Portland School Board: Don't impose a contract! Stay at the table! Don't force a strike!

Chris Lowe

There is a substantial possibility, and good reason to worry, that the Portland Public School Board may vote to impose a contract on the teachers of the Portland Association of Teachers as early as Monday night, January 13. Since a long bargaining session last Monday into Tuesday, initially reported to involve substantial progress, the District has refused to set a new date to resume negotiations, and the Board scheduled executive sessions Wednesday January 7th and Sunday January 12th. This looks ominously like preparation to impose on Monday, a decision which must take place in a public meeting under Oregon law.

If the Board does impose a contract, it likely will force the teachers to strike. Students of the Portland Student Union, and parents and community members organizing through the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign, of which I am a member, are mobilizing at the Board meeting to demand to the Board continue negotiating. Please consider joining us to tell the Board to stay at the table and settle a fair contract.

As a PPS parent, the prospect of a strike dismays me. But if it comes to that, I will back the teachers completely. The District has adopted an unreasonable bargaining posture since last Spring, and any contract they are likely to impose at present would be unfair to teachers, and be based on giving the District excessive managerial discretion over classrooms, discretion with which they cannot be trusted. As a parent, I want my child's learning conditions protected by a strong contract that protects the teachers' working conditions.

On January 5 I sent the letter below to each of the Board members. It analyzes the course of negotiations up to that point. Events since last Monday are addressed in a separate post.

Email addresses for the Board are provided after the letter. Phone messages would be good too.

Letter, January 5, 2014

Dear Ms. Adkins, Mr. Belisle, Mr. Buel, Mr. Davidson, Ms. Knowles, Mr. Koehler, Mr. Morton and Ms. Regan:

As the father of a [PPS high school student], for most of 2013 I have been getting progressively angrier at the School Board and at top PPS management. From the Spring, it became clearer and clearer that you were approaching the negotiations with the Portland Association of Teachers not with a view to cooperatively solving problems in the schools and creating strong learning conditions, nor with a view to settling a contract quickly so that education would not be disrupted. Rather you aggressively pressed a "management rights" agenda.

At every step along the way, you refused to bargain seriously, keeping people with actual decision power away from the negotiations, and then pressing each step toward confrontation as soon as the opportunity emerged. You spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside consultants and propaganda efforts directed at me and my fellow parents as well as the wider public. It mystified and disappointed me. I had thought better in the past of some of you who now support this approach.

The management rights agenda appears, like some other aspects of Board policy in recent years, to derive from a desire to run Portland Public Schools to "like a business," an idea promoted within the fake reform movement that has been fashionable for a decade or more. The schools as business concept involves management techniques that are destroying our economy even in the private sector. They simply are not appropriate to public schools.

Schools are not businesses. Students who fail cannot be treated as unsuccessful employees and be let go, either by their teachers, or by the school system. Nor are students products, goods whose quality can be used to evaluate the work of teachers. Teachers do not produce students, nor student achievements; rather teachers and students collaborate to educe effort and induce learning. Individual schools are not competing enterprises in a market. Policy and practice should not "reward success" and "punish failure" in market terms, up to an including closure, but should direct resources intelligently to solve weaknesses. Speed-up and workload increases for teachers do not produce "greater productivity," but less, and a degraded quality of learning experience. Contracting out teaching to charter schools and contracted alternative schools has proven an abject failure in improving student progress and graduation rates, at great expense.

So too with the anti-union management rights agenda. The District's refusal in 2013 to bargain non-economic issues that it has negotiated in the past, for good reasons, is simply a power play. It is driven by a wrong-headed corporate ideology that has no place in public schooling.

For me as a parent, your willingness to engage in such a power play shows that in fact PPS' current management cannot be trusted with the arbitrary power it seeks. We as parents need the PPS-PAT contract to protect the conditions of classroom teaching and preparation, exactly because you want the freedom to further degrade those conditions. We want it to provide adequately for teachers' incomes and benefits in a way that respects the work they do with and for our children and teens and supports teacher morale.

