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Portland teachers rally as PPS impasse sours labor talks

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland teachers rallied Friday afternoon at the east end of the Burnside Bridge to call attention to stalled labor talks with Portland Public Schools. PPS board members declared an impassed this week in the negotiations.Portland teachers took their case to the public with a Friday afternoon rush hour rally calling attention to the bargaining impasse declared this week by the Portland School Board.

Hundreds of teachers, parents and community members waved signs along the east end of the Burnside Bridge and then gathered with speakers and public officials at the Bossanova Ballroom.

“The School Board’s reckless and abrupt end to mediation sends a clear message that they would rather force a strike and shut the schools doors on our students than work together with teachers,” said Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.

Portland Public Schools declared impasse with its teachers’ union Wednesday morning, a month after starting to work with a state mediator and seven months after beginning contract negotiations.

“We hope impasse will spur both sides to address these issues and reach a settlement in a timely manner,” said Sean Murray, PPS chief human resources officer. “Contract talks that go on for months or years disrupt schools and hurt students.”

The Portland Association of Teachers isn’t happy with the move, calling it “dangerous and reckless,” and creating a “false crisis.”

“The board is sending a clear message that they would rather force a strike and shut the schools doors on our students than work together with teachers,” Sullivan said in a statement. “As we enter into the holiday season, the Board’s gift to Portland students and their families is a huge lump of coal. Their actions threaten the future of our public schools.”

PPS leaders say the impasse can help focus bargaining teams on reaching a final agreement.

In 2010, PPS and PAT went to impasse after nearly two years of bargaining, and the sides then reached a settlement weeks later.

Once impasse is reached, the two sides have seven days to submit their final contract offers and cost estimates to a mediator. The mediator will make both offers public.

That starts a 30-day cooling off period during which the sides may continue bargaining. If there is no agreement after 30 days, the school board may implement conditions of its final offer, and teachers may choose to strike. Bargaining continues through this period until a settlement is reached.

PPS says the two sides remain far apart, reaching agreement on just five of the 27 contract articles and $200 million apart from each sides’ compensation offers.

PPS put a new proposal on the table on Monday that would have formed a collaborative work group to address teacher workload issues. But PAT rejected the offer.

Parents have been watching the negotiations play out.

Portland parent Bruce Scherer faulted PPS leaders with their approach to the bargaining process at last week’s school board meeting.

He said that except for two board members who’ve attended the bargaining sessions, “there is no one on the bargaining table on the district’s side with the power to get a deal. No superintendent, no HR director, no legal counsel, no board member. This is very unusual. To me this seems the district is not taking bargaining seriously.”

He said the district is instead relying on the advice of a paid consultant, Yvonne Deckard, who is “pulling the strings for the district.

Scherer asked the board to take greater ownership in the negotiations.

If teachers strike, he said, “we parents don’t want picket lines but we will support teachers on picket lines and support them at rallies. We will not support paying Yvonne Deckard more money.”