Bargaining between Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers over the terms of the new teacher contract has come to a tentative close. The final bargaining session commenced Thursday January 11 and continued throughout every day of the weekend. The session drew to a close early Tuesday morning, when a settlement framework was agreed upon. Multiple agreements and compromises have been reached, making this potential settlement possible. Though some details still need to be finalized, the bargaining period is effectively over. The purpose of this article is to explain the issues discussed throughout the bargaining, and to give insight into how the necessary compromises may have been made.
Before the MLK weekend bargaining session began, many topics of dispute remained unaddressed. In a briefing posted on the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) website on January 9, PAT Bargaining Chair Steve Lancaster described the state of the negotiations: “We have not even reached [a] conceptual agreement on some of the most important outstanding issues such as workload, work year, safety, retirement, and compensation. On many crucial issues, we remain far apart.” PAT President Suzanne Cohen agreed. “They still haven’t really moved off of compensation,” she stated, “[and] we still haven’t really discussed safety and special education, which are still major concerns for us.” The district is less worried about the challenges these concerns may pose in bargaining. PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero stated in December, “We’re all feeling optimistic… we believe that soon after the winter break, sometime during the month of January, we should be arriving—hopefully—at a conceptual agreement.” Said Cohen, “We’re optimistic as well and very hopeful, but we’re more guarded… Now we want to see stuff on paper that we can sign off on.”
One of the largest issues the PAT hoped to address was funding for special education. It is widely agreed that special education programs in PPS are underfunded. The point of contention is whether PPS can do anything about it. To this, Franklin Principal Juanita Valder responded, “mostly no.” She explained that it is difficult for the district to hire more special education teachers both due to a lack of funding and a shortage of qualified teachers. “It becomes very costly,” said Valder. “If I hire a special ed person… I’m having to take it out of a regular ed classroom.” Cohen, on the other hand, explained, “Special education has some federal [requirements] that go unfunded… PPS has general fund dollars that they can spend on special education.”
PPS Student Services Senior Director Mary Pearson, though not involved in bargaining directly, has expertise on the matter of special education within the district. “We get our funding from a couple [of] different sources,” said Pearson. “One is a Federal grant called IDEA. It’s about $8500 every eighteen months, so it’s really a small part of our funding. The rest of our funding comes from the state of Oregon.” Pearson went on to explain the challenges of increasing the program’s funding. “The school district receives a certain amount of money for every student; it’s around $7000… from the state. For special education, they get twice that weight, so it’s around $14000. The challenge is that the state caps that weighting at eleven percent… If you have a school district that has more than eleven percent of students that qualify for special education, which PPS does—we’re just under fifteen percent—you don’t get that double wage from the eleven to the fifteen percent.” All in all, though increasing funding is possible, it is also challenging. Pearson elaborated. “It’s difficult to increase the funding for the special ed budget because… there’s only so much money to go around. You have one pie; if you give more of it to special education, you gotta take it from someplace else.”
However, the PAT believes that special education is in dire need of improvement.
Another issue was safety within PPS schools. A different online bargaining brief, this one from December 9, summarized the union’s side of this issue: “We want PPS to be a place where students can make mistakes and be welcomed back into their classroom communities. But we know that interventions are needed for this to work, and many students will require ongoing support. Indeed, the entire District needs reliable, consistent systems in place if we want to foster safer schools.” “We need to come together and figure out appropriate interventions, so that students can be welcomed back, and welcomed back safely” Cohen elaborated. “The idea that it all rests on the classroom teacher—that can’t be done.” The briefing went on to list specific requests regarding safety, including restoring transparency for referrals, developing academic and behavioral interventions for students, honoring related agreements from the 2015-2016 school year, instituting a fully funded safety rapid response team, and guaranteeing a professional development day at the beginning of each year focused on school climate.
Though it has yet to be seen exactly what compromises were made over these issues, it is evident that a solution was reached. Both parties wished to reach a deal over MLK day weekend. “When you reserve a chunk of time like that, it is with the hope of reaching a settlement,” said Cohen. And the basis for an agreement was reached. Cohen posted an update to the PAT Facebook group early Monday morning—the last day of the bargaining session—that gave a general update on the situation. She described how the negotiations had lasted for over twelve hours the day before. However, some progress appeared to have been made; the post read, “The primary focus of the day centered on special education issues, safety and financial topics. In addition, [the PAT bargaining] team presented proposals on all other remaining issues. We meet again at 10:30 AM when we hope to be able to reach a final tentative agreement.” Another brief was released the morning of January 16, after the final day of bargaining. It stated, “After five days of continuous negotiations, this morning at 3:00 AM [the] PAT bargaining team agreed on a settlement framework with [its] district counterparts. Significant details need to be formalized, but we hope to finalize a tentative agreement by Thursday afternoon [January 18].” The brief mentioned “substantial gains” made on “salary, workload, safety, and special education,” and thanked PPS teachers for their support.
Heading into what they hoped would be the final bargaining session, both parties foresaw a compromise. Said Guerrero, “If we agree on where we’re at—what the reality is—[we can] together co-construct a strategy for moving this to another positive level.” Now, after a two-year interstice, the students, staff, and administrators of Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest district, can finally see a path towards greater stability.