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The Aftermath of Portland’s Nearly 3-Week Teacher Strike

Several teachers have raised questions about the effectiveness of the strike. The longtime chair of the Portland Association of Teachers’ bargaining team resigned amid the fallout.

teachers greet students as they arrive at school
Students at Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland were among thousands citywide to return to school Monday morning after the Portland Public Schools teacher strike came to an end. (Beth Nakamura | The Oregonian)
The educators strike that kept Portland, Ore., students out of school for 11 days this month left their teachers shaken — and in some cases, conflicted — even as they overwhelmingly ratified the contract that some are still parsing for both gains and disappointments.

In a clear signal of questions whether the strike was worth it, the longtime chair of the Portland Association of Teachers’ bargaining team told colleagues this week that he had resigned from his post, citing concerns about the process.

“I must report that I am alarmed by what has clearly been an erosion of the strategic decision-making power and autonomy of the PAT Bargaining Team during the period of this negotiation cycle,” Steve Lancaster, who teaches social studies at Lincoln High School, wrote in a message posted to internal educator discussion groups that was shared with The Oregonian/OregonLive by multiple sources. “In my opinion, the compromised democratic processes of the union have contributed to an unnecessarily long strike for the gains achieved.”

In a follow-up email to the newspaper, Lancaster drew a parallel between the union’s governance structure and how democratic nations may tilt towards authoritarianism in times of crisis.

“In the aftermath of a crisis, a healthy democracy will examine itself and ensure that its democratic structures, including the balance of powers between various branches of governance, remain intact,” Lancaster wrote. “This holds true for nations coming out of a time of war and for unions coming out of a strike. It is my hope that the members of PAT will do the work to review what happened during our strike and ensure that the democratic structure of our union remains robust and reflects the values of our rank-and-file members.”

Union president Angela Bonilla has not directly addressed Lancaster’s statements publicly, though she told The Oregonian on Tuesday that she understood there was “frustration educators are feeling. We have taken an important step forward, but we have a long way to go to win the schools Portland students and communities deserve.”

In a Sunday evening internal video conference intended to give educators an overview of the agreement, bargaining team members said that Lancaster had stepped back for “personal reasons” and was “with us in spirit.”

The following day, the union’s bargaining team hosted a five hour webinar for members at which they answered more than 600 questions about the tentative agreement, a recording of which was shared with The Oregonian/OregonLive.

At the very end, in response to questions about Lancaster’s resignation, Bonilla said, “You need to talk to Steve. We don’t speak for him…. There was a question about, ‘Now that Steve’s gone if we don’t ratify the contract, who’s going to fight for us?’ And I want to make sure that we don’t dismiss the work done by all the women and femmes in the space, who have been fighting for you guys. This has never been something that one person does.”

Lancaster is not the only teacher who has raised questions about the strike’s outcome. Bill Wilson, a chemistry teacher at Grant High School who chaired the union’s bargaining team in 2014 and served as a committee member for a decade, wrote on an internal PAT discussion site that the tentative agreement was “a result of a failure of PAT leadership…The revelation last week that 13 percent was the best we could get was nothing short of stunning. It points to a failure of PAT leadership to accurately know district finances. To simply state that the money was there well into the strike without having done the work is a purposeful gaslighting of members.”

Screenshots of his comments were shared with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Wilson did not immediately respond to an email seeking further comment.

Despite their misgiving, both Lancaster and Wilson publicly urged their colleagues to ratify the tentative agreement, saying that rejecting it wouldn’t lead to better outcomes.

At Monday night’s webinar, most teachers heaped praise on Bonilla and the rest of the bargaining team, celebrating them for their persistence during the negotiations including several marathon, 24-hour bargaining sessions.

Others acknowledged that the agreement fell short of what the union had hoped to achieve, particularly around reducing class sizes and increasing mental and behavioral health supports for students.

Bonilla told members that the school board — particularly Chair Gary Hollands, Vice Chair Herman Greene and member Julia Brim-Edwards, who came to the bargaining table after the union requested board presence during the first week of the strike — regularly blocked the union from reaching its goals.

