UPDATED: East County Teachers Back to Work

Photo by Paul

UPDATED at 10:10 a.m.

According to a report from Occupy Portland Labor Solidarity committee, teachers and the school district have reached a tentative agreement and are going back to work at 10 a.m. this morning.

By Emily Crum and Adam Sanchez

After months at the negotiating table with intransigent school boards, 550 teachers from the Gresham-Barlow Education Association went on strike today, April 25, 2012. Earlier this month, the Reynolds Education Association declared impasse in their negotiations, opening the possibility that another 600 teachers could strike in the coming weeks.

The Parkrose Faculty Association, a smaller local teachers union that had also voted to go on strike, settled their contract this week after a strong show of community support. On April 17, more than 50 supporters of Parkrose teachers crowded an emergency school board meeting, held at 8:45 a.m., a time when most teachers and community members could not attend. The meeting ended with unanimous board support for ending negotiations and implementing the school board’s final offer and a shower of “shame on you!” from community members in attendance.

Less than a week later, the school board reached a settlement with the Parkrose Faculty Association. Though details about the settlement will be released in the coming days, it is unlikely the school board would have returned to the table without community pressure. This is what it will take to win a fair contract for the other two locals facing a strike.

Gresham-Barlow and Reynolds Education Association are both still facing a freeze in teacher pay and benefits. In addition, the Gresham school board is asking teachers to take five unpaid furlough days.

But the struggle in East Multnomah County isn’t only about defending a decent standard of living for teachers.

Joyce Rosenau, president of the Reynolds Education Association, emphasized that the budget shortfalls are being used as a pretext for attacking non-fiscal parts of the contract. “We have lots of issues in our contract–that have nothing to do with money–that are under attack now,” she explained. “And so we find that they use the financial excuse as a chance to attack other pieces of the contract.”

In both districts, teachers are facing a reduction in preparation time, and in Reynolds, the school board is demanding the removal of contract language that requires any preparation time for teachers during the school day. In Gresham, counselors at all grade levels would be required to substitute for teachers up to two hours a day. The Gresham school board also wants to erode teachers’ collective voice by removing the requirement that the district take staff input when changing the structure of the school day.

In addition, both Associations are facing attacks on job security. In Gresham, the school board wants the authority to lay off teachers according to “competency”, rather than seniority. In Reynolds, the school board wants to be able to use anonymous complaints as justification for disciplining or terminating teachers.

There are, of course, answers to the districts’ fiscal problems that don’t involve solving the budget crisis on the backs of teachers.

In Gresham-Barlow, the district has cut certified school staff positions by 14 percent since 2008, while at the same time doubling the number of administrators in the district office.

In Reynolds, the school board presses for a salary freeze with $20 million sitting in their coffers, largely due to previous salary freezes. Fiscal responsibility is the school board’s mantra, but this represents a carryover of 20 percent, against the advised Oregon School Board Association budget carryover of 6 to 8 percent. Meanwhile, the school board plans to increase the salary of the new superintendent and assistant superintendent slated to be hired this spring.

While schools and public services across Oregon have felt the painful cuts of the budget ax, Oregon’s 1 percent continue to thrive. The number of millionaire households in Oregon – which could easily cover the East Multnomah County school budget deficit and still be millionaires – is expected to increase by 164 percent before 2020.

Additionally, large corporations could easily fill the budget hole of every school district in the state. The legislature is currently underfunding school districts statewide by $2.79 billion based on recommendations of the legislatively-established Quality Education Commission. Not coincidentally, there are 68 large corporations in the state that pay no net income tax, while reporting collective pre-tax profits of $117 billion.

Those pushing for cuts to education want you to believe that greedy teachers are simply trying to take money from other workers. As Gresham-Barlow school board member Dan Chriestenson recently posted on the Multnomah County Republicans’ Facebook page, “I view a vote to strike as profoundly offensive and disrespectful to the hardworking families who continue to pay the bills for the district in this down economy”.

In Chriestenson’s world, the contract he and his fellow school board members unilaterally imposed on teachers is not “profoundly offensive and disrespectful” to the working families whose children’s education will suffer as a result. The real issue for him is the fact that teachers are preparing to fight these attacks.

What Chriestenson conveniently leaves out is the fact that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. With endless budget cuts, students have fewer resources in the classroom and less support from education assistants and counselors. Increases in class sizes leave every child behind. Many students no longer have the joy of music classes, instruction in physical education or access to the library–all of which have proven to be supportive of student learning.

Further, the loss of prep time hinders educator ability to provide the differentiated and creative instruction required to meet various student needs. It also takes time away from educators to connect with families, collaborate with peers and attend meetings on behalf of students. In addition, the loss of protective language for educators will create an environment of fear in our schools, silencing the educator’s voice for student advocacy and academic freedom.

But budget-slashers like Chriestenson are hoping working families will overlook these facts and side with school boards against teacher unions.

This outlook echoes the national attack on public sector unions. Rather than point the finger at the bankers, corporate executives or politicians who paved the way for the economic crisis, and the state budget shortfalls that have accompanied it, conservatives like Chriestenson want you to believe that it is greedy public-sector workers who are to blame.

This argument is part of an effort to divide private-sector workers from public-sector workers in order to lower the standard of living for all workers. The U.S. elite has set its sights on competing with the world’s rising economies of China, India and the rest of Asia. That means drastically lowering worker pay here to compete with China’s low-wage working class. In order to accomplish this, America’s rulers need to crush any organized force within the U.S. working class. Breaking the teachers’ unions, the largest single sector of unionized workers in the country, is a key part of that strategy.

The attack on teachers and other workers is intertwined with the assault on public education. While the government has lent, committed, or guaranteed $13 trillion to the banks, and spent trillions on wars overseas, the stimulus package only included about $140 billion in aid to the states, roughly the same size as Wall Street paid out in bonuses in 2009.

As cash-strapped states look to the federal government for help, all they see is $4.3 billion in Race to the Top funds. President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan made states compete for these grants by using eligibility requirements that further the agenda of testing and privatization through the creation of charter schools. And because state governments typically cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, putting the majority of the tax burden on the middle and working classes during the neoliberal boom, most states are now facing gaping holes in their budgets, as unemployment and foreclosures rise.

The attack on workers and education is a bipartisan effort. By picking Duncan to run the Department of Education, Obama made it clear that his administration is no advocate for public education. More than 300,000 educator jobs have been lost since 2008. If teachers and other workers hope to defend public education and a decent standard of living for the U.S. working class, we will need to use our most powerful weapon–the strike.

For too long, we have we sat by while “shared sacrifice” has meant the rich get richer while we suffer. If there is any hope for the children in our communities–and if we want them to have a future that isn’t confined to poverty, unemployment, debt and despair–we need to teach them the real power that working people have to defend ourselves. We need to teach them there is power in solidarity–that when we fight injustice, others will rally to help.

This is why students, parents, and working people from all over Oregon should be prepared to head to the picket lines starting April 25. Support our schools, defend our teachers!

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