Think Out Loud

District, union leaders on contract negotiations to end Portland teachers strike

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Nov. 16, 2023 5:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Nov. 16

Portland Association of Teachers hold a rally outside of the Portland Public Schools district office in Portland, Nov. 7, 2023, calling on the district to help bridge the gap at the bargaining table.

Portland Association of Teachers hold a rally outside of the Portland Public Schools district office in Portland, Nov. 7, 2023, calling on the district to help bridge the gap at the bargaining table.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Portland Public Schools students are out of class for the 10th day this month as the first strike in the district’s history continues. The Portland Association of Teachers claims the most recent offer it presented to the district would significantly reduce the financial gap between the two sides, but the district has disputed how much the proposal would actually save.

Renard Adams is chief of research, assessment and accountability for PPS. Angela Bonilla is the president of PAT. They join us with the latest on where negotiations stand.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It’s now been 16 days since Portland Public Schools teachers began their first ever strike. With no school next week, it’s becoming increasingly possible that the first day of school in November for 44,000 students will be Monday, November 27th. Even that would take a breakthrough in negotiations that, today, feels remote. We’ll talk with the head of the teachers union in a few minutes. We start right now with Doctor Renard Adams. He is the chief of research assessment and accountability for Portland Public Schools and he’s a member of the district’s bargaining team. Welcome back to the show.

Renard Adams: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Dave.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for where you think we are right now?

Adams: Well, I would say, I think we’re a little bit closer than we have been. We’ve been listening intently to the Teachers Association and making compromises on issues that are important to them, like planning time, special education, early childhood and we’re working through some concepts on workload relief.

Miller: What are the mediated sessions actually like? I mean, is this a kind of sequential one on one with the district and the mediator and then the mediator and the union, or are you all ever in the same room at the same time?

Adams: So that’s a great question. Happy to elaborate for people who are curious. The association and the district each have a room, a caucus room, and then the mediator has a space where the mediator brings us together to either have listening conversations, exchange concepts, or to have a full exchange of those proposals. Once we exchange those proposals or those concepts, we then go back to our caucus rooms, because the whole group doesn’t go in with the mediator. We typically have, from each group, subject matter experts who go and so we come back and we debrief with the entire caucus and then we determine how we would best respond to any proposal we’ve received or make any proposal or offer and create that.

Miller: The tone has changed, I think, a little bit in recent days. Both sides have been talking about incremental progress. You noted it just now. Do you feel like there has been a turning point?

Adams: Well, I think we have had some interesting moments that have led us to some greater clarity. I think we’re in a space now where we’re hearing them and they’re hearing us.

Miller: What’s an interesting moment and what’s a clarity?

Adams: Well, I think having the governor send in the state CFO to look at our financials was a very pivotal moment, to have them confirm our numbers. That was our third independent analysis. I think that was important because we were so far apart on the math and that was, I think, keeping us from bridging towards compromise and now that that’s happened and we’ve been able to be in spaces, I think people are having their listening ears on and we’re just listening to each other and I know we are trying to make compromises that keep students at the center, that will get kids back in school as soon as possible and that will meet some of the union’s requests.

Miller: On Tuesday, it seemed like there was a breakthrough. The union said that they had made big concessions in their class size cap demands. But then yesterday, you, the district, said that their math was wrong. Can you explain the discrepancy?

Adams: Sure. What we believe happened is a calculation error. What we were looking at was a class load and caseload caps and that cost in our estimation over the next two years was going to be about $100 million or a little above that. The union countered with an idea of removing overages from the contract, which is a $6 million savings over the next two years, and proposed that we would achieve the class size caseload of relief with only 37 additional educators. They happily shared their spreadsheets with us and we compared that to our own numbers and our own calculations. It has appeared as if they had only calculated the number of educators needed at the elementary level and hadn’t included those needed at the middle school, high school level, and some of our mental health specialists like social workers, counselors and psychiatrists.

Miller: So to boil that down, what had seemed like bridging a gap and reducing the gap between the two proposals by about $100 million, that that’s no longer the case based on your math?

Adams: Based on our math, though the gap is bridged, it has reduced by about $30 million.

Miller: Have you gotten a response from the union about your calculations?

Adams: We have not. Not directly.

Miller: So this means when you add up the existing gulf, if I’m not wrong, that there’s over $200 million in your proposal and their proposal, is that right?

