Amid Portland teachers strike, SW Washington districts reflect on impacts of their own recent walkouts

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
Nov. 7, 2023 2 p.m.

Parents, union leaders and school officials in Clark County, Washington, said they are still learning the extent of the impact from recent teacher strikes.

The first reports of teachers striking in Portland drummed up bad memories for Courtney Bisig. She saw online arguments and finger-pointing that felt frustratingly familiar.

“It’s hard to read,” Bisig said. “We just went through it.”


Labor disputes have a way of splitting factions, she said, even among parents who might otherwise agree on most things. Two of Bisig’s children are enrolled in Vancouver’s Evergreen School District, where the school year started with more than a week of picket lines and cancelled classes.

That district and one in nearby Camas recently endured contentious contract negotiations. And each of them saw walkouts that disrupted thousands of families’ daily lives.

FILE: Members and supporters of the Camas Education Association demonstrate outside of Camas High School on Aug. 28, 2023. The strike canceled classes for the start of the school year.

FILE: Members and supporters of the Camas Education Association demonstrate outside of Camas High School on Aug. 28, 2023. The strike canceled classes for the start of the school year.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Contracts have been signed since, but parents, union leaders and school officials in Clark County, Washington, said in interviews that they are still learning how far-reaching the impact of the strikes will be.

The most common refrain: They wished the work stoppage had been averted.

“Nobody teaches you in superintendent school how to go through a strike,” said John Anzalone, who became Camas School District’s superintendent two years ago. “I think when you go through something like this, it’s important to help others, too.”

Those in Southwest Washington have the benefit of hindsight as they watch Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, undergo its first-ever teacher walkout, which started last week.

Lessons learned

The strikes at Evergreen and Camas both began in late August. Each chewed up more than a week of classroom time. Like the strike in Portland, the contract negotiations largely faltered over pay, special education support and classroom sizes.

Many who were there for the strikes stressed that families need to be kept informed. The walkouts forced parents and guardians to find day care or keep their children with them at work while waiting for a return to routine.

The scale of a major labor strike can make it difficult for families to feel like they are receiving accurate information from either side, said former Evergreen School District board member Rachael Rogers.

“It can be hard to know what to believe,” Rogers said, describing the unions and districts as both delivering separate updates on negotiations. One example, she said, was pay.

“We’d have the district saying, ‘The union is only after money,’ and the union saying, ‘We don’t really care about the money, we just want what they promised us for pay last time,’” Rogers said.

Conflicting messages led many parents and community members to pick sides without trying to learn where the disagreements laid. Rogers said that, as a parent in the district, she found herself aligning with teachers.

“The teachers are really a compelling presence and made compelling reasons for what they need,” she said. “And as parents we have a lot more contact with teachers than we ever do with the district admin.”

Bisig said she found herself defending teachers in regular conversation at the grocery store and while getting gas. The mother-of-three said people critical of teachers argued that they should return to work without a contract.

“The main comment that I heard was, ‘We’re the taxpayers. The taxpayers want you back in the classroom,’” Bisig said.

To some families, the strike drew them closer to educators. Evergreen parent Meghan Taylor said it helped show her the struggle faced by her son’s fourth grade teacher. Taylor said she worried about growing class sizes and a lack of support for special education students.

“The teachers want more support,” Taylor said. “That’s all they really kept asking for when they were asking for the new contract.”


Rob Perkins, who joined the Evergreen board in 2014, agreed messaging was an ongoing issue. He said it is vital to help the public understand issues, but it can be complicated. He added that many moments of debate in the U.S. quickly devolve into finger-pointing.

“I think you have to acknowledge that disagreement doesn’t mean one side is right and one side is wrong,” Perkins said. “What it means is there’s a disagreement.”

Districts can face similar problems — such as budget shortfalls — but the causes may vary, Perkins added. Evergreen’s budget, for example, grappled with declining enrollment and staffing shortages for paraeducators, he said.

In the wake of the strike, Evergreen created a new advisory committee comprised of more than 50 people. Perkins said its function is to advise leadership on “community issues.” He noted that similar boards existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

To Bisig, that committee is only as successful as the district leadership allows it to be.

She and Taylor are among a group of parents who formed a Facebook group during the strike, acting as a conduit between families and teachers. Supporters would bring teachers snacks on the picket line and advocate for them at public meetings. Neither of them were picked to be on the district’s new advisory committee.

“If they listen to what community members have to say, listen to their viewpoints and listen to what they’re experiencing at home,” Bisig said, “then I think it could be successful.”

Administrators at the Evergreen School District declined to comment for this article.

Lasting effects

The effects of the strikes at Evergreen and Camas didn’t end the day the two sides inked a contract. Nor did it end when classrooms reopened.

Instead, the connections people made at the time, such as the Evergreen Facebook group, appear to be turning political. Bisig said she and others have a multi-year plan to unseat members of the current board.

Parents like Bisig spread blame from the elected board members to the top administrators, who are overseen by the board. Regardless of their intention, she said, the strike caused more harm than good.

“You need different leadership, you need different people in there, different views, different minds,” she said. “You need fresh ideas and people to get in there and do the work.”

Similar grumblings are occurring in Portland already. Sixteen Oregon legislators last week co-wrote a letter asking the PPS school board to take a firmer grip on contract negotiations. It specifically asked the district to examine its “superfluous” spending for administrators.

Camas and Evergreen each have three board seats up for election this year. While the strikes occurred late in the political season, that hasn’t stopped two people from launching write-in campaigns in the Camas School District, union officials said.

In Evergreen, Bisig said she and others plan to wait until the next election cycle. A write-in campaign, she said, seemed like a longshot. Now they are “patiently waiting,” she said.

Perkins, whom voters will decide whether to reelect this month, acknowledged a sense of frustration at recent school board meetings. The board’s role during contract negotiations is a nuanced one, he said. They help set big picture policies but they are not micromanagers of teachers nor administrators.

“We set and approve a strategic plan for the district,” he said. “But we leave the other minutiae of class sizes and what kind of breaks teachers get, we leave that to them. That’s why we hired them.”

Anzalone, the district superintendent in Camas, said he understands how events like a strike can galvanize people politically.

“That’s the democratic process,” he said. “I think it’s great for people to say, ‘Hey, I don’t like how this went down and I want change.’”

When asked what he would say to critics of district officials, Anzalone said he knows the pains brought by contract negotiations and work stoppages. It is often more difficult than it appears to keep budgets balanced, he said.

“The root cause of all of this is making sure that education is adequately funded,” Anzalone said. “We don’t want to be fighting over resources. We’re all in this for the kids. But we get put in these positions because, frankly, there isn’t enough money to go around.”

The strike is poised to be a lesson for Camas. Union officials and Anzalone said they have met once already to reflect on the past negotiations and where things went wrong. They plan to meet more in the future.

The new contract ends in two years.