Education

Portland teachers ratify contract with nearly 95% approval, school board passes unanimously

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Nov. 29, 2023 2:01 a.m. Updated: Nov. 29, 2023 1:54 p.m.

Tuesday’s votes solidified the deal between Oregon’s largest school district and the Portland Association of Teachers. Many are concerned about the added instructional days in December.

(Left to right) Members of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education Michelle DePass, Herman Greene, Gary Hollands and Julia Brim-Edwards, listen to testimony from a PPS student and a parent, both expressing dismay over the proposed calendar for students to make up instruction days missed due to the strike. The testimony was delivered during a special meeting Nov. 28, 2023, when the board unanimously approved a contract with the Portland Association of Teachers.

(Left to right) Members of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education Michelle DePass, Herman Greene, Gary Hollands and Julia Brim-Edwards, listen to testimony from a PPS student and a parent, both expressing dismay over the proposed calendar for students to make up instruction days missed due to the strike. The testimony was delivered during a special meeting Nov. 28, 2023, when the board unanimously approved a contract with the Portland Association of Teachers.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

After a strike that lasted more than three weeks and canceled 11 school days, Portland’s teachers have a new contract.

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On Tuesday, members of the Portland Association of Teachers voted to ratify the tentative agreement with Portland Public Schools.

According to the union, teachers approved the contract with overwhelming support. More than 93% of members voted, with 94.7% voting to ratify. PAT represents the largest group of educators in the district, including classroom and special education teachers, counselors, speech-language pathologists and many more.

“Educators, working with parents and community, have made their voices heard about the needs in our schools during our strike,” PAT President Angela Bonilla said in a statement after union votes were counted. “(They) have overwhelmingly voted in support of our contract that will bring those improvements to our students and schools.”

Later Tuesday, the Portland school board unanimously voted to pass the contract.

“Here’s to our teachers,” said board member and former teacher Patte Sullivan. “Welcome back to the classroom. You were sorely missed.”

Portland Association of Teachers member Greg Burrill, left, talks with Portland Public Schools Board of Education member Patte Sullivan before a special meeting where the board unanimously passed a contract with PAT, at the PPS district offices in Portland, Nov. 28, 2023. PAT, the largest group of educators in the district, ratified the tentative agreement earlier in the day, with a vote of 94.7% in favor.

Portland Association of Teachers member Greg Burrill, left, talks with Portland Public Schools Board of Education member Patte Sullivan before a special meeting where the board unanimously passed a contract with PAT, at the PPS district offices in Portland, Nov. 28, 2023. PAT, the largest group of educators in the district, ratified the tentative agreement earlier in the day, with a vote of 94.7% in favor.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The three-year, $175 million contract agreement includes cost-of-living increases for teachers, the creation of new committees to govern class sizes, as well as increased planning time for educators.

Board members spoke at length in their comments Tuesday about the future budget challenges they will face in the spring — and the advocacy they will pursue at the local and state levels to increase K-12 funding overall — to make up for tens of millions of dollars committed to the contract.

“We’re having the wrong fight,” said school board member Andrew Scott. “Everyone on this board wants to pay our teachers more, significantly more. Everyone on this board wants our teachers to have the necessary planning time to do their job well. Everyone on this board wants our teachers to have small class sizes, and we did get some of those things in this contract.

“We also got a contract that we cannot afford,” he continued. “We cannot afford it because the governor and legislature have failed to adequately fund education in Oregon. Full stop.”

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

Many students upset with winter break change

Student leader Jorge Sanchez Bautista, a junior at McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland, was one of two people who gave public testimony during the Tuesday board meeting. Bautista said students experienced a range of emotions when the news came out Sunday afternoon that they’d return to the classroom the next day.

Some were angry. Some were stressed. Some were happy. But the thing he’s heard most from students is frustration at both the district and the union.

“Students were glad to picket with their fellow teachers to advocate for some of the things they themselves had dealt with. But in the end, we were disappointed,” he said. “Class caps didn’t happen, and yet, we have to get more days to make up for the time we had lost due to the fault of both sides.”

McDaniel High School student Jorge Sanchez Bautista, 17, left, and PPS parent Sara Purdy, right, both shared frustrations regarding the proposed calendar for students to make up instruction days missed due to the strike. The testimony was during a special meeting where the board unanimously passed a contract with PAT, at the PPS district offices in Portland, Nov. 28, 2023.

