Portland Schools Canceled Through Thanksgiving Weekend as Teachers’ Union Strike Continues

The strike has entered its 11th day and could potentially keep 81 schools across the city closed for the rest of November.
Portland Schools Canceled Through Thanksgiving Weekend as Teachers’ Union Strike Continues
Families, students, and teachers march across the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon, in advance of a districtwide, strike that began on Nov. 1, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Portland Association of Teachers.)
Bill Pan

A massive strike by public school teachers of Portland, Oregon, has entered its 11th day on Friday and could potentially keep the city’s 45,000 students out of classrooms for the rest of November.

The upcoming Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 21 and 22, were scheduled as days for family-teacher conferences with no school for children, followed by three Thanksgiving vacation days. This means the first possible day that students might have classes falls on Nov. 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

In a message to students and families, Portland Public Schools (PPS) said the conferences won’t happen, as school buildings will remain closed because of the ongoing strike by the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT).

“It is critical that our educators have sufficient opportunity to evaluate student work and complete grading in order to best prepare for these conversations,” it said. “Given the current strike and closure of school, that time has not been available and, therefore, we need to cancel next week’s conferences.”

“We continue to bargain, and the last few days have left us hopeful for a resolution,” the school district added, promising to share a full return-to-school plan—including when school days may be made up—once they reach a final agreement with the union.

As of Friday, the PPS and the PAT had reached tentative deals on several issues, with the latter agreeing to modify some of its initial demands to lower the price tag, including giving up $7 million from “retirement stabilization” and removing $5 million from a $3,000 annual bonus for special education teachers, who will instead get to keep non-teaching paid days for doing paperwork.

In another major concession, the teachers’ union’s bargaining team confirmed on Friday that they have taken class size caps—one of the most expensive and heavily debated items—out of their most up-to-date list of demands.

The PAT, which represents over 4,500 K-12 educators in more than 80 public schools across the city, initially asked for a dramatic increase in the overage pay that teachers receive when the size of their class exceeds a certain threshold.

For example, in the current contract, a kindergarten teacher with more than 24 students in the class is entitled to a 3 percent increase in base salary for every student above that number. Under the initial PAT proposal, that threshold would be lowered to 23 students, and the teacher would receive a 5 percent increase for the 24th student and a 10 percent increase for each additional student.

On top of that, the union seeks significant caseload reductions for not only teachers, but also chancellors, school psychologists, and social workers, among many other non-teaching specialists. For example, the union requests for one school counselor to have every 350 students, as compared to the current counselor-student ratios of 1:525 in elementary school, 1:475 in middle school, and 1:400 in high school.

In terms of costs, the district estimates that fulfilling those class size and caseload demands would cost about $100 million over two years starting with the 2024–25 school year, and would require the district to hire another 350 educators.

As part of their counterproposal, the PPS offered to form a joint committee at each school to decide class size caps on a school-to-school basis. Such a committee would consist of a union representative, the affected classroom teacher, the principal, an assistant superintendent or their proxy, and two parents, one appointed by either the PTA or by the principal and one by the building’s union representative.

The strike, which started on Nov. 1, 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, meanwhile, 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 that were no longer in public schools likely have switched over to homeschooling, which grew by 70 percent in the 2021–22 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.

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