As Portland Public Schools teachers strike for a second day in a row, key Democratic lawmakers say not to expect Salem to come to the rescue.
Legislators responsible for crafting Oregon’s education budget say they’ve been caught in the middle in recent weeks, as Portland teachers fight for pay increases and class size reductions, and the district argues such tweaks would ratchet up costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s money leaders say they don’t have.
With schools shuttered and kids at home, the pressure is greater than ever for lawmakers to somehow find money to avert a protracted strike.
“I’ve gotten several calls from people, from teachers and administrators saying, ‘Is there any way we can get some money?’” said state Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat and co-chair of the budget subcommittee on education. “I have to say, ‘Not that I know of.’”
“I’m very frustrated,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, one of the state’s lead budget writers, who said she’d gotten calls and emails asking for the Legislature to swoop in. Steiner said Wednesday there were no plans to pass an emergency funding package through the Legislature’s emergency board when lawmakers convene in Salem next week. “I’m not swooping.”
The reticence is partly a nod to normal budgeting procedures. It would be unusual — and scandalous in many corners of the state — for the Legislature to find a special pool of money just for Portland schools, particularly since other districts face similar issues. Two of the state’s largest districts, Bend-La Pine and Salem-Keizer, appear to be on a similar path as PPS, with contract talks stretching on for months.
“We can’t give money just to PPS, and we’re talking here about additional ongoing funding, not just a one-time appropriation,” said state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Majority Democrats — many of whom get campaign support from teachers unions — also say they’ve done all they can.
Buoyed by an eye-popping revenue forecast, lawmakers this year put $10.2 billion into the two-year budget for K-12 schools. It was $900 million more than the previous budget cycle, and $300 million more than Gov. Tina Kotek had initially proposed. Local property taxes added another $5.1 billion to school funding, and districts have access to additional money through a new business tax passed in 2019.
But even with that increase, the schools budget was a hot potato. Democrats insisted it amounted to a substantial increase over current funding levels, while some Republicans urged higher spending. School districts, meanwhile, warned it wasn’t enough.
“It’s still a cut to the current service level,” PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said in May.
With a strike now underway — and PPS saying it would need more than $200 million to meet teachers’ demands — district officials are continuing to sound that note far more loudly.
“We wouldn’t be in this position had the legislative session gone differently,” Guerrero said in a press conference on Wednesday. Since 2020, he said, the district’s funding had increased by 9% while inflation had driven up costs by 18%.
PPS Board Chair Gary Hollands was more blunt. “The excuse that we don’t have more money is unacceptable,” he said. “When we make things a priority, we find the money.”
Some district officials have taken the message directly to lawmakers. On Wednesday, Guerrero’s chief of staff responded to a social media post in support of the strike by state Rep. Travis Nelson, D-Portland, calling Nelson’s sentiment “performative.” “Please work with your legislative colleagues to address underinvestment in Oregon K12 schools,” the chief of staff Jonathan Garcia wrote. “All K12 schools are confronting a fiscal cliff because you failed to adequately fund the schools you represent.”
After a short exchange with Nelson, Garcia wound up deleting his posts.
Lawmakers like Frederick agree that more money is needed for K-12 schools. Oregon’s Quality Education Model, which estimates what it would cost to create “highly effective” schools that boost student achievement, suggests state funding of $13.2 billion in the current budget.
“There was never any assumption that we were going to reach the levels that we needed to reach — never an assumption that we were going to reach the cost of living and inflation issues,” Frederick said. “But we did something. We found a billion dollars more.”
That message has been consistent this week among Portland-area Democrats. State Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, attended a rally at Roosevelt High School on Wednesday to support teachers, but told OPB the Legislature shouldn’t step in to end the strike. She instead favors long-term solutions to address Portland’s high cost of living.
State Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, helps write the schools budget alongside Frederick. She said lawmakers had done their jobs, and the question now is how schools spend available money.
“Local bargaining means that workers and administrators have an opportunity to talk about priorities and where the money will be spent,” McLain said, adding that lawmakers have been looking into setting a minimum starting salary for teachers.
The message extends to the top of the party. Earlier this week, Gov. Tina Kotek urged PPS officials and union leaders to stay at the negotiating table to avert a strike. The governor suggested it would be irresponsible for the district to take on $200 million in obligations it could not pay for, but she seemed to foreclose any possibility of more money from the state.
“I’m asking everyone to stretch with the resources they have to meet the goals that we all share,” Kotek said, calling the possibility of increased funding a “conversation for 2025,” when lawmakers will craft the next two-year budget.
There is precedent for governments stepping in to avert a teachers strike in Portland.
In 2003, the Portland City Council averted a looming strike by temporarily increasing the local business license tax rate, raising about $20 million to help fill a budget gap.
But the gap between teachers’ demands and district resources this time is far larger, and the city’s already high taxes have led some residents to move away. Neither Portland nor Multnomah County leaders have engaged with PPS or PAT leaders in recent weeks, city and county staffers said. They, too, have largely placed the responsibility of resolving the strike squarely at the feet of the state.
In fact, Frederick and other Democrats point out there is money that might solve the funding crunches in Portland and schools around the state.
Next year, Oregon will return $5.6 billion in personal income taxes to taxpayers as part of the state’s one-of-a-kind “kicker” law. The policy refunds taxes when they come in at least 2% above initial projections.
“I’ve heard lots of people say there’s lots of money out there,” Frederick said. “Well there is! It’s called the kicker.”
The kicker is enshrined in the state constitution and can only be removed by voters — a prospect that’s considered highly unlikely. Lawmakers can alter or suspend the kicker with a vote of two-thirds of members in each chamber, but Republican lawmakers who applaud the kicker are all but certain to kill any such proposal to do so.
And in fact, Democrats are not showing any signs they’d seriously try. Asked about diverting kicker funds this week, Kotek showed no interest.
“If Oregonians want to have a conversation of where the personal income tax kicker goes in the future, let’s have that,” she said. “But right now, I think a lot of folks are going to need that income tax relief next year.”
OPB reporters Alex Zielinski and Lauren Dake contributed to this report.