AFTER 19 MONTHS without a contract, talks between Portland Public Schools (PPS) and its teachers' union reached an impasse on Thursday, February 4, heralding the slim possibility of a teachers' strike.

Negotiations have faltered over issues like pay increases, the amount of time a teacher spends with students, and whether savings from a cheaper insurance plan would be passed on to teachers.

Teachers and district officials met last Wednesday afternoon at 4 pm to continue discussion from the previous week. Around 6:30 pm, the school district declared an "impasse" (signifying both sides were unable to agree and negotiations had become deadlocked). This move begins a 30-day "cooling-off" period, after which teachers may strike and the district may choose to pay teachers what it wants, or fire them.

Nancy Arlington with the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) says they weren't ready to declare an impasse. "We were prepared to continue to bargain," she says. "If there was no intention to bargain, it was a waste of our time."

"We were willing to stay as well," says Rick Liebman, an attorney for PPS. But being stuck has its advantages. "When we're at 'impasse,' we have priority with the [state-appointed] mediator," Liebman says.

He's optimistic about the negotiations: "One quick change and it all comes together. The more time we spend together, the more likely that that will happen."

PAT President Rebecca Levison sounded a different note in a press release last week. "Upper management continues to demonstrate weak leadership and poor judgment," Levison wrote, adding that "PAT will continue to work for a fair settlement."

At press time, both teams were drafting a final offer; they need to submit the offers by Thursday, February 11.

At a Portland School Board meeting on Monday, February 8, citizens gave testimony in support of the teachers. "Stop embarrassing our community and our teachers," said Betsy Zucker, a parent, reading a letter from her daughter.

Teachers are planning a rally at the February 22 school board meeting. Meanwhile, Liebman says he'd like to finish negotiations before spring break. "When you get this close you don't sit on it," he says. "Let's finish the damn thing."