The first day of the unprecedented Portland Public Schools (PPS) teachers’ strike is over, but it’s unclear when students might return to school.
With day two on the horizon, educators from the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union held a big rally outside Roosevelt High School Wednesday, November 1, after a morning of picketing at schools across the city. At the rally, union members, students, and parents affirmed the need to “hold the line” until PPS offers a bargaining contract PAT agrees to.
PPS management and the district’s bargaining team, however, remain adamant they can’t meet the union’s demands. With the crisis of a strike on their hands, district leaders are turning to the state government for help— even though Gov. Tina Kotek has indicated there’s no new state funding for PPS coming down the pike anytime soon.
With all 81 of the city’s public schools closed indefinitely, tens of thousands of Portland children on an unseasonal break, and a staunch impasse between the district and union, it’s a tense time for many. PAT leaders say they trust reaching this boiling point will be worth it.
“This isn’t just about one contract,” PAT President Angela Bonilla said at Wednesday’s rally. “This is about the future of our school district and our city.”
Navigating the stalemate
Right before PAT’s upbeat and determined rally at Roosevelt, PPS held a press conference where the mood was more solemn.
“Today is not a day that is a celebration for anyone,” PPS Board Chair Gary Hollands said at the press conference. “Our teachers are suffering, our community is suffering.”
PPS leadership says it’s up to the union to end that suffering.
“The union’s proposal, which remains largely unchanged after 10 months of negotiations, is not fiscally responsible,” PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said at the district’s press conference.
Guerrero said while the union has called for increased staff and resources for student support, their proposal “would require cuts to the various supports [PPS] already has in place.” He added that PAT’s calls for lower class sizes are incompatible with the union’s desired compensation package.
Even with the Portland Teachers Levy, which brings in nearly $115 million and funds more than 850 PPS teachers via a property tax, the district claims its budget leaves no room for substantial pay increases or additional expenditures.
To meet the union’s compensation requests, the district says they’ll need to lay off up to 300 teachers in order to balance the budget.
“We’re eager to work with our educators to find a solution within our fixed revenue and our operational limitations, but we’re unable to meet core demands,” Guerrero said. “That remains the case, strike or no strike.”
The most recent PPS offer would give teachers an 11 percent raise over the next three years, in addition to adding a $3000 bonus for first-year and special education teachers. But the union is seeking roughly double what the district has offered in salary adjustments, and PAT leaders claim the district can afford it without cutting teaching jobs.
“PAT rejects PPS management's budget fearmongering. This is a question of priorities,” PAT spokesperson Sam Winslow told the Mercury via email.
According to the union, PPS is deliberately “manufacturing a crisis.” The union’s stance is that PPS could afford to meet educator demands if they would dip into their $105 million general fund balance. They also say PPS was granted “historic state revenue” in 2023. The Oregon State School Fund and Student Investment Account grants contributed to a roughly $20 million increase in state funding compared to last year.
“Those funds alone could pay for PAT's wage proposal and help educators be able to live in Portland,” Winslow said.
PPS to Oregon Legislature: “Find the money.”
Though PAT insists PPS has enough state funding to cover the union’s demands, the district has another story. At the November 1 press conference, district leaders spoke candidly about needing “real investment from the state.” Superintendent Guerrero said any increase in state funding hasn’t kept up with inflation.
“The state of Oregon is not funding what they themselves have identified as a quality education for Oregon students,” Guerrero said. “And here we are at the district level, wanting to pay our educators a quality salary and give our students a quality educational experience.”
Gov. Kotek has said discussions about school funding will have to wait until the 2025 budget session. She also isn’t open to reallocating the record-high kicker tax credits to education, saying that Oregonians rely on the income tax relief the kicker provides.
Even so, PPS leaders insist they can’t budge on contract negotiations without state assistance. While district leaders continued holding PAT responsible for the strike, they also put the blame on the state legislature.
“The excuse that we don't have more money is not acceptable. When we make things a priority, we find the money,” Hollands, the school board chair, said. “The state needs to find the money. Come back in the session and figure out how we fund our most precious commodities, which are our children.”
“You are waging a righteous fight for the students of Portland.”
Even as overcast skies turned to heavy rain on Wednesday afternoon, the outdoor rally at Roosevelt High School was crowded and spirited. The “Big Noise Strike Force Band”— apparently the teachers’ union official marching band— played high-energy renditions of “Crazy Train” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” One teacher brought several baby goats. Attendees heard from two prominent American education labor leaders, who flew in for the occasion: Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, and United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz.
Pringle and Myart-Cruz spoke in support of Portland teachers in fiery speeches that revved up the crowd.
“We know that our working conditions are the students' learning and living conditions. We gotta fight for that and so much more,” Myart-Cruz said. “This is a historic strike…and I need you all to show up. Even when you’re cold, and you’re tired, I’m going to need you to watch that line. Because we know when you win, we win. Y’all are fighting for the soul of Portland schools, but you're fighting for all of Oregon.”
Pringle, who leads the largest labor union in the United States with three million members, told Portland’s teachers they are not alone— she brought along the “power of three million of your closest friends."
“You are in the fight of your lives to ensure your students have an education that inspires their education and prepares them to live into their brilliance,” Pringle said. “You’ve got allies and labor partners all across Portland, and do you know why they're joining us? Because you are waging a righteous fight for the students of Portland. They know our students deserve better and they know something else: that the people who have dedicated their lives to loving, nurturing, teaching, and taking care of the babies of this community deserve respect.”