“At this point, I think it is safe to say that the entire board needs to be held accountable,” Bonilla told her members. “This was a traumatic experience for our bargaining team, and it was because of those board members who were not doing what they were elected to do, which is be the accountability check on this district and each other.”

Reached Tuesday, Brim-Edwards and Hollands both said they’d tried numerous different strategies to be responsive to the union’s requests.

“We were trying to figure out what were their priorities within our fixed budget,” Brim-Edwards said.

Hollands said that before the strike, board members were ready to authorize a cost of living adjustment of 6 percent for the first year and 4 percent for each additional year, in exchange for the union agreeing not to walk out. That is very close to where the two sides ultimately ended up. He floated that possibility to Bonilla but it was ultimately rejected, he said.

In the three weeks of negotiations that followed, Hollands said, district bargaining team members tried to address the union’s concerns with a variety of strategies, including starting all new teachers at a higher salary and offering to reduce teacher-student ratios by one at all high-needs schools and all schools where any classroom topped 30 students.

Those ideas eventually went by the wayside in favor of putting available funding toward a larger cost-of-living raises, he said.

The union has emphasized that its negotiators were able to make inroads on key elements of their proposals, including earmarking new funding for weatherizing classrooms and creating new language on sanitary conditions in classrooms that will elevate teachers’ concerns.

Union leaders also pointed to time set aside for grading papers and planning lessons, which was increased to 410 minutes per week for both middle and elementary school educators, a breakthrough that came on Nov. 9, after five missed school days for students. That was accomplished by shifting schedules at some middle schools to allow for more enrichment classes and by drastically cutting back the number of staff meetings, a loss for principals and other building administrators.

“I value the time to meet with my staff,” said Andrea Porter-Lopez, the principal of Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland. “There are so many things that need dialogue. All in an e-mail, it becomes a ‘talk-at.’ You don’t get the same feedback and response.”

In conversation with members, Bonilla and others have stressed that they see this contract laying the groundwork for future ones, particularly on class size caps, a longtime legislative goal of the Oregon Education Association. The new contract includes language setting up schoolwide “class size committees” that will include parents, which she said would help hold the district accountable and create more transparency around full-to-overflowing classrooms.

“Everyone is watching — they now know,” Bonilla said. “Folks are going to be held accountable by not just us, but also parents. So that is another piece that is going to increase the pressure. It is not going to be immediate and that is the frustrating part. But it is the start and it is going to put more eyes on the problem”

Low-level discomfort over some of the union’s methods had been percolating among some members even before the tentative agreement was signed on Sunday afternoon. Several hundred educators on Nov. 21 signed a letter to Bonilla and Vice President Jacque Dixon expressing their discomfort with a flier circulated among the membership during a sit-in on the Burnside Bridge that encouraged “cook-outs and camp-outs” at the homes of the seven members of the school board. The flier, which did not have the PAT logo on it, included the board members’ personal phone numbers and addresses.

“This targeted action could be perceived, by the targets and by the community at large, as threatening, harming or bullying,” the letter read. “This type of escalation tactic may be something you and some members of PAT believe in, but it marginalizes everyone else…We therefore cannot participate in or condone bullying, even in the name of securing a good contract.”

Later on, after Hollands’ car and a home owned by Brim-Edwards were tagged with the words “Shame” — acts that have not been connected to any PAT members — the union issued a statement condemning vandalism.

Since the announcement of the tentative agreement, educators have voiced particular concern around the plans to make up for the instructional hours lost during the strike, which include holding classes during what was supposed to be the first week of winter break.

Bonilla acknowledged those concerns during the Monday question-and-answer meeting, but said school board members had been hell-bent on making up instructional time with full days, as opposed to adding minutes to the school day and made that a condition of settlement. She reminded members that they are able to take personal time, sick time or unpaid leave during the winter break days and do not have to justify those requests to administrators.

“Use your time. It’s yours. The substitutes will probably appreciate the time. Just don’t put up any pictures when you are supposedly sick, please and thank you,” she said.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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