Adams: That is correct.

Miller: Let’s say that you were able to find a way to achieve the savings or both of you together, that they had said were in that proposal on Tuesday, that would still mean, if my sort of back of the envelope math is correct, that you’d be spending $250 million or so more than you have coming in over the next three years. First of all, is that basic assessment right in your mind?

Adams: That sounds about right, based on my mental math right in the moment.

Miller: $250 million more over the next three years. Can you give us a sense for the cuts you’d have to make in order to pay for that over the course of three years?

Adams: We would not be able to bridge that much of a gap. What we have on the table right now is a $147 million settlement package.

Miller: Just to be clear, so people hear that. That’s on top of the $800-plus million dollars for this year’s accepted budget and likely for the next two years. So you’re saying it’s $150 million more than you have budgeted for currently?

Adams: Yes. And that leaves us with about $103 million that we’d need to cut over the next three years, starting with this year.

Miller: Because you’d be using some of the reserve funds?

Adams: Correct, and what we don’t want to do is impact the student experience in the schoolhouse. And so given that 90% of our dollars go into buildings, 85% of our money pays for people and that administration is only about 5% of our budget, we know we need to do some belt tightening all around. And we have not yet identified any particular area for budget cuts. We’re running and creating a list of some areas, but that will happen through the budget process that will occur after this contract is settled.

Miller: But I want to get clarity on this for listeners because I’ve heard this from a lot of people who say they’ve heard what the union has been saying for months now. The basic line is the district has money, they’re not spending it the right way. So I want you to walk us through, if you can, what it would actually mean if you said fine, we will spend $250 million more. What would that actually mean? And why are you saying it is impossible?

Adams: Sure. Thank you, Dave, for the question. I appreciate it. What that would mean, bridging that much of a gap which, $250 million is getting close to like a third of our overall operating budget. Having to cut that much would be debilitating, it would affect students, it would affect schools, it would mean layoffs, it would mean higher class sizes, it would mean all the things we’re trying to avoid right now.

Miller: One of the more contentious issues that’s connected to the bargaining process is the question of when teachers would lose their district sponsored health insurance. Can you illuminate this for us from the district’s perspective? What’s the timeline here?

Adams: So we don’t anticipate any teacher having a lapse in insurance because the OEA has committed to PAT that they will pick up striking PAT members COBRA payments if necessary.

Miller: So that’s separate. So you’re saying the district would stop paying, but teachers would not lose insurance because the statewide teachers union organization would pick up the tab?

Adams: That’s correct.

Miller: $5 million or so a month is what I’ve read.

Adams: That’s my understanding. That’s correct.

Miller: Where does bargaining stand with the other represented employees who also work for Portland Public Schools? Obviously, we’ve all been focused very intently, those of us especially who have kids in the district, on the Portland Association of Teachers, because this is a strike right now. But you’re negotiating with other unions at the same time, right?

Adams: We are, we’re negotiating with our PFSP members and our SEIU members.

Miller: What are the kinds of jobs that members of those two unions do?

Adams: Custodial, nutrition, speech and language pathologists, paraprofessionals.

Miller: How do negotiations with the teachers’ union affect those other negotiations?

Adams: Well, what I’d like to say is, as you know, our budget is a pie and not a well. And so we are trying to bring about a settlement by making compromises with the Portland Association of Teachers that will also allow us to financially work with our other bargaining units and bring them some relief as well.

Miller: Are you assuming that whatever say, cost of living adjustment, increase in salaries and compensation for teachers, whatever one you eventually agree on for teachers, might also have to be given to the other unions?

Adams: So I would say that it all depends on where we land. We are committed to paying the earnings of our lowest paid employees and that might amount to more of a percentage. It just depends on where we land with this contract.

Miller: The reason I’m asking is, whatever percentage increase you end up giving to teachers, it’s hard to imagine those other unions saying, wait a minute, you gave this to teachers. How can you not at least give that to us?

Adams: I know and that’ll all be worked out at the negotiations table. We have to work within our means and the one thing we continue to say is we can’t give what we don’t have, and we’re trying to make sure we take care of all of our employees because they’re all so very valued.

Miller: Under Oregon law, K-8 students have to receive at least 900 hours of instructional time. High schoolers have to receive more. It’s actually different for 11th graders, I think.

Adams: And seniors, yes.


