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Oregon's Assault on Teachers

For all the talk of budget shortfalls, the crisis facing Oregon's schools is political, not financial -- and teachers are the target of choice.

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Oregon teachers are valiantly resisting an unprecedented attack on their schools and unions. Over the last month, teachers in four Oregon school districts have voted to go on strike, while other locals face painful budget cuts that will have a devastating effect on our schools.

As of May 21, the Reynolds Education Association, east of Portland, is set to become the third Oregon Education Association local to be pushed to strike in the last month. Negotiations in Reynolds have gone on for over a year with little movement from the school board.

A week before the strike date, the school board refused to return to the bargaining table until the Reynolds Education Association brought a proposal that costs less than $4 million, half the cost of the unions' current proposal. The school board, like everywhere in Oregon is claiming a budget crisis, but in Reynolds, the district has $20 million in reserves.

There is certainly plenty of money for those at the top. The superintendent's office, which includes her assistant, received a 10 percent salary increase in the recent budget cycle. Administrators' pay increased by 2 percent last year. Meanwhile, over the last two years, certified and classified staff has been cut to finance these raises.

Many other issues are on the table that have a lot more to do with union-busting than financial concerns. The board wants the ability to fire teachers based on one anonymous written or verbal complaint. It also wants to eliminate all planning time from student contact hours. In addition, the board hopes to eliminate professional development days and add instruction days, with no additional compensation. Other issues include whether or not teachers should see student information concerning past safety, behavioral or criminal reports.

The board also wants to be able to use biased student test scores in teacher evaluations, forbid teachers to take emergency leave days around holidays and ignore seniority as a factor in layoffs. Finally, school officials want the power to reopen the contract any time they say they are suffering financial constraints.

The list of non-financial issues, in addition to the ultimatum from the school board, has made it clear the school district wants to push the union into a strike. In the aftermath of an eight-day strike in Eagle Point, in Southern Oregon, the Reynolds school board probably thinks a strike will turn the community against the union.

But that wasn't the experience of Eagle Point teachers, who said they had more community support, not less. And in the Reynolds district, just last week, 200 teachers and community supporters picketed outside and booed and hissed at the school board meeting.

The battle in Reynolds could be a turning point for Oregon teachers after several concessionary contracts negotiated over the last month. The district has a $20 million surplus, nearly three times the budget carryover recommended by the Oregon School Board Association, which gives Reynolds teachers leverage that other locals facing budget crises don't have.

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The first two locals to vote to strike were also in the Portland metropolitan area--the Parkrose Faculty Association and the Gresham-Barlow Education Association.

Parkrose teachers reached a tentative agreement just one day before they were scheduled to strike in late April. Gresham-Barlow teachers reached a tentative agreement barely three hours into their strike on April 25 after hundreds of community supporters turned out the night before to a solidarity protest.

Both unions are taking large concessions. Parkrose teachers are giving up 21 furlough days over three years, though some days could be restored in the third year if public school enrollment increases. Teachers will get only half their experienced-based step raises during the three-year contract, while getting no cost-of-living increases.

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