McDaniel High School student Jorge Sanchez Bautista, 17, left, and PPS parent Sara Purdy, right, both shared frustrations regarding the proposed calendar for students to make up instruction days missed due to the strike. The testimony was during a special meeting where the board unanimously passed a contract with PAT, at the PPS district offices in Portland, Nov. 28, 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The deal comes after a strike that lasted nearly all of November. As part of the deal, the district and union agreed to restore all 11 lost days, in part, by turning the first week of winter break into school days. In addition, professional development days on Jan. 26 and April 8 are set to become school days for students, as well as Presidents Day on Feb. 19. The school year is also being extended by three days in June.

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A lot of students are especially upset about their upcoming break being cut in half.

Bautista helped create and circulate a survey asking students how they felt the lost instructional time should be made up. He told the board as of the meeting, they’d received more than 5,345 responses. That may only be a fraction of the district’s 40,000-plus student body, but Bautista said it was a way for them to share their thoughts — something that didn’t happen during the strike.

“Students never voted for the strike to happen, never were brought into bargaining to talk for themselves, or in the conversation about how to make up for lost time,” he said. “You made a decision for the thousands of students in PPS.”

Related: Portland schools abuzz as classes resume after historic strike

Bautista suggested the board could have included student representative Frankie Silverstein “to come and be the voice for the students, but it did not occur.”

According to the survey Bautista shared, the top options that student respondents wanted to see instead of cutting winter break would be adding time during the day by 15 to 30 minutes, having an extra week in June and/or using one or two days of winter break instead of five. He said about 460 students said to leave the plan as is.

Portland Association of Teachers President Angela Bonilla, in black jacket, sits with other PAT members during the Portland Public Schools Board of Education special meeting.

Portland Association of Teachers President Angela Bonilla, in black jacket, sits with other PAT members during the Portland Public Schools Board of Education special meeting.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

During the meeting, Sharon Reese, PPS’ chief human resources officer, explained to the board and public that the decision on make-up days had no good options. Just “bad and worse.”

Reese said they need to make up more than 3,600 minutes of lost time. That’s the equivalent of 60 hours out of the 900 or more hours of instructional time required under Oregon law. Adding 15-minute increments wasn’t workable to make up the deficit, she said, and would cause “unresolvable” schedule issues. So, they looked at full-day make-ups.

For schools on semester schedules — meaning middle and high schools — Reese said it’s important to make up as much time in the first semester as possible to account for curriculum lost this term. Grades in this semester are especially important for high school seniors applying to college.

Related: Bend school leaders buckle down on teacher contract disputes

High school students also need time before April to prepare for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests in May and to be on track for high school graduation credit completion. Extending the school year further into June doesn’t benefit seniors since they finish early. That’s true of the three days already added, but it would put seniors in a deeper bind if that’s how they solved things for the entire district.

“In a state with one of the shortest school years in the nation, in a generation who knows far too keenly the impact of closed schools and the heightened and disproportionate impact of closed schools on our students of color and students with disabilities, this calendar makes up for every missed student instruction day,” Reese told the board.

She also said the plan uses all four of the district’s previously existing inclement weather days on the calendar.

“Everyone on this board wants our teachers to have the necessary planning time to do their job well. Everyone on this board wants our teachers to have small class sizes, and we did get some of those things in this contract. We also got a contract that we cannot afford, and we cannot afford it because the governor and legislature have failed to adequately fund education in Oregon. Full stop," Portland Public Schools Board of Education member Andrew Scott said during a special meeting Nov. 28, 2023.

“Everyone on this board wants our teachers to have the necessary planning time to do their job well. Everyone on this board wants our teachers to have small class sizes, and we did get some of those things in this contract. We also got a contract that we cannot afford, and we cannot afford it because the governor and legislature have failed to adequately fund education in Oregon. Full stop," Portland Public Schools Board of Education member Andrew Scott said during a special meeting Nov. 28, 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

It’s still unclear how student and staff absences will be handled that week in December, whether there will be enough substitutes, or how classified staff will be scheduled and paid for the week.

Board member Eddie Wang said some students have expressed gratitude for the days next month so they can get caught up from time missed during the strike. Fellow member Andrew Scott said he wants to avoid going back and forth with plans as families and staff reschedule and navigate holiday plans.

Bautista floated other ideas by the group that had been suggested in the survey, such as a combination of added time and some make-up days. Or, using fewer days for winter break and having classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, with the promise that students learn about Black history.

Bonilla said during the meeting that the union’s original proposal was a set of days to make up time, in addition to adding 15 minutes. As they understood it, that was not a plan that was acceptable to the governing body.

Reese confirmed to the board that using four previous winter break days and adding MLK Day as a school day was the least disruptive backup option.

The board unanimously approved the contract, which included the new calendar with school days the entire first week of winter break. Still, it said they would direct the district to discuss alternative make-up options with the teachers union again.

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