Miller: But, the point is that, if I’m not mistaken, students in PPS already are going to be under the minimum thresholds. That’s just one more marker, a sort of a numerical marker, of what’s been lost already. What are the various options for adding instructional time when this is all said and done?

Adams: So that’s a great question. What I want everyone to know is we’ll need to negotiate that as well with the association, right?

Miller: That’s one of the things I was wondering. I mean, this is a statute. Kids, so says Oregon law, have to get this or else I think you have to get out a kind of a get out of jail free card from the state. But even though it’s in statute, you still have to bargain this?

Adams: Yes, because we need to talk about which days will be recouped. Are we going to, for example, have school in session on President’s Day? Are we going to, for example, have to extend the school year by a certain number of days to make up those hours?

Miller: In June?

Adams: In June, yes. All of that needs to be negotiated, to discuss with the Association as well. What we want is students to not leave this school year without their required instructional hours. And that’s why we’re trying to compromise within our means, with students at the center, to get our students back in school as soon as possible.

Miller: Speaking of that, unless there’s a breakthrough like right now or in the coming hours, the earliest Portland school kids are going to be returning to school is Monday, November 27th. Will you be negotiating through this weekend and throughout next week, even though it’s Thanksgiving? I’m asking this on behalf of 44,000 kids.

Adams: So we’ve remained available and willing to negotiate as the mediator is available and call us into negotiations.

Miller: It’s dependent on one person’s availability at this point?

Adams: Well, the mediator has made themselves available to us very openly and said that they are available any day, night, at a moment’s notice, when we’re ready to pass a proposal. We are prepared to work weekends. We’ve worked weekends thus far. And next week we’re prepared to work as well.

Miller: Renard Adams, thank you very much.

Adams: Thank you.

Miller: Dr. Renard Adams is the chief of research, assessment and accountability for Portland Public Schools and a member of the district’s bargaining team.

Angela Bonilla is the president of the Portland Association of Teachers and she joins us once again. Thanks very much for joining us. Angela, are you there?

Angela Bonilla: Yes, I’m here. Can you hear me?

Miller: I can. That was a relief. OK, because we’ve got a lot to talk about. Can you give us a sense for where you think we are right now?

Bonilla: Well, I think for the first time since we began negotiations, we have had the district bargaining team actually talk to us about class size and that is a huge movement on their behalf. And we’re super excited to actually talk through the nitty gritty of what does it look like to have a class size cap that serves our students and ensures that we don’t have these overloaded and unbalanced classes, especially in our Title 1 schools. Otherwise…

Miller: Let’s drill down into class size, because even though you’re saying that there’s been movement there, there’s also, at least publicly, a lack of clarity, even just on this one question. They say, as I think you just heard and obviously you’ve heard before, that you failed to account for some really significant costs, in particular for middle school and high school teachers, and for social workers, school psychologists and speech pathologists, which they say means that the offer you said that was gonna mean $100 million reduction, in your ask, most of that reduction, they say evaporated. What’s your response?

Bonilla: Well, my response is that we are doing the calculations and moving as quickly as possible. We’re talking a matter of hours, not days, because our students are out of school. And so there are some things that we need to clean up, which we’re working on right now. And we’ve brought in experts from other locals to help us kind of do this costing and budgeting and help us orient ourselves so that we can provide the best financial movement we can.

I think when it comes to the class size issue, we’re also trying to look at what other locals and other states have done. The majority of states in this nation, including Florida, Arkansas and Alabama, have class size caps in their state law. And lots of locals have it in their contracts and they still exist and the things haven’t exploded in their districts. And so we know it’s possible and we gave it a shot. The district actually responded. And so now we are going to refine that proposal and respond in kind. So that is what the majority of our morning has been, is just working through those proposals, getting more information, getting more information, so that we can give the district the appropriate response.

I will say that one thing we do know about Portland Public Schools and their financing is that year after year, they predict a deficit and year after year they have a surplus at the end of their budget. So that shows us a pattern that they consistently misforecast their funding and always under forecast it, which is typically good for budgeting, but not good when we have students in classes of 32 and 33.

Miller: Can you help me understand the basic mechanism here for how you say you are going to be addressing class sizes, but not adding significantly to the cost of operations of the school? I mean, the way I’ve understood this in the past is if you want to have fewer kids in classes, you need more classes, meaning you need more teachers and that’s why having smaller classes can be great for kids, but a cost for a district. The idea here was, if I understand correctly, we’ll have new committees or groups of volunteers at the school level, who if there needs to be a class size that’s above a cap, the committee would get together and they would sort of talk about that.

