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With schools shut down, teachers took to the streets to call for increased funding for public schools

Forest Grove SD Walk-outAt least 20,000 educators massed in Portland on Wednesday, May 8 — turning city streets and the waterfront park into a sea of red — during a rally for increased funding of public schools.

Many of those teachers came from Western Washington County. Hundreds of Forest Grove School District teachers and as many as 1,000 Hillsboro teachers marched on May 8, demanding more money for schools across the state.

"We are here today to stand up for our students," said Kristina Meinecke, a third grade teacher at Joseph Gale Elementary School. "It's not about money or anything for teachers. This is about our students. This is about us saying 'We need help. … We need resources.'"

Prior to the Portland rally, teachers and supporters set up small protests on city streets, lining sidewalks in Forest Grove and Hillsboro dressed in red with signs in hand.

Many drivers honked and waved, showing their support for the sea of red as teachers skipped work across the district. The Oregon Education Association says the protest, called the "Day of Action," is to demand more K-12 education funding from state lawmakers. Hillsboro and Forest Grove school districts were among many across the region to cancel school Wednesday due to the number of teachers who planned to participate in the walkout.

Beth Morgan, a language arts teacher at Glencoe High School, said the decision to walk out of work on Wednesday didn't come easily.

"It wasn't a simple yes, a lot of us really struggled whether it was the right thing to do," she said. Many of our kids come to school because it's a safe place for them. I wrestled whether or not to do this today, but it's needed."

Teachers and their supporters are calling for lawmakers in Salem to pass a bill dubbed the Student Success Act, which would raise another $2 billion for public education using a gross sales business tax. Without the tax, the proposed state budget for K-12 schooling is $8.97 billion.

The Student Success Act has passed the Oregon House, but may be trapped in the Senate after Republicans walked out, denying a quorum for much of this week. Detractors say there's nothing in the bill preventing lawmakers from diverting the funds to other purposes, while others think the money may be gobbled up by public employees' pensions.

Several teachers voiced their concerns about already large class sizes growing even larger. Hillsboro School District is planning to cut millions from its budget next year based on the state's proposed K-12 budget. Those cuts will mean increasing class sizes, district officials said.

Morgan said increased class sizes have made it very difficult to reach all of her students effectively. Her smallest class this year had 35 students in it.

"And that has a range of students, from English-language developers to special needs students. We have everybody. You have to be very patient and step over a lot of backpacks, because there's no room. I'm never not grading essays. Every night, after the kids go to bed, from 8 to 11 p.m."

Other teachers said health resources in Forest Grove schools will continue to be cut if funding continues to diminish.

"We have one nurse for 6,000 students," said Terra Cavolo, a third grade teacher at Cornelius Elementary School and a district parent. "We have to be trained on medical emergency protocols. We rely on teachers for that, in addition to everything else, and we rely on teachers for mental health now and everything that we aren't putting enough funding into."

One Hillsboro School District administrator, who asked not to be named in the newspaper, said it was important that teachers take a stand for education.

"The kids need us to be (in school), the administrator said, "but this is the only way we're going to get anybody's attention."

Many of Hillsboro's schools fall under Title 1, a federal program that helps schools with large concentrations of low-income students. For many of these schools, the administrator said, funding from the state is vital.

"Everything we do is based on state funding, because our parents can give so little," the administrator said. "We need funding in order to give our kids an equitable education. When kids (at other schools) go on field trips, teachers can say, 'We need $10 from each family.' There are some schools that can do that, but others can't. I want my own kids to grow up with the education I had, and right now they don't."

Thomas Sepulveda, dean of students at Neil Armstrong Middle School, said he has seen a lot of change due to funding cuts in Forest Grove schools since he first started in 1996.

"There are a lot of mental health issues that kids are facing and we don't have the staff for it, and it's sad," he said. "A lot of kids lose out and the families lose out. Every day I hear, 'I need help. I need help.' We are scrambling to try and find help for these kids."

Marcia Camacho, president of the Forest Grove teachers union, the Forest Grove Education Association said teachers and school administrators have tried everything else to get the attention of lawmakers about the importance of education funding.

"Despite doing everything according to the usual process: electing pro-education candidates, lobbying in Salem, writing legislators, (and) sharing stories of the crushing task of teaching with some of the largest class-sizes in the nation ... we haven't seen any change in how schools are funded in Oregon," she said. "I can personally attest to how discouraging it is to work in a school system with so many talented educators and administrators and yet feel we are doing our jobs with one hand tied behind our backs because of the lack of dedicated funding."

Mayra Martinak, a third grade teacher in the Hillsboro School District, agreed.

"Our economy is strong. There is no reason [for this]," Martinak said. "We have to find a solution because our students are struggling. School is not getting easier. Our kids have needs and politicians are making excuses. We need to solve this once and for all."

Jeff Matsumoto, a second-grade teacher at Harvey Clarke Elementary School in Forest Grove, has taught for 18 years. He the message teachers want lawmakers to hear isn't new.

"We've been sorely lacking funding for many years," Matsumoto said. "This is an opportunity to change how we prioritize what we do for our school kids in a generational, ground-breaking way."

Gazing over a crowd of 20,000 massed on Tom McCall Waterfront Park during Wednesday's rally, he felt a sense of solidarity.

"We're not alone."

By Zane Sparling, Olivia Singer, Courtney Vaughn and Geoff Pursinger
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