By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Teachers in Portland, Oregon's largest school district, voted Wednesday night to authorize a strike, setting the stage for a walkout that could disrupt classes for nearly 48,000 students, union officials said.
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 the strike authorization vote clears the way for a strike on February 20 if no settlement is reached, the Portland Association of Teachers said late Wednesday.
"No teacher ever wants to go on strike, we want to be in classrooms with our students," union president Gwen Sullivan said in a statement after the vote. It said the strike authorization was approved by an overwhelming majority, but the vote count was not disclosed.
The union was seeking higher wages and smaller class sizes, among other changes, the release said.
School district officials are "deeply disappointed" that teachers voted to authorize a strike, Christine Miles, spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools, said in an interview with Reuters.
"We all know a strike will be extremely disruptive to our kids, our families and our community," Miles said. The district is still hoping to make progress toward a settlement in mediated talks scheduled for Sunday, she said.
"We can still negotiate after a strike vote," Miles said. "We are still at the table. We are still trying to come to an agreement."
A strike authorization does not necessarily mean that the teachers will walk out. It does, however, allow union leaders to declare a strike if negotiations are not successful.
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.
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, Gunna Dickson, Sharon Bernstein and Ken Wills)