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Salem-Keizer teachers move one step closer to potential strike, declare an impasse in bargaining negotiations

The front of a school bus

The Salem Keizer Education Association Thursday night declared an impasse in contract negotiations with Oregon’s second-largest school district.

While the teachers union and Salem-Keizer Public Schools have made progress on several issues, SKEA leaders said workload and class-size caps remain sticking points.

Declaring an impasse brings the teachers union one step closer to a potential strike, a move they said they did not make lightly.

“The Association views the District’s proposal as simply articulating the status quo,” SKEA leaders said, talking about class sizes and caseloads, in a statement sent by union president Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg Thursday night. The union represents more than 2,600 licensed employees, such as teachers, nurses and counselors.

“Students and staff cannot persist under the status quo,” SKEA wrote. “It is time for a change.”

District leaders emphasized that their latest offer includes a 9.5% raise over two years, increased insurance benefits, a $5,000 retention bonus and additional teacher prep time at the elementary level. The total value of the offer is more than $37 million, and district leaders said it includes the largest year-over-year increases in memory.

“When we shared our offer with the licensed association, we were clear that this is all we could offer — anything more will do lasting harm to our schools,” Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said in a press release Thursday. “They rejected our maximum offer and declared impasse, functionally abandoning the bargaining process. But we aren’t giving up because we know that a strike will hurt students and our community.”

Bargaining around class size has been a notable sticking point since last spring. But Castañeda insists it’s not in the budget. In a press conference Friday morning, she said the district would have to hire 100 additional employees — costing roughly $10 million — to meet the union’s class-size cap proposal.

“The licensed association has presented a mathematically impossible demand,” she said in Thursday’s statement. “We would love to pay our staff even more, hire more teachers, and have smaller class sizes — but the reality is that our district, like the districts around us, has to close a budget gap. We cannot pay people more, lay off staff and reduce class size. It is mathematically impossible because everything is a tradeoff.”

The district is facing a $30 million budget gap and plans to reduce its payroll by hundreds of staff to balance the budget for next year.

Castañeda told reporters Friday that the district and union were making progress even up to the declaration. She emphasized that the district would not have declared an impasse.

“We were still exchanging articles and reaching agreement. The decision last night didn’t have to happen. But it did happen,” she said. “And we’ll continue to engage. But from the moment of impasse forward, the tone and the stakes changed dramatically.”

In the event of a strike, all schools in Salem-Keizer Public Schools would close. Similar to what was seen in Portland during its nearly monthlong strike in November, some services and programs would continue, but they would be limited. Classified staff would continue to work if they do not reach a similar block in their own ongoing negotiations.

Before any of that can happen, however, SKEA and the district have about a week to prepare their best and final offers. Then, there is a 30-day cooling-off period when bargaining continues. Both sides have said they want to do as much as possible to avoid a strike.

The union would also have to vote to authorize a strike. If that passes, and continued mediation is unsuccessful, a strike could take place around spring break.
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Andrea Castañeda, superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools, says the district can't reduce class size, the main sticking point in negotiations with teachers, without tradeoffs in other areas.
Courtesy of Salem-Keizer Public Schools /
Andrea Castañeda, superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools, says the district can't reduce class size, the main sticking point in negotiations with teachers, without tradeoffs in other areas.

Natalie Pate