Teachers, District Clash Over Contract

A copy of the teacher contract containing a full 108 pages. The contract has been outdated for two years, and PAT is considering a strike. Photo by Jackson Hartigan

Portland Public Schools has been involved in bargaining with members of the Portland Association of Teachers (the Portland teachers’ union) over the terms of a new teacher contract, which many district employees believe is long overdue. Starting early November, representatives from each party, including PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, have been meeting to discuss issues the contract is intended to address. Topics debated include but are not limited to teacher workload, funding for Special Education, and the possible addition of four days to the school calendar. If an agreement is not reached, a strike may ensue.

The previous PPS teacher contract expired two years ago. “Why we’re in this situation now—a great deal has to just do with a ton of turnover on district staff, so every time we’d go to work or negotiate it’d be a whole new team of people, and everyone needed to get caught up on the issues,” says PAT president Susanne Cohen in regard to the bargaining. Multiple changes are in store for the contract. The District has aimed to add “two new instructional days and an additional two days of professional development to the school year,” states a PAT brief on the bargaining, posted on their website on November 3. According to the statement, union representatives, including Bargaining Chair Steve Lancaster, have been meeting with Superintendent Guerrero and Chief Human Resources Officer Kylie Rogers, among others. The new contract will essentially determine the future working conditions of PPS teachers and will largely influence the experience students have at PPS schools: class size limits, salaries, schedules, and ultimately how PPS’s budget will be spent.

Portland Public Schools has declined to comment on the status of the bargaining. PPS Media Relations Manager Amber Shoebridge says via email, “At this time, the district isn’t discussing details of the bargaining. It is in the mediation stage; the parties continue to seek a settlement and are hopeful we will do so soon.”

The contract has to be updated periodically for a number of reasons. One of them has to do with cost of living. “We haven’t gotten a raise or a cost of living adjustment, so while everything has gotten more expensive in Portland, everyone that worked last year still hasn’t gotten their raise. So we are talking about a raise and [it] would be retroactive,” says Cohen. This lack of compensation could have an especially negative effect on newer teachers, some of whom may still be paying off college debt, or may be living under less stable conditions than their more experienced colleagues. Franklin English and CCE teacher Bryan Dykman is in his first year as a teacher at PPS. “It’s kind of hard to plan for the future or think about your career a couple years down the line when you don’t know what your contract—what provisions it’s gonna hold,” says Dykman. Biology and physics teacher Matt Stewart, who has worked at Franklin for five years, elaborates on this: “We all are benefiting from those protections [from the outdated contract] and the security to work without the fear of being fired without cause, but the District feels they can avoid updating the contract and therefore save money by defaulting on their requirements with our union.”

Other teachers have concerns with workload, compensation, and the idea of a strike as well. English and CCE teacher Pamela Garrett has been following news of the bargaining very closely; “I am concerned about a strike and do not want that to happen. I also want to be valued for what I do, monetarily, but also with respect for the volume of work I do and for the kind of work I do. The district sticking point on the contract is workload. They want us to work more, do more, take more than 180 students.”

The strike is itself a contentious issue. “I remember the last near-strike. It was awful. They told us to take our ‘personal items’ home with us. I looked around my room and realized it was all personal, all the books and posters and materials that I had purchased or written grants for. I loaded up my teacher world in boxes and the kids helped me put it in the back of my truck. I cried. Luckily, a few days later, and at the last minute, we settled. I don’t want to go through that again,” says Garrett. In regard to striking, Cohen states “It’s certainly always a possibility whenever you’re in open negotiations. We’re definitely preparing for one… It’s really not what we want, [but] at the same time it’s been a long time without a contract.”

Many teachers express concern over excessive workload. “It is exhausting and emotionally devastating. My colleagues are also exhausted and need constant support,” says one anonymous humanities teacher at Franklin. Garrett states, “The district needs to help to mend the bad relationship they have with teachers. We need support, not to be made out like we are the bad guys. I think leaders get to the district office and forget what it is like in the classroom very quickly—if they ever were in the classroom.” Cohen explains that the PAT is addressing this issue in bargaining.

A Franklin teacher’s lanyard with pins declaring the contract conditions. The PAT began bargaining over the new contract in early November. Photo by Jackson Hartigan

One major disagreement between the two parties is over the issue of the added days: two instructional days and two days of professional development. “While we share the Superintendent’s interest in meaningful professional development, your bargaining team was disappointed to see that the District still has no plan to ensure we have a better school year, with adequate resources and staffing, before we start adding days to [the] school calendar,” the PAT website states in their November 3 briefing. Cohen elaborates, “You have all these well-meaning people who don’t have the money but would like to see the school year be longer. And that struggle was [happening] four years ago, and we came to this compromise in our contract which did say that the school board may add two days, provided that the staffing levels had not decreased.” The budget has received cuts this year, but the district still is pushing to add days, even though it would be violating the contract provision. The contract stated that days can only be added if the PPS budget is increasing. “Our overall motto is ‘a better day before a longer year.’ So with that, there’s a couple areas that we want to see prioritized. One is overall Special Ed—caseloads, staffing, and having more interventions available, and having more resources available when a student or a school or an educator is struggling,” says Cohen.

It seems that many teachers agree with the PAT’s point of view on the added days. “I stand with what the PAT’s saying,” says Dykman. “I think it’s pretty important to improve resources… From a classroom teacher’s standpoint, I’m not sure how much more that [the added days] would benefit the young people.” Garrett agrees; “I don’t mind the addition of two days, but I want more teachers and more technology first.” Stewart adds,  “I feel if we want to attract more high quality teachers that are actually capable [of] improving student success, we need to focus not on forcing students to sit in underfunded classrooms with under-trained teachers for more days of the year, and instead on improving the quality of the classes and the resources we have available to us.”

