Portland teachers overwhelmingly vote to authorize a strike

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Members of Portland's teachers union overwhelmingly voted Wednesday night to authorize a strike.

If contract negotiations between Portland Public Schools and the union continue to fail, the strike could start Feb. 20.

Local negotiation strategist Karen O'Keefe from Advanced Negotiation Strategies tells us a strike is a "very powerful move" but the union needs to be careful with how long it drags on. We asked O'Keefe about what the strike vote means next for PPS families. Watch the interview

The results were announced as the nearly 3,000 teachers left Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall just before 8:30 p.m.

According to teachers leaving the closed-door vote, the decision in favor of striking was nearly unanimous.

Teachers said they plan to stand united and "now the ball is in the district's court."

"This is not something they wanted to do, but they really felt like they had to do in order to get what our students deserve," said Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, outside the concert hall just after the vote.

She said the number of teachers who voted for a strike was larger than expected but that they still want to avoid a strike.

"The district really needs to know, the teachers don't want to do this, but we will if we have to," she said.

By law the teachers union must give the school district 10 days notice after it approves a strike.

According to the Portland Association of Teachers, it will notify the Employment Relations Board and Portland Public Schools that it's calling for a strike beginning Feb. 20.

The main issues in dispute between the union and the district are class sizes and money. Teachers want smaller classes, and they want a 3.9 percent raise for this year and a 2.9 percent increase the next two years.

The meeting during which the vote was taken started at 7 p.m. inside Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Neither media nor members of the public were allowed to attend.

Portland School Board co-chairs, Pam Knowles and Greg Belisle, issued a statement shortly after the vote, saying they are hopeful that Sunday's mediation session will produce results.

"We are very disappointed that the Portland Association of Teachers voted to authorize a strike," they said. "We remain committed to reaching a negotiated settlement and we hope both teams are able to make significant progress during the next mediation session."

In its own news release, the union said it has asked the district to meet sooner, as early as Thursday.

"This vote shows that teachers are serious about addressing the growing crisis in our schools," said bargaining chair Bill Wilson, a teacher at Grant High School. "We hope that Superintendent Smith and School Board leaders understand this and will come to the bargaining table as soon as possible prepared to make meaningful progress toward addressing the priorities of teachers, parents and students."

Students walk out

Hours before the vote, at least 100 students at Cleveland High School walked out of class in support of teachers.

The students chanted in support of their teachers and some said they don't plan to come to school if there's a strike.

The same thing happened at a couple other schools.

According to the district, those students who skipped out on class Wednesday, or who don't show up during a strike, would face the same consequences for absences as any other school day.

PPS has an emergency plan to keep schools open during a strike by relying on state-licensed replacements, including the current roster of subs plus a wider database of retirees, recent graduates and job applicants.

The district is also contacting substitute teachers from other Oregon school districts asking them if they'll work during a strike, according to two Portland subs who spoke with KATU.

There are 2,828 teachers and 1,006 substitute teachers in the district, according to the PPS website.

Anxiety builds for parents

The school district spokeswoman told KATU the district will contact parents directly with a plan if a strike is definitely going to happen. Until then she would only say the goal is to keep schools open and that the district is hiring replacement workers. The spokeswoman wouldn't say how many.

For parents with younger kids who want to keep their kids home, groups supporting teachers are discussing options for them. Nothing is set in stone, but they say they've been talking with Sun Community Schools, local day cares and even parents willing to take turns watching kids.

They plan to talk about these specifics on Saturday and have a list to give to parents as early as next week.

KATU News reporters Erica Nochlin, Valerie Hurst and Joe English contributed.

Interview with negotiation strategist