree. ... Their interpretation of the law is flawed."

PPS leaders say Oregon school districts decline to bargain class size limitations because class sizes depend on state funding, which school districts do not control.

According to Murray: "Bargaining these limits in a labor deal, as PAT has proposed, also shuts parents and the community out of these important conversations. We remain focused on reaching a negotiated settlement that helps our schools hire more teachers, hire the best teachers, and add school days for students.”

Bishop says the union simply wants to talk about class size not to set a limit but to talk about ideal class size and what happens when the district exceeds optimum class size.

On a related note, the PAT says PPS has failed to comply with a recent arbitration ruling in PAT’s favor. The ruling required the district to provide information on the average student load of a high school teacher by Nov. 1.

Portland teachers filed an unfair labor practice earlier this month to compel the district to provide the information, which they say is needed in the bargaining process.