Bend school leaders buckle down on teacher contract disputes

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
Nov. 27, 2023 11:44 p.m.

Talks continue as Oregon’s largest school district ends lengthy strike that kept children out of school for most of November.

Union leaders and Bend-La Pine School District officials have another full day of labor contract negotiations on Tuesday as wide gulfs remain over pay, benefits and working conditions.

The Bend-La Pine School District is expected to grow by 3,000 students in the next 10 years.

The Bend-La Pine School District is expected to grow by 3,000 students in the next 10 years.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

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Some of the conflicts echo what recently drove Portland teachers to strike, but Bend education officials are optimistic they can reach a deal before the end of the year.

“These are amicable meetings, and now we’re meeting almost daily,” Bend-La Pine Schools spokesperson Scott Maben said.

Since May, the Central Oregon school district had been locking horns with two unions representing about 2,000 of its employees. But the tenor shifted in recent weeks, said Bend Education Association President Sarah Barclay, who chairs the bargaining committee for the teachers union.

“We’re definitely seeing a different tone now, one that’s headed in the right direction,” Barclay said. “If I were to put one word on it, it would be hopeful.”

These negotiations are ramping up as Portlanders return to school this week after a historic teachers strike kept 40,000 students out of classrooms for 11 school days.

Portland teachers secured a tentative deal Sunday for a 13.8% cost-of-living adjustment over three years.

Bend teachers are working toward a two-year contract that also pushes for double-digit salary increases — 11% this year, and 10% next year, as of their union’s latest proposal.

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The district’s most recent offer was for less than half those rates, 5.3% and 4%, respectively.

“We’re still quite a ways apart,” said Maben.

He acknowledged that the high cost of living in Bend, where the median home price just climbed to $850,000, makes it difficult for teachers to afford living in the city.

“But at the same time, we need to meet our obligation to be fiscally sustainable with the finite tax dollars that we receive from the state,” Maben said.

In recent years, Oregon propped up schools with emergency pandemic relief funding, and those dollars run out at the end of this year, he added.

Barclay said the deal to end the strike at Portland Public Schools shows that districts can still set priorities despite shortfalls in state funding. She argued that teachers who can afford to live where they work better serve students by becoming part of the community.

“The compensation isn’t just money in the employees’ pockets,” she said “It really does have a community impact too.”

Other sticking points include more teacher planning time, increasing the number of work days in the school year, and capping class sizes. Barclay said that so far, the district has not responded to the union’s proposal to limit class sizes.

The Bend Education Association’s contract expired over the summer, as did another contract with a chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association, which represents around 1,000 classified staff like bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers.

For the next three weeks, the district has two full-day meetings per week scheduled with BEA, in addition to evening sessions with OSEA, Maben said.

“We’re going to do eight hours of bargaining with teachers, break for half an hour and then go into four hours of bargaining with the support staff,” Maben said. “That, to me, illustrates the sense of urgency and the commitment to get this done.”

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