In a heated boardroom Tuesday evening, Portland Public Schools’ Board of Education voted to fire teacher Bryan Chu. The decision came after more than a year and a half of contention between the state’s largest district and the local educator.
Chu worked in the district for about 15 years, most recently teaching social studies at Harriet Tubman Middle School in North Portland. He was placed on paid administrative leave in April of last year, in part for his outspoken behavior at school board meetings.
The case against him argues Chu is “toxic” and “bad for students.” He’s been accused of several things, including posting threatening photos, bullying coworkers, undermining directives, telling a student to “shut up,” and failing to properly grade students or keep updated lesson plans.
However, Chu, his attorney and those who spoke in his favor at Tuesday’s meeting presented a different perspective. They characterized him as spirited and someone willing to call out the district on disproportionate or racist practices. An “exceedingly talented teacher” whose students largely love and respect him. Who starts each class with a poem of acceptance and respect. Someone who especially connects with students of color.
Chu’s team also claims the district is going to further lengths to reprimand him for actions made in public meetings than other educators who also participated but were not investigated or disciplined.
Student walkouts and televised hearings have kept the issue on the minds of many in the Portland school community. Most staff termination decisions are handled behind closed doors, but Chu requested his case be held publicly.
“Whatever happens to me is inconsequential, ‘cause I win either way,” Chu told OPB before the meeting. “If they fire me, when we go into arbitration … we can subpoena folks. (If) they don’t fire me, then there’s a whole big mess they’ve got to clean up.
“They’re the ones on trial,” he said, “not me.”
A few dozen people gathered outside the building before the Tuesday meeting. They played music and passed around signs with slogans such as: “End sexual harassment, retaliation, and all forms of abuse in the workplace,” “Dissent is patriotic, important, the essence of democracy,” and “We still got Chu.”
By the time the meeting began, roughly 100 people sat in the audience. Based on how many stood up and cheered as Chu and his attorney approached the board for comment, the vast majority were there to support him.
“Those are only a fraction of the applauses and voices you would hear of students in the building and in the classroom, who came to have their educational hunger satiated by Mr. Chu’s teaching, and by Mr. Chu’s love,” Aukeem Ballard told OPB. “Whatever the student’s race, gender, religion – they knew they could be fed in Chu’s room.”
Ballard began his career as a student teacher with Chu and is now a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley.
“Like the students, I was treated as a vital member of the community,” he said. “This is because of what Chu did, has done and probably will always do, whatever happens to him in public school districts.”
Ballard flew from California to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Chu was fired for insubordination and neglect of duty. The resolution for dismissal passed on a 5-1-1 vote.
Chair Gary Hollands, vice-chair Herman Greene and members Julia Brim-Edwards, Andrew Scott and Michelle DePass voted in favor of dismissal.
Patte Sullivan voted against it, and Edward “Eddie” Wang abstained. The board’s student representative, currently Francesca “Frankie” Silverstein, does not vote on personnel decisions.
Sullivan, a former teacher and new board member, said she has considerable concerns about many of the claims made against Chu, particularly when it comes to how he teaches and interacts with his students. Still, she was the only one who voted against the resolution.
“I know that Mr. Chu has been accused of bullying and harassing behavior and a failure to do his job, among other things,” she said. “I did not find all of the alleged misconduct would rise to the level that would result in dismissal.”
Wang, who abstained, spoke about his background training, coaching, supervising and evaluating teachers. He said anyone can take the best teacher in the world and still come up with a list of mistakes they’ve made.
“Now, I’m not saying Mr. Chu is an awesome teacher. He could be the worst teacher in the world. I don’t know. I was never (his) student. I never was there to observe his classroom,” he said. “The issue I have is, if we’re judging Mr. Chu, if he should stay based on his teaching ability, the data presented does not give a full picture, in my professional opinion.”