The only way this makes sense to me, if it’s going to be an enormous $100 million cost saving, is if for the most part, those committees always say yes to the larger classes, which makes me wonder what this would actually accomplish.

Bonilla: Yeah. Thank you for the question. So, a lot of the language that we brought forth came from the progress we’ve seen happen in St. Paul, with their class size cap and target sizes for their students and in their district. So they have a similarly sized district. They have about 80 schools. They have about nine comprehensive high schools, very similar to Portland Public Schools. And what we’ve seen since they got this language for class size caps in about 2018, is that those committees for the most part are able to add additional staff if needed or add additional support. So that might look like additional reading intervention, ensuring that they have an educational assistant in physical education because that class is now larger, making sure that they have the support so that students aren’t kind of flailing and educators don’t have a remedy.

The fact of the matter is at this point, even though the district has their own calculations and their own staffing models for how many students should be in a class, they go over it and there is no conversation or accountability on the side of the educator. Sometimes bargaining is baby steps where we are trying to figure out how we get into the conversation, as well as get that relief, and that’s what we’re working to do. We know that if we have these committees, which would have two administrators, two educators and two parents, parents are problem solvers by default. They have to figure out so many things day to day and they would be able to help us figure out solutions to support adding students if need be. But it also pushes the district to have this conversation every year and every time this comes up and what we’ve seen in St. Paul is, over the last couple of years, it hasn’t been as much of an issue because now the district accounts for it in their staffing models, in their budgeting moving forward.

So, like we’ve always said through this campaign, this is going to be a monumental shift in the status quo, and how the district manages their funds and their staff. And one of those things that we’ve seen in other districts is that once they place the caps and they have to talk to us about it and parents are engaged and involved in the process, understanding the reality on the ground, they start making better choices, they start meeting the expectation of keeping our class sizes low. So it’s hard for our students year after year and it’s an improvement from where we are now. So we’re hoping to continue refining that language and getting to an agreement soon.

Miller: But I guess I still don’t understand the basic math here. If you’re saying that more often than not, the class cap would actually be meaningful and you wouldn’t go above that because the committee would meet and a teacher’s assistant or a reading helper or another teacher were added, then how does that not almost by definition, greatly increase the cost? How can you have your cake and eat it too, here?

Bonilla: Yeah, so one, the increase in staff would not necessarily be certified staff, so that’s a difference…

Miller: Meaning they’d be cheaper?

Bonilla: Yeah, in terms of how the district funds and pays for our lowest paid employees. I think the other piece is that we understand the budget constraints they are under and we are working on a proposal right now to figure out what does it look like to have this language cycle in. It wouldn’t be active this calendar year, right? We also have overages. The district has said that they would prefer to keep overages but have continued to talk about class size. So we’re looking at how we can improve that process.

Miller: You say you understand the budget constraints the district is in. I have to say that’s not the kind of language I’m used to hearing from the union over the last, certainly weeks or maybe months. I mean, that the line, it really has been, you have the money, you’re not spending it well. So, what do you mean when you say you understand the constraints?

Bonilla: I understand that they believe there are constraints.

Miller: That’s very, very different.

Bonilla: Yeah. Thanks for helping me clarify that. I believe they believe there are constraints. I also understand, when I look at the numbers from 2018 to 2023, every year, on average, they’ve had an estimation that they would be under, they would be overspending, they would have to do some deficit spending. And in reality, they have always had a surplus and not just in their general funds but also in their special funds. That difference between what they estimate their final budget will be and their actual budget will be, is on average about $58 million that they are incorrect by, underestimating how much they actually end up with at the end of the year. So I have a really hard time..

Miller: Sorry, you have a hard time trusting them it seems.

Bonilla: I have a hard time trusting that what they’re saying is going to be different than what we’ve seen for the last at least six years of their budgeting process.

Miller: But what about the fiscal analysis from the state’s Department of Education and the Department of Administrative Services. They looked at the district’s budgeting and they said that for the most part, the district is right. I mean, for example, one thing they said that they did not find is something the union has been saying for a while or was saying for a while, that the district is gonna get $20 million more every year over the next three years than they were accounting for. The only thing that they noted was, it’s possible the district will get $12 million more next year.

