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Pressure mounts for teacher furlough days

Student school board rep, others, send letters to union
by: Christopher Onstott Portland Public School Superintendent Carole Smith walked the halls of Jackson Middle School last fall with Principal John Ferraro. Smith's plan to cut $10 million from the PPS budget could mean furloughs for the district teachers.

The heat is on for Portland's teacher union.

With just three weeks to go before the Portland School Board votes on Superintendent Carole Smith's proposal to cut $10 million from the schools, a growing number of citizens - and now student representatives from each PPS high school - are urging the Portland Association of Teachers to agree to furlough days to reduce the impact of the cuts.

Henry Li, a senior at Wilson who serves as the school board's student representative, said the budget issue came up at a recent meeting of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council (SuperSAC, for short) - which includes representatives from all of the district's high schools.

'Many are concerned that the programs that are going to be cut year after year,' Li told the Tribune. 'It's gotten to the point that it affects the stuff that makes our school a school.'

Li and 10 other student leaders sent an email to the PAT on Monday, just before heading into a board work session on the budget.

'They definitely are a passionate group,' he said of his board colleagues. 'But they can't really do anything (about the furlough days). It's up to the teachers, and the situation is up to the state for passing this revenue system.'

Li says while he soon won't be a PPS student anymore - he's heading to Harvard this fall - he hopes people will rally around state education funding issue.

Each PPS-wide furlough would save the district $1.4 million if no employee was paid. The $10 million in savings could also come from laying off 110 teacher positions.

Other citizens are writing to PAT president Gwen Sullivan as well.

'We're working on some creative solutions, waiting for more numbers to come in,' Sullivan told the Tribune Monday afternoon.

A meeting with PAT members is set for April 25; a proposal would come some time afterward.

Says Wendy Gerlach, a parent of two PPS high school students and one PPS high school graduate: 'The teachers most at risk of layoff are some of the most inspiring teachers at our school. It would be a short-term solution, costly in the long run for everyone, to let these teachers go. When they go, the programs they've created, the relationships they've developed with their school communities, their experience--this goes too. Indicators show that the economy is recovering. The schools, students, teachers, union all benefit from keeping established faculty in place. PAT has an interest in showing that it is supportive of the careers of younger teachers. It will be the younger teachers who move into leadership positions with the union and whose financial contributions will support the pension system for older retirees. Many retirement systems have learned the cost of safeguarding senior positions and then lacking a younger contribution base in later years.'

Here is Henry Li's letter to the PAT:

Dear Teachers of Portland Public Schools,

How are you doing? If you're like us, you're probably worried about the budget cuts that are going to hit our schools again this year.

Sometimes it may seem like we don't really care about school. You know, like when we stare glassy-eyed at the marks you're making on the board? Or, like when we don't even thank you for the sacrifices it takes to teach when class sizes are ballooning and when your pay isn't exactly in the six-figure range?

But, really, we do care. We care a lot. We care about our brothers and sisters, we care about students in Title I-funded schools, we care about the future of Portland. We, too, care about ballooning class sizes with another 110 teachers slated to be cut this year.

Please consider opening up the contract to allow adding furlough days. We recognize the sacrifice this takes on your part, but we believe there is no simply no other option. The cuts don't have to all be taken through days. Just three or even two would help a lot.

Staff reductions have a long-term educational impact because the next generation of teachers lose their jobs. We, teachers and students, are all affected for an entire school year by larger class sizes and less support. Also, cutting a teacher often means eliminating an elective or program that keeps students interested in school. Programs, once gone, are difficult to restore. And again, the cuts don't have to all be taken through days. We just hope it can be an option.

Please consider our request. On behalf of the 47,000 students in Portland, we thank you sincerely for the sacrifices you have made to give us an education.

Elected representatives of Portland's student body:

Henry Li, Wilson High School

Kevin Truong, Benson Polytechnic High School

Risa Luther, Franklin High School

Phu Nguyen, Madison High School

Bridgette Lang, Jefferson High School

Alexia Garcia, Lincoln High School

Sophia Kecskes, Cleveland High School

Ray Kennedy, Trillium Charter School

Ellie Johnson, Grant High School

Patrick Curtis, Trillium Charter School

Shani Plunkett, Roosevelt High School