Teachers' union chief on city payroll irks Portland councilors

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PORTLAND — Some city councilors this week sounded concerns about a provision in the recently ratified teachers’ contract that puts the full-time union president almost entirely on the city’s payroll.

School officials agreed to pay 80 percent, or roughly $75,000, of Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa’s nearly $94,000 a year salary.

Casasa has been the union president for about 20 years. For the last five years, she has been fully released from her special education teaching duties to represent the union full time.

Starting in September, the union will no longer reimburse the district for 80 percent of Casasa’s salary.

The provision went largely unnoticed until The Forecaster wrote about it last week.

Councilor Jill Duson was one of three City Councilors who questioned the provision at a workshop on Monday night. 

Duson on Tuesday said her questions stemmed from “complete befuddlement and curiosity” with what she called a “very unusual” contract provision.

“I’ve been a union member before, and it just struck me as odd that my representative would be paid for by my management,” she said. “But that’s what (the teachers) want.”

Casasa is the only full-time release union president in the state, but officials at the National Education Association said the practice is not uncommon around the country. The NEA could not, however, comment on whether it is common for a district to pay the president’s salary.

Other councilors agreed the provision is unusual, but said control over it is out of their hands. They also noted the contract was overwhelmingly approved by rank-and-file teachers.

But Councilor David Marshall said he would have like to have seen a concession spread out over the whole union. He was also concerned about setting a precedent for other unions.

“It’s strange to have someone on our payroll who is not going to be reviewed by city staff,” he said. “(But) it would be out of bounds for us to say what the School Board and superintendent can do in their negotiations.”

Duson said she will not vote against the school budget next week because of the provision. And Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said he believes the contract is ultimately good for the schools and students.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said he was focused on negotiating a contract that benefited the district both financially and academically.

Morse said the union agreed to $3 million in concessions over three years, so a $75,000 concession on the district’s part was a good deal.

“I would do that any day of the week,” he said. “(But) I failed to measure the political winds. That, I think, was what the councilors were reacting to.”

Morse last week estimated Casasa’s salary would cost the district $68,000, but this week said the actual cost will be nearly $75,000.

School Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder also emphasized the contract is a good deal for students, since they will have five extra classroom days at no cost to the district.

Snyder said she fears that the overall good of the contract will be overshadowed by the controversy. “It’s a win-win negotiation,” she said.

Snyder, however, acknowledged the council’s concerns and suggested the board may have concentrated too much on the financial gain to the district.

“We may have looked at this too narrowly,” she said. “(The provision) will be a conversation that will happen when we head into the next round of negotiations.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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