Superintendent's Notebook: Teachers union works on behalf of Portland students, taxpayers

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Early in my education career, I served as president of the teachers union in School Administrative District 3. As I later made the move from teacher to administrator, a senior teacher offered some advice.

“Jimmy,” he said, being one of the few people in my life who ever called me by that name, “never forget about the worker. Without them, nothing gets done.”

I’m proud to say that I’ve never forgotten about the worker. My experience as a leader has taught me that those who work for you, by you and with you must believe in you. There must be mutual trust, respect and open communication.

Next year, the Portland Public Schools will lose more than $6 million in revenue, resulting in many good people losing their jobs. Despite the layoffs, we have successfully completed negotiation of a new, three-year teacher contract. Throughout the negotiations, the Portland Education Association made extraordinary efforts to put the interests of children first.

Next year, students in the Portland Public Schools will attend classes for five additional days. That change bodes well for students, since the latest research shows that more student-teacher interaction results in improved student learning. And we have the PEA to thank for those five days.

Across the country and even in Maine, some are blaming unions for not stepping up to solve the severe economic woes of our time. PEA representatives came to the bargaining table focused on helping the school system that employs them. They agreed to the extra five days in the student calendar with no increased pay in year one.

The union wanted more time with children, not less. Teachers suggested that one professional development day and two days of personal professional time be replaced by additional student days. They also suggested adding two days to the calendar.

The PEA asked for no pay increase as a result of more work time with students. The three-year contract will freeze base pay for two years. And there will be no increase in pay based on years of service next year.

The new contract also makes changes to the salary increases, known as “lane changes,” which teachers earn for advancements in professional learning. Beginning next fall, the minimum time between lane changes will increase from three to four years. And the district will be able to connect lane changes and student learning in a more direct way than in the past. For example, the district could require teachers to take courses in English as a Second Language, adolescent literacy and early childhood education in order to qualify for lane changes.

Another, very important part of the new contract gives teachers more of a voice in decisions involving student learning.

Teachers of the 21st century have advanced degrees, specialties and experiences that set them apart from the teaching workforce of my youth. As leaders, we must engage this workforce in problem-solving and long-term planning to increase student performance. Our contract adds a new article that emphasizes teacher voice, engagement and accountability.

This year’s negotiations, coming at a time of large layoffs, could have resulted in negative posturing and long-lasting recriminations. Instead, the PEA came to the table wanting to help raise standards and assist the school system through these difficult financial times.

They succeeded. Unions are not the problem; rather, they are part of the answer.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at morsej@portlandschools.org.

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