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It's Finals Time -- District Declares Contract Talks At Impasse

OPB | Nov. 20, 2013 6:28 p.m. | Portland

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Portland Public Schools has declared an impasse in contract talks with its teachers union. The decision Wednesday forces both sides to submit final proposals, and it starts a clock toward a potential teacher strike.

The Portland Association of Teachers has never gone on strike.The union of more than 3,000 teachers voted to strike ten years ago, but city and county leaders intervened and teachers agreed to work ten days for free.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith said the district doesn't want a strike but that they’re preparing for that possibility.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith said the district doesn't want a strike but that they’re preparing for that possibility.

Rob Manning / OPB

Now, Superintendent Carole Smith, points to three years ago, when an impasse declaration led to a settlement.

Smith says that was in a tougher budget environment.

“Back in 2010, when we went to impasse, it was the tool that got us to a settlement, and this time, we actually have way more favorable economic conditions — so we’re not talking about furlough days, we’re not talking about cuts,” Smith said.

Union leaders have been bracing for an impasse declaration for weeks. Still, it wasn’t the news Bill Wilson was expecting. Wilson teaches chemistry at Grant High School, and sits on the union bargaining team.

“It really comes as a shock. We met with the district negotiating team last week. We met with them on Monday. We made progress. And at the end of our session on Monday evening, we had talked about setting dates later this week,” Wilson said.

Those meetings could still happen.

Portland Association of Teachers president Gwen Sullivan

Portland Association of Teachers president Gwen Sullivan

Rob Manning / OPB

The two sides disagree on health insurance and salary. They disagree on policies around hiring and transferring teachers.

And perhaps the biggest sticking point relates to a brief clause related to teacher workloads.

“It’s about 25 words. But those 25 words really mean something,” says PAT president, Gwen Sullivan.

Administrators want to remove those words, and instead create a joint committee to make recommendations on teacher workloads.

Teachers want class size limits for elementary teachers in the contract, along with a tighter cap on how many students high school teachers are responsible for.

The district says the union’s limits would require hiring hundreds more teachers, which Portland Public can’t afford - and doesn’t have classrooms for.

The two sides are scheduled to meet in a mediation session December 5th.

The earliest the PAT could actually go on strike is during winter break.

Both sides say they’re working hard to avoid that.

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