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Portland, Oregon, teachers set for strike authorization vote

By Teresa Carson

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Teachers in Portland, Oregon's largest school district, were due to vote Wednesday night on whether to authorize their union to call a strike that would disrupt classes for nearly 48,000 students in a labor dispute over staffing levels and wages.

Portland's 2,828 teachers have been engaged for months in contentious off-and-on negotiations with the district on a new three-year contract, and a strike authorization vote would clear the way for a walkout the week of February 17, if no settlement were reached.

State law requires teachers' unions to give a school district at least 10 days' notice before going on strike.

The district already is bracing for a possible walkout with plans to keep its 78 schools open using substitute teachers if the need arises.

Some parents, however, have expressed concern at the prospect of their children crossing picket lines to attend classes or extracurricular activities during a strike.

"I don't think we would send them to school with substitutes. We support the teachers," said Ali King, the mother of two daughters in the sixth and ninth grades. "Even with qualified subs, it will be a disruptive atmosphere."

The next round of talks for the two sides in the dispute is scheduled for Sunday, February 9.

"We can still negotiate after a strike vote," said Portland Public Schools spokeswoman Christine Miles. "We are still at the table. We are still trying to come to an agreement."

High school chemistry teacher Bill Wilson, head of the Portland Association of Teachers' bargaining team, declined to predict the outcome of Wednesday's vote, which was to start at 7 p.m. local time. But he said, "We have heard loud and clear from our members that we are unified."

Students at several Portland high schools were planning to stage their own rallies to show support for teachers before the vote on Wednesday.

The union and school district have been at odds over class size, teacher workloads, wages and insurance coverage, but the issue of staffing levels has emerged as the chief stumbling block.

Pointing to a budget surplus projected for the coming year, the union is demanding that the district hire 176 new teachers, while the district wants to add 88 instructional positions and save more of its extra funds as a rainy-day reserve.

Teachers are asking for raises of 3.75 percent in the first year and 3.52 percent in the second year of the new contract. The district is offering a 2 percent salary hike for each of the next two years.

(Reporting by Teresa Carson; Editing by Steve Gorman and Gunna Dickson)

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