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Uncharted Territory: Will Salem-Keizer Public Schools follow Portland’s historic strike?

Written by Naomi Yanike on Nov. 8th, 2023
Featured Image photo for Uncharted Territory: Will Salem-Keizer Public Schools follow Portland’s historic strike?

Not one, but two possible strikes. 

Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS) may face not just one, but two union strikes if mediation efforts do not close an approximately $200 million divide between the district’s offer and the unions’ demands for more pay. These demands come in addition to a forecasted $38 million structural deficit for the 2024-25 school year.

The Salem-Keizer community is closely following the historic strike in neighboring Portland Public Schools (PPS) that began on Nov. 1 and disrupted the education of its 50,000 students, intensifying the spotlight on how SKPS district officials are mediating classified and licensed staff contracts.

ASK ESP = classified staff union demands – $90 million

The Association for Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals (ASK ESP) union represents 2,500 classified educators in areas like custodial and maintenance, transportation, technology, security, and library media. 

ASK ESP filed for mediation on Nov. 1 after their demand for a 28 percent raise over two years for classified staff was not met. The district’s last offer was $17.5 million in classified staff increases over two years, which reflects an 8 percent raise and larger raises in targeted job roles. 

SKEA = licensed staff union demands – $143.2 million

The Salem Keizer Education Association (SKEA) union represents over 2,600 licensed teachers and other positions like behavior specialists, counselors, audiologists, athletic trainers, social workers, therapists, speech-language pathologists, nurses, and psychologists. 

SKEA proposed in September that SKPS give licensed educators a 26% raise over two years that would cost the district an estimated $74.4 million after the district offered a 3.5% raise over two years, increased insurance contributions, and salary differentials, totaling $20 million. On Nov. 8, the district said that their updated numbers estimate that the total of SKEA’s proposal, including this pay increase, is at least $143.2 million.

SKPS = structural budget deficit – $38 million

In school board work sessions, Superintendent Andrea Castañeda shared three reasons for the projected $38 million structural deficit – enrollment is down 2,300 students since 2019-20, losing 400 students yearly, which equals less revenue; adding 455 full-time staff since 2019; and increased staffing costs to address growing needs since the pandemic and retain highly qualified educators.

“None of these three things are in and of themselves bad. I would argue that in the moment these decisions were made, all of these were good,” Castañeda said. “But staff are 87% of our budget. Our costs are increasing faster than our revenue. That’s the challenge that we need to start to tackle. And we absolutely will.”

How will SKPS reduce the budget by nearly $238 million? With pie, not wells.

On Nov. 8, the district said that they estimate ASK-ESP’s proposal to be at least $90 million, SKEA’s proposal to be at least $143.2 million, and their combined counteroffers to be worth roughly $37.7 million. The bargaining gap is $195.5 million plus their current $38 million deficit, making their difficult budget reduction choices total nearly $238 million.

Castañeda explained her paradigm for making difficult budget reductions.

“I can simplify all this budget and bargaining complexity down to incredibly simple math: our budget is a pie, not a well. We can pay people more, but we will have fewer people working for us,” she said. “I don’t spend time or energy debating about whether this is true.”

Instead, the district will spend its time and energy building plans and engaging the community for a difficult round of reductions. 

“We spend our time finding ways to do more with less and looking for long-term solutions. Because of our constructive, focused, and proactive approach to leadership, we will see our system through this challenge,” she said.

What do Ford Explorers, matching furniture, and admin pay have to do with SKPS spending priorities? According to the SKEA union, a lot. 

SKEA President Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg expressed the union’s disagreement with the presented narrative of SKPS funding deficiencies, pointing instead to spending priorities as the core issue. The union, with support from the National Education Association, performed a forensic analysis of the SKPS budget.

“We did not find big financial cliffs. Instead, we found line items that should be removed and examples of priority spending issues that helped us not to rely solely on what the district is telling us,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

She highlighted examples of what the union considers misprioritized spending, such as SKPS spending over $1 million on vehicles. “Not transportation for kids – but managers driving brand new Ford Explorers so they can leave their office and visit a school. Vehicles that will never transport a student,” she said. “Why can’t they be reimbursed for mileage?”

Scialo-Lakeberg also questioned the necessity of remodeling district offices. “I asked district leaders where the old furniture was going because there was nothing wrong with it,” she said. “We have teachers sitting on kindergarten tables and chairs because they don’t even have furniture. But the priority was to make everything match and get all new furniture.”

