PAT members and supporters march in North Portland.
After a weekend of inconclusive bargaining between Portland Public Schools (PPS) management and members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union, PPS educators have entered their second week on strike. Now, as members of the Oregon legislature strengthen their alliance with the union, the impasse between PAT and PPS is proving steadfast.
In the weeks leading up to the strike, members of the PPS bargaining team said the union's demands weren't feasible and that district leaders didn't know what PAT's specific priorities were, making it difficult to negotiate with the union. When the limits of that argument became clear after PPS educators voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, district officials took to petitioning state lawmakers for help. Instead of an influx of state money, however, PPS leaders got the cold shoulder.
Last week, 16 Oregon lawmakers from the Portland area wrote to the PPS board, calling on the district to "right size its priorities" by focusing on students instead of "superfluous administration spending." In the letter, legislators appeared to put the responsibility for the strike squarely on the shoulders of PPS leaders.
Lawmakers have since doubled down on their alliance with the teachers' union. On Monday, November 6, several legislators held a joint press conference with PAT leaders, where they continued to push back on the district's portrayal of state education funding.
At the press conference, PAT Vice President Jacque Dixon said there's "still more work to do in the long-term to secure more funding for our students."
"But the investments delivered by lawmakers this year mean that PPS has the resources to settle a fair contract that makes real, meaningful investments in our students and in our communities," Dixon said.
"We do expect the district and union to work with that allocation and strike a deal," Debrow said. "That will involve hard compromises, as negotiations must, but ultimately [should] leave the teachers walking away from the table feeling respected."
State lawmakers said even if they wanted to allocate more money to PPS, Oregon's Ballot Measure 5 makes it so they can't provide more base funding to one district over another. Regardless, legislators don't appear particularly motivated to hand a financial life raft to PPS.
At Monday's press conference, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner said it was frustrating to hear PPS leaders put the blame the legislature for the current teachers' strike.
"They've been in negotiations [with the union] for the better part of a year. So when Superintendent Guerrero testified in the legislature that we should fund $10.3 billion, which we did, it feels a little disingenuous to have them come back and say, actually... you didn't give us enough money," Steiner said. "I'm a little frustrated, because we did everything the schools asked us for and then some."
Steiner said she feels sorry for students and families "caught up in the middle of this" because the "district and board [aren't] stepping up" to do what they need to do in order to negotiate a fair contract and end the strike.
"The teachers are trying hard to bargain in good faith. The district needs to as well," Steiner said. "It's not the legislature's job to micromanage school districts. It is our job to provide the best we possibly can given our other constraints on our budget, which we did. Now it's the district's job to prioritize the most important resource they have, which is their teachers."
At the district's own press conference on Monday, PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero told a different story about the bargaining table. He spoke optimistically about the talks between PAT and PPS that took place over the weekend, and said bargaining will continue throughout the week.
"We'll continue to reconvene through the week and the weekend if necessary," Guerrero said. "Whatever it takes to arrive at a resolution and get our children back in school."
Guerrero said even though he testified in favor of the $10.3 billion school funding allocation in the spring, enough money to get PPS to their current service level, things have changed since then.
"This has been our point all along: Nothing is staying current, including the desires of our teachers who want a raise," Guerrero said. "In order to afford that, it requires more revenue or budget reductions."
Guerrero said he believes more schools across Oregon could experience teacher strikes in the coming months.
"PPS is the first out of the gate here with major bargaining with one of its labor groups," he said. "I hate to foreshadow eerily here, but I think you're going to see an increasing number of situations like ours happening up and down the state, unfortunately."
Meanwhile, the union's energy remains strong. Despite Monday's pouring rain, PAT held several rallies across the city, and members continued picketing outside PPS schools. A well-attended rally at North Portland's Peninsula Park included dozens of PPS students marching alongside their teachers.
Yuriy, a PPS middle school student, told the Mercury he attended the rally because he was bored and saw an email about it from one of his old teachers. He said he is in full support of the teachers' movement.
"They need to make schools safer," Yuriy said.
Bargaining conversations continued Monday afternoon and evening. PPS officials once again emailed parents to say there would be no school on Tuesday.
"Nobody wants students back in the classroom more than educators," Dixon, the PAT vice president, said at the Monday morning legislative press conference. "But our students aren't getting what they need right now... educators will stay on the picket lines until the district comes to the table ready to reach a fair deal that gives every student in Portland the education they've been promised."
Taylor Griggs is Portland Mercury's news reporter. She is interested in all of your ideas, comments and concerns, but particularly those related to transportation, climate, labor and housing/homelessness. Send Taylor an email at email@example.com, and find her on Twitter @taylorjgriggs.
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