Three days into a strike that has shut down Portland Public Schools, it seems everyone agrees that teachers should be paid more. They agree smaller classes mean more individualized attention, and that public schools need to be safe and healthy learning environments for Portland’s 40,000-plus students and thousands of educators.
The two sides may continue negotiating through the weekend after meeting with a state mediator Friday — the first time since the start of the strike. Union leaders and several state lawmakers from Portland are calling for school board members to get more involved with negotiations.
Final offers submitted by Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers before the strike show a gap of about $228 million over the course of three years, or about $76 million annually.
The debate is over new spending on top of the district’s annual operating budget, set at about $875 million for this school year. The district’s total budget this year is $1.9 billion. A substantial chunk of the district’s money won’t be affected by these negotiations, namely, the $1.25 billion that’s protected for bond-funded building renovations.
PPS’ total offer for the educators’ contract comes in at nearly $144 million over three years. That’s roughly $48 million per year.
The union has countered by asking for new investments that would cost a total of $372 million over three years, or about $124 million per year.
The largest disparities center on how much the district will spend on wages and benefits, as well as costs to increase teacher planning time, which union leaders said affects about 4,300 teachers and coaches.
The district has stressed that schools across the state are feeling the financial pressure of inflation, the end of COVID relief funding and prolonged student needs from the pandemic. Officials said they already started cost-saving measures and clawed back positions in January of this year, saving about $10 million by the end of the fiscal year in June.
And though the state earlier this year invested a historic $10.2 billion into the State School Fund — Oregon’s main pot of money that pays for K-12 operations, transportation and other costs — that was arguably below the cost educators said it would take to keep things at “current service levels.”
It was also below the suggestion of the state’s own Quality Education Model, a tool that was created to gauge how much it would cost to run “highly effective schools.” Oregon has never funded schools at the QEM level.
And state funding doesn’t account for new spending proposals in individual districts like Portland.
PAT leaders have voiced frustration with PPS’ representation of its budget, arguing the district is sharing budget forecasts related to PAT negotiations that don’t include the estimated increases in state funding. They’re speaking specifically about including money from the State School Fund and Oregon’s Student Investment Account — a dedicated stream of money established in 2019 that comes in from a business tax and is meant to address major issues and inequities facing Oregon schools.
The union says added money from the State School Fund and Student Investment Account totals more than $20 million per year for PPS. Union leaders argue the revenue increases alone could cover most, if not all, of the additional cost of salaries each year from PAT’s wage proposal.
State leaders, including Gov. Tina Kotek, have emphasized that Oregon doesn’t have more public money to give and they can’t just give money to Portland Public Schools to ease the strike.
“I’m not saying we have all the resources we need, and I expect our districts to figure it out,” Kotek said earlier this week. “I expect them to prioritize in-the-classroom experience to get the results for our kids. Because we will always have a funding challenge. That is not unusual. I need folks to stay at the table and figure it out.”
Though they didn’t list specifics, Democratic lawmakers have called on PPS school board members to get more involved, refocus its budget on “classroom and student learning” and cut “superfluous administration spending.”
Board members were not physically present for mediation Friday, PPS confirmed. Board leadership issued a statement: “The PPS Board has given clear direction to our bargaining team and is united in our push for a contract that rewards our educators while also being fiscally responsible. We believe our current offer achieves these goals and we look forward to our team’s discussions with PAT today.”
Firmer class size limits
The $228 million gap in PPS and PAT’s proposals does not include the cost to implement the union’s proposed “hard cap” on class sizes — where students would be placed in other classes or schools if their original class has reached its max, rather than paying the teacher more to handle more students, which the district already does.
Nor does it include any building modifications that might be required, either for safety and environmental concerns, like new HVAC systems, for example, or to adjust for class size caps — such as adding portables or doing room remodels.
Teachers on the picket line this week have repeatedly said they are struggling with too many kids in their classes. Data released by the Oregon Department of Education in October shows more than 2,000 classes in the district, across all grades and subjects, have more than 26 students, with about 100 of those ranging from 36 students to 56 students or more.
Broken down by subject, there are hundreds of classrooms that have 26 to 35 students for core subjects like math, science and social studies, which advocates and researchers alike have said makes learning environments less effective.
That said, the district’s median class size is 25 students. District leaders have touted this as a win, stressing that PPS currently has the lowest class sizes among the largest districts in the state, and three out of four of all its elementary classrooms have 25 students or fewer.
District officials said PPS would have to hire more than 500 full-time equivalent positions to implement the hard cap, and that it would cost at least $65 million more per year.
However, the debate may be moot.
Renard Adams, part of the district’s bargaining team, told OPB this week that, at this time, the district is “not at a point where we’re willing to accept those hard class caps because of what they mean for what students would need to do.”
PPS and PAT are $100 million apart when it comes to compensation and benefits. Where the district has offered $143 million for salaries, health insurance, overages and stipends, the union is calling for $243 million.
The annual, average teacher salary in the district now is in the mid-$80,000s. The starting salary is closer to $50,000. The district hasn’t calculated a new average based on its proposal, but officials did say that by the end of the contract under their proposal, 60% would earn more than $90,000, and 40% would earn over $100,000.
