Are contract talks between Portland Public Schools and teachers hitting the skids?
Was it a bluff? Or a serious threat?
Late last month, Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers union, told the Portland Public Schools board that contract talks between the union and the district were tanking.
"I'm very fearful we're headed toward battle lines," Cohen said.
Two days later, on May 25, the union filed an unfair labor complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, accusing the district of breaking state law during negotiations.
The complaint, which the union made public, marked a dramatic break from the low-key negotiations that have been ongoing since March 2016. It was followed by signals from the district that it would leave the bargaining table and ask the state for help mediating between the two parites. Both moves immediately raised the question: Are contract talks going to go the way of 2014?
Three years ago, PPS's nearly 4,000 teachers voted to authorize a strike and set a date for a walkout. PPS avoided that strike with just two days to spare before the deadline.
Here's a look at the current conflict, with top takeaways for parents and community members.
1. Unfair labor practice complaints aren't entirely unusual. But they're not necessarily a good sign.
During the last round of negotiations, the one that nearly led to a strike in 2014, the teachers' union filed two unfair labor complaints (or ULPs) against the district and the district filed one against the union. The latest complaint accuses the district of violating state law by approving a budget for next year that already incorporates changes that are still up for negotiation in contract talks, including the length of the school year and allowable workloads for high school. Laird Cusack, senior director for employee and labor relations at PPS, said he remains optimistic talks will remain on track. "A ULP is not the death knell in bargaining," he said. "You continue bargaining."
2. Portland Public Schools and the teachers' union could have a resolution to the complaint by the end of the summer.
An unfair labor practice complaint can take many months to resolve, but PPS and PAT have agreed to fast-track the process which means the three-person Oregon Employment Relations Board should hear the complaint by next month and make a decision soon after. "We do not believe we have committed an unfair labor practice," Cusack said.
3. The root cause of the dispute isn't new.
At its core, the conflict today revolves around a dispute that first grew heated in 2011, when PPS gave raises to teachers despite a budget shortfall but asked, in exchange, for changes in how it scheduled high-school classes. Those changes, which asked high-school teachers to lead six of eight class periods instead of five of seven, increased teachers' workload by increasing the overall number of students in their classes. Two months after the district and union ratified the agreement, the teachers' union filed a labor grievance about it, setting off years of fighting. At one point, the district responded to teachers' complaints by blocking students from taking eight classes. But that just further complicated things because parents complained that the high-school schedule shortchanged students on instructional time. The latest complaint argues that PPS is violating agreed-to limits on teachers' workload shows the dispute is far from settled. "The direction we're going in is really eroding trust," Cohen testified before the school board.
4. In addition to the disagreement over workload, salary and the length of the school year remain points of contention.
Both the district and the union say they're prevented from talking in detail about the nitty-gritty details of contract talks. But an email from the district to principals that the Tribune got in response to a records request, lays out the district's position. Not surprisingly, pay is a big issue. PPS has already set aside in its 2017-18 budget about $8 million so all district employees can get retroactive raises of 3 percent. It wants to give 2.5 percent and 2 percent raises in the following two years. The union wants a retroactive raise of 4.5 percent for this year and 3 percent cost of living increases for the next two years.
PPS says it wants a school year with 178 instructional days and that PAT wants 172. It's unclear which proposal would result in the most instructional minutes, because PAT has also proposed lengthening the school day.
5. Mayor Ted Wheeler is unlikely to get involved. Not yet.
Former mayors Sam Adams and Charlie Hales both stepped in at key junctures to help settle contract talks. Adams did it in 2012 when he gave $5 million in city funds to 110 teaching positions. Hales did it in more subtle fashion when he met with both sides at City Hall to encourage them to avoid a strike.
But Michael Cox, a spokesman for Wheeler, said Monday the mayor is staying out of the dispute, at least for now. "The mayor's focus is on the city's labor negotiations," he said. "The mayor has not been asked to intervene in the PPS contract negotiations, but if there is an opportunity to help we will certainly consider it."