Think Out Loud

Tentative deal reached to end Portland teachers’ strike

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Nov. 27, 2023 5:48 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Nov. 27

On Monday morning, more than 40,000 students in Portland returned to school after a tentative deal had been announced the day before to end a teachers’ strike that had shut down schools since Nov. 1. The agreement between Portland Public Schools district and the Portland Association of Teachers still needs to be ratified by union members and the school board this week. It includes a nearly 14% pay raise for educators over the next three years, additional planning time and expanded access to mental health support for students in the district. OPB education reporter Natalie Pate joins us to talk about the deal, how students will make up 11 days of lost instruction time and other details.


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. The first ever Portland Public Schools teachers strike ended yesterday, 26 days after it started, meaning that even though today is November 27th, it’s also the first day of school for PPS students in the month of November.

The union and the district were once hundreds of millions of dollars apart in their negotiations. But even this past weekend, when the disagreement was down to only $4 million, it was not at all clear that the two sides would be able to come to a tentative deal. The announcement finally came yesterday afternoon. There is still a lot to unpack about the details of this tentative agreement, the likelihood that teachers will accept it, and what nearly a month without classes might mean for students. Natalie Pate joins us to talk about all of this. She is the K-12 education reporter for OPB. Welcome back.

Natalie Pate: Thank you for having me.

Miller: So, let’s start with the most immediate news. The district and the union have agreed to a tentative agreement. It still has to be ratified by teachers, by members of the union. What’s the time frame?

Pate: Well, students returned to schools this morning, as you said, and the union is expected to vote on ratification tomorrow. The school board is scheduled to also take public comment and vote on the tentative contract during its meeting Tuesday evening. Miller: In terms of the teachers’ vote, is this a formality? I mean, are they likely to accept a deal that is a lot more than the district’s initial offers but also a lot less than what the union was initially asking for?

Pate: Right, it has to be ratified. But as tensions grew, especially last week, I started hearing a lot more from teachers who felt like the proposals they were seeing were really watered down versions of what they went on strike for. And everyone was so desperate for the contract to be done and dealt with, but they also wanted to know that they went on strike for a reason, right? And I’m not sure if it’s just a vocal minority saying that they’re upset about where things landed or if a majority will reject ratification. PAT [Portland Association of Teachers] leaders have presented the tentative deal as a kind of historic win, so assuming members feel the same way, ratification should go quickly.

Miller: Let’s turn to some of the big pieces of the deal starting with pay. Can you remind us what teachers were initially asking for, where the district began in terms of their side and where they’ve all ended up?

Pate: The cost of living adjustment was the kind of big ticket item that got debated a lot. Going into the strike, the district’s offer was just shy of 11%. The union’s request was more than twice that, and it ended at nearly 13.8% over three years, approximately. So teachers will be paid more over the next three years.

There are protections in place now ‒ for planning time that weren’t there before, class sizes, caseload limits are going to be adjusted. And there have been some changes made against poor building conditions. There’s also a lot more resources for special education, dedicated extra pay for bilingual staff, more mental health support for students, and student discipline changes that are expected to stop discipline from disproportionately impacting students of color. So there’s a lot packed into that document.

Miller: The biggest saga of these negotiations had to do with class size. Can you just give us the short version of that story?

Pate: Right. Well, everyone agreed from the start that smaller class sizes allow for teachers and staff to be less overwhelmed and for students to have more individualized attention. But the union was initially pushing for what they were calling “hard caps.”

And the idea behind that was there would be a very strict limit when they hit a certain class size that students would then have to be enrolled in a different class or potentially a different school as a result of the hard cap, and the district was very clear from the beginning that they were not willing to do that.

And so over the course of mediation, it got changed to extra money for overages ‒ which is when more students are added to their class than the class size, they’re paid extra. So now they’ll get larger bonuses for that. And they also introduced these class size committees. The debate last week was largely on parental involvement in those committees. And that really held up bargaining through the holiday weekend, before the issue became, as you mentioned earlier, about pay for an added teacher work day next year.

