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Our Opinion: Today's labor lesson: Avoid a strike

Neither the Portland Association of Teachers nor the Portland Public Schools administration professes to want a strike. Neither side has anything to gain from an actual teacher walkout.

So, it is encouraging to see this week that the two sides in this prolonged contract dispute are talking extensively and at least starting to compare the data on which they base their conflicting negotiating positions.

Before late last week, contract negotiations appeared headed in an unfortunate direction. The Portland School Board had declared an impasse, teachers had filed an unfair labor complaint against the district and the clock was ticking toward a possible forced contract implementation and strike vote.

During separate editorial board meetings with the Portland Tribune during the past two weeks, we also heard just how far apart the two sides were — not just on the issues, but also on a basic understanding of the dollars and cents of their proposals.

With mediation continuing into this week, it’s too early at this writing to say the possibility of a strike has evaporated. Yet, both sides have backed off their fiercest rhetoric and seem focused on solutions.

We have tremendous sympathy for teachers in Portland and elsewhere who are being asked to handle ever-larger class sizes and at the same time take their students to new heights of rigor and achievement. In some cases, it’s a nearly impossible job.

It’s also unreasonable, however, to think the district will have the financial ability in the long term to provide generous raises, maintain the cost of current employee benefits and pay extra compensation to teachers whose class sizes exceed a certain limit, as teachers propose.

Although it’s true that PPS is in better financial shape than most Oregon school districts, over time the union’s proposals taken in full would drain the district’s finances, leading to fewer teachers — and, you guessed it, even larger class sizes.

This relationship between overall employee compensation, available resources and class sizes is just one reason why these contract talks have taken longer than in the past. As noted in a Dec. 5 article in the Portland Tribune, there is a better way to work through these issues and conduct future contract negotiations. Interest-based bargaining has been successful in other school districts and should be pursued as well by the Portland district.

In the meantime, a holiday gift for Portland schoolchildren would be for the adults on both sides to continue the progress being made and reach agreement without further discussion of deadlocks and strikes.