Clackamas County teachers join in political action day
North Clackamas, Oregon City and Gladstone were among the more than 25 school districts in the state that pre-emptively made the decision to close for a day of political action this week.
An estimated 20,000 teachers showed up Wednesday morning, May 8, not to their classrooms, but to Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland for a planned walkout and day of action.
Across the state, educators demonstrated— many by not showing up to teach — in unison, to protest what they say is three decades of underfunded public schools.
As a result of the mass protest, many districts canceled classes, saying they couldn't safely operate schools without teachers. Prior to the Portland rally, teachers and supporters waved signs at intersections near schools, catching the attention of morning commuters.
The planned day of action came on the heels of an $8.97 billion state K-12 schools budget that most districts said wasn't enough to cover the rising cost of employee retirement benefits, also known as PERS. It also came as a vote on HB 2437, known as the Student Success Act, passed the House and awaited a Senate vote. The Student Success Act proposes a change to Oregon's corporate tax code that would generate an estimated $1 billion extra each school year, to help fund public education.
Less than 24 hours before the planned walkout, John Larson was both cautious and excited. Larson is the president of the Oregon Education Association, the largest teacher union in the state.
"I think there's been a lot of tension in the system and people have been wanting to find a way to channel their energy into telling the Legislature that their teachers and students deserve better schools," Larson said Tuesday. "This is giving them that avenue."
Wednesday's events followed months of organized rallies and demonstrations from Oregon educators, urging state lawmakers to devote more dollars to schools funding.
Teachers and their unions have been vocal about what they say is a consistent inability to properly invest in K-12 public schools to secure enough teachers and to reduce class sizes.
During her 18 years with the Gladstone School District, Erinn Emmons says she has seen how her student body has been squeezed by the Great Recession.
Emmons, who teaches eighth-grade language arts at Kraxberger Middle School, believes the tough socio-economic conditions have brought new challenges to local teachers in the four-school district.
"We're a super small school district with very few supports for our kids," she said. "We have to fund education. We need more help."
While some critics say teachers are punishing students and parents by walking out, Larson said the action was needed to send a strong message.
"For 30 years we've been going about it other ways," he said. "We've been sending emails, working with parent-teacher organizations, working with local businesses and trying to do things not to disrupt, and for 30 years, it just hasn't had an impact. This is a way to get some people's attention."
Wednesday's walkout focused on funding issues in Oregon, but it followed a wave of educator strikes across the nation, primarily focused on securing better pay for teachers.
North Clackamas Superintendent Matt Utterback noted that the walkout was not endorsed by the district.
"The NCSD School Board and I share our teachers' goal of convincing the Legislature to make a significant new investment such as lowering class sizes, restoring lost programs, and increasing counseling support," Utterback wrote in a letter to the community. "NCSD understands how disruptive this action may be, and if there was a viable way to keep schools operating while ensuring student safety, NCSD would not be making this decision."