Portland teachers have never been on strike. Surprised? The district hasn’t lacked for rancor. As Oregon’s largest district it is often at the forefront of special education issues, grief over Race-To-The-Top and whatever else flavor-of-the-day “reform” is going on, union-bashing and contract meddling by corporate-owned Stand for Children (a huge factor in the Chicago teachers strike last year). Ten years ago Portland schools made for weeks’ worth of Doonesbury cartoon strips. That same year teachers agreed to give up 10 days of pay in order to help the district meet a budget shortfall.

But what about today?

The Portland Public Schools district started this bargaining session with 78 contract rollbacks, hiring multiple expensive consultants (starting at $180,000) to help them with the bargain with teachers. It has used its normal email newsletters to parents to send long screeds bashing the union and pretending to be victims beholden to a contract the district had co-authored over the last 30-40 years.

Now it has reduced the number of rollbacks to 61 or so, pretending that cutting a list of crazy stuff from 78 to 61 means it is being totally serious, you guys, about bargaining!

ImageMeanwhile, no school board members represent the district at the bargaining table. The H.R. director isn’t at the bargaining table. The superintendent isn’t there, either, but it’s typical for a superintendent to keep her/his distance during bargaining, all the better to swoop in and save the day when things get hot (like during the Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow strikes in spring 2012).

The district does not have anyone at the bargaining table capable of making a deal. The district’s lead bargainer at the table is clearly not able to act on the fly, and beholden to whomever is giving him marching orders and their convoluted strategy. Who is the puppetmaster? H.R. Director Sean Murray? High-priced consultant Yvonne Deckard?

It feels like the district is marking time to get to implementation and/or a strike as soon as possible. One speculates the district’s advisors are saying: “We can win this. The teachers will cave. Keep dragging this out. And, oh, by the way, dragging this out means you need to pay me more money.”

The bonus comedy in this rabbit hole? District finances are okay. That’s a good thing. Schools are underfunded, but the district is not in dire financial distress yet is going after a whole bunch of working conditions stuff just because it wants to.

As the pressure increases, will the public side with the teachers they trust every day, or with central office administrators, board members, and consultants plainly checked out of the bargaining process?