Portland Teachers Are on Strike, Closing Schools in Oregon’s Largest District

The Portland Association of Teachers, which represents about 3,700 teachers, school counselors and other employees in the negotiations, is asking for higher wages, more time to plan lessons and a cap on class sizes, among other issues. They say that students’ emotional and academic needs have skyrocketed since the pandemic, and that employees are under strain and undersupported.

“We are on strike not just for ourselves, but for our students,” said Angela Bonilla, the union’s president, who described crowded classrooms where there aren’t enough desks, teachers who are working up to 20 hours a week unpaid to keep up with their workloads and schools that are overwhelmed by students’ mental health challenges.

The average salary for a Portland teacher is $87,000, according to Portland Public Schools, slightly above the area median income for a single person and below the median for a family of four. (The union said that the average full-time salary is about $83,000.)

Portland Public Schools has offered raises of 4.5 percent for the first year, and 3 percent in subsequent years of the contract. The union is asking for 8.5 percent in the first year to keep up with cost of living, and 6 percent and 5 percent in subsequent years.

The district says it cannot afford the union’s overall proposal, citing a difference of more than $200 million. Officials say that funding from the state legislature has not kept up with inflation, and a state law limits the district’s ability to raise taxes on residents.

Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat who last year won the endorsement and deep financial support of a statewide union that represents teachers, expressed sympathy this week for the district’s position, but said discussion about state funding would have to wait until the 2025 budget cycle.

In the days before the strike, she had urged both sides to spend “every moment” negotiating. “Going out on strike is not in the best interest of students or families,” she said.

Portland Public Schools serves about 45,000 students, with a student population that is 55 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Black and 6 percent Asian — a greater share Hispanic and Black than the city overall. About a third of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

Students in the district spent significant time out of classroom during the pandemic, remaining fully virtual until April 2021, longer than many districts around the country.

The strike in Portland may set the tone for other districts in Oregon that are also struggling to finalize new labor agreements. That includes Salem, the state’s second largest school district.

The short and unsatisfying answer: as long as it takes to come to an agreement.

Strikes in other districts have lasted a few days to a few weeks.

The union has encouraged parents to make plans for child care while 81 schools in the district are closed. Portland Public Schools is making meals available for pick up at certain schools. Tutoring for the youngest students may be available starting next week.