Some 45,000 public school students in Portland, Oregon, returned to classrooms on Nov. 27 following a teachers’ union strike that has dragged on for more than three weeks.
The strike, which had kept 81 schools across the city closed since Nov. 1, was finally put to an end on Nov. 26 after Portland Public Schools (PPS) and the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) reached a tentative deal.
Although union members still need to vote to ratify the terms, and the school board will also need to approve the full contract at its meeting on Nov. 28, that didn’t prevent students from having classes on Nov. 27, although with a two-hour delay.
“We are relieved to have our students returning to school and know that being out of school for the last three weeks—missing classmates, teachers, and learning—has been hard for everyone,” PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said in an email sent to families on Nov. 26.
“We thank our students, families, and community for your patience and perseverance through these protracted negotiations,” the letter read. “We also want to express our deep appreciation for our educators, who are the backbone of our district, and who enrich the lives of our students.”
The union also celebrates the end of the strike, telling its members that it has “won improvements” on “all core issues,” including a 13.75 percent cost-of-living payment hike, an annual $1,500 stipend for bilingual teachers, more nonteaching “planning time” for standard work weeks, and the creation of joint committees to determine class sizes and teacher workloads on a school-to-school basis.
Specifically, the 13.75 percent increase will be implemented over the next three years, with Portland teachers getting a 6.25 percent rise in the first year, followed by 4.5 percent and 3 percent raises in subsequent years. The union had initially proposed a 23 percent increase, and the school district countered with a proposed increase of just shy of 11 percent.
As part of the deal, teachers will have one extra paid work day added to their standard work year, to 193 days, and that will include 176 teaching days, four and a half “planning days,” and four grading days. Teachers will also have a back-to-back grading and planning day at the end of each of the first three quarters of the school year.
The teachers’ union also secured a major boost in “planning time,” from 320 minutes for a standard workweek to at least 410 minutes for elementary school teachers.
“These changes will make a huge difference on priorities like mental health supports for students, educator workload relief, and safe and welcoming school environments,” PAT President Angela Bonilla said in a press conference on Nov. 26. “Educators walked picket lines alongside families, students, and allies—and because of that, our schools are getting the added investment they need.”
Under the agreement, the 11 days of missed school will be made up for by holding classes through Dec. 22, adding a day each in January, February, and April, and having classes on June 12, 13, and 14.
While negotiating, the union’s bargaining team had backed down from several of its initial demands, including dramatic changes in class size and workloads that district officials said would not only cost the district about $100 million but also require the district to hire 350 more teachers and nonteaching professionals.
The strike, which the PAT said is the first in the union’s history, comes as Oregon continues to see an enrollment decline in some of its largest school districts.
As of October 2022, Oregon’s public school system served some 552,380 students, down from 582,660 in October 2019. At the same time, the number of full-time teachers in the system increased from about 29,500 in 2019 to 30,300 this year.
The public school hemorrhage poses a financial challenge to the system, since it relies on funding tied to the number of students enrolled.
The state’s education officials have also expressed concern about the decline, as they aren’t exactly sure where the students have gone.
According to an analysis by Oregon’s education department, most of the 30,000 students who were no longer in public schools likely have switched over to homeschooling, which grew by 70 percent in the 2021–2022 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and had nearly 20,000 students enrolled statewide. Others might have gone to private schools or simply moved out of state, as Oregon has suffered a net loss of 16,000 residents in 2022.