Momentum stalls after district says union’s cost estimates on class sizes are way off – US 247 News


What appeared to be a major breakthrough in talks between the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools to end the prolonged 11-day strike fizzled Wednesday when budget analysts for the school district said the union failed to account for nearly $100 million in costs.

That raises the prospect that students will be out of school from Nov. 1 through Nov. 27, as classes are canceled for Thursday and only scheduled for Friday, with no school next week.

Union leaders elected Tuesday they had decreased the costs of their requests to lower class sizes and educator workloads by nearly $100 million over three years. But the fine points of their latest request suggest that the union did not factor in its proposed limits on middle and high school teachers’ student caseloads as well as those for school psychologists, social workers, school counselors and bilingual educators, The Oregonian/OregonLive determined .

The Portland Association of Teachers did not provide updated staffing or financial information Wednesday.

The union did modify its requests in other ways that reduced the cost of its proposals by $30 million. That included giving up $7 million for retirement stabilization costs and $5 million from bonuses intended for special education teachers, who will instead get to keep four paid days for paperwork completion.

Class sizes and student loads are a central — but not the only — sticking point in the last negotiations. Late Tuesday, in to memo to members, the union’s bargaining team said it would be possible to cap elementary class sizes and caseloads for middle and high school teachers at the levels the union wants for only $6.6 million over the life of the three-year contract. That is far less than the district has estimated.

District budget analysts poured cold water on that assertion Wednesday. They said the union’s cost estimates failed to account for its requests for middle school teachers to have no more than 165 students per year and for high school teachers to have no more than 175.

More significantly, in terms of costs, they also said the union had failed to factor in the cost of its proposals for reduced caseloads for school psychologists, social workers, speech language pathologists and multilingual specialists.

District officials estimated it will cost $97 million to meet those caseload and class size caps, about $90 million more than the union said, leaving the two sides still around $200 million apart, according to the district’s calculations.

PAT President Angela Bonilla disputed that math in a text message to The Oregonian/OregonLive on Wednesday. She said the union’s $6.6 million cost estimate is enough to cover its class size and caseload proposals for the 2024-2025 and 2025-2026 school years.

On Tuesday, PAT shared a spreadsheet with the district laying out exactly where it expected to see class size relief at the elementary school level. The bulk of the 37 extra teachers that the union estimated would be needed would go to non-Title I schools to bring down class sizes in grades two through five. In some cases, those classes are as large as 36, as in a fifth grade class at Vernon K-8 in Northeast Portland.

The bulk of the schools on the union’s list to get class size relief are high performing schools in well-off neighborhoods, including Maplewood and Ainsworth in Southwest Portland, Duniway in Southeast Portland and Alameda in Northeast Portland. Richmond Elementary, a magnet school for Japanese immersion serving relatively well-off families, would get six new teachers under the union’s proposal, the most of any school.

Renard Adams, the district’s director of research, accountability and assessment, said he believes PAT correctly estimated what it would cost to add that many extra classroom teachers to elementary schools.

Where his team believes the union erred, he said, was in failing to include the costs of adding educators elsewhere, primarily in high schools and for mental and behavioral health supports.

The teachers union has proposed big caseload reductions for those specialists. For example, the union is advocating for one school counselor for every 350 students; The current ratios are 1:525 in elementary school, 1:475 in middle school and 1:400 in high school.

To meet the proposed caseload caps, Adams said, the district would have to hire 48 school social workers, 23 more speech language pathologists and 48 school psychologists, among other non-classroom specialists, Adams said. None of those were included in the union’s cost estimate, he said.

The union’s Tuesday night proposal did include two clauses intended to leave some wiggle room for the district.

First, the union proposed empowering a committee at each school to decide to waive class size caps in favor of other, less costly options, such as having a reading specialist help in the class at times. Those committees would consist of a union representative, the affected classroom teacher, the principal, an assistant superintendent or their proxy and two parents, appointed by either the PTA or, if there is not one, by the principal and by the building’s union representative.

The school-based class size committee would be called on to decide whether a student could be added to a class that was scheduled to be over a certain threshold.

Adams said it’s his understanding that the language originated from the contract between teachers and the school district in St. Paul, Minn., so his team reached out to administrators there for feedback.

“They told us these class size committees are divisive, that they pit families against families, families against educators,” he said. And he said contacts there suggested that it has made it difficult for St. Paul to right-size its schools, leaving some perpetually under-rolled schools always on the edge of closure.

PAT’s other concession on class size in Tuesday’s proposal was to write into their proposed contract that if the district had to exceed the caps because of funding shortages, it could but would be required to inform families and caregivers of the situation within a week.

The two sides were continuing to bargain Wednesdays. Thursday will mark the 10th day out of school for students and the 12th day without pay for educators.

Thursday is also the day when the district will notify teachers that, under their current contract, they are no longer eligible for district-paid health insurance as of Dec. 1, since they have now missed more than half of their paid working days or holidays for the month. The Oregon Education Association is set to begin paying health insurance costs for Portland educators through the federal COBRA program, at a cost of an estimated $5.1 million per month.

The state teachers union has tried for several years, without success, to get legislators to agree to make class size caps a mandatory topic of bargaining. They’ve met opposition from advocacy groups that represent school boards and superintendents.

District negotiators and the school board have consistently said that they oppose hard class size caps, both because of the financial implications and because they want to retain the flexibility to keep class sizes smaller at high needs, high poverty schools.

Friday is the last remaining school day for students before the Thanksgiving break. Teachers had been scheduled to conduct parent-teacher conferences during the day and evening Monday and Tuesday, working enough overtime to make Wednesday a paid day off.

Parent Hannah Ford, whose son is in a classroom at Alameda Elementary for students with especially complex social, emotional, physical and academic needs, said she was anguished over the prolonged closures. Every morning since Nov. 1, she said, her son has woken up and asked — via the device he uses to communicate, since he is non-verbal — if today he will be going back to school.

“I have to let him know, ‘Not today,’” Ford said. “I just keep saying ‘I hope so. I hope so.’”

—Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman,

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