The union also wants $5.3 million more in Paid Leave Oregon contributions and $13.3 million for retirement annuity.
The union shared a budget memo this week that outlines the difference between PPS and PAT’s proposals specifically in reference to wages. The memo shows a $37 million gap between the two proposals over the course of three years. Broken down, it’s about $11 million to $13 million per year.
“We know that this is a possible proposal,” said PAT President Angela Bonilla. “There are options around ensuring that their ending fund balance is reinvested in schools, especially because they continue to pad that balance with recurring funds from the State School Fund.”
The next major chunk in the proposal gap is planning time, which breaks down into two different buckets.
The first bucket is what’s perhaps most often referred to as planning time — adding more full-time equivalent positions to share the burden and give teachers breaks so they have more time to plan within the school day.
PPS has proposed a total of 400 minutes of planning time per week, specifically for elementary-level teachers. This would be an expansion of the district’s current 320 required planning minutes.
District officials said this won’t result in an added cost because they were able to get that amount by rearranging schedules instead of hiring more. But they argue that’s the absolute ceiling of what they can offer without cutting into instructional time mandated by the state.
PPS officials said their offer only extends to elementary educators because middle and high school teachers are already guaranteed a period every day for planning.
The district did extend an offer earlier this week that reached 440 minutes of planning time for elementary teachers, but to do so, it would change the contract definition of planning time.
As it stands now, the union contract has a “narrow” definition of planning time, PPS officials explained, as a way to protect teachers from being pulled out of their planning time to do other things like supervise the cafeteria or meet with the principal.
The district’s offer this week essentially removes “donning and doffing” — the period of time just before and after a class that allows teachers to “get psyched up and packed up” — slightly broadening the definition to get those extra 40 minutes. District officials said the definition change would only affect elementary teachers.
By comparison, PAT is calling for a total of 440 minutes of planning time per week for all K-12 teachers.
The other planning time debate in bargaining negotiations involves what are known as added days. This refers to additional non-student days at the front and back end of the school year during which teachers can plan and grade. The union’s proposal would cost an extra $3.8 million to get these days, compared to the district’s plan.
District officials said added days are more flexible since schedules can be more easily changed. The weekly planning minutes, they said, require mandatory staffing.
Planning time in these two buckets accounts for nearly $110 million of the gap between PPS and PAT’s final proposals.
Inadequate funding, calls for board intervention
The Portland Association of Teachers stands firm that the money for their proposal is available in the district. A similar sentiment was shared by the union’s parent organization, the Oregon Education Association, and several lawmakers this week.
Portland Democrats from Oregon’s House and Senate wrote a letter to the PPS school board Thursday, saying they were surprised to hear accusations from district leaders that the Legislature did not adequately fund schools this past session. With a total statewide K-12 budget of $15.3 billion, including local property taxes, lawmakers said this is the most money ever allocated to Oregon schools in a two-year budget cycle.
They also said it was $800 million more than state budget experts said was needed to keep schools running as-is, and a 10% increase over total school funding last biennium.
They also called out figures the union has noted. State data debated earlier this school year by the union and district shows PPS spends about 48% of its budget directly in the classroom, while comparable districts spend about 55%. Additionally, PPS spends about 6% on administration, while comparable districts spend closer to 3%.
“[It]is time that you, as the elected leaders of the school district, take the reins of this situation,” lawmakers wrote. “What our students need now is leadership that shows them you will do what it takes to invest in their futures, and that starts with coming to the table.”
This response came after Guerrero told reporters this week that 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,” Guerrero said Wednesday. “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 throughout negotiations. 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.”
Members of the district bargaining team have previously 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 PAT proposal would require upwards of $277 million in cuts in that same time frame.
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.
“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 said. “That remains the case, strike or no strike.”
Will Howell, a spokesperson with the district, said the union keeps pointing to pots of money that are insufficient to cover the gap in their proposals.
He said even if the district actively cut all administrators, a step the union isn’t actually proposing, it would save $60 million, but it would also mean schools don’t have key positions like principals and vice-principals.
If they used all of the district’s reserves, which the union isn’t proposing either, it would save another $60 million. But then schools wouldn’t be protected in the event of emergencies, from replacing a roof to bracing through a government shutdown.
“Take that off the bill, and you’re still short,” Howell said, adding that these changes have negative impacts on students too. “It just isn’t there.”
The union has suggested the district dip more into its general fund, but not, as they clarified, to the point that it violates minimum ratios set by district policy. The union says that alone could free up about $53 million over three years.
This is one of the solutions presented by the union, which leaders said could save $86 million-plus. Some of the other solutions center around trimming administrative costs, largely at the district’s central office, and spending on contracted services.
“Our position is that we need to make sure our school district has the foundation to best serve students and to support their educators in doing so,” PAT President Bonilla said. “And we’re going to do whatever it takes to get language in our contract that ensures that.”
Reporting by Dirk VanderHart and Dave Miller contributed to this story.