A former union negotiator has proposed legislation to make class size a mandatory part of collective bargaining.

SALEM — School district officials are pushing back against a bill by a former union negotiator that would make class size a mandatory part of collective bargaining with teachers.

While acknowledging the importance of class size to quality education, lobbyists for school board and administrator interest groups said the legislation would do nothing to actually address the problem.

"There is no debate on class size; smaller classes are better for kids," said Chuck Bennett of the Confederation of School Administrators during a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the House Education Committee. "…The problem is the funding is just not there for the level of personnel we believe would be required."

Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, proposed the bill at a time when the state faces a $1.8 revenue deficit and state funding may fall short of schools' increases in costs. Doherty, a former contract negotiator for the Oregon Education Association, said collective bargaining law lays out mandatory and permissive issues of bargaining. Class size is not a required topic of negotiation.

The law change would not require teachers and district officials to reach an agreement on class size; it only gives teachers the right to negotiate the size, Doherty said.

"It doesn't mean we are not going to have to agree, but we have to sit down and talk to about this," she testified.

But Bennett argued that the requirement would give teacher unions another bargaining chip without giving school officials' resources to meet their demands.

"You've got a bucket of demands; I've got a bucket of nothing," Bennett said.

Making class size mandatory for bargaining also gives teachers another cause to strike, noted Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin.

Democrat Rep. Janeen Sollman, who serves on the Hillsboro School Board, noted that the requirement seems moot given that schools don't have adequate funding to reduce class sizes under the existing budget situation.

"Hillsboro is looking at a $9.5 million shortfall. Cutting days or people are the options because 85 percent of our budget is people," Sollman said. "I worry that when you are in such budget deficit time, how do you address this, when your funds are not there?"

Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, who serves on the Reynolds School Board, disagreed.

"My concern about not having that included in the conversation is the administrators don't get to hear the day-to-day reality on the ground from our teachers. Class size is a huge component to that, so for me it would set the tone for the continuation of a conversation in a way that shows empathy and understanding to the employees," Hernandez said.

A committee vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
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