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Mediation: Silver Falls district, educator association agree to need for help

By Stephen Floyd

Labor negotiations between the Silver Falls School District (SFSD) and Silver Falls Education Association (SFEA) have entered mediation. Critical issues related to class size, teacher pay and grievance procedures remain unresolved after nearly eight months of bargaining.

During a meeting Dec. 1 between SFSD administrators and SFEA representatives, both parties agreed mediation would be the most effective option to resolve outstanding objections.

An initial mediation session is scheduled for late January. It will be closed to the public. If within 15 days of the first mediation session there is still no agreement, parties may declare an impasse. 

If an impasse is declared, a final offer would be presented within seven days, followed by a 30-day cool-off period. At this point the final offer may be implemented or the union may strike after giving 10 days notice.

A bargaining session in late 2019 similarly entered mediation after months of negotiation, with parties split on workplace protections for teachers. In January of 2020, both parties reached a final agreement just six days after a majority of SFEA members signed pledge-to-strike forms.

Grievance procedures at issue

Workplace protections remain a high priority three years later, with SFEA requesting a clearly-defined grievance process that includes arbitration procedures to challenge the firing of contract teachers. SFSD has proposed a more informal process that would begin with a verbal complaint before a written grievance is filed, and would resolve challenges against contract terminations through the state’s Fair Dismissal Appeals Board (FDAB).

On Dec. 1, SFEA representatives said FDAB has little experience hearing such matters and would likely draw out a process that needs to be resolved quickly, and may result in black-and-white decisions on topics that are often very nuanced. 

SFEA President Alison Stolfus said using an arbiter instead would allow both the district and the union a greater degree of input in how grievances against dismissals are handled, resulting in rulings that would be more equitable for both parties.

“Having the choice just makes everyone feel better,” she said, adding the union membership “feels really strongly” about this issue.

Assistant Superintendent Dan Busch, leading SFSD negotiators, said the union raised “fair points,” but disagreed that an arbiter would necessarily be faster than FDAB. He said FDAB was established specifically to hear termination grievances, with rules and procedures defined by case law. An arbiter would present “a less predictable outcome,” particularly if they are from out-of-state, he noted.

SFEA countered that an arbiter would be chosen from among Oregon educators through State Conciliation Service, and added FDAB tends to side with teachers so using an arbiter would be more likely to result in favorable outcomes for the district. Busch said using FDBA “raises the level of seriousness” for a dismissal grievance and would ensure alternative resolutions are pursued first.

Class size a high priority

Negotiators also continue to differ on class sizes, with SFEA requesting clearly-defined limits and remedies, while the district favors a less-rigid process allowing school administrators to identify and resolve class-size problems as they arise, with cooperation from union representatives.

On Dec. 1, SFEA said the district’s proposed system works on paper, but with the new realities of public education after the COVID-19 pandemic, and high administrator turnover within the district, they favor clear guidelines to ensure consistent outcomes.

“Teaching has changed, and we need something in the contract… that doesn’t just involve chatter at a board meeting,” Stolfus said.

Busch said not all schools within the district are the same, and neither are all classes within those schools, and allowing administrators flexibility to address class-size problems would allow for tailored solutions. He said teachers should be the ones to initiate the process of resolving class-size problems, rather than contract language, and work directly with their principals to find an appropriate remedy.

“Every situation has its own context to say, ‘I need some support,’” he said.

SFEA said this system is already in use but is faltering, such as at Bethany Charter School where teachers said they have been understaffed since the start of the school year and working with their principal has not resulted in a solution. They also said new teachers might feel embarrassed to ask for help if they are overwhelmed, or might not understand where their limitations are, and a clear standard for class sizes would help remedy such problems.

Busch said teachers should trust principals to be responsive to their needs, and if an administrator is unable to find a solution to a large class size, there may not be a practical solution due to the financial
and physical limitations of the school
or district.

“At some level, if the principal doesn’t see a remedy, the principal doesn’t have a strong remedy,” he said.

Salaries closer, but still apart

Teacher salaries also remained unresolved, though both sides have offered concessions during recent weeks.

SFSD is offering a 3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) and a $1,000 retention bonus, up from an initial proposal of 2 percent COLA and no bonus. SFEA has requested a 7 percent COLA, down from 9 percent, and has tentatively accepted the retention
bonus offer.

The SFEA proposal was presented during the Dec. 1 meeting and district negotiators had to meet in a close caucus to consider these terms. When they returned to the open session, they talked about needing time to prepare a counterproposal, and this is when Stoflus said it may be time for mediation.

Stoflus said, when negotiators turned to mediation in 2019, it allowed them to set aside dedicated time to negotiate, as opposed to the current bargaining format of meeting for a couple of hours at a time with sometimes weeks between meetings.

“We’d like to start that process just so we can come and have dedicated time to work through it,” she said.

Busch agreed mediation would be more likely to result in a finalized contract and would be “the best scenario for everybody.”

“I think that sets us up for success,” he said, adding mediation was “really helpful” in resolving the previous contract in 2019.

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