Third grade teacher Tiffany Koyama Lane lives close enough to work that she can commute to her job at Sunnyside Environmental School on a Razor scooter. Every morning on her way to school, Koyama Lane relishes riding alongside current and former students, who see her not just as an educator but also as a member of their community.
“[The students] are like, ‘Teacher Tiffany, what’s up?’” Koyama Lane said in an interview with the Mercury. “It just makes me think about how important it is that those kids get to have the continuity of teachers as a part of the community.”
But over the past few years, Koyama Lane has watched as fellow Portland Public Schools (PPS) teachers are priced out of the communities where they work. She and other members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union say PPS hasn’t done enough to make sure their educators earn a living wage—and this is one reason Portland teachers may go on strike at the end of the month.
PAT members have been negotiating a new union contract with PPS for months, to no avail. The most recent PAT-PPS contract expired in June, so Portland teachers and coaches are currently working without a union contract. Unable to reach an agreement with PPS leadership, PAT has authorized a strike vote for next week. If a majority of union members agree, a strike could begin as soon as October 29.
If the roughly 4,500 PAT members strike, it would be a first for PPS educators, and would have ripple effects across Portland. PAT members say they don’t want to strike. But they also say their current working conditions are dire, and it's unsustainable for them, their families, and the tens of thousands of students in the district.
Meanwhile, PAT members aren’t the only PPS employees unsatisfied with their working conditions. SEIU Local 503—the union representing custodians and nutrition service workers— has issued a strike pledge to members, who are also working on an expired contract. And Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) members—who work as paraeducators, library assistants, school administrative assistants, and more—have voted to reject a new tentative agreement with PPS, placing them back in the bargaining phase.
Leaders from each union say PPS has more money to raise wages and improve working conditions than the district has let on, an allegation PPS management denies. School funding is primarily determined by enrollment. In 2022, PPS reported an enrollment decline that it attributed largely to a declining birth rate in the county. But even with fewer students, PPS received more funding from Oregon’s Common School Fund this year than the prior year.
Regardless of how a deal is reached, it’s clear employees want change, and they’ve found community support for their cause.
“My paycheck isn’t covering the bills anymore.”
Koyama Lane is a mother of two young children and the sole breadwinner for her family. As the cost of living in Portland has risen dramatically in recent years, she said it’s getting “harder and harder for people to afford to live here.” This is one of the main issues preventing PAT and PPS from coming to a contract agreement—they’re still far apart on a fair cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in the new contract.
At an October 10 PPS all-union rally and practice picket outside the district headquarters, PAT president Angela Bonilla called on the district to pay teachers according to the rate of inflation.
“PPS says they can’t afford our demands, that we’re too greedy because we want a COLA that’s actually close to inflation,” Bonilla said. “The inflation affects their budget, but apparently not ours.”
Bonilla said though PPS management says they run a deficit each year, they have a $100 million “nest egg” that they’re “saving for a rainy day.”
“I don't know about y'all, but it feels like it's been raining for a couple of years,” Bonilla said.
District leaders say board policy requires them to hold 5-10% of their operating budget in reserves, which currently sit at $105 million. They say next year’s budget will require spending down the reserves by more than half, and they need to maintain some amount of money in case of emergencies or cash flow issues. With that in mind, leaders say there simply isn’t enough money to meet PAT requests.
It’s not just teachers struggling to make ends meet. Members of the other PPS unions say their paychecks don’t reflect the work they do for the district and its students.
According to Amy Silvia, an elementary school nutrition service lead at Maplewood Elementary School, most cafeteria staff make less than $24,000 a year. Silvia is on the SEIU Local 503 bargaining team, and at the union rally she said she’s “starting to feel trapped and edgy” because of PPS’s unresponsiveness in contract negotiations.
“PPS is really good at ‘talking the talk.’ What they're not so good at is ‘walking the walk,’” Silvia said. “Show us equity, give us more staff, protect our workers and our students…I’m here to say that I’m not too tired to give up this fight.”
