Education

Community tensions rise as Portland teachers strike hits 3 weeks

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Nov. 22, 2023 2:13 a.m. Updated: Nov. 23, 2023 2:47 a.m.

It’s been three weeks since more than 40,000 students attended classes in Portland Public Schools. The ongoing teachers strike has been a constant mix of back and forth, hope and disappointment. Negotiations heading into this past weekend left supporters and critics of the strike optimistic that a deal would be reached soon.

But conversations came to a halt Monday morning and have been stalled since.

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The Portland Association of Teachers on Monday claimed the school board unanimously rejected a tentative agreement for a complete contract, which they said was previously confirmed by both PPS and PAT bargaining teams. The union argues the board is now refusing to approve a deal that includes parental involvement on committees dedicated to addressing class sizes within their school communities.

Several hundred educators and supporters marched from the Portland Association of Teachers headquarters to the city waterfront on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, as part of the ongoing teachers strike.

Several hundred educators and supporters marched from the Portland Association of Teachers headquarters to the city waterfront on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, as part of the ongoing teachers strike.

Natalie Pate / OPB

School board and district leaders have since shared their version of events.

They said there was not a tentative agreement for the complete contract and that the board has yet to have a formal vote. Three school board members — chair Gary Hollands, vice-chair Herman Greene and member Julia Brim-Edwards — have been physically present during much of the bargaining. If the majority of the board were to meet together — four members or more — they have to follow state public meeting laws. That means giving public notice to a formal vote.

PPS and PAT bargaining teams have signed tentative agreements for 17 articles or memorandums of agreement. Three articles and two appendices remain. Once both parties complete and sign all of the articles in the contract, the two sides then review the total package and sign off on a complete tentative agreement. Union members then vote on whether to ratify the contract. Typically, the final step is for the school board to formally approve it.

District leaders say they don’t have tentative agreements on all parts of the contract yet. They also said the school board has been clear since last week that they don’t want parents involved in the committees if there’s access to individual student details.

PPS submitted a complete package proposal to the union bargaining team Monday afternoon, which included a new compromise on the sticky issue of class-size committees. The proposal included two parent representatives — one selected by administrators, one chosen by the union — on class-size committees that would operate at a schoolwide level. Parents would serve as nonvoting members, would not have access to private information, and would not decide the placement of any individual student.

The district said PAT rejected it Monday evening.

“The deal was agreed upon by the two bargaining teams,” PAT President Angela Bonilla said, referring to the near-agreement Monday morning.

Bonilla pushed for action from the school board and district bargaining team during a PAT press conference with parents Monday night: “They need to just vote on it and pass it so we can get kids back to school. Let’s get it done so we can get people back to work.”

Supporters of the Portland Association of Teachers sit on the Burnside Bridge Tuesday morning, as part of an organized march from the PAT offices in Northeast Portland to the downtown waterfront, Nov. 21, 2023.

Supporters of the Portland Association of Teachers sit on the Burnside Bridge Tuesday morning, as part of an organized march from the PAT offices in Northeast Portland to the downtown waterfront, Nov. 21, 2023.

Courtesy of Eric Flagel

As of Tuesday afternoon, PPS officials said they are waiting to hear back from the union on the district’s reentry proposal, which includes making Dec. 18-22 — currently part of winter break — a school week to help make up lost instructional time for students. Initial reactions from parents have been mixed on this idea.

It’s unclear when the two bargaining teams will meet again or how soon a full agreement could be reached. It seems parents, educators and district administrators alike are getting frustrated and concerned that they may head into the holiday weekend with the contract unresolved and without a firm plan on how and when to return to classes.

Tensions are escalating in the community as well. Parents and educators have expressed their frustrations with the bargaining process and the lack of a deal. A lot of attention has been on school board members following PAT’s statements Monday.

District communications officials confirmed a rental property owned by Brim-Edwards was vandalized. Messages in black and red spray paint read: “Shame,” “We [heart] students,” “Kids deserve better,” “Hi Julie :)” and “F*ck you.”

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Chair Hollands shared a photo of his car taken Monday night. It had fliers taped to it that said: “Fund classrooms now,” “Teaching conditions = learning conditions,” and “Give students the schools they deserve.” The word “Shame” was spray-painted on at least three sides of the car.

Board members’ home addresses and personal cell phone numbers have reportedly been circulated. One screenshot with the members’ addresses encourages people to cook out and camp out at every PPS board member’s front lawn, saying, “No Contracts. No Peace.”

PAT issued a statement Tuesday saying it strongly condemns vandalism.

In these submitted photos, leaflets and graffiti cover three sides of Portland Public Schools Board Chair Gary Hollands’ vehicle, Nov. 20, 2023.

In these submitted photos, leaflets and graffiti cover three sides of Portland Public Schools Board Chair Gary Hollands’ vehicle, Nov. 20, 2023.

Courtesy of Gary Hollands

Several hundred march across Burnside Bridge to downtown

Several hundred educators and union supporters marched Tuesday morning from PAT’s headquarters in Northeast Portland, across the Burnside Bridge, to Tom McCall Waterfront Park as part of the union’s daily strike actions.

At the waterfront, the group gathered — many held signs and echoed chants with those leading by megaphone. A band played music in the background. Protesters held signs with messages such as: “Teachers for a fair contract #PAT #UnionStong” and “I work to make a living, I teach to make a difference.”

Hannah Olson held a sign that read: “PPS, you’re making this counselor emotionally dysregulated.”

Olson is a counselor at Bridger Creative Science School in Southeast Portland. She works with students in fifth through eighth grade. She told OPB the motivation for her sign came from thinking about her daily work with the students — helping those who are emotionally dysregulated get back to a calm state of mind, or at least helping them develop the tools to do that on their own eventually.

She said being out of school for so long for the strike has made her frustrated and anxious. She doesn’t know what to expect day to day. She worries her students feel the same way.

“I know me and my colleagues are feeling a lot of emotions, big emotions,” Olson said. “So, I imagine the students are, too.”

Olson has participated in the strike since it began on Nov. 1. Coming out of Monday’s confusion, she said it’s “unacceptable that the school board hasn’t accepted the proposal their own bargaining team put forth.”

“And so, I’m here to just be in solidarity with my colleagues and, ultimately, for the students that deserve better schools,” she said. “And the same with educators. We deserve better schools, and we can’t wait any longer.”

The Tuesday march temporarily shut down the Burnside Bridge as hundreds of protesters sat in the road when they came across it. Olson said it’s a sign they are fed up. They want the district and union to pass an agreement as soon as possible — one that includes parents in class-size committees.

“Please stay hopeful. Please keep being loud,” Olson said as a message to Portland families.

During PAT’s parent press conference Monday night, parent Joon Ae Haworth-Kaufka said it’s “mind-boggling that we’re stuck on this one issue.”

Haworth-Kaufka said she thought the idea of class-size committees as a compromise to the union’s previously suggested “hard caps” was “innovative and creative.” She said she can understand how people might have concerns about privacy and the diversity or makeup of the committee. But she said those issues can be resolved in the design of the process.

What she’s concerned about is how they move forward.

“Parents don’t trust PPS right now,” Haworth-Kaufka said. “And so bringing us into processes is critical to rebuild that trust.”

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