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Strike vote looms as PPS, teachers' union struggle with key issues

The Portland Association of Teachers is inching closer to a strike.

The teachers’ union announced this week that its members would take a vote Wednesday evening, Feb. 5, to authorize a possible strike against the district.

If a strike happens, it would be the first time in the history of the Portland Public Schools.

Contract negotiations between the two sides began in April 2013 and have progressed slowly in the past year. The district has 48,000 students and 2,900 teachers.

The union vote does not set anything in motion. The union would still have to notifiy the state Employment Relations Board and set an official strike date. That would trigger the required 10 days of notice before teachers could walk out.

PAT President Gwen Sullivan told the Tribune Thursday morning that the union is still hopeful to come to a resolution with Portland Public Schools before then.

A mediation session was set for Friday, Jan. 31.

"We are still very, very commited to getting to a negotiated settlement," Sullivan said. "We know the district has the means to settle this contract today."

PPS Chief Human Resources Officer Sean Murray expressed disappointment at the news of the strike authorization vote.

“A strike by PAT would be devastating to Portland’s students and families,” he said in a statement. “A strike by PAT would undermine Portland’s schools, which are now gaining stability after years of state funding cuts.

"For more than 10 months, PPS has been working to reach an agreement with PAT. PPS has refrained from taking any immediate unilateral action to impose working conditions on our teachers. We continue to stay true to our commitment to reaching a settlement at the table.”

Sullivan, meanwhile, says union members have been frustrated with the recent talks. "We've gone to enough sessions — we think there's momentum and then we get back together, get a proposal, and they say we're farther apart. Those things are just not true. It can't happen anymore. We've been thinking we're closing in on things. They can't keep playing games."

More than 400 teachers and union supporters showed up at Monday's school board meeting in a show of unity. They protested the board's action that night to add about $14 million in surplus funds to district reserves rather than reduce class sizes and teacher workload.

"We got the message loud and clear from them on what their priorities were," Sullivan said of the board's action on the budget. "It's just disappointing."

The district declared an impasse in labor talks Nov. 20, but since then both sides have reached resolution on several issues. They are still at odds on the biggest issues, including salary, student workload and the length of the school year.