Sticking points – Teachers firm on class size as SFSD negotiations persist

December 2022 Posted in Business, School

By Stephen Floyd

Labor negotiations in the Silver Falls School District (SFSD) are entering their eighth month as union members stand firm on class size limits.

A new bargaining session is scheduled for Dec. 1 at 4 p.m. at the Silverton High School Library, as educators continue to work under last year’s expired contract.

Though such proceedings are typically closed, the prolonged nature of current negotiations means they are open to the public.

The Silver Falls Education Association (SFEA) continues to push for specific limits on class sizes, including 15-20 students in kindergarten, 20-23 students in 1st and 2nd grades, 20-24 students for 3rd thru 5th grades, and 180 students per term for 6th thru 12th grades. Though initial proposals offered hard caps on class size, a Nov. 1 SFEA proposal included a process by which administrators could attempt to address classes that exceed limitations.

The proposal said, to reduce class sizes and teacher workloads, administrators should reassign or transfer students, allow additional paraeducator time for teachers, allow for split classrooms, or hire additional teaching staff. If these solutions are not possible, the union asked that teachers with large classrooms receive a 1.5 percent pay increase, while teaching specialists would receive a 2.5 percent increase.

SFSD had yet to publish a counter-proposal as of Our Town’s press time. An Oct. 4 proposal included no hard caps on class sizes, but put forward a system whereby school administrators and union representatives would work together to identify and mitigate potential class size problems on a case-by-case basis.

Neither SFSD nor SFEA spokespeople replied to requests for comment for this article prior to deadline.

Also at issue are teacher salaries, with SFEA requesting a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) of 8.5 percent in a Sept. 28 proposal, matching the rate of U.S. inflation. On Nov. 1, SFSD countered with a proposed 3 percent COLA, up from its prior proposal of 2.25 percent, as well as a $1,000 retention bonus to be paid in halves in December and May.

Tales from the classroom

With labor negotiations prolonged, the SFSD Board received a presentation during its regular meeting Nov. 14 by teacher and union representative Eryn Willow, who teaches English and Sign Language at Silverton Middle School.

Eryn Willow, a teacher and union representative at Silverton Middle School, explained the stressful conditions teachers are working under amid protracted labor negotiations during a Nov. 14 meeting of the Silver Falls School District Board.

Eryn Willow, a teacher and union representative at Silverton Middle School, explained the stressful conditions teachers are working under amid protracted labor negotiations during a Nov. 14 meeting of the Silver Falls School District Board.

Willow shared that she has 29 students in a class that is supposed to focus on bridging learning gaps, but she is so over-worked and over-committed she doesn’t get to spend more than a couple of minutes with students who are in particular need of personalized instruction.

“There are many examples more extreme than this, and our students pay the costs for these issues,” said Willow, who learned the day after the board meeting that an additional student had been assigned to her class.

“The weight of the stress has almost reached a tipping point,” Willow said. 

She said teachers who already work unpaid hours just to keep up are now being pushed further because of a lack of substitute teachers within the district, causing teachers to miss prep time or have no opportunities for breaks because they are filling in for colleagues. She said there have been PE periods where students have just hung out in the gym because their PE teacher was obligated to substitute in a classroom.

Teachers are also feeling the pinch of unpaid hours and the use of their personal funds for classroom supplies, she said. Though these practices have long been an unfortunate norm in the teaching profession, Willow said fewer catch-up hours at work have become more catch-up hours at home away from family, while the rising cost of living has made classroom supplies more expensive.

“The hours required to be a successful teacher here, especially those hours that are unpaid, have increased exponentially, but without any added compensation,” said Willow. “I can tell you that it has hurt many a teacher’s heart in this district to see other districts rewarding their teachers with bonuses, paid working days, or even just a genuine show of gratitude that shares, with both our community and the school board, that teachers are working hard each and every day for our students. We are tired, we are burnt out, and we are poorer this year than we were last year.”

Jennifer Traeger, chair of the Silver Falls School District Board, leads a regular board meeting Nov. 14 during a presentation by a representative of the Silver Falls Education Association.

Jennifer Traeger, chair of the Silver Falls School District Board, leads a regular board meeting Nov. 14 during a presentation by
a representative of the Silver Falls Education Association.

Willow added she has put serious thought into leaving the district, though she has spent her 16-year teaching career at SFSD. She said she has dreamed of the day when a student would enter her classroom and say their parent was once Willow’s student as well, but she can’t remain under current conditions at the district.

“I will miss teaching whole families of babies that are on my horizon,” said Willow. “I do not consider this decision lightly.”

Board Chair Jennifer Traeger said, as a preface to Willow’s presentation, it is not the board’s role to comment on or intervene in specific concerns brought forward during a board meeting. She said levels of administration, such as school principals, are in a position to handle the “nitty-gritty,” and it is the board’s role to focus on broader issues such as management of district resources and policy direction.

“We’re not providing solutions, but what we can provide is a place of understanding of what things are like because of that teacher-student perspective,” she said. “Because that’s where education happens, and we’re… three layers removed from that.”

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