Miriam Van Zandt looked up at her mom. She wrapped small fingers around a microphone attached to a megaphone.
“I want to do a different one,” Miriam said, requesting another chant. She soon settled on: “I love my teachers,” to which the protesters called back, “We love our students!”
It was the first time the second-grader had ever been part of a strike. The same was true for her mother, Shannon Van Zandt, who works as an English language development teacher at Capitol Hill Elementary School and two other locations in Portland Public Schools.
The Portland Association of Teachers formally began their strike Wednesday morning. This is the first teachers’ strike in the history of Oregon’s largest school district. Actions are taking place across the city.
Miriam and her mother gathered with more than 20 people on the street corner by the school on the chilly November morning. Most participants were wearing some bit of the union’s signature blue, carrying signs and chanting as they walked up and down SW Spring Garden St. Among the crowd on the picket line were fellow educators and students, retirees and supportive community members. Some brought donuts and candy for morale.
Signs carried messages such as: “Our children can’t wait!” “On strike for safe schools,” and “Class size matters.” Several drivers waved from their cars or gave short, seemingly supportive beeps on their horns as they drove by.
The historic strike has led PPS to close its 80-plus school campuses. It could last days; it could last weeks. The district announced midday Wednesday that schools would remain closed on Thursday. Students were already expecting to stay home Friday, as a previously scheduled professional development day.
Several educators on the picket line said they hoped negotiations wouldn’t come to a strike, and that they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have to be. The strike comes after months of unsuccessful negotiations and state mediation between the district and union bargaining teams.
Stories from teachers across the district showed common themes Wednesday — educators facing a range of difficulties, some they have had years, hoping this contract and this strike will provide relief.
Brittany Dorris teaches fifth grade at Capitol Hill. She said she has 34 students in her class. Their classroom was 80 degrees the last two days. And they have rats. Dorris said she has a master’s degree, but she recently moved in with a single parent because she can’t afford rent in the neighborhood on her own, but it’s how she can afford to live in the community she serves.
“We have students with disabilities who aren’t getting served because our (special education) team is so overworked. We have too few adults for too many kids with some really big needs,” she said, speaking to more issues PAT is bargaining over and adding that teachers like her have to juggle a wide range of academic needs — she’s by herself “trying to teach those who need pushing and those who need catching up.”
Across the city on Northeast 82nd Avenue, social worker Mayra Capistran was on the picket line, thinking of the students she works with who face serious mental health disruptions. She said PAT’s proposal to add more support for student mental health would directly affect her day-to-day work.
“I know some social workers are supporting multiple schools, multiple sites,” Capistran said. “When that happens, they’re handling a big caseload. And we’re not getting paid extra for that.”
Up in the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland, hundreds of teachers and supporters showed up for an afternoon rally at Roosevelt High School.
Cara Jamison brought her 8-year-old daughter Hailey, who carried a sign that read, “Fund our Future!” Jamison volunteers at her daughter’s school, Sitton Elementary, and she was alarmed by the building’s condition. ”Certain rooms are burning up hot, while other rooms are cold,” Cara Jamison said. “It’s very inconsistent.”
School building health and safety are among the issues PAT has pressed in its proposals.
Jamison’s daughter, Hailey Moore, was happy to join her mom at the rally. ”I think it’s really important to help support our teachers and get what we need and what our teachers need to help us learn,” she said.
PAT President Angela Bonilla was joined by members of the union’s bargaining committee, national labor leaders and high school students in a steady rain on Roosevelt’s front lawn.
“We are making history in Portland today,” Bonilla said to the cheering PAT supporters. “We are sending a powerful message to PPS, to the city of Portland, to the state, that Portland communities won’t settle for less than great public schools for all.”
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, flew in from Philadelphia to support the union. Pringle said she’s seeing similar strikes across the U.S.
“We know what [Portland] teachers are fighting for because that’s what all teachers are fighting for, all across the country,” she said.
The mood a few miles south at the Portland Public Schools administration building was significantly more subdued. School board chair Gary Hollands spoke during a press conference, saying he understands teachers are fed up with these issues after decades of inadequate funding.
“Today is not a day that, you know, is a celebration for anyone,” Hollands told reporters. “Our kids are suffering. Our teachers are suffering. Our community is suffering.”
Leaders with PPS and PAT alike have repeatedly said the other isn’t bargaining in good faith or willing to meet the other’s needs.
Members of the district bargaining team have said even the district’s own offer would require at least $45 million in structural budget cuts over the next three years. They estimated the union’s proposal would require upwards of $277 million in cuts in that same time frame.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero also spoke to reporters Wednesday, emphasizing the financial constraints PPS and other districts across the state are under. He said it’s an “undeniable fact” that educators’ work has changed in recent years, especially since the pandemic.
But he said the cost of the union’s demands is too high, and state revenue hasn’t kept up with inflation, putting the district in a financial situation where they’re unable to agree to their terms. He said the state needs to invest more.
“Since 2020, PPS’ revenue has increased by 9% but against 18% of inflation” he explained. “This funding has not kept pace with the needs of our students, nor our educators. Nor does it invest in K-12 schools at the level recommended by the state’s own Quality Educational Model. Let’s sit with that for a moment.”
Guerrero said this reality has been the backdrop through negotiations between the two sides for the better part of a year. He said the district is “not prepared to accept $370 million of (new) spending, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts it would require.” Those cuts, he warned, could mean fewer employees, higher class sizes and reduced services to students, despite the fact that those are some of the core reasons the union is striking.
“It’s challenging to hear the union call for increased student supports while standing in an uncompromising fashion on a package that would require cuts to the very supports that we have already put in place and made deep investments in,” Guerrero said. “It’s challenging to hear the union call for lower class sizes while continuing to advance a compensation package that would require us to cut teachers, ... making it impossible to meet class size mandates that they propose.
“We’re eager to work with our educators to find a solution within our fixed revenue and our operational limitations, but we’re unable to meet core demands,” he continued. “That remains the case, strike or no strike.”
Some see the current demands as a way to address years of issues.
Retired PPS teacher Elizabeth Draper joined the picket line Wednesday because “all of the problems that we have had for literally the last decade, decades, have not been resolved.”
Draper taught in the district for 32 years. She said they’ve been able to avoid a strike in the past because both sides were willing to compromise, which hasn’t been the case so far this year.
“The job is more and more demanding, especially after COVID. I don’t think people understand the amount of taxing — emotionally, mentally, physically — the toll (it) takes on teachers,” Draper said. “That’s why I’m here. I’m here to support the teachers. I’m here to support our students and our families.
“And I hope there’s some compromise on both parts,” she added, “and we’ll be able to resolve this more quickly than what it seems like it might be.”
The two sides have their next opportunity to find that elusive compromise on Friday, when PPS officials said they will have their next mediation session with the teachers union.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff contributed to this story.