Salem-Keizer makes progress in ongoing bargaining talks but much remains on the table

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Feb. 1, 2024 1:47 a.m. Updated: Feb. 1, 2024 5:57 a.m.

The state’s second-largest school district is gaining ground in recent mediation talks with both of its unions. But there are many things, especially regarding workload, that remain unresolved.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools is poised to spend nearly $82 million over the next three years on contracts with its bargaining units.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools' logo is on two doors of a building. It reads: Learning for a lifetime. Salem-Keizer Public Schools. Student services. Monday through Friday. 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The Salem-Keizer Public Schools logo photographed outside the district's Student Support Services Center on Dec. 7, 2023, in Salem, Ore.

Natalie Pate / OPB


That’s the combined total of the district’s latest offers to its two unions: the Salem-Keizer Education Association and the Association of Salem Keizer Education Support Professionals.

Salem-Keizer leaders are taking what could be a strategic risk. They say that rather than incrementally going back and forth with union reps, they’re attempting to speed up the process — and hopefully avoid a strike — by putting their metaphorical cards on the table now.

The district is jumping sooner to what they say is the best possible offer the district can give while “still running schools they can be proud of,” explained Superintendent Andrea Castañeda.

“We have now offered everything, but there are parts of negotiation that truly are not about money; they are about the exchange of understanding,” Castañeda said. “They’re about the recognition that we are all part of an ecosystem. And we are dependent on our staff just as they are dependent on us.

“That merits continued mediation,” she added. “We are still showing up as listeners and will be until these contracts are done.”

The district’s offer comes as they face a historic budget shortfall that is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars to fix. Castañeda said the combined cost of the recent proposals would still force the district to cut at least 5% of the district’s workforce this year.

Salem-Keizer’s conversations are happening as districts across the state grapple with their own union negotiations.

Portland Public Schools experienced a month-long teachers strike in the fall and recently reached tentative agreements with the two classified unions that had contracts up for renewal.

Meanwhile, the Bend-La Pine school district in central Oregon announced a contract agreement Tuesday with its teachers’ union, resolving talks that started back in April 2023. They are still in talks with their classified workers.

In Salem-Keizer, both SKEA and ASK ESP have said they see positive and promising changes in the district’s latest proposals. But there are also still lingering concerns.

Classified staff get close with $45 million proposal

Salem-Keizer’s latest offer to ASK ESP — which represents about 2,800 district employees, including custodians, secretaries and translators — totals nearly $45 million.

The package would include a 13.5% salary increase over the life of the contract, and it would increase the district’s health insurance contributions by $165 per month per employee by the third and final year of the contract.

The latest offer also includes a $5,000 dollar, one-time retention bonus using federal COVID relief funding that’s set to expire, along with a bonus for bilingual staff.

“We’re still bargaining. This is not done,” Castañeda told reporters in a recent press conference.

“However, I believe that I can say that we are both committed to achieving a fair contract that is student-centered,” she added. “We’re committed to maintaining a partnership that will see us through this moment and to all the ones that will come.

“And I think we’re committed to converting this difficult bargaining moment into a story of success for our classified staff, for our district, for our state.”

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Andrea Castañeda sits at her desk and turns to smile at the camera.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools Superintendent Andrea Castañeda sits at her desk at the district's central office in Northeast Salem, Ore., on Aug. 18, 2023.

Natalie Pate / OPB


ASK ESP leaders said they’re more hopeful now than ever that the two sides will come to an agreement on a “pretty historic” contract soon, noting a positive shift recently in the district’s tone.

Jeff Jabin, ASK ESP vice president and bargaining chair, told OPB he thinks they’re close to getting a resolution that benefits everybody, but they’re still hammering out the details.

The main issues that remain, he said, revolved around safety, workload and staff training. As bargaining continues, Jabin did not comment on specifics.

“It is foremost on the minds of the district and our membership to try to come to an agreement, obviously sooner than later,” said ASK ESP President Edie Buchanan, stressing the many hours their members have volunteered to get to this point.

Teachers, district grapple with funding debate and class size needs

The district’s latest proposal to Salem-Keizer’s teachers union — which represents more than 2,600 licensed employees, such as teachers, nurses and counselors — totals nearly $37 million over two years.

Castañeda said the latest offer is $17 million more than the district’s previous offer.

The $37 million includes a total cost-of-living increase of 9% over two years and a move up in the second year of the contract to $1,550 per month per employee for health insurance contributions.

As with the classified workers, the district is offering licensed employees a $5,000 one-time retention stipend, as well as a bonus for bilingual staff.

“We know that it’s not everything that they have asked for,” Castañeda said. “But it is what our system can do now.”

The biggest issue SKEA has with the latest proposal is that class size and caseload reductions aren’t included at all.

“While compensation is important to SKEA members, there are issues that need to be addressed before we can settle the contract,” SKEA President Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg said in an emailed statement to OPB.

“These issues get to the heart of members’ and community concerns,” she said. “Class sizes, caseload, FTE calculations, prep time, and workplace safety have not been appropriately addressed in the district’s proposal.”

Castañeda said some of what teachers are talking about can’t be accomplished right now — such as reducing class sizes, which is typically done by adding staff.

“It is mathematically impossible to simultaneously reduce a workforce by hundreds of precious staff and, at the same time, hire hundreds of precious staff,” she said. “We would love to be able to talk about something like class size were it possible, but it is not possible today.”

Students work in a math class at McKay High School in Salem, Ore., on Sept. 13, 2023.

Students work in a math class at McKay High School in Salem, Ore., on Sept. 13, 2023.

Natalie Pate / OPB

Scialo-Lakeberg pushed back on the district’s emphasis on a “possible” budget shortfall. “This shortfall has been of their own making with excessive spending on district-level interests, including double-digit COLA raises to admin,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

“We are not just looking for better compensation,” she said. “We are looking for a new narrative on how we do school, a narrative in which both our educators and students thrive.”

Castañeda has made it clear she plans to pursue broader, systemic changes at the state level.

“Oregon’s funding formula is starting to collapse from the weight of the needs that our schools are expected to cover and the gap between what our state actually provides,” she said.

“We can and must fix this funding formula because we cannot afford the cost that our schools and our students are going to pay if we as a state do not find the will or the way to do so.”

Salem-Keizer and SKEA were in mediation on Wednesday. No further mediation dates have been announced as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.