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Portland teachers union: Bargaining needed before new schedule is adopted

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Portland teachers union: Bargaining needed before new schedule is adopted

PORTLAND — As the School Committee prepares to vote on a new unified schedule for its four high schools, questions remain about the impact the proposal will have on teachers and students.

One of those questions pertains to the effect the new schedule, which adds a period and extends the school day, will have on the teachers' employment contract.

Teachers are also concerned that teaching an additional sixth class will make it more difficult to have meaningful interaction with the students and their families.

The new schedule could also affect the school breakfast program for immigrant students, whose academic intervention courses are expected to take place at 7:15 a.m. Many of those students are considered economically disadvantaged and rely on the district to provide breakfast.

Meeting with school staff at the beginning of the year, Superintendent James Morse Sr. announced an initiative to form the unified schedule for the city's four high schools. The current schedules, which vary between schools, often breed competition for increasingly scarce resources, he said.

A 28-member committee of administrators, teachers, parents and community members studied various options over a three-month period with several goals in mind: maintaining Advanced Placement courses, combining students in low-enrolled classes, sharing staff, extending the day for English Language Learners students, provide flexibility for alternative education students and increasing efficiencies.

The group ultimately reached a consensus on a schedule for a five-period day, which for some students, including ELL students, would begin at 7:15 a.m., rather than 8 a.m.

The proposal calls for all of the schools to have blocks occurring at the same time on either end of the school day. A short first period running the entire school year would offer remedial help and low-enrolled courses. The next period would be an alternating block with offerings such as music classes.

Each high school would maintain its own schedule for the middle of the day. The last block could be used for advanced foreign language courses, sciences and other classes that might draw students from more than one high school.

Morse has said the new schedule meets his goals.

But according to Kathleen Casasa, president of the teacher's union, the new schedule will require the district to renegotiate the union contract, since it extends the school day and impacts other working conditions.

Casasa said it's premature for the School Committee to vote on a new schedule without first bargaining with the teachers, since their working hours and other contractual terms will be affected.

"We think there are some bargaining issues here," she said.

The contract requires teachers to arrive at school 20 minutes before classes start, Casasa said. The unified schedule would require some teachers to arrive as early as 6:55 a.m., she said.

Although she said Morse has acknowledged the need to talk with the unions, Casasa said approving a new schedule without first negotiating with the union assumes that teachers will agree to the changes needed to implement the new schedule.

Casasa said there are unanswered questions remaining, noting that staff at Portland and Deering High school have each held separate meetings with the superintendent to express concerns. 

Casasa said the concerns are not symptomatic of people simply resisting change.

"There is not as much clarity as we would like," she said.

PHS Alternative Education Director Beth Arsenault, who was one of four teachers to serve on the scheduling committee, said teachers at Portland High School wonder how the added workload will affect their ability to maintain close relationships with students and families.

"Teachers' concerns will oftentimes come out sounding like it's all about them and what's best for their workloads and their day." Aresnault said. "Really, the concerns are student-centered."

She said teachers are expected to maintain close contact with the families of students, and they fear that having more students will make it more difficult to do that effectively.

Teachers also wonder whether the district has run a cost-benefit analysis or conducted a student survey to see how many students the new schedule will benefit, she said, since teachers and students will be travelling between schools more often.

"Some teachers think it will cost more money," Arsenault said.

Morse could not be reached for comment.

The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal Wednesday night, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m. in room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net