Miller: So there will be committees made up of teachers, administrators and parents?

Pate: Yes, we believe so. But the language from the union and the district on the solution has been vague, and we’re still working our way through the tentative deal. But based on what PAT President Angela Bonilla has said, those three groups ‒ parents, administrators, teachers ‒ will work in collaboration on these committees as needed when classes hit those limits. It seems like where there’s a lot of wiggle room is how and when they’ll be used and how much power they will have. But the tentative agreement does specify that the parents won’t have access to private information.

Miller: So instead of a hard class cap which the union was initially asking for, instead, teachers are going to get extra money if the class sizes exceed a certain amount. But isn’t that the way it’s already been? I mean, how is this new deal different from the status quo?

Pate: It’s somewhere in the middle, I think. Yes, that was part of how the district operated before. However, those overage bonuses are going to be higher now, and the new committees are kind of the fresh new exciting thing that’s been added.

Miller: What’s happening with physical plant questions? I mean, folks may remember people on the picket line holding signs about cold classrooms or very hot ones, or rats. How did that end up?

Pate: Part of the agreement outlines that PPS will use about $20 million dollars of money that it’s getting from the City of Portland’s Port and Clean Energy Benefits Fund to address building temperature issues, among other things. The memorandum also outlined steps such as reviewing the district’s pest management program and investing money to address deferred maintenance.

Miller: How is teacher prep time handled in this tentative agreement?

Pate: One of the things is that they shifted middle school schedules to make sure that all of the traditional middle schools have a uniform schedule across them, and that helps them balance class sizes and add electives. It also maintains student instruction time and adds 15 minutes to the school day for elementary and middle grades beginning next year, and it increases the minimum planning time by 90 minutes every week. So from 320 minutes to 410 minutes for elementary and middle school educators, while also adding planning and grading days at all levels.


Miller: With so much focus on teacher pay and on class size, do you think that there are provisions of this tentative deal that you think didn’t get enough attention?

Pate: Yeah, I think pay, class size, planning time, building conditions ‒ those were kind of the big items that we were paying attention to, and I listed them earlier. But I think the new or added access to student mental health services is a big one, changes to student discipline, and especially how that will affect students of color was a big one. The teachers union is happy, specifically, about having an article for the first time that’s dedicated to talking about special education within the contract and that added stipend for bilingual staff.

Miller: Can you describe the plan that the two sides eventually came up with to make up for more than two weeks of lost instructional time?

Pate: They’ve announced 11 days that are going to be added as instructional days for the school year. What would have been the first week of winter break – December 18th through the 22nd – will now have classes, and there are also days set in January, February and April, as well as three days added in June. The district says families can also expect those long overdue report cards to come in by Friday, December 8th, and educators or school leaders are expected to be in touch about making up the family-teacher conferences that were missed.

Miller: Plenty of families, and I imagine staff and teachers, already had plans for that first week of the two-week planned winter holiday break. I mean, we’re talking about… it’s just a couple of weeks from now. What’s that going to mean for, say, student attendance or just the running of a school? Are teachers who, say, had plane tickets and plans to be away for those two weeks, are they being told, “you have to be there for that first week?”

Pate: I don’t think we know some of those details just yet, how students or staff with scheduling conflicts that week will handle this, and there will be expectations that we have to learn about in terms of both attendance but also substitutes for the teachers and staff. So hopefully we’ll have more on that soon, but I did speak with a handful of students this morning. Some are not happy about the change, particularly with winter break and they have mixed feelings about it overall. I spoke with Roosevelt High School ninth graders, KeMiya Williams and Sophia Minko about how they felt about the change. And here’s what they had to say:

I was like, ‘oh, hey, we might have a shorter winter break. Wow.’ Well, I was like, ‘I guess it’s necessary because we missed a whole entire month of school.’

I’m mad because I like my full winter break and I kind of wish I just added it on to summer.

Miller: This deal is going to cost $175 million over the next three years. That’s in addition to everything else that has been budgeted. How much do we know now about the district’s plans to trim other parts of their budget?

