Substitute teachers accuse PPS of illegal threats

PORTLAND, Ore. -- When your A-team threatens to strike, you realize how much you need your B-team.

Substitute teachers have nothing to do with the contract negotiations between Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers.

But the subs have everything to do with the district's promise to keep schools open if teachers walk off the job.

On Tuesday, a day before the teachers vote on a strike, subs accused the school district of breaking state laws by threatening to retaliate against subs who won't cross potential picket lines, according to a grievance the Portland Association of Teachers says it filed with the Oregon Employment Relations Board.

"They're using tactics to scare the subs," said Ray Amling, chairman of the substitute teacher committee of Portland Association of Teachers. "They're threatening subs with taking away their livelihood and health insurance."

The subs are represented by the same union as regular teachers, but have separate contracts.

All two-dozen or so members of the substitute teacher committee voted unanimously on Monday evening to file grievances.

"The accusations are completely false," said Christine Miles, a spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools.

Miles says the district is not bullying anyone.

She wrote an email to KATU: "We are simply informing PPS employed substitute teachers that Portland Association of Teachers' interpretation of [a part of their contract] is in violation of state law and the no strike clause in their contract."

Here's why the subs are asking the state's Employment Relations Board to intervene.

The subs claim a clause in their contract, section 7E, allows them to refuse assignments during a lawful work stoppage by teachers.

The contract says subs may "remove himself/herself from further assignment during a period of lawful work stoppage by regular teachers by notifying the district in writing."

The district points to another clause, section 5, which bans subs from striking. PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles insisted by phone on Tuesday the contract also requires subs to be available if teachers strike.

When asked about a possible contradiction between both clauses, Miles refused to answer, and later said the subs are not interpreting the first clause correctly. She declined to elaborate.

The subs are so important right now because Portland Public Schools is planning for the first teacher strike in its history.

There are 2,828 teachers, compared to 1,006 subs, according to the PPS website.

PPS claims it has an emergency plan to keep schools open by relying on state-licensed replacements, including the current roster of subs plus a wider database of retirees, recent graduates and job applicants.

The district is also contacting substitute teachers from other Oregon school districts asking them if they'll work during a strike, according to two Portland subs.

"That's what any business would do," said Miles.

An email obtained by KATU shows the district is offering subs $170 per day during a strike with a promise of a week's worth of pay, $853, regardless of how long the strike actually lasts.

Miles, spokeswoman for PPS, would not discuss specifics of the emergency plan, but wanted to reassure parents the district would contact them immediately in the event of a strike.

On Monday, two long-time substitute teachers told KATU neither they nor any of the other dozens of subs they've talked to would cross picket lines.

"We support the teachers," said Greg Burrill, who's been a Portland sub for nearly 10 years.

Amling, who is a substitute teacher himself, claims the district threatened substitutes anyway, telling them it would remove them from the rosters and deny them health insurance if they refused assignments during a teacher strike.

"That would be retaliation," Amling told KATU. "The district would not be allowed to do that under current contract. I don't know why they're making that threat."

PPS offers substitutes health insurance if they work 70 days during a school year, Amling told KATU.

The district's website says subs must work 20 days each school year to remain on the roster.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Education Association is looking at ways to support subs who refuse to cross potential picket lines, since subs would lose a significant source of income as a result, according to OEA spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau.