There was a lot of talk of the tough decision that had just been made, but moments after authorizing the first teacher strike in Portland Public Schools history Wednesday night, hundreds of educators filing out of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall seemed bubbly and upbeat.
Many teachers refused to talk to reporters or give their names, but in a few minutes details became clear. By a resounding margin, Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) members decided to walk out on February 20. That could still be prevented, if the union and district can reach an agreement in a coming mediation session.
"It was a horrible, horrible decision to have to make," said a teacher who'd only give her name as MS. "We're united."
Half an hour after news of the vote emerged, PPS said it was "disappointed" in the decision.
"We remain committed to reaching a negotiated settlement and we hope both teams are able to make significant progress during the next mediation session on Sunday, Feb. 9," read a statement by School Board Co-Chairs Pam Knowles and Greg Belisle.
But agreements have been vexingly hard to come by in the last 10 months, with the district and union butting heads on teacher workloads, benefits, pay and hiring practices, among other things.
The vote's success isn't much of a surprise. Union leaders had twice taken members' temperatures about a strike in recent days, and said they wouldn't have called a vote if they weren't confident it would pass. By all accounts, that passage was nearly unanimous. One educator who attended the meeting estimated there were six "no" votes, out of hundreds and hundreds of votes cast.
What is news is the union's willingness to push ahead with a strike immediately (teachers have to give 10 days notice before a walkout). PAT President Gwen Sullivan has said in recent weeks a potential strike vote was a precaution in case the district imposed labor conditions on teachers—something PPS can do because the two groups are at an impasse, but has so far avoided.
Instead, this has just become an even more pressurized situation, and the clock is ticking.
"Portland teachers are united and resolved to stand up for our students’ learning conditions," Sullivan said in a statement after the vote. "It’s time to move this to a conclusion so that we can have a contract that is fair for teachers and good for students.”