Tensions are rising around union negotiations in Oregon’s two largest K-12 school districts.
Leaders from Salem-Keizer Public Schools announced Tuesday that they’re calling for state mediation to move bargaining forward with the Salem-Keizer Education Association, the union representing more than 2,300 teachers and other educators in one of Oregon’s largest districts. Association officials said they believe mediation is premature.
Meanwhile, the Portland Federation of School Professionals, which represents 1,350 classified employees in Portland Public Schools, has refused to ratify its new tentative agreement with the district. Now, the two sides head back to the bargaining table.
The Portland Association of Teachers, representing nearly 4,500 teachers and coaches in negotiations, declared an impasse in its contract talks with the state’s largest district earlier this month. The association on Monday released a new report, “A Manufactured Crisis,” which it said outlines district leaders’ “failure to invest in Portland’s schools and in direct student support” at a time when students’ academic, social and mental health needs are especially high.
All of this is happening after strikes delayed the start of school for a few Southwest Washington districts in August and early September. Families and educators alike are concerned with how these tensions may impact students.
So far, it seems the disagreements farther north are more contentious than those in Oregon’s capital, though union leaders in Salem-Keizer did not expect the call for mediation. Salem-Keizer Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said she believes mediation will be successful because “we all want the same things.”
“We want a district that can thrive, we want educators that are well compensated, and we want a contract that’s fair,” she said. “Once everyone agrees on those three things, the rest is within reach.”
Salem-Keizer officials call for mediation
District officials said the union’s counterproposal would cost Salem-Keizer an estimated $74.4 million in new employee compensation. According to the district, the largest element of the counterproposal is a 26% raise over two years. Union leaders said their latest counterproposal reduced the total amount by $26 million from their prior proposal.
“Mediation is the continuation of good faith bargaining, and I am confident that we can close the $54.4 million gap between our offer and SKEA’s most recent proposal,” Castañeda said, referring to the Salem-Keizer Education Association. “Together, we can and must find the balancing point between fair and competitive pay and financial realism for our district.”
On Sept. 5, the district proposed a new compensation package to licensed staff worth $20 million over two years. It included a 3.5% raise for each of the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years, an increase in insurance contributions and an extra bump in pay for licensed bilingual and special education teachers, as officials outlined to members of the news media Tuesday.
The district points out that its proposed 3.5% annual raise is in addition to the average 3% salary increase that the vast majority of licensed educators receive annually for years of service. In other words, the district’s offer gives a 7% increase in the next two years to all licensed staff, but most will receive as much as a 13% increase as they climb the salary schedule.
Castañeda said the district has already committed to $37.5 million in compensation increases for licensed and classified staff over the next two years, despite pending budget issues. It will continue its work this fall on finding areas to cut in the budget regardless of bargaining, she said.
Salem-Keizer’s projected budget for the 2024-25 school year shows a $50 million gap between incoming funds and what it costs to run the district. Officials said declining enrollment, increased staffing and bargaining negotiations all factor into this gap.
“Every dollar we add to our budget is a dollar we will need to cut over the coming months,” Castañeda said. “This is the all-too-real financial context that the district brings to the bargaining table and to the broader community.”
Union worries about lack of access, transparency
Salem-Keizer Education Association President Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg told OPB the union was not surprised by the call for mediation since the union knows the district wants to move the process along more quickly. However, union members weren’t expecting it, and they were disappointed. They have four upcoming negotiation sessions already scheduled between now and early November.
“We were hopeful that we could continue to collaborate and work toward [an] agreement,” she said, adding they expect these talks to continue while the state assigns a mediator.
Scialo-Lakeberg said this year was the first in the union’s history that it has conducted open bargaining, allowing more members to engage throughout the process since last spring. Moving to mediation, however, puts the conversations back behind closed doors.
“Our primary concern is that the mediation process means that our members will no longer have the same level of open access,” she said.
Scialo-Lakeberg said she expects to see more unions fighting back and turning to strikes nationwide as “public ed is on the brink of imploding.” She said poor working and learning conditions, teacher turnover, lack of teacher experience and growing class sizes, were among the issues.
“We have a mass exodus of qualified [educators] giving up the profession. This is not good for students,” she said. “Oregon is among the top five states with the highest class sizes and caseloads. We are asking for reasonable and sustainable schools.”
Portland’s classified staff reject agreement
Farther north on the Interstate 5 corridor, members of the Portland Federation of School Professionals rejected ratification of their new tentative agreement in a historic vote this week. They’re now heading back to the bargaining table.
“Our members are frustrated and exhausted,” John MacDuffee, president of the federation, said in an announcement Monday. The federation represents classified staff, such as library assistants and paraeducators.
“They want a living wage, safe working conditions, and a higher quality of life,” he said. “These are the same workers who were there on the front lines during the pandemic, showing up every day to support students — both in the classroom and behind the scenes — even when staffing shortages put them in harm’s way.”
MacDuffee said the result of this vote indicates there is a lot of work still needed to improve the working conditions of the federation’s members.
Portland Public Schools released a statement in response: “Our students’ success and our school system’s efficient operation depend on our dedicated classified staff. Although disappointed, we will come back to the bargaining table with PFSP to achieve a fair contract for classified staff.”
Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect which positions the Portland Federation of School Professionals represents.