Politics

Portland school strike is over, but the governor says school funding talks must continue

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
Nov. 29, 2023 12:01 a.m.

The Portland public school strike is over, but the governor says the debate over how to best pay for public schools will continue.

Gov. Tina Kotek said Tuesday she plans to spearhead a statewide conversation over how to address the myriad of systemic challenges plaguing the state’s public school system.

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“We are hearing of disturbances in classrooms. We’re hearing about students not coming to school,” the governor said. “We are hearing about the challenges that are left over from the pandemic and how it has impacted our young people.”

At a press conference in Salem, the governor said she was relieved Portland Public students were back in the classroom, but noted several other large Oregon school districts are in the midst of their own labor negotiations.

“I also want to send a signal to those districts to say, ‘We hear you,’” Kotek said. “We know there are challenges. We are going to step up and have a different conversation in the coming year.”

FILE: Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek speaks during a news conference, May 17, 2023, in Salem, Ore.

FILE: Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek speaks during a news conference, May 17, 2023, in Salem, Ore.

Andrew Selsky / AP

The governor said it’s time to consider whether there is a need for a minimum statewide teacher salary. The average teacher salary in the Portland school district now is in the mid-$80,000s. The starting salary is closer to $50,000.

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Kotek said she wants to see an action plan to better address the social and emotional health needs of students and plans to create a new office within the Oregon Department of Education to make budget information easier to understand and more transparent.

During the Portland teacher strike, there was initially a lack of clarity around what money the district had available. Kotek said she wants to create a system in which “the public, teachers, district, everyone is on the same page,” when it comes to what money districts have and how they spend taxpayer dollars.

The governor, a Democrat, also said it was time to take a “deep dive” on how the state funds schools and review the methodology so the Legislature has a better understanding of what the needs are.

Portland’s teachers union went on strike Nov. 1 in an effort to reduce class sizes and workloads, get more planning time and increase their salaries, along with many other concerns. Students missed 11 instructional days.

In addition to outlining her plan to reconsider state school funding, the governor revealed she plans to ask the Legislature for a significant sum of money for a wide range of other issues when the 2024 legislative session kicks off in February.

Lawmakers only meet for a month during even-numbered years, and historically, the short legislative session was considered a chance for pressing policy bills and minor budget adjustments. But the governor made it clear on Tuesday her expectations for the 2024 session will be considerable.

The governor plans to ask for $500 million for housing production, to help local communities with technical assistance and infrastructure development. The governor has set an aggressive goal of building 36,000 units of housing annually, an 80% increase over current production trends. Kotek will also seek $65 million to fund current shelters for people experiencing homelessness and $33 million for rental assistance to help Oregonians on the brink of homelessness stay housed.

Other budget requests the governor plans to make include; $100 million for early learning programs, such as summer school and the state’s employment-related day care program and $19 million for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s basic operating budget for winter road maintenance.

In the previous legislative session, Republicans in the Oregon Senate walked out for six weeks to avoid votes on topics they disapproved of, bringing most work to a halt. For any of Kotek’s budget priorities to become a reality, Republicans will have to agree to show up.

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