School Board


Bucking the Southern Oregon trend, Medford teachers ended their 11 day strike strong. Portland teachers got within two days of a strike and got a fair deal according to leaked details. What are some of the lessons to learn this February 2014?

1.) District consultants often don’t know or don’t care what they’re doing, no matter how expensive they are.
The Medford school district hired lawyer Kelly Noor, and allegedly this was her first education contract bargain, and possibly first labor bargain. Psst: it didn’t go well. BONUS: Noor is rumored to be assisting the Eugene school district in its upcoming bargain with Eugene teachers. Better luck with the second bargain! BONUS BONUS: Noor is from the same law firm as Paul Dakopolos, whose first bargain was the five-day Reynolds strike in 2012 where the employees essentially prevailed. If you’re a school district hiring from the Garrett Hemann Robertson law firm featuring Bruce Zagar, hold on to your receipt!

Yvonne Deckard, a personal friend of the Portland superintendent who got an extravagant $15,000/month no-bid contract for lousy work with little accounting for her time, dragged the Portland bargain on and on to her benefit. “What’s that, Portland? I can’t hear you over the sound of my swelling bank account!”

Medford Superintendent Phil Long talks with a striking teacher. From the Medford School District 549C Facebook Page

Medford Superintendent Phil Long talks with a striking teacher. From the Medford School District 549C Facebook Page

2.) Strategy that looks good in PowerPoint may fail in real life.
Austerity measures aren’t working nowadays in Oregon districts. Thinking teachers will accept any-old-proposal because there’s a perceived recession won’t work, especially when you’re obnoxious about it. The Portland school district had 78 contract rollbacks in its proposal. Medford came to the table with 118. They were excited. Both escalated the bargains at every possible step except for the strike votes taken by teachers. Consultants clapped their hands: This is gonna be great! Teachers will be glad to just have jobs and you can make them crawl! Board members and superintendents nod their heads and smirk: This will work! This slide on the screen written by a mediocre law firm says it will work! That’s, like, as solid as a mathematical proof! People can’t just put anything into a PowerPoint, right? There’s a vetting process, right? Awesome!

3.) If your job is representing the public, don’t hide from the public.
The Portland school board refused to participate in bargaining. Or, maybe, they paid money to be told to not participate by Deckard and went “Fine by me! What could go wrong with public school board members elected by the public refusing to represent the public interest at the public school district bargaining table?” (Add more uses of “public” in that sentence if you want.)

Not only did Portland school board member Greg Belisle allegedly take a stash of 100 pink flamingos, installed on his lawn by a business as a prank, to the dump. Belisle also setup an auto-reply to emails from the public that if they were emailing him about bargaining, he would put those messages in the trash, too!

The Medford school board canceled public meetings with the strike. Then they stopped taking phone calls and emails from the public. To its credit, though, the Medford school board did have some members on the bargaining team. Complicating matters – the school board summarily voted to dismiss their longtime superintendent earlier this school year. Superintendent Phil Long soon after announced his retirement. But, as the strike rolled on, the fractious school board with a newbie lawyer needed the superintendent to get them a deal. Awkward!

Happily for Long, this gave him an opportunity to have daily press conferences, sometimes more often than daily (surely reporters were thrilled by his persistent calls and his personal tours to schools that kept turning away parents at the door), and assemble an audition reel for whatever he wants to try to do next.

GREAT OPPORTUNITY! Districts facing a strike usually trumpet to potential replacement workers. MAKE SUPER-DUPER MONEY! MAKE NEW FRIENDS! BECOME A HERO TO A CITY FULL OF PARENTS AND FAMILIES IN A TIME OF DURESS!

Letter from HR Director Sean Murray promising big bucks and good times for scabbing.

Letter from HR Director Sean Murray promising big bucks and good times for scabbing.

Facing a potential strike (though now a grown-up for the district is finally at the table instead of middle managers), Portland Public Schools has been trying to harvest replacement teachers. How? Promises of BIG BUCKS and, less smoove-ly, trying to tell Portland subs that the healthcare benefits they so treasure for themselves and family may STOP if they don’t and … YOU MAY NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN!

In a complaint reported on by  Oregonlive.com, Senior PPS HR administrator Patty Blanchard has told Portland subs:

Substitutes who decline to work during a lawful teacher strike are voluntarily limiting themselves to less than fully available, thus putting their eligibility for District-paid insurance coverage the following year at risk

Additionally, a district spokeswoman told KATU that subs who go on strike would be deleted from the district’s database.

Why, who wouldn’t find that a charming sales pitch? WOW! I can be a hero to my community, all about the kids,  and appease the district acting at me like a hostage taker? Cool!

Two big problems for the district here:

1.) Subs can refuse any request to work. Just because they get a phone call or an email about an opening does not oblige them to jump in and fill it.

2.) Subs in Portland Public Schools actually have their own contract that lets them choose to not have to work in the event of a strike. Article 7 E reads (p. 16):

a substitute on either list [master substitute list or restricted substitute list] may remove himself/herself from further assignment during a period of a lawful work stoppage by regular teachers by notifying the District in writing.

