Class size, workload among sticking points as Salem-Keizer district, union submit ‘best and final’ offers

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Feb. 24, 2024 2 p.m.

The next mediation session is scheduled for Feb. 29. If negotiations reach the point of a strike, it likely wouldn’t happen until early April

After 10 months of bargaining and an impasse declaration last week, Salem-Keizer Public Schools and the Salem Keizer Education Association have each submitted their best and final offers as the latest step in an attempt to resolve ongoing labor contract negotiations.

The two sides are on the same page in many ways, having reached tentative agreements on 17 articles. However, four major articles remain unresolved despite ongoing mediation. These articles include major topics such as pay, benefits and working conditions.


Two of the largest sticking points center on class sizes or caseloads and how the district will define full-time employees moving forward.

The district’s final offer is estimated to cost about $55 million over the next two years — over and above current spending. By comparison, the union estimates their proposal would cost closer to $72 million.

It’s not yet clear why the two are so far apart. Before the final offers were shared, SKEA President Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg said she was expecting the offers to be within about $8 million of each other.

Salem-Keizer teacher union president Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg speaks at a lecture with a microphone. There is a union poster behind her on the wall.

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem Keizer Education Association, speaks at a press conference in Salem, Ore., on Feb. 22, 2024.

Natalie Pate / OPB

The district and union are now in the 30-day cooling-off period after the union declared an impasse last week. They have their next mediation session scheduled for Feb. 29.

The union has not voted to authorize a strike yet. If they do, they then have to give the district 10 days’ notice for when the strike would start. Given the timeline, the earliest a strike is likely to happen would be the first week of April when staff and students would otherwise return from spring break.

If a strike happens, things in Salem-Keizer, Oregon’s second-largest school district, would look very similar to what was seen in Portland last fall.

Schools would close — which goes for both in-person and online learning. Classified workers, such as custodians and nutrition services workers, would continue working in the schools because they are represented by another union that just reached a tentative agreement in their bargaining talks with the district.

Salem-Keizer is prepared to give out grab-and-go meals, similar to what was provided during remote learning. Some after-school programs and child care options would continue but would be limited.

Here’s a look at the major sticking points still on the line.


Salem-Keizer administrators are working to resolve contracts with its licensed labor union, at the same time it’s facing a $30 million budget gap this year, with massive layoffs coming this spring.

District leaders have continued to stress that the money here really matters, that they don’t have more to give without lowering the quality of education in schools, and that things need to change at the state level as well.

In the final offer, the union is asking for a 7% cost-of-living increase in the first year of the contract and a 4% increase in the second. This compares to the district’s offer, which would give a 6% increase in the first year and a 3.5% increase in the second year.

This is in addition to pay differentials given to folks like bilingual educators for their added skills, and up to $5,000 one-time bonuses for all employees, paid for by soon-to-expire federal funds.

Portland started much further apart in the wage debate. At the start of the strike, Portland Public Schools offered an approximately 11% cost-of-living adjustment over the three-year agreement. The teachers union wanted more than twice that, at about 23%. Under the final agreement, educators are receiving a 14.4% compounded increase over the next three years,

Because the wage gap between the two sides in Salem-Keizer is so small, SKEA says that wasn’t what drove their decision to declare an impasse. However, they are still trying to get as much of an increase as they can under the circumstances.

“Our members would like us to hold the line. Fair pay has been part of this,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. But what’s more important to union members, she stressed, are the workload issues that have been “unaddressed for decades” and have only gotten worse in recent years.

That, paired with inflation, has put educators in a tough spot. But if the district isn’t going to agree to the workload relief the union wants, they want more pay.

“It’s going to really depend on how all of those things factor out,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. “We believe we have reasonable pathways to compromise and settle this contract.”

Shortly after the union declared an impasse last week, Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said she would believe the union’s statement that this isn’t about pay if they accepted the compensation offer the district has given.

“Then,” she told reporters at the time, “I think we could say compensation, but not expense, is off the table.”

Scialo-Lakeberg has pushed back on some of the district’s claims about the budget. In a press conference Thursday, she pointed to spending at the district level that the union believes has contributed to the financial position they’re in.

“We do know that our district for the past several years has had unrestraint spending and hiring even while student enrollment has been declining,” she said. “We understand that there is a kind of a day of reckoning coming, that it was already in the works, despite being a contract year.

“We have been conscious of those facts,” she continued. “That’s why we’ve created some solutions that we think would not have financial impacts.”

One example she gave of these solutions was reducing the number of required staff meetings per week so teachers have more time to prepare for classes.

Castañeda said there’s a “widespread and mistaken belief” that cabinet-level salary adjustments created Salem-Keizer’s budget problems, or that their reversal could resolve the district’s budget problems. She said neither is true, adding that the total value of the 2022 cabinet-level increases was around $375,000.

Class size and caseloads

Both sides agree that class size and caseloads have been a major sticking point in negotiations.

SKEA represents more than 2,600 licensed employees, including teachers, nurses and counselors, who serve more than 40,000 students at 65 schools.

In Oregon, districts are only required to negotiate over class size and caseload caps for Title I schools, which qualify for federal funding based on the proportion of low-income students attending.


But the union wants to make it part of their contract. Primarily, they want to set target class sizes for all grade levels, specific classes like P.E., and counseling staff. They also want to have class size “triggers,” which would cause the district to convene a committee to come up with creative solutions when a class is that big.