PFSP members say they’re also struggling to keep up with rising costs in Portland. The tentative agreement offers raises that would bring the entire bargaining unit to a minimum of $20 per hour, with the vast majority of members earning more than that. But members turned the contract down and are now going back to the bargaining table.
A PPS administrative assistant who asked to remain anonymous told the Mercury PFSP workers “felt insulted by the scant offerings” in the tentative agreement the union voted against earlier this week. They said the flat raise offered, along with a 3.5 percent COLA for 2024, won’t match up to current rates of inflation.
“If COLA can't keep up with inflation, any flat raise we're afforded will be negligible by the time we renegotiate in three years,” they said. “The most salient aspect of the tentative agreement ensured that the lowest-paid PFSP worker makes $20 dollars an hour, but even that is woefully inadequate. What person in Portland thinks $20 an hour can afford them a life of security, agency, and enjoyment?”
Members of all unions say increased pay will allow them to better serve their students and the broader community.
“I would like to be part of my school’s community for a long time, but right now my position’s salary ladder caps at $24.63,” the administrative assistant said. “I want students to have consistency and diversity in the school staff and unless we ring in an era of fair contracts across all unions affiliated with PPS, our buildings will see high turnover and a narrow skew of people who can afford to tolerate such poor conditions.”
Rats, heat, and crowded classrooms
It’s not just wages union members are concerned about. PPS workers say their working conditions are untenable, and the district doesn’t seem interested in making the necessary changes to improve the school environment.
Koyama Lane said a particularly disturbing example of the inhospitable conditions are the rats that have taken up residence in her school.
“The rats at school are so common that I've had them be part of playground disagreements,” Koyama Lane said. “It's really gross. And it's not okay.”
Many PPS buildings are old, and lack modern upgrades. In addition to rats, Koyama Lane said school staff and students suffer through hot days without air conditioning, creating “unbearable” conditions.
Koyama Lane said when it’s hot outside, it’s even hotter in the classrooms, and she and her students both suffer physical and mental effects. She said she’s reported the problem to administrators and “nothing is happening.”
“That one's really painful and shocking, because it's really not right for the kids,” Koyama Lane said. She has resorted to buying spray bottles and ice to cool down the kids.
PPS teachers are also struggling with growing class sizes. Koyama Lane said her own children, who are PPS elementary school students, are both in classes of 31 students—well above the limit the district has established, which maxes out at 28 for elementary school classes. If there are more students in a class, the district will pay teachers more per student, but PAT members want them to also set firmer limits on how many students can be in a classroom.
“It's not good for the students. It's not student-centered,” Koyama Lane said. “When I have a smaller class size, I know them better. I can talk about exactly where they're struggling in math. I can know what I need to help them with their reading. When there are 31 kids…all the kids get less and I feel like my kids aren't getting what they deserve.”
“We’ll do what we need to do to get what our kids deserve.”
PAT members and PPS management both hope to reach an agreement and avoid a strike.
In a statement to the Mercury, PPS Chief of Research, Assessment, and Accountability and bargaining team member Dr. Renard Adams wrote he understands how hard teachers and staff work.
“I was an aide, a paraeducator, and a middle school special educator, so when our teachers say the work is hard – I know. And we can both acknowledge the work is hard – and that there are very real financial limitations on what we can offer if we want to sustain the success we’re seeing in our schools,” Adams wrote. “We ask our educators to come back to the bargaining table and work with us to find a compromise that keeps our students at the center.”
Teachers say they hope to avoid a strike, but are galvanized by the community support for educators and staff.
“What I really am hearing from the community is that they see this is bargaining for the common good. We're not just talking about teacher wages, we're talking about things that will change the situation for their kids and all the kids in Portland,” Koyama Lane said. “The core thing is that this is about the kids. We can't afford not to center them and invest in them.”