Portland Public Schools (PPS) educators and students returned to the classroom on Monday, November 27, after a nearly month-long teachers’ strike. But before the contract agreement between PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union could be called a done deal, the union and school board had to vote to ratify it.

On Tuesday, November 28, educators and the PPS Board of Education voted “aye” on the three-year labor contract for PPS teachers, capping off almost a year of bargaining and a lengthy, historic strike. After an extensive, eventful bargaining process, district and union leaders are relieved to have a contract inked. But educators, district leaders, and students have lingering questions and concerns.

Despite some misgivings from educators and union leadership, teachers voted overwhelmingly to support the agreement. Out of the 93 percent of PAT members who participated in the vote, nearly 95 percent voted yes. Following the union ratification, PPS board members met at a special meeting on November 28, where they voted unanimously to approve the contract. But their approval came with some caveats. 

During Tuesday's school board meeting, board members heard from people who strongly opposed the decision to cut winter break by a week in order to make up for lost class time. One of the opponents was Jorge Sanchez Bautista, a McDaniel High School student who serves as PAT’s student liaison. Sanchez Bautista said many PPS students have felt voiceless during the strike, reflected in the fact that they didn't get to participate in the decision about how to make up lost school time.

He said students have been circulating a survey about how they'd prefer the time to be made up, and most of the students who answered want a different solution than removing a week of winter break. Instead, students suggest adding an extra week in June, lengthening the school day, and having school on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January. 

"Taking away our winter break isn't an option. Folks have plans, and have to decide whether to stay or go," Sanchez Bautista said. "Having school during a time when the majority of people are busy is just a waste of classroom time." 

Though the school board members considered Sanchez Bautista's concerns, they nixed several of the options he said students preferred. For one, seniors in high school— who finish school early— wouldn't benefit from the school year being extended further into June. And board members rejected the idea of extending the school day by 15 or 30 minute increments.

"I will not sit with 15 minute increments. I just can't do it," board member Herman Greene said. But Greene and other board members were open to making changes to the make-up day schedule as long as it wouldn't mean voting no on the entire contract and going back to square one.

The school board's approval of the labor contract— including the new school calendar— doesn't prevent the district from amending make-up days, if needed. But for students, the issue runs deeper than just the winter break schedule.

"Students were glad to picket with their teachers [during the strike] and advocate for things that they had dealt with," Sanchez Bautista said at the meeting. "But in the end, we were disappointed...Students never voted for the strike to happen, never brought into bargaining to talk for themselves, and weren't in the conversation about how to make up for lost time." 

Frankie Silverstein, the student representative on the PPS board, issued a similar sentiment. As a student representative, Silverstein is a non-voting member of the board, but she read a letter she'd prepared in lieu of casting a vote.

"If I had a vote, I would be voting yes...I'm grateful for everyone's hard work— not only the time devoted, but the emotional labor this took," Silverstein said. "There is no winning, because students have been losing this whole time. In theory, we should all be on the same side. We are a district, a team. To be frank, I'd like to see us act like one." 

Silverstein said she thought people would've been less frustrated if the district was more transparent about how their decisions are made. She said both the district and the union released updates that were "convoluted and inflammatory," and reduced the community's trust in both parties.

"What we need to do is move forward while learning from our past," Silverstein said. "My ask is that PAT and PPS put out a joint statement that's clear, unbiased, and transparent. ...A lot of the information that's been presented has been one-sided. I think we just need to present the facts and then let people draw their own conclusions." 

Other board members appeared receptive of the message to increase student involvement, and PAT President Angela Bonilla spoke favorably of it, too. 

"I hope we can create more systems that ensure student voices are not just added as a way to say that we have a student voice, but heard and acted upon," Bonilla said at the meeting. "They are the ones who own the future. We're just keeping it warm for them."