The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) commenced a strike on Wednesday, Nov. 1, and as of Friday, Nov. 17, will be entering their twelfth day of negotiations with the Portland Public Schools (PPS) district. PAT is demanding fair labor practices, increased wages, safer classrooms and smaller class sizes for Portland public schools.
Unionized teachers, administrative persons, students and parents alike have rallied non-stop for the past two weeks and as the protests enter their third week, massive crowds have assembled in Northeast Portland to support the cause. Picketing events, rallies and marches have been held consistently across the city. On Monday, Nov. 13, PAT hosted a strike in front of the PPS building on Dixon street, calling on the district to hear and amend the issues presented by the public school community. Students, parents and teachers stood atop a float to speak to the crowd.
With a plethora of signs condemning the lack of attention given to the quality of classrooms, the attendees participated in chants and songs, expressing their support for educators within the district. A student-organized band composed of Cleveland High School students attended and played energizing music for the crowd.
The PAT is in an ongoing standoff with the district about the increased class sizes, limited number of teachers available, an inability to aptly provide education for students with special needs or learning disabilities, rodent infestations, uncomfortable temperatures within classrooms and inadequate salaries. It has proved difficult to reach an agreement between teachers and the district. More than 43,000 students across Portland who were expected to return to classes this Monday now enter their third week out of school.
“(PAT) represents more than 4,500 professional educators in the Portland Public School system. We’re working to create the best possible learning environment for our students, by protecting our profession and advocating for frontline educators,” the PAT website states. “(T)o provide the necessary education and socialization of young people, safe and clean classrooms, well-managed and transparent communication between the district and individual administrations and appropriately compensated teachers is a critical requirement for the future of public education in Portland.”
The PPS website’s FAQ page outlines the back and forth between the district and specific PAT requests.
“Portland Public Schools is offering a cumulative 10.9% cost-of-living increase over the next three years: 4.5% in the first year, then 3% in the second year, and then 3% in the third year. The district has also offered to raise the salary for starting educators by 3.4%. These increases would make our starting educators the highest paid teachers in the metro area’s six largest districts,” the website states. “PAT wants a 23% cost-of-living increase over the next three years: 8.5% in the first year of the contract, then 7% in the second year, and then 6% in the third year. The district initially offered 2.5% for each year of the contract, then raised our offer to 3% for each year of the contract, then raised our offer to 4%/3%/3%, and most recently 4.5%/3%/3%. PAT has not changed their offer. The district has also offered a $3,000 stipend per year for special education educators, including school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and qualified mental health professionals funded by special education.”
PAT’s FAQ page also presents a rebuttal against PPS’s offers.
“If we were to accept PPS’ numbers, here’s how it breaks down: PPS’ budget is almost $1.9 billion dollars. $200 million across three years is $67 million per year. That is less than 4% of their yearly budget they need to adjust to cover our proposals. This does not include the fact that we can and will be petitioning for an increase in the State School Fund for the last year of this contract (since the SSF is renewed every 2 years),” the website states.
According to PAT, PPS’s offer does not consider inflation and the Cost of Living Adjustment, and would therefore not suffice to pay teachers a salary that is proportionate to the expected amount of work. In an interview conducted by Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Dave Miller, the current President of PAT, Angela Bonilla, explained the discrepancy.
“Well, we have had an inflation rate of almost 18% over the last few years and our salary has only gone up about 10% in terms of cost of living adjustments. And so we are just about 8.5% behind. And our educators feel it. It’s hard to go grocery shopping. It’s hard to pay your mortgage because we continue to have a pay cut by not keeping up with inflation,” Bonilla said.
Though the official strike began only 12 days ago, the teachers and administrators of Portland public schools have been in negotiations with the district for years.
“We have been bargaining with the district for under a year, but really for much longer than that because our contract last year was just an extension of the previous contract because they couldn’t reach an agreement,” Revi Shohet, a special education teacher at Bridger Creative Science School said. “I work with middle schoolers and I see a ton of anxiety. These kids just don’t know how to be in the world. I’ve had so many students with suicidal ideation and attempts. This is something that we’re dealing with every day and what the district provides is functionally nothing.”
Shohet also claimed that students with mental health issues, learning differences and ones generally in need of support from the authority figures that teachers become in their lives are being cast to the wayside. Shohet, along with many other teachers at Monday’s rally, share the belief that there simply is not enough staffing in order to cater to all of the students’ needs.
“It’s not about putting more bodies in buildings, it’s about putting people with actual qualifications, like mental health professions,” Shohet said. “I’m not a therapist, I’m an instructor.”
The sentiment expressed by the crowd was in full support of the teachers; students and parents alike spoke of the educators as their family and deserving of compensation for their hard work in the community.