BeatingsCatDistricts must be fiscally responsible. As the employer, allowing the work stoppage of a strike to shut things down usually increases public pressure on the district. Districts naturally work to find ways to keep doors open to compel the striking workers into feeling more disposable and thus more amenable to making concessions at the bargaining table. See? Schools work just fine without you! Be lucky you may still have a job after you guys sign this new contract with more things that we want.

There’s doing the usual district thing and tenderizing employees, and then there’s threatening them in ways that not only break standard practice, but existing employee contracts. An unfair labor practice has been filed against PPS for these actions against the substitutes. Will it hold? Tough to say, but the sub contract language above is pretty clear.

But, why let contracts get in the way of PPS? Paying attention to good strategy and sensible policy does not help $15,000/month PPS consultant Yvonne Deckard prolong this bargain needlessly (except for her needs, and she’s personal friends with the superintendent). While district finances are stable (though still underfunded) – heck, the district recently realized another $20 million dollars in unexpected tax revenue – why use THAT to get a sensible deal for all parties? Indeed, wrapping this up and ratcheting down the tension in Oregon’s largest city will not help Yvonne Deckard get paid! Deckard boasts she can break the union to make a name for herself and by gosh, she’s going to do it. So, cram it, Portland!

Corporate lickspittle, union-basher, and CEO of Stand for Children Jonah Edelman

Corporate lickspittle, union-basher, and CEO of Stand for Children Jonah Edelman

Yet, the district’s ongoing missteps in understanding its own employee contracts and bargaining itself may point to more garbage advice than just one person. Bad legal in-house legal counsel? More consulting firms? Oregon School Boards Association? Confederation of Oregon School Administrators? Education amateurs in Portland Business Association or Oregon Business Association? The corporate-funded Stand for Children that brought about the Chicago teachers strike? Are right-wing trolls in online forums now running the district?

Despite the district’s stumbling attempts at villainy, KATU shows that these two substitute teachers aren’t falling for it.

The Medford teachers have voted for a strike (but have not yet set a date), the potential of a strike looms in Portland, and the community of Warrenton has an escalating bargaining crisis.

Oregonlive.com (do we call it The Oregonian anymore? is it a newspaper anymore?) takes a look at what Oregon districts had to do during various strikes in 2012 in its story “What would a Portland teachers strike look like?

Short answer: you’ll have to close for a few days and then… it’s all up in the air.

Three strikes happened in 2012: Reynolds, Gresham-Barlow, and Eagle Point. Statements from the first two districts in the story are mild. The comments from Eagle Point Superintendent Cynda Rickert are disingenuous: “Until the last minute, we also believed we wouldn’t have a strike.” Yeah, uhm, no. Rickert was very much gunning for a strike, behaving much like the Portland school district’s $15,000/month “consultant” Yvonne Deckard who has been dragging out the Portland bargain and gunning for the Portland Association of Teachers to make a name for herself as a union buster and charge her next client even more. And Deckard is personal friends with superintendent Carole Smith through Open Meadow school, Smith’s previous job. Cozy, eh?

Things Rickert and her administrators did that escalated tensions up to a strike:

  1. Telling educators on disability they must cross the picket line and return for ‘light duty’ or else lose their disability.
  2. Using Craigslist to offer more than normal sub pay for replacements to work 5 hour shifts.
  3. Asking teachers to write 10 days worth of lesson plans before they check out for the strike. Without getting time to plan their lessons anyway.
  4. Days before the strike date, asking every employee to check out and to take personal belongings home, turn in keys, and computers. Some told to turn in their textbooks as well. All this instead of putting its energy into bargaining seriously.
  5. Principals polling individual educators about their plans to strike or not, attempting to coerce employees into not striking.
  6. Telling educators they may not speak to parents or students about bargaining issues at all, any location or time, not just as school.
  7. Claiming publicly to be willing to meet to continue bargaining with educators, but consistently refusing to meet beyond the mandates of the limited availability of the state mediator.

Thankfully, aside from Deckard, things have not escalated to that level of absurdity in Portland. The superintendent, finally, is sitting at the table instead of leaving district bargaining to middle managers without the power to get a deal. Unfortunately, $15,000/month Deckard is still dragging things out instead of getting booted for lousy advice.

Medford, though, has escalated. Medford teachers have voted to strike with a 95% approval rate. They have filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the district (literally, making a federal case out of it). Where Portland Board members have been absent and lazy, the Medford school district has been antagonistic.

The Gresham-Barlow strike only lasted three hours because community and student support for the teachers was strong. The superintendent’s home was picketed, too, which caused a family member to become distressed (people out of work = no big deal, but when folks see people on their sidewalk THEN it gets real), then that person made a phone call to the superintendent, and a fair deal was reached quickly. There was a reasonable cast of characters on both sides of the table in Gresham-Barlow.

