Showdown looms in Portland

October 30, 2013

Nicole Bowmer and Jamie Partridge report on a strong show of support for Portland teachers as they struggle for a new contract against an intransigent school board.

MORE THAN 600 teachers, parents, students and community supporters descended on the headquarters of Portland Public Schools (PPS) on October 21 as negotiations continue on a new contract for the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT).

What began as a rally outside the front doors of the district headquarters became an inspiring show of solidarity inside the building during a meeting of the PPS board, as the group filled the seats and overflowed into the lobby.

Relations between the union and PPS are the worst they've been in years. Bill Wilson, a teacher at Grant High School and member of the PAT bargaining team, spoke to the deterioration of the negotiations during the rally:

I want to say that I'm shocked and saddened, having served on the bargaining team since 2006, that the district is taking a minimalist approach to contract negotiations with the teachers' union...The school board closed the door to the public process and table bargaining, and unilaterally called for mediation. We had our first mediation session last week. We brought multiple proposals on articles. The district offered none.

Madison High School teachers at the front of the crowd outside Portland Public Schools headquarters
Madison High School teachers at the front of the crowd outside Portland Public Schools headquarters (Chris Beck | SW)

The district's proposal started out with 75 rollbacks, which would remove a total of 30 pages from the previous contract. Under pressure from the union and community--dozens of teacher supporters filled the room at the public bargaining sessions--the district reduced its rollbacks to 51. But PPS negotiators walked away from the table after the state-mandated minimum of 150 days of bargaining.

TEACHERS HAVE made it clear from the beginning of the bargaining process that their priority isn't salary. In fact, the superintendent acknowledged that PAT and PPS aren't far apart on salary proposals. Teachers are prioritizing small class sizes, the overuse of standardized testing, and time during the workday to prepare for students, personalize instruction and meet with parents.

The refusal of the district to bargain over these issues, which matter most to teachers, parents and students, isn't lost on anyone. It certainly isn't lost on Diana Collins, a teacher at George Middle School, who spoke at the October 21 school board meeting:

During the day, I have a 45-minute planning period to do what I do. That's roughly six minutes per period to plan for my seven classes. This doesn't even include the parent phone calling, e-mails, organizing our classroom, field-trip preparations, learning computer software systems, grading, communicating with our counselors, setting up for science labs, and reviewing and meeting IEP goals. My story is not exceptional. Listen to your teachers about workload, class size and planning--it's vital to the success of our students and schools.

It would be absurd if just one teacher was working under those conditions. It's unacceptable that Diana's story is not the exception, but the rule. The district's proposal not only ignores the realities faced by teachers--it also ignores the realities faced by students and would, in fact, only exacerbate the worst situations by lifting restrictions on teacher workload.

Erika Schneider, a teacher with 32 third-graders in her classroom, spoke to the challenges teachers confront every day:

The voices of the families I serve are not often heard in a forum like this, so let me tell you what it is really like in a Title I school...In 11 years, I have worked with more children than I can count who have one parent in prison, more children than I can count who come from one-parent households, more children than I can count who are being raised by grandparents. I have made more calls to DHS to report abuse or neglect than I can count...

I work through my half-hour lunch every day, preparing materials for the afternoon. I take curriculum and papers to grade home with me every night, to finish after I put my own children to bed. During the school day, there just isn't enough time for me to check in with every student.

It just isn't right for an 8 year old to share one adult with 31 other students. There is no parent in Portland who wants that for their child. It is not fair to students. So when teachers talk about our workload, it is because our students suffer when their teachers are overworked.

Schneider's 32 third-grade students weren't at the rally or board meeting to confirm their teacher's words, but fortunately, high school students did attend to speak on behalf of seniors graduating this year, as well as Schneider's Class of 2023 students.

Ian Jackson, a senior at Cleveland High School, said:

It's absolutely absurd that [the district] believe that pushing such detrimental proposals will make education any better in this city. If teachers don't have time to plan curriculum or even build curriculum, a right the district is trying to take away, then how am I expected to learn that curriculum.

And under the district's proposed caseload, it would take 30 hours to effectively grade 210 papers. That means checking for conventions and giving proper feedback. That 30 hours amounts to 30 days with the proposed planning period. How am I expected to become a writer if I get my work back a month later?...When I look at the two proposals, only the union's is willing to talk about the needs of the students.

The testimony from Jackson and other students was particularly telling, because it challenges PPS's main message during negotiations--that their proposals aren't about union-busting, but providing a better education for students. When actual students stand up to this lie, PPS's proposal is revealed for what it is: an attack on our unions and our schools.

THE DISTRICT'S priorities are plain in other ways beyond the contract proposals. PPS has been paying a private consultant $15,000 per month to direct negotiations with PAT. Additionally, it signed an $800,000 contract with an outside law firm for bargaining advice. As PAT President Gwen Sullivan said at the rally:

The district is spending nearly a million dollars on private consultants and labor attorneys, instead of putting that toward direct services for our kids. As a parent, it hurts my heart. And as an educator, it hurts when you think about how many kids could be impacted by a reading specialist or a counselor. There are some priorities that are missing in this district. We should all be outraged.

As if all this wasn't enough reason to be outraged, one parent's testimony at the school board meeting provided more evidence to fuel the movement against the district's push to use standardized testing as the basis for performance and achievement.

"Both PPS teachers and outside faculty have been berated, belittled and treated with open contempt in front of their students and colleagues," said Paul Anthony, who has had children at Beech Elementary School for more than a decade. "Formerly, teachers would wait years for the privilege of teaching at Beech. Now they are leaving as fast as they can find new positions."

Anthony explained that one of the main problems is the recent obsession with Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) test scores:

Beech has been using OAKS test scores to publicly rank children. Achievement on the test was used for the filter of not just who would walk across the stage at my daughter's 8th grade graduation last year, but even who was mentioned by name. Graduating students not perceived as achieving were left anonymous even as they were promoted. Similarly, as test results are received, children's names are recited to their classes in order of results. All the students know who has the highest score, who the lowest, and individuals along the spectrum.

Many of my children's classmates are exhibiting signs of extreme stress around testing and receiving their results, including openly weeping and hiding, complaining of headaches and nausea, and becoming increasingly fearful of school altogether. District support and response have created more problems and have brought no solutions.

Anthony's testimony provoked gasps from many in the room horrified by the harm that overuse of standardized testing has caused. But when parents delivered a petition calling for the replacement of Beech principal Rebecca Torres last June, the district issued this statement: "Beach is a thriving school. We support Principal Torres' leadership and the steps she is taking to make the school stronger."

This is why PAT's initial proposal included language restricting the use of standardized test scores and calling for a "mentoring/feedback program for administrators who need support."

These stories from teachers, students and parents aren't new information to the district. Despite the ongoing systemic issues, PPS continues to claim that the conflict with the union is about pay and that it has to use an "aggressive" strategy with the teachers union.

Many teachers from nearby school districts attended the rally, and they know these aggressive strategies well. One such district is Reynolds, just east of Portland, where teachers were on the winning end of a five-day strike in May 2012. "I'm seeing a lot of the same attacks here in Portland that we faced," said one Reynolds teacher at the rally. "And I'm here to support PPS teachers, who are working to stop the dismantling of union contracts."

The October 21 rally was just one important step in this struggle. The success of PAT rests in the power of the community coming together. The district hopes to silence the voices of parents, teachers and students in the struggle for quality public schools--PAT is countering this by trying to amplify those voices.

This fight is more than just a clash over a contract--it's about building a movement to demand the schools our students deserve.

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