Do you agree with the state’s analysis?

Bonilla: Well, in our meeting with folks from the state, this past week, what I heard from their analysis is that it is not surprising for them that the district continues to forecast a deficit and end up with a surplus. And that they agree and the district understands that they have $105 million in reserve. When looking at their data in terms of the change in year over year of the General Purpose Grant, which is what they were talking about, they’ve shown that there is about a 3.83 or anywhere between a 3.6 and a 3.8 increase annually in how much they are being funded from the General Purpose Grant, the state school fund.

The state has stated that there are under forecasts. They have let us know that it makes sense. They can’t verify, but it is not surprising that their forecast is underestimating because that is what they’ve done year after year, is believe they have less money than they actually do. And so that is what we are going by. There is funding there. It is not our responsibility and also not my skill set to be able to help them forecast correctly, in order for us to be able to budget correctly. We continue to have these surpluses at the end of the year while they continue to forecast the deficit. And that is not something I’m making up or that is new. That is something that when shared with the state, they have said that is not surprising, that is the trend we are seeing.

Miller: I want to stick with the money here because among other things, it really is the crux of the issue here. Let’s say that the district were to agree to the ballpark figure for the offer that you made on Tuesday, that’s still about $240 or $250 million more than they say is in the budget for three years. And as you heard from Renard Adams just now, and as you’ve heard before, they say what that would lead to is the exact kinds of things that everyone is trying to avoid. It would lead to teacher layoffs, it would lead to larger class sizes, all because of trying to pay teachers more and trying to reduce class sizes.

Are you saying you disagree even with that?

Bonilla: Well, what I know is that for the past two school years, the district has cut 90 STEs from classrooms and we had families protesting that at school board meetings and the overload that it would place on classrooms. And then the year before that there was another, I think it was like 40 or 50 positions that were cut and this was without negotiations, without an increase in our salaries. So I have a hard time believing that it’s our proposal that’s going to cost the district to make those choices because they continue to make those choices, whether or not we’re in bargaining.

The reality is they have chosen to continue to cut classroom educators. They have chosen to continue to cut certified positions. Every year, they unassign educators and make an upheaval in our staffing process and yet they continue to blame our union and our bargaining on these choices they have shown to make outside of bargaining. So I have a hard time, again, and we’ve talked about this with our school board members. There is a lot of trust that needs to be built with this district because we see what they do, so it’s hard to believe what they say. They say this is going to cause cuts. Well, they’ve been making cuts without bargaining with us for the past two years, right? And yet the contracts out continue to increase, right?

We have positions currently on their website for hiring more administrators. We see that they continue to say this is going to cause these cuts that they want to invest in our students. This is gonna cause all these problems. The problems are already here and they have created them by their own choices. And now the movement is “let’s blame the union.” I mean, even with their budgeting, a lot of the things that they finally explained to us through their costing are costs that they already have to account for. They already pay for our health insurance. Why would that be a new cost? They already pay for step increases every year. That is just how our salaries work. Why would that be a new cost? Not just the increase on the COLA. So I have a hard time again believing what they say when, when we look through it every time, we dig a little deeper, there’s more to the story than what they’re putting out.

And the reality is they have a communications team that has the budget of an elementary school. So they’re able to put out messaging in a way that we can’t as a union. And there’s something about “a lie goes around the world before the truth gets out of bed.” We are doing our best to make sure that the community knows everything that we’re working on. And like Dr. Adams said, this process is moving by the hour. So what might come out yesterday is not going to be the reality this afternoon because I mean, my team is literally working on proposals right now to adjust the class size proposal based on the feedback we got from the district and our members. Because in the end, our contract has to be ratified by our members and we can’t get them off of the line, if we do not get significant improvements on the priorities that are going to give our students the kind of schools they deserve.

Miller: Just briefly, will you accept more days added to the end of the year so that kids can make up at least some of the lost instructional time?

Bonilla: Oh, we’re going to make up that time. One of our proposals is to lengthen the student day by 15 minutes. And so we have our snow days, we have longer days which will add hours and we’re hoping that if the district can come to the table with genuine proposals to get the settlement, not just the grandstand in the media, we’ll be able to get to a settlement and not have to make up as many days as they’re projecting.

Miller: Angela Bonilla, thank you very much.

Bonilla: Thank you.

Miller: Angela Bonilla is the president of the Portland Association of Teachers.

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