By MALLORY GRUBEN
The union representing nearly 4,500 teachers in Portland Public Schools just made history: They began picketing Nov. 1 in the first-ever teachers strike at Oregon’s largest school district. Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) members authorized the strike with 99% approval.
The union started bargaining with the district in October 2022, and members have been working without a contract since the last agreement expired June 30. In a negotiating strategy known as “bargaining for the common good,” union proposals went beyond pay and benefits this time and were aimed at things that will directly benefit students.
“Our kids are worth it. This is the time to fight for them,” said Tiffany Koyama Lane, a third grade teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School. “We are not going to settle for anything that isn’t going to show real change for our students.”
PAT’s “last, best” offer, presented to the district on Sept. 22, asked for:
- 23% in cost-of-living increases over the next three years: 8.5% in the first year of the contract, then 7% and 6%.
- Strict class size caps that would restrict most elementary classes to 26 students.
- The right to refuse work if classrooms are colder than 60 degrees, hotter than 90 degrees, or have mold, rats, leaks, power outages, or other unsafe or unsanitary conditions.
- “Resilience funds” at every school to help families pay for rent or utilities in emergencies, so they won’t be evicted and have to move schools.
- More school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and special education staff in every school.
- 440 minutes of planning time for every teacher, up from 320 minutes now.
“A lot of people are watching to see what changes we are able to make for education,” said Brenda Bokenyi, a reading interventionist at Rigler Elementary School who trained to be a strike captain for her school.
Bokenyi tutors students who are behind in grade level for reading, meaning their skills are lower than expected for someone their age. She typically meets with groups of three to four students every day of the week. But this school year, the district cut her hours in half without explanation, even though there’s just as many students who need her help.
[pullquote]“When I hear the district’s position that the threat of a strike is really disruptive, that’s right, it is. But it’s not more disruptive than the conditions kids are already facing.” –Sunnyside parent Hanna Neuschwander[/pullquote]To prevent her from losing as many work hours, Bokenyi’s principal lets her work as a kindergarten teacher one day a week. In that role, Bokenyi works with 29 children, many of whom have never been in a classroom before. “It’s nearly impossible to give them academic skills … when I’m just trying to teach them to sit on the floor and listen to an adult,” she said.
She said a strict class size cap would make it easier to give every child one-on-one attention, and more planning time would help her tailor lessons to better meet students’ needs.
In its final offer, PPS proposed flexible class size caps. Koyama Lane, the Sunnyside third grade teacher, said that won’t fix the problem. She currently has 27 kids in a classroom, even though the union contract says she should only have 26. In past years, she’s had as many as 31 students per class. Instead of a class size cap, the current contract has a class size threshold, so teachers get extra pay for every extra student over that threshold.
“Every teacher I talk to says they’ll take that check,” Koyama Lane said, “but that doesn’t change anything for our students. That doesn’t give them any more of my attention, because you can’t buy time.”
Teachers are also asking for raises that attract and retain quality educators. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Portland is the second-least affordable city for new teachers. About 14% of PAT’s members are first-year teachers who make around $50,000 per year. PAT’s latest proposal asks to boost that to $54,000.
In its final offer, the district proposed a 10.9% cost-of-living increase over the next three years (4.5%, 3%, and 3%), 400 minutes of planning time, and flexible class size caps. In total, the district estimates its offer would cost about $200 million less than what PAT is asking for.
District officials say both proposals would require deficit spending, but that PAT’s request is just too costly.
“We need our community and PAT’s bargaining team to recognize that we are not unwilling to accept their proposal: we are unable,” the district wrote in a bargaining update on its website. “Even the proposal we have made will require at least $45 million in structural budget cuts over the next three years,” PPS wrote. “In stark contrast, PAT’s proposal would require $277 million in cuts over the next three years. This is without including the over 500 new educators we would need to hire under the union’s proposed hard class caps.”
A PAT report published in September found that the district could spend up to $53 million from its budget reserve and still have enough saved away to meet the board’s policy to keep that account at 5% to 10% of its operating budget. The report also shows that in the last five years, the district hired more administrators, even as it cut the number of teachers, counselors, and other licensed educators.
“Redirecting these misspent and leftover funds add up to tens of millions of dollars each year. That would go a long way to settle this contract and giving our students the support they need to learn and thrive,” PAT President Angela Bonilla wrote in an op-ed in the Oregonian.
On Oct. 28, PAT held a “March for Portland Students” attended by thousands of teachers and their supporters.
“(The district) really seems to be painting these requests as completely off the wall and unreasonable, and painting the union as just being irresponsible. That drives me crazy,” said Hanna Neuschwander, a parent of two children at Sunnyside Elementary who took part in the march. “I know the district has the money it has. They do not have infinite money. But obviously you make choices, and they’ve made choices I don’t agree with.”
Neuschwander said she supports the union because she sees how its contract proposals would benefit kids. Last school year when her eldest was in third grade, classroom temperatures reached 100 degrees on multiple days in June. Some students got heat sickness; at least one child was sent home with a nosebleed.
Teachers borrowed portable air conditioning units from parents and handed out ice cubes to students to keep them cold.
“You can’t learn when it’s 100 degrees. Your brain is melting,” Neuschwander said. “When I hear the district’s position that the threat of a strike is really disruptive, that’s right, it is. But it’s not more disruptive than the conditions kids are already facing.”
Leading up to the strike at Sunnyside and other schools, parents worked together to arrange babysitting and play dates so every family has some kind of child care lined up during a strike. As for Neuschwander, she planned to take her children to the picket line.
“We are talking with them a lot about what a strike is and what labor movements are and why this is happening or might need to happen,” she said. “So (a strike) is a learning interruption but it’s also a tremendous learning opportunity.”
CORRECTION: Tiffany Koyama Lane has 27 students in her current third grade class. An earlier version of this story included the incorrect class size.