Update: Portland Public Schools announced late Thursday that students will not return to school until at least November 27.
Educators from Portland Public Schools (PPS) began their historic strike on November 1, temporarily shutting down more than 80 schools across the city. Since then, little progress has been made to relax the stalemate between the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union and PPS management to end the strike. In fact, the tension between the district and union has only appeared to grow as the days tick by.
But bargaining developments this week signaled the possibility the strike could soon head in a different trajectory— more than two weeks after it began.
In an effort to help break the impasse, Portland officials announced they will immediately release nearly $20 million in clean energy funds to PPS for building infrastructure improvements. The money has been earmarked for district carbon reduction projects since before the strike began, but PPS and city leaders now see it as a potential way to meet teachers’ concerns about uncomfortable classroom temperatures.
Union leaders also offered a new proposal they said would bridge the gap with PPS by more than $120 million over the course of the three-year contract agreement. The union appears to be willing to compromise on class size caps, backing down on their demand that the district set a hard limit on how many students are allowed in a class— which would've required PPS to hire hundreds of new teachers.
But PPS rejected that offer, with district officials saying it wouldn't save anywhere near what PAT claimed. With only one day to go before the district's schools are closed for Thanksgiving break all of next week, there's still no telling when PPS and the union will come to an agreement so students and teachers can get back to the classroom.
In the months of contract negotiations leading up to the PAT strike, PPS teachers have remained steadfast on several key components of a new contract with the district. One of their primary demands is a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) that would raise salaries by a cumulative 18 percent over three years, which union leaders say would account. for inflation and allows teachers to live near their schools, even in the most expensive parts of Portland. So far, the district's bargaining team hasn't been willing to meet that ask, limiting COLA proposals to a little more than 10 percent over three years, plus a one-time bonus.
Teachers have also been adamant about reducing class sizes and creating more manageable student caseloads: A bargaining topic that has proven to be one of the most contentious in negotiations with PPS.
While teachers argue that class size caps would benefit both educators and students, who perform better in smaller classes with more opportunity for individual attention, PPS leaders have opposed the idea. In addition to the cost of hiring hundreds more teachers to instruct classes with fewer students, district management also says the caps would negatively impact high-need, low-income students at Title I schools.
PAT leaders have pointed out that several Title I schools, which are supposed to have smaller class sizes to serve high-need students, are already seeing larger class sizes than they should be. But as the strike has gone on without significant progress in negotiations, teachers look to be backing down on the class size argument.
The change in bargaining strategy comes after an independent state budget analysis showed PPS may not have as much extra money as the union asserted it did. PAT leaders have claimed PPS has an extra $21 million annually for the next three years from local property taxes, and accused the district of not accounting for this money in their budget forecasts. The analysis showed the Oregon Department of Education cut state education funding by the same amount gained in local property taxes— meaning there wasn't, in fact, an extra $21 million.
The state analysis did find there may be an additional $12.4 million the district could use in the next school year. But that won't be enough to meet the teachers' demands.
Union members and others have also called on the district to tap into its $105 million general fund reserve, which PPS management has said must be saved for "unforeseen expenses." To PAT and other community members, meeting teachers' demands— and ending the strike— should be seen as a cause worth dipping into savings to cover.
PPS Communications Director Will Howell told the Mercury the district has already accounted for about half of that reserve fund this school year. He also said the current contract offer the district has proposed to PAT, which does not meet many of the teachers' demands, will require more than $100 million in budget cuts over the next three years.
"The only way PPS is operating this year is by spending its reserve money," Howell said. "If we happened to have more...it would probably just go to reduce the cuts, and it could theoretically reduce how much money we have to draw out of our savings."
PCEF stepping in?
Classroom conditions have been a key point in contract negotiations, with educators citing environmental hazards like extreme classroom temperatures. At rallies and on the picket lines, teachers have drawn attention to this grievance, saying it's becoming unbearable to teach in old PPS buildings during the warmer and colder months.
While PPS officials dispute some of the teachers' claims about the extent of dangerous temperatures in district classrooms, their bargaining team had an idea for mitigating some of the concerns. In September, Portland City Council approved the new Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF)'s Climate Investment Plan, which allocates $750 million over five years to carbon emissions reduction projects in the city. On Wednesday, the city announced $19.9 million in PCEF funds earmarked for 30 PPS schools would be fast-tracked. The funds will pay for improvements to "school building infrastructure, transportation, and school yards." Over the last few days, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees PCEF, have told district and union officials they are willing to fast-track the money in hopes of resolving the impasse between PAT and PPS.
"I appreciate the dedication PPS and PAT have shown remaining at the bargaining table, which demonstrates their commitment to reaching a resolution," Wheeler said in a November 15 press release. "These resources will bolster the package PPS/PAT agree to, improving school conditions to benefit both teachers and students."
During a November 14 bargaining session, district negotiators shared a conceptual memorandum of agreement with the union regarding "heath and safety improvement investments." The proposal states PPS will use up to $10 million in PCEF funds to "address temperature mitigation at PCEF-qualified PPS buildings," including for Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems, "with the goal of increasing student and educator comfort and, as required by PCEF, improve climate resiliency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
PCEF is intended to prioritize carbon reduction investments in Portland's most vulnerable communities, specifically communities of color and with low-income populations. This means only 30 PPS schools are eligible for the upgrades. The district's bargaining proposal also states PPS will invest an additional $10 million in capital/bond funds to address environmental health and deferred maintenance concerns in school buildings, presumably ones not eligible for PCEF money.
The proposal also suggests one PAT educator will participate in reviewing and providing input on the list of prioritized PCEF projects.
"The goal would be to try to essentially have a process that involves educators, so there's educator voice directly involved in how we tackle those temperature issues within classrooms with some of those PCEF funds," Howell said.
It's not yet clear if the union will accept the proposal in a final contract agreement. The Mercury did not immediately hear back from PAT representatives. In a November 15 media release, PAT officials said PPS's last proposal showed "small movement," but it was "not enough to get students back in school." The press release also said the union bargaining team would provide district management with a "comprehensive settlement package" on November 16.