School Board must not impose a contract

Chris Lowe

As noted in another post, Portland students, parents, and community members will be rallying Monday evening, January 13 at 5:30 at the School Board meeting, to demand that the Board keep negotiating with the Portland Association of Teachers, and not force a teacher strike by imposing a bad contract. If you don't want a strike, come out and join us.

The rally follows student actions on Friday, January 10. Wilson High School students staged a lunchtime demonstration on Capitol Highway in Hillsdale near the school. Jefferson High School students walked out in large numbers and took over N. Killingsworth Avenue in an action combined support for teachers with demands for an end to impossible classroom conditions and for respect for Jefferson from the PPS Board and administration and Portland media. Before break in December, parents had rallied at PPS headquarters on a "late start" morning, and students had walked out at Roosevelt, Cleveland and Wilson high schools to show support for teachers.

Early last week, a 21 hour mediation session, beginning Monday and lasting until the wee hours of Tuesday, was widely reported in the media to involve substantial movement, offering the prospect of a successful resolution. The Oregonian published a story including an optimistic statement by PAT President Gwen Sullivan. The media hopefulness now appears to be an illusory projection of Portland Public Schools' public relations.

The long session had ended when PPS broke off the talks. While that might be understandable, since 21 hours is a long time, PPS also refused requests from both PAT and the mediator to set a date to resume talks. That proved to be a bad sign. PPS continued to refuse to schedule new negotiations until Sunday; another round of mediation reportedly has now been setfor Monday morning. Why the delay? PPS claims not to want a strike. The way to avoid a strike is to keep talking.

After Tuesday, it became clear that PPS had switched to a strategy of trying to bargain through the media rather than directly with PAT. By Thursday, the union was calling District tactics a bait and switch, with good reason.

Up until Monday, negotiations had inched along with fully crafted tentative agreements on specific issues. What changed Monday was PAT offering "supposals" -- contingent, "what if?" concepts that also are transactional: If we offered this, what would you offer? The concepts were not detailed. They were not tentative agreements, not even definite offers, just hypotheticals. They were not settled, and they could not be reasonably isolated from one another. PAT had expected them to be internal to the negotiations.

Instead, the District first revealed its own side of what had been offered in concept. It somewhat laughably called its main ideas "concessions." What were they? To leave current contract language on workload and on health insurance benefits in place.

The context for understanding what that proposal really means is the overall PPS position since last Spring. Down to its "final offer" at the point it declared an impasse in November, that position has been to entirely remove all existing language on several dozens of topics, amounting to close to half the current contract. The vacuum would leave administrators with wide, arbitrary power in those areas (see other post). Meanwhile PPS asked for givebacks in many areas where they were required to negotiate.

Rather than give and take, their approach to negotiation has been take and take. The minor shift in the new position, to take a little less and take, really isn't a concession. It's just slightly less outrageous arrogant bargaining.

Then PPS p.r. people went further and started not just stating the District's own offers, but mischaracterizing PAT's position and what PPS claimed had been or might be offered to them in return for their so-called concessions, in what PAT came to see as an effort to "box them in" in the media. In particular, the District made claims that linked its proposals to PAT ideas in a way PAT had never agreed to, and made them sound like more definite offers than they ever were. And, rather than meet to keep discussing, PPS sent a written document to PAT, reflecting what the District was saying in the press, rather than what had been happening in negotiations.

Meanwhile the central administration sent an email to school principals with talking points to use in the event that the Board imposed a contract. The email in question was based on the idea that the District might impose its November "final offer," an act of questionable legal status. The District subsequently withdrew the email. It may have been a ploy to threaten PAT without actually meeting them.

In light of the underhand approach taken by PPS last week, the renewed optimism by The Oregonian that the District agreeing to schedule another mediation Monday morning is a sign of progress must be treated with skepticism. Public pressure on the Board to keep talking will be needed until a settlement is reached. What would be even better would be if they would withdraw their declaration of impasse to move back the timeline of a possible strike.

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