Furthermore, Scialo-Lakeberg mentioned the union’s agreement with the superintendent that a significant portion of hiring has been for district-level positions not directly involved with student education.

“Our superintendent has told our public at community meetings that an average licensed teacher costs over $100,000 when you add in benefits associated with payroll cost,” said Scialo-Lakeberg. “But to use that same math, each building admin now costs over $200,000, and each district admin costs over $300,000. And the superintendent costs about $500,000 with all the added perks. I have a hard time understanding how a district-level admin who works about 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. makes three times as much as our teachers who serve students.”

What happens in SKPS mediation? Impasse, “cooling off,” strike – or – resolution

Castañeda requested mediation with SKEA out of “the urgent and unavoidable need to prepare for an estimated $38 million budget deficit.” But Scialo-Lakeberg said the union was disappointed to move the public bargaining sessions behind closed doors. 

“We have been bargaining completely open and transparent with hundreds and hundreds of members coming out to each bargaining session,” she said. “Our district has made it clear that they don’t like that and want it to be closed.”

Salem-Keizer School Board Director Dr. Satya Chandragiri said SKPS is much earlier in the negotiation process than Portland and is beginning the first of two mediation sessions, encouraging the community to be patient with the mediation process as it unfolds so that due diligence can be done. 

“We want this to work for the long-term success of our district. And we, all of us, without a doubt, have so much respect for our teachers and staff,” he said. “We do what is best for our children. So that’s where we are.”

Once a union group goes into mediation, they have 15 days or two sessions before either party can declare an impasse, wait the required 30-day “cooling off” period, make final proposals, and then legally strike. 

SKPS and the union will be in separate rooms in the same building, and the mediator will go back and forth between rooms to negotiate the contract terms.

Scialo-Lakeberg said SKEA’s goal is also to settle their contract during mediation. 

“We are hopeful that is the goal,” she said. “We do not want to go on strike, but we are prepared to do so if we cannot get some of the gains we need for our students.”

SKEA mediation dates have been scheduled for licensed staff contracts on December 6, 11, and 19. No ASK ESP classified staff mediation dates are listed.  

How would a strike impact Salem-Keizer families and businesses? Ana Manzur sees pandemic parallels and the domino effects. 

Ana Manzur, parent of two McNary High School students and one Whiteaker Middle School student, said that possible strike impacts on families and business owners could resemble the pandemic.  

Manzur said that each family household – whether kids cannot go to school for one day or two weeks – will be impacted based on their household structure, work schedule, and ability to afford childcare or day camp. 

“For me, I’m the sole provider. If I cannot go to my business and provide support and day-to-day business activities, the work will become overwhelming. My clients will get upset, and they may start looking for other agents,” she said. “The strike could impact my revenue, and I would be put in a position where I would not be able to take care of my children’s financial needs if I cannot take care of my business.”

Manzur said that as a parent and business owner, she relies on the public education system. 

“I can very firmly attest that I lack strong teaching skills. That is not my forte. Homeschooling or having my kids with me while trying to run a business will do collateral damage. The consequences will have a domino effect because we are all in a shared ecosystem,” she said. “Teachers deserve a better work environment across the board.”

Portland local businesses are already seeing the domino impact that Manzur anticipates if Salem-Keizer has teacher strikes, especially local food services like restaurants and food carts near schools. Some are losing as much as 75% of their customer base and having to cut staff.

Other Portland businesses are stepping up to help give kids and teachers discounted or free lunches while they are out of school, let parents have time off, or allow parents to bring kids to work.

Is Portland an eerie foreshadowing of things to come? Superintendent Guerrero said it could be.

PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said in a Nov. 6 press conference that the Portland strike could be a sign of things to come for labor unions working in Oregon education.

“I hate to foreshadow eerily here,” he said. “You’re going to see an increasing number of situations like ours happening up and down the state, unfortunately.”

PPS went through nearly a year of contract negotiations, three phases of scheduled state mediation sessions, declared an impasse, submitted final offers, and observed their 30-day “cooling off” period before legally holding its recent strike on Nov. 1. The strike was still going as off Nov. 8.

Chandragiri said it’s essential for families to refrain from reading bits and pieces of what’s going on and panic because Salem-Keizer is not Portland.