Class size or teacher workload is both a key issue in itself and a proxy for a range of issues. A class size of 30 is already too big, whether in kindergarten, 4th grade, 7th grade or high school. Reasonable class sizes should not exceed the low 20s; even that is far from ideal. Allowing sizes to go up to 30 in recent years has already been a huge concession that threatens the quality of education. I wish the PAT had not agreed to it in the past.

I am outraged that you want the freedom to take matters even further from where they should be. You should not have the freedom to raise overlarge sizes still further. You should face costs that would make the rational decision be to add another teacher and split overlarge classes instead. If there are budget problems, reducing the quality of the classroom learning conditions still further should not be a management option to solve them.

Class size also represents the need to negotiate on other conditions that allow teachers to teach effectively and students to learn effectively in the classroom. And it represents schools as organic social entities, with complex internal relationships. Schools work best on a basis of cooperation and respect, with mutual recognition of one another as persons and human beings among teachers, students, parents and administrators.

Only in the last days before Winter Break did there finally come a departure from the aggressive, anti-cooperative, counterproductive approach the Board and Administration had previously taken to negotiations. PPS started sending people with authority into the room, and returned to direct bargaining within the mediation context. There was some movement. That's good. It was also good that PPS did not impose its "final offer" on December 27th, as I feared you might given the record until then.

But I do not trust you.

What I would like to see the Board do, that would restore some trust, is to direct the administrators to negotiate fully and fairly with the union, and to attend negotiations to be sure they do so. The aim should be to reach a fair contract that limits class sizes, that reduces the wrong-headed fashionable emphasis on standardized tests, and does not use them inappropriately for teacher evaluation, a purpose for which they are not designed and do not work, and that protects teacher prep time used for curricular adaptation as classes devlop, and for communicating with parents. A fair contract would also recognize the economic sacrifices teachers have made in recent years, and would not cut their real salaries, through low nominal salary increases combined with health care and other benefit cuts that must be made up out of the nominal salaries, as the current district "final offer" does.

More broadly, what I want is that you as a Board should change your attitude. In the negotiations, I would like PPS to move away from the confrontational attitude that has characterized your approach up until recent weeks, toward an attitude of cooperation. I would also like to see an embrace of cooperation embodied in other actions away from the contract.

A good start would be public acknowledgment that schools are not businesses, that privatization is bad for schools, and that most of the fashionable so-called reform ideas of the past decade have been failures and mistakes. I would like to see strong signals that the School Board intends to shift away from curricular abstractions and public relations carried out by professionals, who may not technically be "administrators," but certainly are not classroom teachers, toward a focus on what happens in the school buildings and classrooms.

Fake approaches to "reform" that blame and scapegoat teachers for problems, while shifting financial resources to for-profit consultants, test businesses and the like, must go. Instead we need to promote cooperative mutual accountability that engages students, teachers, parents, and administrators at the classroom and building level, with the aim of higher administration being to support cooperative collaboration. If resources are short, we need to focus on cooperatively advocating to return them to necessary levels, locally and with the state.

So I will be watching closely. If the Board and administration move in that cooperative direction, and settle a fair contract, with strong protections for teaching and learning conditions on which I as a parent can rely, I will find ways to collaborate in the new direction.

But if you instead impose your grossly inadequate final offer on the teachers and force I strike, I will never forgive you, nor trust you again. I will place the blame for a strike squarely on you, and I will back the teachers to the hilt.

Thank you for listening to these concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher C. Lowe

Board emails: Ruth Adkins radkins@pps.net, Pam Knowles pknowles@pps.net, Matt Morton mmorton@pps.net, Tom Koehler tkoehler@pps.net, Bobbie Regan bobbie.regan@pps.net, Greg Belisle gbelisle@pps.net, Steve Buel sbuel@pps.net, Adam Davidson adavidson@pps.net

Disclaimer: This post and letter express my personal views, not those of any group, though I think many people I work with agree with them. The Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign, to which I belong, is an independent group created parents and community members. We are not under the control of the Portland Association of Teachers, nor do PTSC or any of its members speak for PAT.

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