Portland Public School Teachers Overworked, Underpaid, Arbitrator Rules

Portland Public Schools officials overstepped in forcing district teachers to take on more classes and students, and owe affected educators a total $1.5 million, a state arbitrator ruled this week.

Portland schools cut 44 teaching positions in the fall, saving the district $4 million, according to The Oregonian. Consequently, class periods were consolidated so that teachers taught six 90-minute classes that meet every other day, compared to the previous five 50-minute classes daily. One high school had to pack 200 students into a single 90-minute study hall period.

State arbitrator William Reeves rules that the district must provide back pay to teachers who weren't paid for the additional work time, offer a schedule adjustment or both. The payment would cost the district an estimated $750,000. Another $750,000 would go toward compensating teachers for the added burden of teaching more students.

Reeves also said that while the district can increase teacher workloads to save money, the move must be proportional to the number of jobs eliminated -- meaning that the number of students assigned to a teacher could have risen about 10 percent, instead of the 20 percent that Portland teachers actually saw.

Portland is not alone in its challenge to close budget gaps while maintaining educational integrity. According to the Education Department, student-teacher ratio declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 13.1 in 2008, when class sizes averaged 23.4 students in secondary schools.

But since the onset of the recession, reports from around the country point to a surge in class sizes. A survey conducted last September by the United Federation of Teachers found an increase in reports of larger New York City class sizes, with 6,978 classes reported as having more students than the contract allows. Even Texas, which has laws limiting class sizes, granted more than 2,000 waivers to districts that couldn’t afford to keep the requisite number of teachers.

But as school budgets shrink and class sizes balloon across the country, a larger debate has grown around whether the number of students in a classroom actually affects student learning ability and performance.

Portland Public Schools is amid a $27.5 million budget shortfall, and Superintendent Carole Smith proposed this week to cut an additional 110 teaching positions from the district on top of eliminating 34 office positions, reducing spending on textbook and facilities and closing two schools, according to KPTV.

Reeves ruled that going forward, a teacher cannot be allowed to teach more than 180 students per semester. That figure could proportionally be adjusted to 190 if Smith removes about 25 more high school teaching positions next year. Currently, about one-third of Portland high school teachers have at least 180 students.

Students will also be limited to taking seven credit-bearing classes in an eight-period schedule unless they are in special education or considered "academic priority" students based on low test scores, grades or attendance.