In a dramatic turnaround Parkrose School Board rejected its superintendent’s plan to contract out school bus transportation to a private corporation, First Student. The 3-to-2 vote took place at 10 p.m., three-plus hours into the board’s Feb. 24 meeting, as a packed house of Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) members and supporters watched.
The district — located in outer Northeast Portland — announced its intention to outsource student transportation last September. It then paid for a state-mandated cost comparison, and received bids from four companies. Superintendent Karen Gray proposed to award the contract to UK-headquartered First Student, sell the district’s bus fleet for $350,000, and lay off district school bus employees at the end of the school year. Though the district estimated the move would save money, the cost comparison indicated nearly all the savings would come from cutting employee retirement and health benefits.
But OSEA waged a vigorous campaign to defend the jobs of its 22 members — drivers, a dispatcher and a mechanic. Rallying behind the slogan “Keep It Local,” the union blanketed the district with lawn signs, and went door to door to talk to residents. It even aired a television ad featuring a mom and her daughter — touting the value of the district directly controlling its “first classroom of the day.” For months, OSEA rallied outside board meetings, mobilizing members and residents to attend. Board members got calls from dozens of residents, and from state legislators representing the Parkrose district — State Representative Jessica Vega Pederson and State Senator Michael Dembrow — all opposed to the plan. The anticipated savings were said to be intended to hire more teachers, but the Parkrose teachers union also stood with OSEA in opposing the outsourcing. On the day of the big vote, board members got a letter opposing outsourcing from the head of the district’s parent-led fundraising organization. And the statewide leadership of OSEA and of the Oregon AFL-CIO showed up to show their opposition.
Yet OSEA leaders didn’t know what the outcome would going into the Feb. 24 board meeting. Of the five board members, only Portland schoolteacher Erick Flores had openly criticized the outsourcing proposal. OSEA thought retired teacher Mary Lu Baetkey would also lean against it, but software engineer and board chair Ed Grassel was plainly for it, and Port of Portland HR manager James Trujillo signaled his support too. That left vice chair Thuy Tran, an eye doctor, as the swing vote. When she spoke against the plan, the room erupted in applause.
“We need to know our kids,” Tran said. “We need to control our environment from A to Z.”
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important, Tran said, but the district is responsible for much more than that. Three quarters of the district’s 3,500 students are eligible for free or reduced cost lunch. Parkrose School District takes responsibility for the physical, emotional and psychological well-being, the meals — even the clothing — of the kids in its charge. And that requires a team effort, Tran said, from the time students are picked up in the morning until they return home.
Tran likened the Parkrose staff cuts of recent years to amputating body parts, and said she would refuse to cut any more.
And with that, she joined Baetkey and Flores in a 3-2 vote to reject the proposal to contract with First Student.
OSEA represents school support workers, and has repeatedly fought school district efforts to contract out school bus, custodial, and cafeteria operations.
OSEA executive director Rick Shidaker said he sees no villains at Parkrose. Just as in other districts, the push to outsource at Parkrose is a response to real budget limitations. But the union contends that slashing district worker wages and benefits is not the right solution.
“Every single worker has value,” Shidaker said, “and every single worker should have a living wage, which includes the ability to retire after a long career.”
In Parkrose, OSEA did everything it could to reach out to the community, and found that its message resonated.
“The community reacted, and the message got to the board,” Shidaker said. “They recognized the importance of keeping it local, and keeping it in the community. This is not just a victory for unions. It’s a victory for the community.”
What a great victory. I did not go to the meeting as I had planned. Reading this story made me wish I had made the effort to attend and gave me renewed confidence for what we can do when we all work together. This story shows the importance of showing up, protesting and making each voice heard. I recently asked a friend why she is no longer an activist and she said it just feels like nothing can make a difference. But this article shows that she is wrong. We have to stick together and find the energy, strength and courage to FIGHT!!