Sticking points – Class size, inflation, prolong SFSD labor negotiations

October 2022 Posted in Briefs, Community, School

By Stephen Floyd

Teachers in the Silver Falls School District (SFSD) are currently working under last year’s expired contract as labor negotiations drag on in the shadows of high inflation, housing costs and COVID-19 burnout.

Negotiations began in April, and teachers with the Silver Falls Education Association (SFEA) started the school year with nine of 16 contract terms settled with the district.

Both parties say they are negotiating in good faith, however, they remain far apart on critical issues such as cost of living increases and limitations on class size.

The next bargaining session is scheduled for Oct. 20. Proceedings are open to the public.

SFEA President Alison Stolfus said the union’s main goal is to ensure teachers are given reasonable workloads and adequate administrative support. A survey of union members last winter measuring burnout following the pandemic found a majority did not feel supported by district leadership, and Stolfus said current negotiations are focused on educators’ “post-pandemic reality.”

A major sticking point is how the district will define and manage class sizes. The district has proposed a case-by-case system with a committee that includes union members meeting regularly to discuss potential or actual class size challenges and offer recommendations to administrators, who would then resolve class size issues.

SFEA countered with a proposed hard cap on class sizes, such as no more than 20 students in a kindergarten class, no more than 23 students in first or second grade, no more than 24 students in all other grades, and no more than 180 assigned student contacts per term for teachers with multiple classes in a day. Special education classes would maintain a ratio of three adults for every five students, and a special education teacher would have a caseload of no more than 25 students.

The district came back Oct. 4 with a revised case-by-case system that would have principals share projected enrollment figures and staffing assignments with union representatives each June for the coming school year, and again the week before school starts. For teachers assigned a large number of students, principals would create a support plan to help mitigate the burden.

While an agreement on class size was not reached, Assistant Superintendent Dan Busch said in an email to district staff that talks were “a healthy discussion that should lead to continued progress on this article.”

The parties are also far apart on cost of living adjustments (COLA). The district proposed a 2 percent COLA at the outset and SFEA countered with 9 percent to match current inflation rates.

In August the district returned with a proposed 2.25 percent COLA and the possibility of up to 1.5 percent more depending on enrollment. The union contended inflation is too high and countered with 8.5 percent on Sept. 28.

The district has argued it does not have enough money in the general fund to cover such an increase, and said enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels, with numbers reported this September at 6.6 percent below enrollment in June of 2020. SFEA said the district cannot afford to under-pay its teachers, given the high housing costs in Silverton and competitive wages elsewhere.

“Driving 13 miles out of Silverton could allow teachers to earn thousands more each year without any additional education,” said SFEA on its Facebook page Oct. 1. “Other districts are offering more competitive pay in addition to retention bonuses.”

Districts with better pay increases included the Salem-Keizer School District, which gave teachers a 4.5 percent COLA this year and a $750 retention bonus for those who remain through next March. This brought base pay to $45,478 per year for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no applicable teaching experience.

Under the expired contract, base pay at SFSD for the 2021-2022 school year was comparable at $45,335 annually. Annual base pay this year for licensed teachers in the Mt. Angel School District is $41,824, which included a 3 percent COLA, and $41,763 in the North Santiam School District, which provided a 1.5 percent COLA.

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