Below is a letter that was sent to representatives of Portland Public Schools, the Portland Public Schools Board and Portland Association of Teachers.
The Portland Metro Chamber is the leading voice for our region’s employer community representing over 2,300 members. More than 80% of our members are small businesses. The Chamber advocates at all levels of government to support commerce, community health and vibrancy, and the region’s overall prosperity.
The Chamber has a long, consistent record of strongly supporting sustainable funding for Portland Public Schools. In 2019, the Chamber (then the Portland Business Alliance) joined Oregon Business & Industry as the only local chamber of commerce in Oregon to support the agreement that paved the way for passage of HB 3427, the Student Success Act. The Student Success Act imposed an annual $1 billion tax increase on Oregon businesses, the largest increase in state history, to provide sustainable funding for our public schools. The Chamber also supported dedicating the corporate kicker to public schools, and all Portland Public School (PPS) local taxes, including the teachers levy and school bonds. The Portland business community’s support for PPS has been consistent and unwavering.
We write today to implore upon you to stay at the bargaining table to reach a new bargaining agreement without the disruption and long-term damage a strike will cause our children, our most vulnerable families, our economy, and our already greatly damaged reputation.
Oregon was one of the first states in the nation to implement pandemic restrictions, and was one of the last states to end restrictions. This included being one of the last states in the nation to bring back full in person public school instruction. Our city is still in an extremely precarious position.
Over the past two years, we have seen measurable population decline, and we are faced with innumerable crises impacting our livability and competitiveness. Our economy has been fueled for decades by a well-educated workforce, but we are presently experiencing student outcomes far below what our families and employers depend on. PPS has also experienced a significant enrollment decline of about 4,300 students. It is notable that while enrollment has seen a significant decline, the district has spent reserves to avoid cuts, and according to the district has added over 170 teachers reducing class sizes.
We know that our nation-leading closure of our schools did incalculable damage to our kids academic success, as demonstrated by the latest data. The first strike in the history of PPS on the heels of such a significant absence from the classroom, will set our most vulnerable students back again, just as they are beginning to recover from the historic loss of in person instruction.
We are also deeply concerned with the precarious financial condition the district will find itself in with any settlement. With the current proposals from both sides requiring the district to begin deficit spending next fiscal year, the new contract, in any scenario, will force the district into an unsustainable financial position. We agree with the Oregonian editorial board that this is especially true of the union’s current proposal. By demanding both $60 million more for large compensation increases, and more than the district has offered for out-of-class planning time for teachers, this would require cuts to critical electives like physical education, music, and libraries; eliminate critical supports like reading specialists; and make it extremely difficult for the district to bargain new contracts with its other unions representing other important employee groups. It will also result in further reductions in PPS instructional hours and school year, which is already one of the shortest in the nation.
Our members are frustrated that PPS could be in such a weak financial position despite being the beneficiary of three dedicated taxes to the district, and public schools continuing to receive record funding from the State. It is just the latest example of what Portland taxpayers and voters have unfortunately become accustomed to – generous support for critical services with very little return on the investment they have been willing to make. We supported the Student Success Act because it was meant to prevent the very situation the district finds itself in today.
We commend the district for being willing to continue to try and reach a settlement at the bargaining table and we urge the union to do the same. With the district refraining from implementing a new contract and remaining committed to staying at the bargaining table, this would be a strike of choice by the union, not of necessity.
The needs of our students must come first. A strike will be extremely damaging to our most vulnerable children and families, damaging to our economic recovery, damaging to our reputation, and completely unnecessary. And it would be in support of a proposal that is financially unrealistic. For these reasons we implore upon the bargaining teams on both sides to take a deep breath, think about the consequences of your actions, stay at the table, and reach a bargained settlement in good faith.
Our children, families, and community are counting on you.