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Union makes big concession by withdrawing proposal to cap class sizes

The Portland Association of Teachers removed class size caps – one of the most expensive, publicly popular and politically controversial elements of their demands – from their most recent bargaining proposal submitted Thursday.

This major concession from the union could pave the way for a settlement with the school district and an end to a strike that had already cost students 10 days of school and their teachers 12 days of pay on Thursday.

School will not reopen until Monday, Nov. 27 at the earliest, district officials announced Thursday, and parent-teacher conferences scheduled for next week have been postponed indefinitely.

Union leaders have been pushing for class sizes to be capped, telling their members as recently as Wednesday evening that the two sides remain “far apart” on the issue.

But the phrase “class size cap” was crossed out in the union’s latest proposal on workload issues Thursday afternoon. Instead, the Portland Association of Teachers proposed a significant increase in excess pay that teachers receive when the number of students in their class, or in their caseload, exceeds a certain threshold.

For example, under the current contract, a kindergarten teacher with more than 24 students in their class receives a 3 percent increase in their base salary for each student above that number. Under the proposal the union presented to the district Thursday, that increase would increase to a 5 percent increase for the first student and a 10 percent increase for each additional student in elementary school, as well as similar increases for five students added to middle and high school. levels.

The threshold that triggers the salary overage is 26 students in grades 1-3 and 28 students in grades 4-5 and 6 in K-8 schools. At the middle school level, teachers can supervise up to 150 students before pay surpluses come into effect, while the workload threshold at high school is set at 160.

Currently, the district spends between $2 million and $3 million a year in excess salary. It was not immediately clear Thursday how much salary surplus the district would have to spend under the union’s proposal because they did not include cost estimates. District budget analysts were crunching numbers to determine the cost Thursday evening, according to district spokesman Will Howell.

Declining enrollment levels, driven by lower birth rates, rising house prices, and the pandemic flight to homeschooling and private schools, have complicated the class size situation in recent years . In some schools, they have led to class sizes well below the thresholds. In others, so many students have left school that grade levels that once could accommodate — for example — three classes of 23 students each now have two classes of more than 30 students each.

Meeting the class size and caseload caps requested by the union in the latest round of proposals would have cost the district about $100 million over two years, starting in the 2024-25 school year, and would require hiring more than 350 educators, according to the district’s analysis.

District negotiators and the school board have consistently said they oppose strict class size caps, both because of the financial implications and because they want to retain the flexibility needed to maintain size smallest classes in high-needs, high-poverty schools.

But in their most recent counterproposal Wednesday, they proposed forming a joint committee with teachers to focus on the class size issue, which could include discussions about redefining attendance boundaries to balance enrollment in city schools.

The proposal presented Thursday by the union retains language that would allow the formation of a class size committee in each school, as needed. These committees would be composed of a union representative, the teacher concerned, the principal, an assistant superintendent or his representative and two parents, appointed either by the PTA or, failing that, by the principal and by the representative building union.

The school class size committee would meet to discuss potential solutions for classes above the threshold, such as adding support from reading specialists.

The state’s teachers union has tried unsuccessfully for several years to get lawmakers to agree to make capping class sizes a mandatory subject of negotiation. They faced opposition from advocacy groups that represent school boards and superintendents.

—Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman, jsilverman@oregonian.com

Coverage of the latest strike

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