With teacher strikes in Southwest Washington’s Camas and Evergreen school districts ending after they delayed the start of school for more than a week in those districts, the wary eyes of families and educators are on growing tensions in Portland Public Schools.
Portland schools started the year on time at the end of August, but bargaining between the Portland Association of Teachers and district leaders has become increasingly worrisome.
The current PAT-PPS collective bargaining agreement expired in June, meaning the association’s nearly 4,500 teachers and coaches are currently working without a contract. Union leaders in June called for state mediation, following a 150-day preliminary negotiating period that didn’t result in an agreement. Mediation began in late August.
A strike in Portland could happen as early as October. Both parties have repeatedly stated they don’t want to reach that point; however, it seems neither side believes the other is participating in good faith.
PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero sent a warning last Friday to parents.
“(We) want to be transparent and provide you with ample time to plan for a possible school closure because we know how difficult a disruption would be on students and families,” Guerrero said in the message.
According to a summary on the PPS website, a strike would not only cancel classes but would likely affect athletics, child care, performing arts and other extracurricular activities, as well as assistance with students’ college applications.
“If schools close, limited essential supports (e.g. meals) will still be available to students,” Guerrero added in his message.
Meanwhile, union leaders have said they don’t want to strike, but “they will if they have to.”
“(The) clock is ticking with two-thirds of our articles unresolved, and the District has not moved enough on any of our priorities to engage meaningfully in the process,” PAT leadership wrote in a public message last week. “We continue to hope that the District will reconsider its approach to this negotiation so that a strike does not become necessary.”
PPS and the union met twice in mediation sessions on Aug. 30 and Sept. 7. They are scheduled to meet again on Friday. There were no other sessions scheduled as of Tuesday.
“As educators and parents, we understand the challenges school closures would have on students, families and our community,” Renard Adams, chief of the district’s research, assessment and accountability department and a member of the PPS bargaining team, said in a statement to reporters on Monday.
“We continue to strive towards compromise, including twice increasing our compensation offer, which now includes a $3,000-per-year special education stipend to teachers,” he said. The stipend extends to school psychologists, speech-language pathologists and other special education professionals.
The Portland Federation of School Professionals, which represents 1,350 classified employees in the district, announced on Wednesday that they’ve reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract with Portland Public Schools.
Portland has never had a teachers’ strike. Portland educators voted to authorize a strike in 2014, but schools were spared the disruption when the union reached a deal with administrators just before the strike was set to start.
Across the state, more than 70 districts will have contract negotiations this school year, according to the Oregon Education Association. No Oregon districts are currently on strike.
Teachers, district officials debate pay increases
During the Sept. 7 mediation session, the PPS bargaining team offered educators a 10% cost-of-living increase over three years.
Officials said this increase, along with a previous offer to raise starting salaries, would mean Portland’s starting educators the highest-paid teachers in the metro area’s six largest districts. They also proposed an extra day of teacher-directed planning time. The district had already increased planning time to 360 minutes, or six hours, per week.
The Portland Teachers Association is asking for more than twice that cost-of-living adjustment – a 21.5% increase in the same time frame. They also want a minimum of 420 minutes, or seven hours, of planning time per week.
Camas School District teachers in Washington last week won a 13% increase in compensation over the next two years. Evergreen Public Schools teachers won at least a 17% increase over the next three years. Others in the area have hit similar targets. But Portland district officials said those aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, because Washington structures state funding differently, and smaller Oregon districts pay lower wages.
Still, from the union’s perspective, the district’s proposed pay increase is not enough to keep up with rising costs, and the added teacher-directed planning day shrinks the overall increase.
Recently released data from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a D.C.-based nonprofit, shows Portland is one of the least affordable metro areas in the country for new teachers looking to rent a one-bedroom apartment.
The Portland Association of Teachers also has cited statistics saying that in three school years, prices in the city have gone up by 18.4%. PPS educators received a 10% cost-of-living adjustment during that time, they said, which, weighed against inflation, is an 8% loss in earnings.
PAT President Angela Bonilla said the union isn’t buying the district’s argument that there just isn’t enough money.
Oregon saw a historic investment in K-12 schools this year with the state investing an unprecedented $10.2 billion into the State School Fund, which pays for the majority of school operations. Portland was poised to receive a $22 million bump over the next two years because of the added investment.
The union has pointed to the fact that the district increased its budget from 2019 to the current school year by $12.5 million to pay for increased administrative and non-represented positions and pay raises. It also increased spending on purchased services, such as outside consultants.
“It’s more affordable for a first-year teacher to live in New York City … or Seattle,” Bonilla said, based on the National Council’s data, “yet, admin are getting raises.”
District officials have challenged the starting salary figures cited in the study and said recent administrator raises were only given to match market rates.
Additionally, district officials said that in those years, services to students increased, and the costs for all services and district operations also “increased dramatically.” All of Portland’s represented and non-represented employees received pay raises during these periods as well, which officials said accounts for some of the added costs.
Bonilla said staff are exhausted. Trust and morale are low. Keeping up with student needs without adequate resources, she said, is “like trying to squeeze blood out of stone.”
Over the past four years, Portland Public has cut the number of licensed staff by more than 130 full-time equivalent positions and added 110 non-represented and administration positions.
The district’s enrollment has declined by nearly 4,000 students in that same time frame. District officials said, as a result, Portland was forced to reduce the number of educators. Simultaneously, the needs of the pandemic required the district to grow its centralized student support services. Many of those positions are non-represented or administrative.
Caseloads and other priorities
In addition to compensation and increased special education support, smaller class sizes and caseloads are also among the union’s top priorities.
As an example, Bonilla suggested imagining a classroom of 32 fifth-graders, with many students returning from the pandemic with “more needs than ever.” She told OPB, “Our educators are drowning.”
The union is proposing a firmer limit on class sizes. Instead of paying a teacher more if they have more students than allowed under the cap, which the district already does, the union wants the district to open another classroom at the school. If there isn’t an available alternative at that school, the students would have to move to another school.
The district already has an “equity-based formula” that works to place more staff in the schools with the most need. However, district officials did not confirm whether they are offering any other suggestions to reduce class size during mediation. The union wants to maintain the formula in addition to the new caps.
District officials have estimated that achieving the union’s proposal, particularly in regard to the items that directly impact teachers — like caseloads — would cost at least $65 million and require the district to hire more than 500 full-time employees. Union leaders have challenged those figures. Bonilla said the district previously provided charts asserting their class size averages were already at or below the targets the union has proposed.
The two parties have their last scheduled mediation session on Friday. The union can declare an impasse as early as Friday at midnight.
If that happens, here’s what comes next:
- Within seven days, both parties are required to submit their final offers and cost summaries to the mediator
- A 30-day “cooling off” period follows to allow for further attempts to resolve disputes
- If no agreement is reached, PPS can legally and unilaterally impose its final proposals. PAT can legally hold a strike
Editor’s note: This story has been clarified to indicate who is affected by ongoing contract negotiations. It was further changed to include a response from Portland Public Schools regarding the Portland Association of Teachers’ comments about salaries and city affordability.