Across Woodburn schools, signs hang in classroom windows and on school building walls.
“Woodburn teachers don’t want to strike, but we will.”
The Woodburn School District and the union representing Woodburn teachers have been negotiating a new contract for nine months. Wednesday, Woodburn Education Association representatives announced that they’d reached an impasse with the district, a step that is legally required when talks break down. It means teachers are one step closer to a potential strike.
The possible strike shows the difficulties the majority Latino district north of Salem has experienced through the pandemic. Woodburn has been held up as a model in recent years for supporting Latino students through dual-language programs and targeted support. In 2019, Woodburn boasted an 89% high school graduation rate for Latino students — 12 points above the state average for that demographic group at the time. In 2022, that graduation rate was down to 72% for the same group, lower than the state’s 78%.
WEA president and Heritage Elementary bilingual teacher Tony Salm said teachers in the Willamette Valley district haven’t felt respected, and that these actions are a “last resort.”
“We’re not gung-ho for a strike, we understand the hardship it creates for everybody, but our membership is united,” Salm said, “and we’re not going to be dismissed as a bunch of ‘complaining teachers’ because we’re not — these are real issues we’re dealing with.”
In a statement shared with OPB, the district called the impasse “disappointing.”
“We are still optimistic that, with good-faith efforts from both sides, we can avert a strike that would further disrupt the education of children grappling with pandemic-related learning loss, allow parents to continue their work schedules as normal without having to secure childcare, and ensure that Woodburn students continue to have access to at least two warm meals per day,” district officials shared in a statement late Friday.
WEA officials point to teacher turnover as a reason to improve working conditions. According to WEA data, at least 96 educators have resigned, retired, or moved into a different role in the district since May 2021. Since the school year started in September, there have been 17 resignations.
Salm said that number includes teachers who have retired, but also those who have quit mid-year, something he said is not typical. He said when long-time staff leave, they take years of experience and possible mentorship opportunities with them.
“It’s not just the financial impact of losing somebody and having to recruit somebody else, it’s the institutional knowledge, it’s the years of experience,” Salm said. “The loss to our district is immeasurable.”
Ian Niktab submitted his resignation from the district last spring, but finished out the school year. Earlier this week, the 11-year bilingual elementary school teacher read from a letter at the school board meeting, sharing how isolated he felt as a teacher last year.
“I wanted to do my best for my students but I couldn’t due to the restraints and demands which started to affect my mood, then affecting my work and family life,” Niktab said. “Teachers accommodate your needs but when they ask for help it’s thrown back at them in a form of gaslighting.”
Niktab is now working as an on-call firefighter for the city. His wife still works in the district, as a member of the teaching force that may soon go on strike.
District officials maintain that the district has “excellent retention rates” and few vacancies, stating that the district has filled all but four open positions with licensed teachers and is using “only” four long-term substitute teachers.
Woodburn teachers say student behavior has been a constant growing problem, especially as students returned from distance learning during the pandemic. It’s an issue facing schools across Oregon and the country as a whole.
At the same time, teachers said administrators have been unsupportive and have asked teachers to do more with less time in an increasingly stressful environment.
Not quite a strike — yet
Now that WEA has declared impasse, the two groups will meet on Tuesday to present a “best offer.” If that doesn’t result in an agreement, a 30-day cooling off period will begin. The two sides can continue to hold talks during that period, but if no deal is reached, educators could vote to go on strike as soon as April 20.
“People are ready, they’re motivated, they’re angry, they’re frustrated, and they want a change for themselves, for their community, and for their students,” said Misha Pfliger, a social studies teacher at the district’s alternative high school and a member of the bargaining team.
Those changes he’s talking about include smaller class sizes for kindergarten, first, second, and third grade classes, as well as smaller caseloads for special education staff.
The union is also asking for more money, a shared concern among younger staff, like Pfliger, as well as veteran educators like Salm.
Pfliger said at this point, his pay is comparable to what it would be in other districts. But as he thinks about his future and possibly starting a family, he said his pay at Woodburn might not be enough to support that.
“That would incentivize me to switch districts even though I sincerely wish to spend the rest of my career here,” Pfliger said.
The union’s request includes a total of 19.5% in cost of living adjustments for the next three years, as well as pay differentials for staff who work in special education or who have specific language certifications. According to union documents, the estimated increase in cost for the district for the three-year contract would be between $13 million and $15 million.
“I feel a really close connection to this community and to my colleagues, many of the parents,” Salm said. “I don’t think people who left wanted to leave either but they were forced under the circumstances of just being in an untenable, untenable situation.”
District officials said the union’s requests for smaller class sizes and compensation changes are too costly, instead offering a total 12% cost of living adjustment over the next three years. Officials said the total financial package offered to teachers would cost $9.5 million.
The district also pointed to underfunding from the state as the problem “at the heart of this conflict.”
Over the last several months, WEA has held community meetings in Spanish with parents. At bargaining sessions in the high school library, the union invited parents to watch.
Salm said it’s important for families to know what’s going on in their child’s school and build more engagement, especially with the Spanish-speaking families in a district that’s 87% Latino.
“There was not a lot of knowledge about [...] class size, about dual language, about the holes in the program,” Salm said.
“We feel very much supported by the families who have shown up at bargaining.”
The union and the district have come to agreement on one important piece of the contract — support for the district’s dual language program in the form of curriculum materials, professional development, and a focus on retaining and recruiting bilingual teachers.
WEA said they believe Woodburn is the first district to have dual language as an article in their contract.
The school district has already created an advisory committee to review the dual language program. Language in the contract recommends the continuation of that committee, which includes administrators, parents and teachers.