Update October 20, 10:50 am: Members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) voted to authorize a strike. According to PAT, out of the 93 percent of members who participated in the strike vote, 98.9 percent voted "yes." 

In a statement from Portland Public Schools (PPS) about the news of the strike vote, district leaders asked "educators to stay at the table...not close schools." 

"We want to reach a fair, sustainable settlement, and we will stay at the bargaining table as long as it takes to get there," the PPS statement says. 

At an October 20 press conference, PAT President Angela Bonilla said the union "can't compromise on the things that make sure our students get what they need when they come to school."

"We are willing to make compromises when it comes to things that focus specifically on our educators," Bonilla told the Mercury. "There are certain pieces where we're willing to make movement and already have...but our educators are willing to take it to the point of a [strike] because our kids can't wait any longer." 

PAT has given PPS a 10-day work stoppage notice. If the district and union don't come to an agreement in that time, a strike will begin November 1. 

Original story:

Despite an offer of pay raises that would bolster the salaries of most Portland teachers to more than $90,000 per year, a teachers strike over pay and working conditions is edging closer to fruition. If it occurs, the strike would be a first for Portland teachers. 

Months of bargaining have failed to produce a new contract agreement between Portland Public Schools (PPS) and the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union that represents its educators. Teachers and PPS leaders have made it clear they want to avoid a strike, but time is running out. 

The core issues fueling a stalemate include requests for higher cost-of-living adjustments, lower class sizes, and more planning time for teachers. According to PPS officials, there's still a gap of more than $200 million between what the district says it can offer and what PAT is asking for. 

At a recent rally outside district headquarters, educators said their salaries aren’t keeping up with inflation and they’re getting priced out of the city they teach in

District staff say the union hasn’t budged on its requests.

"PAT is still at the initial offers they've had on the table since January and has made no movement with either planning time or compensation," Renard Adams, PPS chief of research, assessment, and accountability, and bargaining team member, said Wednesday. 

Adams said it's unclear what PAT's specific priorities are in the new contract agreement, making negotiations difficult.  

"They've continued to say it's a comprehensive package...when everything is a priority, then is anything really a priority?" Adams said. "We're really looking forward...to getting down to the brass tacks of what is most important [to PAT]." 

From the district's perspective, one primary nonnegotiable is that they can't "financially kneecap the district" by meeting PAT's requests for compensation. 

"We want our educators to be paid more. We know we cannot possibly match the value that they bring to our students every day," Adams said. He added that the district's proposals would have made PPS's educators "among the highest paid in the state," raising average salaries to more than $87,000, with more than 60% of teachers earning more than $90,000.

School district leaders say the most recent contract counteroffer to PAT includes a 4.5 percent cost of living increase in the first year and 400 minutes of planning time for elementary school educators, both increases from previous offers. 

As union members finish casting their ballots for a strike authorization vote, a final mediation session between PAT and PPS revealed the two groups are still far apart when it comes to agreeing on a contract. 

The teachers union is expected to make a strike announcement at the end of the week. On Tuesday, October 17, PAT and PPS held their final scheduled mediation session. According to the PPS bargaining team, PAT leaders left Tuesday's bargaining session early, prematurely ending negotiations, and have maintained contract demands PPS says it can't meet.

PAT members, however, say they left because PPS failed to deliver a counterproposal to the union, and they don't think district management is taking their concerns seriously. Union members have also stated they weren't aware of PPS's counter proposal until the following day, when district communications staff sent information about the mediation session to the press.

Even if the union announces a strike this week, the two parties could continue negotiations through the end of the month before educators would walk out. Preparations have begun on both sides. The district is making contingency plans for students and families for the potential strike, and PAT has said they believe PPS management won't listen to them "until they have heard from [union members] at the strike vote ballot box."

At an October 18 press briefing, Adams shared the district's perspective on Tuesday's mediation session. He said the PPS bargaining team was "prepared to go all night to reach a settlement," but PAT members left the session early and stopped negotiations in their tracks. 

"This is very dismaying to the district," Adams said. 

Adams said the union’s requests for increased salary ranges and increased staffing are beyond what the district can afford, as it grapples with dwindling student enrollment that affects the district’s funding allocation from the state.

"We cannot put ourselves in a perilous situation where we're sacrificing incredibly needed and necessary student services," Adams said. 

But PAT members believe the district mishandled Tuesday's mediation session. In an October 17 bargaining brief post on PAT's website, the union stated the two groups"appear to have ceased to make progress." 

"We can only conclude that management is waiting for us to back away from our demands," the brief states. 

In a statement to the Mercury, PAT said the district didn't share the updated proposal with the union before discussing it with members of the press Wednesday. 

"It was clear to the PAT bargaining team yesterday that the district wasn’t serious about coming to an agreement that gives our students what they need. We have asked for more bargaining dates and are waiting to hear back," the PAT statement said. "When the district is ready to talk seriously about smaller class sizes, wage increases that keep up with cost of living so teachers can stay and work in the district, increased mental health and special education staff to support our students, we will bargain into the night. If PPS management want to avoid a strike, they need to come to the table with more funds and resources for our students and our schools." 

PPS has announced contingency plans in the case of a teacher strike. All schools would be closed to students with no virtual instruction taking place, but PPS would maintain some limited core services, like grab-and-go meals and health services. The district also has at-home learning resources available for students, and varsity athletics would still meet. But students won’t be allowed in the PPS buildings for childcare. 

“We recognize the impact that a potential strike could have on our families,” PPS Senior Analytics and Evaluation Analyst Hannah Witt said at a virtual contingency planning presentation Wednesday evening. “But there are great concerns about having our students in buildings where educators may be outside picketing, and we want to ensure our students feel safe and are not in a place where they have to cross a picket line.” 

In a recent interview with the Mercury, PPS elementary school teacher Tiffany Koyama Lane acknowledged the impact a strike could have, but said  “our kids are seeing disruption every day in Portland schools.”

We don’t have enough staff to help the kids when they need mental health support. There aren’t enough desks,” Koyama Lane said. “For me, it’s important to focus on the bigger picture…I’m ready to strike because I want to improve the schools for everyone.”

Addressing the concerns voiced by teachers as well as members of other PPS unions may require a bigger-picture solution. A recent Oregonian editorial suggests "teachers, school districts and families across Oregon should...be focusing their attention upstream at the state legislature and how it divvies up the primary pot of education dollars."

"The state’s formula for allocating revenue is more than 30 years old. It urgently needs a thorough review of how accurately it considers poverty, disability and other student population characteristics in determining how much a district receives," the editorial states. "Changing the funding formula won’t end disputes between school administrations and their unions. But it could promote a more informed and more honest conversation at all levels about what it takes to fund education." 

PAT’s strike authorization vote will close Thursday, October 19. Leaders will tally the votes and announce the result. After the required 10-day waiting period, a strike could begin as soon as October 30.