Portland parents have long complained about “No School November.” With the combination of teacher planning days, Veterans Day and the week off over Thanksgiving, parents have often felt that students seem to miss more school than they attend this time of year.
This year, that feeling is stronger. The district confirmed Sunday night that students would not be in classes Monday due to the ongoing teachers strike, and a failure to reach a contract over the weekend.
Students of Portland Public Schools, or PPS, haven’t had a single school day this month. They’re about to go for their ninth November day without school, when you add up days lost to the strike, holidays and planning days. And the month isn’t even half over, with Thanksgiving still to come.
Latest proposals show gap may be closing
In a sign talks are progressing, and with less than a week before the district starts its weeklong Thanksgiving holiday, both teachers and administrators submitted two of their most comprehensive contract packages to date. Both deals show movement and levels of agreement, in the form of green, highlighted language in the two proposals.
For instance, the two proposals both offer stipends to educators who teach in bilingual programs or have advanced degrees. The two proposals agree on the same number of holidays and days teachers can have for grading, and they agree on fewer required meetings for teachers.
But the two proposals also reflect ongoing differences between the two sides, and the union had harsh words for the district proposal Sunday night.
“PPS has the ability to end the strike and put resources into schools that will benefit kids and yet they chose to squander another weekend and continue the strike,” Portland Association of Teachers, or PAT, president Angela Bonilla said in a statement.
The school district presented a 58-page, three-year contract worth a little more than $147 million. The PPS offer includes $30.5 million in total proposals added since the “final offer” was submitted in September. The additional investments include $11.8 million for planning time (most of it in the elementary grades), $6.5 million in stipends and pay for educators taking on additional responsibilities, as well as one year of a “workload relief” benefit at a cost of $4.5 million, largely intended to supplement the state’s new Paid Leave Oregon program.
Cost of living increases for teachers are only slightly changed in the PPS proposal, at close to an 11% increase over the three-year deal. However, by accounting for attrition among other technical changes, the district says it reduced the cost of the salary proposal by more than $27 million over the three contract years.
At 103 pages, the PAT proposal spells out certain issues in ways that the latest PPS offer doesn’t, such as rules for teachers in early childhood programs and possible changes to how the district limits class sizes.
On class size, the district and union appear to be finding common ground when it comes to limiting the caseloads for teachers of students with disabilities. One reason the district’s proposal is substantially shorter than the union’s is that administrators chose not to open up “permissive” areas of bargaining. Those are topics that administrators interpret as not mandatory for inclusion in the teachers’ contract.
The big dollar items remain major points of contention, however. The union’s cost-of-living proposal remains higher than the district, with PAT asking for close to 19% raises over three years. That is lower than teachers had previously requested, but significantly far apart from the district proposal.
Sufficient planning time for teachers remains a sticking point, as well. The district’s $11.8 million dedicated to planning time is predicated on elementary teachers having 410 minutes of paid planning time per week. The union has asked for 440 minutes for elementary teachers.
Strain of strike affecting many
The impact of the strike is already spreading well beyond the time lost in classroom instruction. The consecutive days of lost school time are having an effect, even on supportive parents who say they continue to scramble for ways to supervise out-of-school children while trying to stay on top of work and other obligations.
“They deserve to be in school right now learning, and they’re not, and we don’t know when they’re going to go back,” parent Rosa Yadira Ortiz said. Ortiz has twin third graders who attend the Spanish immersion program at Atkinson Elementary School in Southeast Portland.
The tension appears to be mounting between the two sides, with some PAT supporters taking their activism uncomfortably close to district officials recently. Last week, demonstrators rallied outside the homes of PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia, and marched through a shuttered Oregon Convention Center in search of school board member, Andrew Scott. Scott is the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Metro, the Portland area’s regional government which controls the convention center.
The state’s chief financial officer and officials at the Oregon Department of Education have examined the budget and financial projections the two sides are relying on to guide the contract. District officials said the state’s analysis largely supported their position: That there aren’t large sums of money available to support the teachers’ proposals. PAT countered that the outside examination did find some money available to help fund their priorities.
The labor unrest at PPS has spread to two more unions, with the Portland Federation of School Professionals and the Service Employees International Union both calling for mediation assistance. Representatives of both unions testified to the school board last week, expressing frustration at the slow pace of bargaining.
“We are encouraged to hear that the chair believes that we are working toward solutions because my members have expressed to me that they are currently in a crisis of faith with the administration of Portland Public Schools,” acting PFSP president Elizabeth Held told school board members at the most recent board meeting, noting that some of her members are uncomfortable being assigned duties as reading coaches while teachers are striking.
“I have members reaching out to me every day, disgusted by the fact that they’ve been asked to teach — excuse me — coach, for our lowest performing students,” Held said.
Bargaining teams from PAT and PPS continued to meet over the holiday weekend through a state mediator.
Other education tensions in Oregon
Portland is not the only school system facing labor tensions. The ongoing need for daily state mediation services in PPS threw a wrench into efforts to settle a teachers’ contract in Oregon’s next-largest district, Salem-Keizer. Gov. Tina Kotek intervened to keep the mediator at work in Portland while also assigning the state’s chief financial officer to work on a shared understanding between teachers and administrators, regarding available funds to settle the contract.
“My focus continues to be on providing the support needed to deliver a fair contract for PPS educators and return students to the classroom,” Gov. Kotek in a message sent to OPB.
Meanwhile, teachers and administrators in Bend-La Pine Public Schools are meeting frequently to settle their contract, with both sides feeling optimistic they can avoid a strike. Veterans of strikes in Southwest Washington have said avoiding a strike is a good idea because of the lasting damage it can cause to relationships in school communities.
Educators at the collegiate level in Eugene are arguably the closest to trading their grade books for picket signs, as University of Oregon’s Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation voted to authorize a strike last week. They could strike before the end of this month.
The Oregon Education Association in September said that more than 70 districts will have contract negotiations this school year.