Education

What did Portland teachers get from their strike?

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Nov. 30, 2023 1:32 a.m.

Teachers will be paid more over the next three years but not as much as they originally wanted. The contract also includes more overload pay for larger classes.

FILE: Capitol Hill Elementary School art teacher Allie Anderson writes a chalk message in front of the school on the first day of the Portland Public Schools strike in Portland, Nov. 1, 2023.

FILE: Capitol Hill Elementary School art teacher Allie Anderson writes a chalk message in front of the school on the first day of the Portland Public Schools strike in Portland, Nov. 1, 2023.

Natalie Pate / OPB

It’s official: after a strike that lasted more than three weeks, canceled 11 school days, and was the last leg of nearly a year of bargaining between the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools — teachers have a new contract.

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PAT represents thousands of educators in Oregon’s largest school district, serving about 44,000 students. It’s the largest union in the district, and is made up of classroom and special education teachers, coaches, counselors, speech-language pathologists and more.

It’s common for unions to reach for the stars and districts to lowball their offers. In the end, they typically meet in the middle. But in Portland, it was a harder fight to reach that point.

Throughout mediation and the strike, the two sides regularly disagreed on core facts about what was financially and logistically feasible.

Gov. Tina Kotek brought in the state’s chief financial officer, Kate Nass, to get the two on the same page regarding finances, and officials from the Oregon Department of Education pored over the district’s budget documents as well. It took marathon conversations among school board members, top district officials and union leaders to reach a deal on issues ranging from class sizes to compensation.

The new contract — ratified by union members and passed by the school board Tuesday — will cost about $175 million over the next three years.

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

School board member Andrew Scott described the union’s original proposal as a “transformational” offer. But he said they were asking for a shift in how we run public schools in Oregon when the district isn’t funded to make such changes.

“In the end, I don’t believe this is a transformational contract,” Scott said Tuesday. “It’s a contract with some wins for both sides.”

Union leaders have described the end result as a historic win. But school leaders are already fretting about the cost.

District officials are projecting roughly $130 million in cuts over the life of the contract — $10 million from this year’s budget, $41 million in the spring cycle for next year’s budget and $79 million in the third year. They said the projections for the third year will likely change depending on allocations in the spring 2025 legislative session.

The district has yet to determine the cuts, and leaders will hear from the public before anything is decided.

“We (got) a contract that we cannot afford,” Scott said. “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

The hope is that cuts can be made by eliminating open positions and cutting programs versus layoffs.

“The funding agreed to in the contract is protected,” said Will Howell, communications director for PPS. “And otherwise, we’ll need to figure it out.”

Here’s a look into the specifics of the ratified contract:

What does the contract do to reduce class sizes? Will teachers earn more for larger classes?

In some cases, yes. Even though that wasn’t the teachers’ first preference.

District leaders, the school board, the teachers union, students and parents all seem to agree that smaller class sizes allow teachers and staff to be less overwhelmed and give students more individualized attention.

Teachers on the picket line throughout the Portland strike repeatedly said they have too many kids in their classes. Data released by the Oregon Department of Education in October shows more than 2,000 classes in the district, across all grades and subjects, have more than 26 students, with about 100 of those ranging from 36 to 56 students or more.

Broken down by subject, hundreds of classrooms have 26 to 35 students for core subjects like math, science and social studies, which advocates and researchers alike have said makes learning environments less effective.

That said, the district’s median class size is 25 students. District leaders have touted this as a win, stressing that PPS has the lowest class sizes among the largest districts in the state, and three out of four of its elementary classrooms have 25 students or fewer. They said they dedicate more resources to higher-need, higher-poverty schools, so the most privileged schools are often the ones with larger classes.

Related: PPS, union focus on class sizes and caseloads as smaller agreements emerge

Going into the strike, PAT called for “hard caps,” where students would be placed in other classes or schools if their initial class reached its limit.

The union seemed set on implementing the firm caps. But the school board was also set on rejecting any proposal including them. District officials said earlier this month that PPS would have had to hire more than 500 full-time equivalent positions to implement the hard cap, costing at least $65 million more per year.

That estimate didn’t include any building modifications to adjust for class size caps either, such as adding portables or doing room remodels. Generally, the district said it just wasn’t possible.

PAT President Angela Bonilla said that was one of their biggest fights throughout the negotiation. Some students and teachers have voiced frustrations since the end of the strike, saying the union gave up the most important thing to them by not getting the hard caps.

Portland Association of Teachers President Angela Bonilla, right, speaks at the Portland Public Schools Board of Education special meeting where the board unanimously passed a contract with PAT, at the PPS district offices in Portland on Tuesday. PAT, the largest group of educators in the district, voted to ratify the tentative agreement earlier in the day, with a vote of 94.7% in favor.

Portland Association of Teachers President Angela Bonilla, right, speaks at the Portland Public Schools Board of Education special meeting where the board unanimously passed a contract with PAT, at the PPS district offices in Portland on Tuesday. PAT, the largest group of educators in the district, voted to ratify the tentative agreement earlier in the day, with a vote of 94.7% in favor.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“Our educators understand that we held the line on class size caps for 10 months and two weeks, and it became clear that there was no settlement possible with class size caps in the proposal,” Bonilla said at the Tuesday board meeting. “(We) had to make one of the many difficult decisions as a bargaining team to find other ways to provide the workload relief and support students and educators when they’re in schools.”

As a result, the final contract addressed class size by expanding the approach from the previous contract: paying overage bonuses to teachers with overcrowded classes.

For example, according to the agreement, a kindergarten teacher has a target of 18 students. If they reach 24 students, they meet the threshold for overload pay. In that case, they would get 3% of their annual base salary increased per student over the threshold.

