Hundreds of Portland teachers rallied along Northwest 23rd Avenue and Burnside Street Wednesday morning.
They carried placards saying “On strike for safe schools” and “Teaching Should Not be a Debt Sentence.”
Lincoln High teacher Erik Velasquez was one of many educators who seemed heartened that the union has made some concessions in bargaining this week.
“I think that we’re going in the right direction right now. Where we need to get to a middle point,” he said.
“We were so apart from each other.”
Velasquez stressed that both sides need to make compromises to be able to reach an agreement. And, he adds, Oregonians should understand that the strike is not just about Portland Public Schools.
“This is going to keep happening with other districts,” Velasquez said. “If the legislators don’t come in and step in and help in this situation, this is going to get bigger.”
Oregon legislators have defended their spending levels — arguing they funded schools at levels education advocates asked for.
State officials did look through the Portland Public Schools budget recently and identified about $12 million that could be used to bring the two sides together. But $12 million is only a fraction of the difference between the school district proposal and that of the Portland Association of Teachers.
As a single parent, Velasquez said the strike is difficult. He usually makes $72,000 a year, but he’s not getting his salary while he’s on strike. Instead, he’s living off the $120-a-day union stipend, which he said isn’t enough to meet the cost of utilities, food and rent.
But that does not mean he’s giving up.
“I’m still strong in this,” Velasquez said. “I’m still fighting and we’re going to find solutions for it.”
Next to Velasquez stands his 10-year-old daughter, Giuliana, sporting a Maleficent hat and roller skates. She seems a little bewildered by the whole thing and just wants to get back to class and her friends at nearby Ainsworth Elementary School.
“There’s been COVID. Last year my class was really stressful and now the strike. It’s all really confusing,” she said.
In a Starbucks next to the rally, five teachers from West Sylvan Middle School met to talk about the strike. Most brought their own flasks filled with coffee from home.
They seemed pleased that after two weeks on strike, at last negotiations feel like they’re moving. But the teachers are still angry at administrators for not seeming to take their concerns seriously.
Stacie Tew gives an example. She recently gave a vocabulary test on words that her sixth grade students had been working on for weeks. Parents had even been emailed about the test.
“The questions were not new,” Tew said. “I had kids go into full trauma response to being asked to take a quiz.”
One wouldn’t sit at her desk, another walked to the back of the class and then walked out.
“This is a change,” Tew said. “This didn’t used to happen.”
Tew said more than a third of her kids now have intense support needs and that there aren’t enough counselors to deal with their problems. She says when the union tells administrators about the problems, they don’t seem to believe it, and it feels disrespectful.
“First and foremost we want to be taken seriously by the district and by our administration when we share legitimate needs and concerns,” Tew said.
As a result, Tew and all the dozen or so teachers OPB spoke to Wednesday said they want to get back to the classroom, but they say they remain fully behind the strike.
Meanwhile, negotiations continue.