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Oregon governor signals state funding to schools must improve following Portland teachers’ strike

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Oregon governor signals state funding to schools must improve following Portland teachers’ strike

Nov 28, 2023 | 8:13 pm ET
By Alex Baumhardt
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Oregon governor signals state funding to schools must improve following Portland teachers’ strike
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Hundreds of educators, parents and students joined a rally Nov. 1. 2023 at Roosevelt High School in north Portland to support striking teachers who want better pay, smaller class sizes and more planning time among other demands. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The conditions that led to Portland’s first teachers’ strike reflect historic and statewide issues that need to be addressed by state leaders, according to Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek. 

“We’re going to step up and have a different conversation in the coming year,” she said at a news conference Tuesday. 

To start, Kotek laid out four priorities for the Oregon Department of Education and the Legislature, aimed at improving school district funding as well as transparency around that funding and the budgets of Oregon’s 196 school districts. She also said she’d convene a group to present a statewide plan for boosting student mental health resources and capacity in schools and would ask an existing group to propose a salary schedule or minimum teacher salary for teachers statewide in order to remedy wages that have not kept up with the cost of living. 

The three-week teacher strike in Portland ended Sunday with a tentative agreement reached between the union – the Portland Association of Teachers – and the district. The teachers’ demands – including larger wage increases, smaller class sizes and more planning time – were a response to years of underinvestment compounded by challenges since the pandemic, teachers said, leading to burnout, unsafe working conditions and teachers unable to afford housing near schools.

Throughout negotiations, the union and district leaders expressed frustration over a lack of state funding for Oregon’s largest school district, despite the Legislature allocating a record $10.2 billion to the state school fund for the next two years. 

In a press conference held during the strike, Portland Public Schools’ superintendent, Guadalupe Guerrero, told lawmakers it still wasn’t enough. Portland’s funding increased 9% while inflation drove school costs up 18%, he told them.

“We wouldn’t be in this position had the legislative session gone differently,” he said. 

The Legislature dictates the lion’s share of each of Oregon’s 196 school district budgets. About two-thirds of Oregon schools’ funding comes from the state in the form of income taxes and lottery revenues. The other third comes from local property taxes, but all revenues are distributed across districts using a funding formula dictated by the Legislature.

Kotek said at the news conference that she is directing the Legislature to review and make updates to the state school funding formula if it’s fallen out of alignment with the actual costs and needs districts are facing. 

“What we heard was that the current service level didn’t do it. We have outstanding needs around wage growth in our schools,” Kotek said. “We have to, I think, take a deep dive on how we’re doing our school funding formula.”

Next, she said she’d closely follow and rely on the work of the Joint Task Force on Statewide Educator Salary Schedules, created during the spring legislative session and led by state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and state Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville. 

Kotek said she wants the group to provide a proposal for setting teacher salary schedules, or at least a minimum teacher salary, in Oregon that reflects the rising cost of living in much of the state and that can compete with wages paid to teachers in neighboring states, while also minimizing competition among Oregon districts. 

To address a growing slate of mental health needs among students since the pandemic, Kotek said she’d convene a group to develop a “statewide action plan” aimed at improving resources and capacity for mental health care in schools. 

“We’re hearing of disturbances in classrooms, we’re hearing about students not coming to school, we are hearing about the challenges that are left over from the pandemic,” Kotek said. 

Lastly, Kotek proposed creating an Office of Transparency within the Oregon Department of Education to make district financial data more accessible and easy to understand. The data is already collected by the state’s education department but is not easily understood or available to the public. 

The transparency office would ensure everyone from unions to district leaders to parents and members of the public have easy access to budget information that details future estimated revenues for each district, the share of district funding that comes from the state compared to local property taxes and how much each district spends on administrators. Several states, including Arizona, Illinois and Michigan, already offer such databases.