Perhaps the PAT’s grievance most in need of redress is the District’s underfunded Special Education system. However, this is a complex issue lacking a clear, easy-to-implement resolution.

As one parent of a PPS Special Ed student, who wishes to remain unnamed, explains, “Given the burden on SpEd teachers and the District’s consistent failure to meet students’ accommodations for years, PPS should probably be sued on a daily, hourly basis. And that is not the teachers’ fault, but most parents of high needs kids just don’t have the energy or resources.”

“I believe that extending the school year won’t help unless you can help the students on the days that we’re actually here,” says one PPS Special Ed teacher who wishes to remain anonymous. “I know that resources are being cut, caseloads on Special Ed teachers are higher than they ever have been… There’s not even substitutes if they’re out sick, so you’re looking at Special Ed alone having more students to serve and less resources to serve them, which increases behavioral incidents, lower test scores, lower academics.”
However, this is not just a district problem. “[Special Ed] funding is a federal funding base that comes into the District, and then is dispersed through the District to us based on our number of kids. And that federal funding has dwindled,” explains Franklin High School Principal Juanita Valder. “That’s why we’re doing a lot more curriculum and mainstreaming of [Special Ed] students—because they should have a regular program. That’s the model that we’re kind of moving to, so that’s how they’re dispersing the funding. So, get them out there, push the teachers in. Get them out there in regular programming so we’re not doubling up or creating a whole little school within a school.”

While this strategy of involving high-needs students in regular classes may be helpful in some ways (data is inconclusive), Special Ed teachers are nonetheless in need of improved resources and funding. “Whenever a kid comes through the door, if they have an IEP [Individualized Education Program] we serve them—yes, absolutely… You can be a Special Ed teacher and have a caseload of students, but then you serve other students that you’re teaching in classes,” explains the anonymous Special Ed teacher. “So if your caseload is increasing, you’re doing paperwork and meetings and emails around all those students, plus you’re planning and teaching for other kids that aren’t even on your caseload… Instead of hiring more teachers or more support staff, we’re just expected to work with whoever walks through the door, and they expect us to do this in our seven-and-a-half hour day.” The teacher adds, “In a typical month, I bill for ten to twelve hours of overtime, but I don’t include staying after till four or five, just prepping for the next day, or talking to my colleagues, or problem solving and meeting about other students. I’d say on an average week, after my contract hours, I’m probably spending eight to ten [extra] hours.”

Can PPS contribute to its own Special Ed budget? “Yes and no,” says Valder. “Mostly no. This gets really technical, but it’s about what the federal government calls supplanting. We can’t have a Special Ed teacher teaching a regular ed class, or a regular ed teacher teaching a Special Ed class without certifications… so hiring a person becomes very costly. So if I hire a Special Ed teacher… I have to take [the money] out of regular ed classrooms.”

So how can the problem be addressed? The PAT believes not enough is being done by the District. In a bargaining brief released via their website on November 14, and entitled “Special Education in a Downward Spiral,” they state, “The District has no plan to stop this downward spiral, and they have refused to consider the various proposals PAT has put forward to stabilize, and potentially reverse, this situation.” The document goes on to list proposals they say would help Special Ed teachers manage workload, meet federal mandates, and improve teaching capacity. The brief criticizes the District, saying, “The IEP process is intended to be a space where educators collaboratively develop an individualized plan to meet each student’s needs. Unfortunately, IEP meetings are treated more like a box that administrators must check off. For years, the message from PPS administration has been clear: ‘We don’t write goals based on what we think students need, we write goals based on what we think we can afford.’ This has to stop.”

Michael Corenthal has been a Step Up advocate at Franklin for two years, but prior to that, he taught Special Ed in New York City. There he experienced many of the same problems PPS teachers are now facing. In response to challenges he faced as a special education teacher out of state, Corenthal says, “I think important resources would have been school administrators being familiar with Special Education services. Prep time for co-teachers in integrated co-teaching classes to co-plan. A commitment by the school district to meet the needs of students with special needs as indicated on their IEP’s.  For example, honoring class-size limitations, concrete plans to honor students’ testing accommodations, providing the services listed on a students’ IEP’s and communicating openly with families when those services aren’t being met.”

The anonymous Special Ed teacher adds,“What happens is generally these [Special Ed] kids are in a self-contained classroom up til’ eighth grade… But then when they come to high school, pretty much all of that’s taken away, and they’re expected to just be in a high school with 1,800 kids, with no support they didn’t have before. So I feel like more focus classrooms could be brought, I feel like more behavioral specialists should be brought in to the school.” He continues: “There’s never enough time. Everyone I work with this year is overworked, underpaid, feels like they’re underappreciated… I would just like them [the District] to take into consideration that when you’re a special education teacher, you wear more than one hat.”

With all these points of discussion, members of both bargaining teams have a lot on their plate. “Bargaining has definitely been going bad, and I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s gotten better, but we really had maybe our first breakthrough in our most recent bargaining session—not that we agreed on anything or settled on anything—but for the first time, the district had some proposals, and we started talking, which really hasn’t happened in quite some time,” says Cohen. “Both sides need to compromise and are willing to… I don’t know what the deal would be… Our position is not no extra days; our position is that we need to have better days before a longer year.”

All parties are looking for a productive solution that will leave both parties satisfied. “[We can] better fund schools, not for more teacher pay, but for better use of our time and ways to improve our practice,” says Stewart. Garrett expands, “[We can] push to have people elected that support teachers and public education.” With bargaining underway, many on both sides of the table are hopeful that a solution will emerge and disagreements will be settled, as it is in all parties’ interests to avoid a strike. Cohen states, “We just hope we come up with a deal that is fair and really starts prioritizing students.”

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