“Portland receives more dollars per student than Salem-Keizer and has more revenue than we have. We have 85% of our community on Title I. We are proportionally more impoverished,” said Chandragiri. “I also wish we had a better equitable formula for Salem-Keizer where the legislature gives more for the public buildings they occupy without paying tax because we don’t get a dime. We can’t compare ourselves to Portland.”

Scialo-Lakeberg said it’s the same story – different districts. 

“We’re not far off from the practices of Portland. I meet with union presidents regularly and hear the same things across the board about district-level spending and raises,” she said. “And when it comes to putting it in the classrooms or into the people doing the work, it’s ‘I’m sorry. We’re too poor.'”

Scialo-Lakeberg agreed that Portland does get more dollars per student when the PPS local levy is factored in on top of state dollars, which makes it even more pressing to support their teachers.  

“PPS may have more egg on their face with more money per student because of the additional levy, and yet, they’re saying they have no money,” she said.

Chandragiri sees Salem-Keizer’s strengths and values Castañeda’s leadership.

Chandragiri said he sees noticeable differences in how SKPS is handling its current budget challenges for the better, as he is the only incumbent elected to the school board for a second term and is now in his fifth year.

He is proud of Salem-Keizer’s strength and investment as a community, the transparency he has seen from Castañeda, and how she has led open and honest discussions about the budget and spending reductions from the beginning of her time as superintendent.

“The level of engagement we have in our Salem-Keizer community conversations is close to 1,000 families. Families are sitting and learning about how our budget is planned, our revenue, our expenses, and our fund balance,” said Chandragiri. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, which is a positive change.”  

Chandragiri said even though Portland and Salem-Keizer are different, the districts need to intentionally reach out to one another with complete transparency, sharing information and data so everyone can make informed opinions.

“If we are all aligned, we are all pushing the car in the same direction,” he said.

What happens if SKPS teachers strike? National averages and trend predictions.

Oregon media have been educating the public on teacher strikes with resources that could prove helpful to Salem-Keizer. 

Portland parents are being offered free school lunches and day camp alternatives, although some are being critiqued as burdensome, unaffordable options to parents.

The physical buildings in Portland are closed, as is online instruction, but varsity athletics can continue. All other athletics are stopped, as well as performing arts and clubs. Strike days have to be made up.

Nationwide, most teacher strikes last one week or less, according to Melissa Arnold Lyon of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University of Albany, SUNY, whose research covers the past 15 years, reported in KGW8.

A chart of recent teacher strikes from the National Education Association showed: Chicago 2019 – 11 days, Los Angeles 2019 – 6 days, Minneapolis 2022 – 20 days, Seattle 2022 – 5 days, and Vancouver, Wash. 2023 – 7 days, reported in Willamette Week. 

Two Oregon strike examples include the 2012 teacher strike in the Gresham-Barlow District for one day and the 2014 Medford School District 16-day teacher strike, reported in KGW8.

There is an incentive for teacher unions to monitor the strike length, as teachers are not paid during strike days, and a strike has the potential to impact their insurance benefits, depending on its length. Back pay can be part of bargaining terms, and unions can use hardship funds during strikes.

What can Salem-Keizer business leaders and community members do? It’s all about third graders and equity. 

Chandragiri said if Salem-Keizer business leaders and community members want to get involved in supporting education, they need to start at the legislative level.

“I see the systemic problem, and we need to stop looking at it in silos, which will not help you solve a systemic problem, period,” he said.

Instead, he said the future of our nation depends on public schools and creating a shared understanding of equity.

“Equity means we need differential funding to have equal opportunity. Because we’re the state capitol, unfortunately, we are struggling. We don’t get equal funding,” he said. “Our children cannot wait. If you want to succeed in this country, a child has to know how to read by third grade.”  

And Scialo-Lakeberg also points to equity in the fight to prioritize spending that benefits the teachers, class sizes, and student safety now more than ever.

“One SKPS third-grade teacher currently has 34 kids in her class,” she said. “And several of them still can’t read.” 

Chandragiri said everyone in Salem-Keizer can help, whether they’re a business leader, people who have influence, or people going to vote. He said the key to not working in silos is to make sure state legislature fully funds schools first. 

“Then we don’t have to go through this kind of struggle, and our teachers don’t have to struggle,” he said. “Why should schools not be fully funded? That, to me, is real equity.”

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