“We’re clearly over the number of days we usually use for snow and the complaints of learning loss will start to weigh more and more on families as we balance that with the value in fighting against the learning loss that is already happening on a daily basis,” Jacque Dixon, PAT-President elect who will succeed Bonilla in 2024 said. “We do not blame our teachers for this learning loss. We blame PPS.”
Kaimana Pueo von Geldern, a sixth-grade student from Vernon K-8 Elementary School in Northeast Portland, stood on the podium to share his experience and the experience of his mom, Maya Pueo von Geldern, who serves as president of his school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) board. In front of hundreds of picketers, teachers, students and supporters he spoke about his school’s teachers and his concerns about safety.
“Our teachers work super hard,” Pueo von Gueldern said. “Our teachers are our family.”
He then shared an anecdote about one of the many safety concerns among PPS teachers.
“We also have a really bad rat problem. My mom once had rat droppings go down her back and even in her mouth when she was lifting a box in a PTA closet,” he said.
His anecdote elicited a chorus of boos and audible gasps from the crowd, where a number of picket signs spoke out against safety conditions, sharing messages such as “ON STRIKE FOR SAFE SCHOOLS,” “PPS SPENT THREE MILLION ON OFFICE FURNITURE BUT SAY SAFE SCHOOLS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE?” and “WHITE PAINT OVER BLACK MOLD IS GETTING VERY OLD.”
“We really want to be back in school. I mean, I don’t miss the homework, but I miss my friends and my teachers,” Pueo von Geldern said, concluding with a sentiment shared by many PPS students.
On the morning of the Monday that the PAT was hoping would be the first day back to school after eight days of striking, Greg Burril, who has been a substitute teacher for PPS since 2005, gave a much-needed, energy-filled speech to the crowd. He referenced numerous budget cuts over the years, unreasonable classroom sizes and more safety concerns.
“We caught them hiding lead in our drinking water,” Burril said. “Dangerously poorly maintained buildings drive our best educators to other districts or out of the profession.”
Burril led a number of chants directed towards students, parents and community members.
“Are you ready to fight for clean classrooms?” he asked. “Are you ready to fight for comfortable temperatures in all of your spaces?”
Burril mentioned the difficulties PAT has faced in bargaining with the district.
“We’re putting an end to an administration that refuses to bargain over class sizes,” he said.
The crowd cheered him on with megaphones, tambourines and dozens of teachers touting signs demanding smaller class sizes.
Two signs read, “CLASSROOM SIZE DOES MATTER” and “I’D RATHER BE TEACHING MY 245 STUDENTS.”
Several key points were made throughout the duration of the rally. There were multiple mentions of safety concerns for students, teachers, custodians and other on-site staff—from vermin, to black mold, to lead in the drinking water, to dilapidated infrastructure to extreme classroom temperatures throughout the year.
A sea of royal blue t-shirts and painted picket signs voiced concerns about large and unmanageable class sizes, poor compensation for inflated living costs, unpaid work hours and a lack of qualified professionals who are able to respond appropriately to mental health, accommodate learning disabilities and address students’ basic and functional needs. Protestors demonstrated a strong desire for teachers’ voices to be listened to and represented accordingly.
“Our bargaining team is still waiting for PPS to take our demands seriously. PPS is still sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt and the media is still eating it up,” Bonilla, the emcee for the rally, said. “PPS will never have the credibility with our community that we have because we make PPS work.”
Lewis & Clark Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Director of Gender Studies Magalí Rabasa is also a parent to two young children, one of whom is a student in a Portland public school. Rabasa is active in her children’s PTA community.
The Oregon PTA, an umbrella organization for parent-teacher associations across the state, recently put out what Rabasa dubs “questionable guidance” as they encourage PTAs to remain neutral in the context of the bargaining and strike. Local PTAs were told not to use their communication channels in ways that may seem biased and not to use their budgets to support striking teachers.
According to many, teachers are exhausted from weeks of rallying and fighting, with no certain end in sight. Teacher strikes in the past have lasted anywhere from a couple of days to nearly an entire school year.
“When we got there at 8 a.m. today, (the teachers) were exhausted. They’re angry. They’re sad,” Rabasa said.
By far the majority of voices commenting on the strike are in support of teachers and their demands for fair contracts, but there are also parent voices of dissent criticizing the strike, labeling teachers as lazy and calling for them to go back to work. The media rhetoric has also been shifting.
“It was never really pro-teacher, but it has been shifting. It has been pumping out a lot more anti-PAT rhetoric, highlighting those parent voices, which really are a minority,” Rabasa said.
At Monday’s rally, speakers implored the crowd to support teachers by showing up to picket lines and rallies, signing the solidarity pledge, sending letters to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education, texting SUPPORT or RALLY to 48744 to join informational email lists, and standing beside teachers as they persevere in realizing their hopes for an equitable school system. @pdxteachers on Instagram and pdxteachers.org regularly provide information about the strike.
As the third week of the strike begins, students, teachers and parents are hopeful that their requests will soon be met with consideration and long-lasting change.