After months of bargaining, the Portland Association of Teachers has given official notice that it will go on strike beginning Wednesday, Nov. 1, in what would be the first-ever teachers strike in the district.
The teachers union notified Portland Public Schools Thursday that it intends to strike after association members voted this week to authorize it. The district sent out an announcement to families and a statement to the press late Thursday evening about the vote.
The union sent a letter to educators Thursday night, reporting that 93% of PAT members participated in the vote and 98.9% voted to authorize a strike.
“We know that educators cannot stand by and let the district continue to disinvest in our students, our schools, and our future,” PAT leaders wrote. “We know the public is on our side. We know that when we stand together, we will win a contract our educators, students, and families deserve.”
The latest 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. The union declared an impasse last month but has remained in mediation sessions until this week, to no avail. The state mediator was reportedly waiting until the strike vote was finalized this week before scheduling more mediation sessions.
Several items remain unresolved in PPS and PAT negotiations, including compensation, planning time, class-size limits and student discipline measures.
District officials said there’s a more than $224 million gap between their proposal and what the union is asking for.
“We want to reach a fair, sustainable settlement, and we will stay at the bargaining table as long as it takes to get there,” district officials wrote Thursday evening in a statement to the press. “We ask our educators to stay at the table with us, not close schools.”
PAT President Angela Bonilla said educators “won’t give up.”
“Our students deserve safe buildings, smaller class sizes and added mental health specialists,” she said. The union argues PPS management has been unwilling to respond to increasing student needs in Portland’s schools while “stockpiling resources that should be going directly to serve students.”
Bonilla spoke with reporters at a press conference Friday morning. She said educators need to be paid more so they can afford to live and work in Portland. After the recent strikes in Southwest Washington, PAT leaders seem hopeful a strike could move the needle.
“As educators, we want to live in the communities that our students live in,” Bonilla said. “We want to be able to be those supports, those people, that village that helps raise them.”
If a strike happens
If the two parties don’t reach an agreement and the strike takes place, PPS will close all schools. Union leaders told educators there would be a picket line at all locations in the district where bargaining unit members work. PPS serves tens of thousands of students across 81 schools throughout much of the city.
Members who actively participate in strike activities will receive up to $120 a day from the Oregon Education Association Relief Fund, according to PAT. Participation does not have to be picketing, they said. Any sanctioned strike activities count.
Union leaders told substitutes — though they’re not members of the bargaining unit that has authorized a strike — they have contractual rights to remove themselves from further assignments by notifying the district, if they wish.
Portland Public Schools officials sent out notice of the strike to families Thursday. The district also outlined a strike contingency plan with information for families in a presentation Wednesday.
School closures would mean no in-person classes or online instruction. However, there would be limited resources provided to support learning, officials said in the notice to families.
The district said it will survey kindergarten through second grade families, who don’t have devices checked out already, in an effort to ensure students who need access to technology can get it.
PPS will also provide grab-and-go meals for free for all kids, ages 1-18, during the strike. Officials said they are still finalizing pick-up locations and times.
For students who are currently seeing a school-based mental health provider, services will be offered either in-person or virtually, according to the notice. Officials said student health centers at Benson, Cleveland, Franklin, Jefferson, McDaniel and Roosevelt high schools will remain operational during the strike.
Staff will be available via email, phone and virtually if students need college application support, according to the district.
PPS officials said varsity sports will continue. Other extracurricular activities will not run during the strike.
The district confirmed athletic (non-instructional) coaches are in the PAT bargaining unit. The district said it has sufficient staff to cover a limited number of athletic events, with varsity sports as the priority.
Officials with the district do not yet know if a strike would extend the school year.
While a strike would create problems and complications for families across the district, some parents are already planning to support picketing teachers.
PPS parent Hanna Neuschwander said she’s supportive of the strike because there are learning interruptions happening daily in schools already, which districts across the country have seen increasing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That, plus the lack of resources for educators to address it, she said, “far outweigh the temporary interruption that might come from a strike.”
“I also think [a strike is] a tremendous learning opportunity for my kids and kids in our community to understand more about what it means to stand up and ask for what you need and what you believe in,” she said. “So yes, there will be learning interruptions, but there will also be incredible opportunities.”
The district and union are receiving pressure to resolve the contract dispute without a walkout.
Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation wrote to the school district and union bargaining teams earlier this month, urging them to stay at the bargaining table and not to close schools. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, all Democrats, addressed the negotiation groups in a letter.
“Today’s students and their educators face complex challenges,” they wrote. “With mediation nearing conclusion, we urge the two sides to bargain in good faith centering student success by reducing class size, fairly compensating educators, strengthening equity and ensuring school safety.”
Portland Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero responded to the lawmakers this week, in part, stressing the importance of more federal funding for students with disabilities and lower-income communities.
Kristian Foden-Vencil contributed to this story.