FlamingosOn the topic of breaking into personal space: three Portland school board members had their lawns “flocked” by a business that puts 100 pink flamingos on a lawn with messages like “settle the flocking contract”. Two board members took it in stride (must have been a jarring thing to see) and contacted the business to retrieve its flamingos (business contact info was on the flamingos). One board member, Greg Belisle, discarded the flamingos. Presumably taking them to the dump. Oh, our kingdom for a photo of Belisle toting an armful of pink flamingos to the garbage!

Reynolds had a few tea party nutbags and low-rent failed politicos on the school board who wanted to take the teachers down. They failed. Reynolds teachers got a better contract than was on the table before the strike, and the tea party/sad-sack politician board members got crow.

How should Portland avoid a strike? Get rid of Deckard who only benefits the longer this escalates. She is a pal of the superintendent, of no value, and cratering public trust and relations for the school district. Keep the superintendent at the table so the grown-ups can talk. Add some board members whose purpose is to represent the public interest.

How should Medford avoid a strike? Stop acting like Eagle Point. Respect your educators and realize you will have to work with these same people for years. The lawyer whispering in your ear that you will get everything you want (dreamy! tell me more, you smooth-talker, you!) will evaporate after the bargain wraps up. You will have to live with the aftermath and shattered morale.

Portland & Medford – you’ve got the brains and resources. Get a fair deal. Don’t join the list of Oregon education strikes on this website.

Eagle Point students walking out of class to support their teachers on the picket line:

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?

In Eagle Point, a city official, board members, and administrators were trying to guess who was posting about them. They assumed it was someone in their ranks.

Gresham-Barlow administrators were playing the same guessing game about who the blogger was in their midst. One of the people holding up a sign making grouchy faces at them during board meetings? A person they pass by in the grocery store? A fellow board member who dresses in costume before sitting at the computer?

Reynolds school board members make stuff up online and try to browbeat confessions (resembling Eric Idle’s “ya know what I mean, eh?” Monty Python character)  to figure out who in Reynolds has been posting this entire blog.

It’s revealing about human nature that all these people across the state (we note Parkrose is NOT obsessed in this way – must be more well-adjusted there) think it’s someone in THEIR community, perhaps someone THEY KNOW. Their focus is on not reflecting on their own ill deeds, but to root out a conspiracy.

Vanity makes these people lose track of the variety of geography these few posts have taken on. They lose track of just how small this corner of the internet is.

The answer(s) is/are truly boring. But externalizing personal bad behavior into some conspiracy is easier and more self-aggrandizing than trying to learn to not be such a jerk in the future.

Oregon educators who belong to unions should be proud of how things played out this spring. They fought against a coordinated strategy by districts to use financial factors as an excuse to overreach and attack contract protections. Facing tight financial budgets(ish) (except in Reynolds) ALL ended up with stronger contracts and better public support and a sense of collective power.

Back to Reynolds…

It was not long ago that we expressed our dismay at the new crop of Oregon school district leaders taking the helms of complex contract negotiations with little or no knowledge of how to get a deal done. The teachers in Reynolds have finished the second day of their strike, and it seems that inexperienced district leaders are not the only problem Reynolds teachers face.  The Reynolds Board has actually hired a lead bargainer who doesn’t seem to know how to find a deal.

Word on the street is that Reynolds Board attorney Paul Dakopolos is more seasoned on the litigation front and unseasoned when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of contract negotiations.  This might not be a problem if he was negotiating a contract re-opener in Jordan Valley, but strike negotiations in Reynolds, of all places, is a whole other story.

Let’s face it. The Reynolds Board needs some help. Their recent history is notorious.  Other area teachers tell us that it is not uncommon for districts in the region to preface statements with things like “At least we’re not as bad as Reynolds…” The Reynolds Board needs reasonable and experienced leadership. It is possible that some of the more seasoned contract negotiators passed on the chance to lead this Board because they saw the writing on the wall.  Who knows?  What is clear is that it is time for the community in Reynolds to stand up and demand that the Board put the brakes on their newest train wreck.

We’re not eternally pessimistic. There was one time in NFL history that a first year starting quarterback actually led his team to Super Bowl victory after a train wreck of a season the year before. Does Paul Dakopolos have what it takes to channel Kurt Warner?  Probably not. The Reynolds Board does seem like they are running a circus at times, but they’re definitely not the Greatest Show on Turf.

The Eagle Point educators and the school district reached a tentative agreement early this morning. While the details aren’t being shared out yet, it’s difficult to know whether the union-busting tactics by the administrators held, or were rebuffed (based on the student walk-outs and public demonstrations of support for educators, we’re guessing mostly rebuffed).

One thing that IS certain: a woodchuck (prairie dog? chupacabra? noncommital varmint?) bellowing “Allen! Allen! Allen!” over and over in this Eagle Point video is a total ear worm:

If you know the specific animal, comment below. Apologies for not being up on our zooology as much as we should.

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