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Thousands of Teachers in Oregon’s Largest School District Go on Strike

The Portland Association of Teachers is demanding adequate investments in students, schools and educators.

Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) members and supporters rally during a strike in Portland, Oregon, on November 1, 2023.

Demanding adequate investments in students, schools, and educators, 4,500 members of the Portland Association of Teachers went on strike Wednesday following months of failed negotiations with Oregon’s largest school district.

“We are making history in Portland today,” Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) president Angela Bonilla said at a Wednesday afternoon rally outside Roosevelt High School in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood.

“We are sending a powerful message to PPS, to the city of Portland, to the state, that Portland communities won’t settle for less than great public schools for all,” said Bonilla, referring to the Portland Public Schools district.

The strike, which came after PAT rejected an eleventh-hour offer from PPS, resulted in the closure of all 81 of the district’s public schools, sending some parents scrambling to find daycare — and in some cases, food — for their children, many of whom rely upon the district’s breakfast and lunch services.

Oregon Food Bank president Susannah Morgan told KGW that “even when Portland Public Schools is closed, food is still available.”

PAT wants PPS to hire more counselors, provide more planning time for teachers, increase support for special education students, reduce class sizes, and boost salaries and cost-of-living adjustments.

Bonilla noted teachers working as many as 20 unpaid hours a week to keep up with workloads, schools unable to sufficiently serve students’ mental health needs, and the district’s crowded classrooms — which sometimes don’t have enough desks — as causes for the strike.

According to The Oregonian:

The strike, the first in district history, comes after a 10-month stalemate during which district and union leaders were unable to agree on even basic budget realities. How long the strike might last is unknown, though sources have pegged the likely duration as three days to two weeks. Teachers will lose their health insurance for December if they do not return to work by mid-November.

There is a yawning gap of at least $200 million between what teachers are seeking and what the district says it can afford without having to make deep and painful cuts in the years ahead, whether through layoffs, fewer instructional days, closed schools, or a combination of the three. The two sides will not meet again to negotiate until Friday, which means schools will close Thursday too. Friday was already a day off for students and had been scheduled as a teacher professional development day.

“Our kids don’t deserve the bare minimum; they deserve everything,” Bonilla said during an October 28 teachers’ march across the Burnside Bridge. “And we will not stop fighting until we can give them the schools that they deserve.”

The median salary for Portland teachers is $87,000, slightly above the area’s median income. PPS offered educators a 4.5% raise for the first year of a prospective contract, with 3% increases in each subsequent year. Union members want an 8.5% raise in the first year and 5-6% annual increases.

PPS — and Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat endorsed by PAT — say the district can’t afford the union’s demands, citing, among other constraints, a state law limiting its power to increase school taxes.

Brittany Doris, a fifth grade teacher at Capitol Hill Elementary School in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that she has 34 students — and rats — in her classroom. Although Doris has a master’s degree, she recently moved in with a roommate because she can’t afford to rent on her own in the neighborhood.

“We have students with disabilities who aren’t getting served because our team is so overworked,” she explained. “We have too few adults for too many kids with some really big needs.”

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, flew in from Philadelphia to stand in solidarity with the striking Portland teachers, telling the crowd at Roosevelt High School Wednesday that she knows what PAT educators are fighting for, “because that’s what all teachers are fighting for all across the country.”

“No one goes into teaching to make a lot of money, but we do expect that we will be able to take care of our families,” Pringle said.

A survey of 1,000 registered Oregon voters conducted by the New York-based Democratic pollster GBAO Strategies in mid-September found that an overwhelming majority of respondents support teachers striking for more high-quality educators, smaller class sizes, and more student support services.

The strike has also drawn the support of elected officials, from the local to the federal level.

“Over the last three years, our educators have strived to maintain a quality, equitable education program for our children through the enormous difficulties of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden — both Democrats — said in a joint statement. “They have been underpaid and overstressed, and we strongly affirm our support for Portland’s educators exercising their right to strike for an equitable collective bargaining agreement.”

“At the same time, we urge leadership from both the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools to continue working in good faith toward an agreement that addresses a number of key issues, including class size, salaries and benefits, safety in the classroom, stronger equity programs, and expanded services for early learning and special education,” the senators added.

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