Pate: Well, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and the board said there will be significant cuts in the spring budget talks as a result of this. We don’t know what those will be yet. They said community members will have a say during the budget process. And they said they will also turn to the Portland community for future advocacy both in Salem and in support for a property tax levy that’s set for renewal in May and is supposed to directly support PPS educators.

Miller: When I asked the district about their negotiations with other unions, one for paraprofessionals like teachers aides, and one that includes employees like custodians, they didn’t say too much. But the one thing I remember from Renard Adams who we talked about a number of times, I think our listeners may remember is that the budget is a pie, not a well. You can’t just keep digging into it and getting more money out of it. Do you have a sense for how those other unions and those negotiations are going to be impacted by what PAT was able to get?

Pate: It is important to remember, there are five unions in the school district. PAT represents licensed staff, coaches and substitutes. Maintenance and construction workers are represented by the District Council of Unions, or DCU, and they’re in the early stages of bargaining with the district on their latest contract. Bus drivers are part of the Amalgamated Transit Union, or ATU. They do not have an open contract at this time according to the district, and the final two are in the middle of heated contract talks.

The Service Employees International Union - or in the PPS context, SEIU local 503, and the Portland Federation of School Professionals, or PFSP, represent a combined 2,000 classified employees throughout Portland schools. And that includes para-educators, library assistants, nutrition workers, custodians and many other positions, and both of those two unions earlier this month independently filed for mediation with the district. And we don’t know a lot of the details of those talks yet because they have further restrictions on that before they reach an impasse. But yes, the district’s budget has to pay for all staff and operations, not just the money that goes for teachers, specifically.

Miller: That is all just Portland public schools. But can you just remind us where other big districts in Oregon are right now in terms of their respective labor negotiations?

Pate: There’s definitely other things happening around the state. Last we heard from the Bend-La Pine School District is that things were moving along in their negotiations in a positive direction. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Salem-Keizer. Both the teachers union and classified union, they have mediation sessions in December with the district.

Miller: How do you think the PPS strike could affect these other negotiations? What are the lessons that they may have drawn?

Pate: Well, I think I’m hearing from folks in other parts of the state that they have been watching Portland, and it’s kind of similar to how Portland felt watching the Evergreen and Camus strikes in Washington at the start of the school year. They may feel emboldened to strike as well, if they think that it will truly move the needle. But those strikes in Washington only lasted about a week each.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from these strikes in Portland, which was so much longer than anyone anticipated and it became really tumultuous. There’s been a major erosion of trust between families, the broader community, district leadership, the school board, the union and its members, and that’s going to take a long time to rebuild, I think. So there are folks who are also seeing ‒ including folks I’ve talked to down in Salem-Keizer ‒ who’ve told me that they’re seeing it as a warning sign, to avoid a strike at all costs if they can.

Miller: Well, you know, apropos of everything you just mentioned about the tension, almost by definition a strike is going to be an acrimonious conflict. And this was no exception. And it got pretty ugly at times. Both sides became increasingly vocal about saying that the other side was lying or acting in bad faith or not putting children first. Do you get the sense that there are going to be lasting effects from this conflict?

Pate: I do. To your point, reaching a strike means that other traditional steps to settle a contract just didn’t work. Everyone from both PPS and PAT kept saying that they were doing everything that they were doing in the best interests of children and families, and that they wouldn’t be striking if they didn’t feel like they absolutely had to.

There was a split between parents ‒ full spectrum, for that matter ‒ on whether they supported the strike or the union’s tactics, and many educators supported it, but worried about not making money for the month of November or the concern that they might lose their health insurance. Everyone questioned or challenged what the other side said at seemingly every point in the contract process. So, I think there will be a lot of work to repair the district’s reputation, as well as the community’s trust and the needs of students from the time they’ve had outside the classroom and away from their schools.

Miller: Natalie, thanks very much.

Pate: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Natalie Pate is OPB’s K-12 education reporter.

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