One solution would be overage pay, like what Portland has in place, meaning the teacher would be paid a bonus for added students over the trigger amount. Unlike Portland, Salem-Keizer’s class size committee would only convene when a class hits that trigger number and SKEA is willing to set a cap on how much the district may have to shell out.

If the committee decides overage pay is the best solution, the union wants the district to pay teachers $1,500 more per semester, prorated based on the number of days the trigger was exceeded. Scialo-Lakeberg said the district is already saying they’d pay up to $300,000 total for overage bonuses across the district. The union is asking for a maximum of $400,000.

“So, really, we’re only $100,000 apart from our class size language to theirs,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

But the solutions to large class sizes could mean things besides overage pay too. The union lists nearly a dozen options in their proposal that a committee could consider, including blending classrooms or adding instructional assistants.

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

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

Natalie Pate / OPB

Salem-Keizer already has internal targets that are based on grade level and whether the school is a Title I school. Olga Cobb, deputy superintendent for the elementary levels, said currently more than half of the district’s elementary classrooms have 25 or fewer students, and 8% of classrooms have 30 or more.

The union argues the district’s targets are a bit misleading since they represent ratios for all full-time employees in a building, not just comparing classroom teachers to the number of students in their class.

Castañeda insists staffing to lower class sizes is simply not in the budget. She said last week that the district would have to hire 100 additional employees — costing roughly $10 million — just to meet the union’s proposed threshold for elementary and special education classrooms.

“We cannot pay people more, lay off staff and reduce class size,” she said. “It is mathematically impossible because everything is a tradeoff.”

Part of the district’s proposal includes a joint labor committee to monitor and manage student-to-teacher ratios at elementary schools, which Castañeda said is the level at which “class size matters most.”

What is a ‘full-time’ employee?

The other major bargaining debate right now is about how to define full-time educators — also called FTE or “full-time equivalent” positions.

There’s been a lot of confusion around this. The union argues their proposal keeps the status quo for how schools across the state and Salem-Keizer itself have understood teacher workload for decades.

For example: Think of a full-time middle school teacher. They may teach five out of the day’s six class periods, then they have planning time. After that, they still spend time preparing and working.

“Teaching has a lot of factors that go beyond the time in front of students. Grading, preparing lessons, contact with parents, tutoring students — all that happens outside of the classroom,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. “And so, to not acknowledge that is beyond insulting, and we believe [it’s an] assault on our rights.”

The union argues the district is trying to radically change how this workload is calculated and, instead, focus just on the time spent instructing children.

Their concern is that the district will count a lot of teachers as part-time employees, which changes their protections and benefits in the district. This is something that came up in the district during hybrid and remote learning at the peak of COVID-19, and they worry it could allow for this to happen again in the future.

During hybrid learning, students were in classes four days a week, and teachers worked five days, Scialo-Lakeberg explained. In Salem-Keizer specifically, Mondays were non-student days, though they still had things like limited in-person lessons and tutoring.

“Our district … took an approach that if people weren’t in front of students five days a week, maybe they weren’t working the whole time,” she said.

Scialo-Lakeberg further explained this meant part-time educators were working nearly full-time workloads, but because their work fit into timed shifts with students, they were being paid less than someone considered full-time.

The union at the time filed two unfair labor practice complaints with the state, and the employment court ruled in their favor on this issue.

In fact, Scialo-Lakeberg said, Salem-Keizer educators were paid back roughly $750,000 in lost wages because “that’s how people were so grossly underpaid by this FTE language that they want to put into practice now.”

Castañeda spoke about these concerns shortly after the union declared impasse, acknowledging there was a shift in FTE during distance learning, which preceded her arrival in Salem last year. But what has always been true, she said, is that teachers have worked a day, and labor and management have needed a unit to measure their work for compensation.

“What changed during COVID is the matter of what that unit was,” she clarified.

District administrators changed some of their language around this issue before filing their best and final offer Thursday evening.

Their final offer commits to automatically rounding up all employees that fall between 0.90 and 0.99 FTE to 1.00 FTE, which they argue will ensure that no employee is shorted full-time compensation and benefits.

The district proposal also acknowledges existing contractual protections around prep time and how that connects to the definition of “full-time.” It also explicitly recognizes that a teacher’s workweek is a “blend of student-facing and non-student-facing time.”

Castañeda said the union wants to measure employment status by the unit of a “class.” But classes are different in different schools and in different grades. And some licensed staff — like social workers — don’t have “classes” at all.

She argues using “class” as a unit of measure will produce illogical and unfair results and would “plunge our school district into an irrevocable administrative paralysis.”

“Time is standard. Time is fair,” she told OPB in an email. “Time is defined and everyone understands it.”

This proposal states that employees who regularly take on instructional duties during their prep period will be compensated for the period, plus 30 minutes a week to compensate them for planning, grading and other duties.

“I believe that the definition of a full-time employee has become unnecessarily technical and complex. And both parties are participants in that,” Castañeda said.

Castañeda said the district has “absolutely no desire” to ask employees to work more hours than they’re compensated for, under the contract.

“But what we do need to do is agree on the unit that we use to compensate our staff,” she continued. “We believe that the single most reliable, common unit between those groups is the unit of the minute or the unit of the hour. Labor has a different view of that.”

Scialo-Lakeberg said it was clear Thursday night that the district was making an effort to ease the concerns, but it wasn’t enough. The union is not interested in redefining full-time employees at all, especially if it makes more employees part-time — “we cannot accept that.”