How did they settle the debate over class-size committees?

Class-size committees, proposed by the teachers union in lieu of hard caps, were a major sticking point at the end of the strike as the board and union debated how to involve parents.

In the end, it settled somewhere between the two sides’ wishes, skewing in favor of the district. In short, the committees will involve impacted educators, school leaders and sometimes parents.

The contract says schools will form class-size committees on an as-needed basis. They will include the principal, the assistant principal or another administrator, a teacher or other affected staff member chosen by the union, and the building’s union representative or another licensed staff person selected by PAT. This group will discuss and recommend possible solutions to resolve immediate issues.

Two parents will be invited to attend if both sides agree and only if the discussion is not about a specific student or class.

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The committees will have limited power: They’ll offer educators, and sometimes parents, a new advisory role, but they won’t be able to make final decisions.

Will Howell with PPS communications said the contract codifies what often happens already at the school level. It also outlines more of an appeal process and a chance to run decisions higher up on the district food chain.

Where did we land on teacher compensation?

At the start of the strike, the district offered an approximately 11% cost-of-living adjustment over the three-year agreement. The union wanted more than twice that, coming in at 23%.

Under the contract, educators will receive a 14.4% compounded increase over the next three years, Howell confirmed Wednesday. Genevieve Rough, senior director of employee and labor relations for PPS, also said that roughly half of all educators will earn an additional 10.6% bump from yearly step increases.

Both the district and union previously presented the 14.4% figure as a 13.8% cumulative increase when the deal was first announced. But the larger figure takes into account the added pay that held up bargaining on the last two days of the strike.

Related: Pay for an extra workday is the latest final holdup continuing Portland teachers strike

Before the tentative agreement was reached Sunday afternoon, the union claimed PPS wanted educators to work an additional day next school year for free. The district denied that, arguing the union was pushing for an “eleventh-hour” request and extra pay beyond what was agreed upon.

In the end, the result leaned more in favor of the union. Instead of compensation increases being 6.25% the first year, 4% the second year and 3% the third year, the contract shows 4.5% in the second year. Howell said this brought the total cost of the contract up to the $175 million mark.

Do teachers have more time to plan for lessons?

Yes.

Rough said the contract adds 15 minutes to the school day for elementary and middle school students beginning next school year. It increases minimum teacher planning time by 90 minutes every week from 320 minutes to 410 minutes — or nearly seven hours per week — for elementary and middle school educators. And it adds planning and grading days for all levels.

The contract shifted middle school schedules so the changes can be implemented consistently across the district. Officials said that also allows administrators to balance class sizes and add electives more easily.

Teachers made a big point about extreme temperatures, mold and rodents in schools. Are those concerns addressed?

The more visceral messages relayed during the strike were about building and classroom conditions experienced by some in the district. A common rally chant was: “Hot, cold, rats, mold. This is getting really old.”

According to records obtained by OPB, the district’s pest control complaint log for the month of September listed just over 50 total calls for its more than 80 school campuses. Many had to do with wasps, ants and yellowjackets; 19 were about mice, rats or rodent droppings.

The new contract says PPS will spend $20 million to fix extreme building temperatures and manage environmental concerns. That includes money from the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund. Part of it will go toward investing in heating and cooling systems.

It also says the district will review its pest management program and address issues with deferred maintenance.

Related: Rising temperatures leave Oregon schools grappling with excessive heat

How does the contract serve special education and bilingual staff specifically?

When the strike began, and the district was offering the 11% cost-of-living increase, they were also proposing a $3,000 stipend per year for PAT members working with students with disabilities, including school psychologists, speech-language pathologists and qualified mental health professionals.

The stipend would have replaced four extra planning days from the previous contract for special education staff to focus on students’ Individual Education Programs.

The stipend offer was later withdrawn, Howell said, because the union wanted to keep the extra planning days and flexibility rather than take the cash offer.

The new contract also establishes an article specifically for special education staff that did not previously exist. This outlines protections specific to these teachers, including staff ratios and caseloads.

The contract also expands access to a stipend for bilingual staff. The district pays $1,500 per year to those with demonstrated abilities in languages other than English. The new contract expands the eligibility threshold, but Howell said the district does not know how many more people this will apply to yet.

Related: Oregon is facing a teacher shortage. This program is training the next generation of bilingual and diverse educators

What about key issues facing students that were brought up in bargaining?

The original proposal from the union would have created a task force within the district and with community partners to “explore possible coalitions and funding opportunities to support affordable housing development in our school (areas),” Bonilla explained to OPB before the strike.

This was removed during negotiations.

The contract does include more mental and behavioral health support for students, though, by tripling the district’s Rapid Response Team. It commits 12 full-time equivalent positions to this work.

And the contract replaces mandatory minimum student suspensions with trauma-informed processes intended to “get students the support they need,” while still ensuring the safety of other students and staff.

Rough said PPS and PAT’s collective focus was to respond to areas that contribute to disproportionate discipline, especially for Black and Native American students.

Related: Portland teachers contract could tackle disproportionate discipline against students of color

Weren’t teachers worried about losing their health insurance a couple weeks ago? What happened with that?

The contract’s return-to-work plan ensures teachers don’t have any lapse in health insurance since they’re given backpay for November. Howell explained that the Oregon Education Association won’t have to cover any of the costs as it offered, no one has to apply for federal COBRA coverage, and no one has to re-enroll.

It also requires both sides to withdraw unfair labor practice complaints made during the process, along with the commitment that they’ll meet to discuss the grievances.

“It’s now time to turn our focus back to the children,” Rough told the school board Tuesday, “who’ve been waiting for their trusted adults to be in school with them.”

Related: Union, district disagree on health insurance benefit cliff for those on strike in Portland

Read the complete agreement online here.


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