Oregon teachers say large classes and assaults by students show need for more funding

Schirle Elementary teacher Jamie Keene, center, said she’s regularly hit by a student in her 33-person class who has trouble regulating his behavior and needs more support than staff can provide. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem teacher Jamie Keene went to urgent care earlier this year after one of her fourth-grade students pulled a muscle in her back.

With 33 students in her class at Schirle Elementary, Keene said one regularly hits her, pulls her hair and twists her arms when he gets overstimulated in class. He’d benefit from more individual attention and a smaller class, she said.

“It’s not because he means to do it. It’s because he’s not getting what he needs,” she said.

Keene was among thousands of Oregon teachers and educators who rallied at the Capitol in Salem on Presidents Day, urging increased school funding to cut class sizes and hire more staff like nurses, librarians and classroom aides to better meet student needs.

“We need to do everything possible to make sure our students have the schools they deserve,” said John Larson, Oregon Education Association president, who teaches high school English in Hermiston.

A sea of educators and supporters, mostly dressed in red, answered a call from the Oregon Education Association to show up and speak about why they need more resources in schools.

Signs in the crowd read, “Those who can teach. Those who can’t make laws about teaching” and “Please don’t make us move to Washington,” a reference to an education spending bill Washington state passed last year that increased teacher pay.

Music teachers played pep band classics like “Crazy Train” on the Capitol steps after the rally, and a throng of teachers circled the building, carrying signs and chanting, “You’ve left us all no choice/We have to use our teacher voice.”

“It’s exciting to see this many people,” said Lindsey Dance, an elementary school Spanish teacher from Beaverton, who said she was happy to use her day off to travel to Salem. “I feel like what we have been doing hasn’t been working.”

Veteran teachers in the crowd said they’ve seen a decline over the past several decades in school funding, which has translated into larger classes, more extreme student behavior and other problems in classrooms.

“I love kids, but it’s getting very frustrating with lack of funds and resources,” she Julie Rundquist, a music teacher at Crossler Middle School. She’s been an educator for 32 years and has two children who also teach.

Larson said students acting out in ways that threaten the safety of peers and teachers are a frequent occurrence in many schools, a symptom of low staffing.

“We don’t have the staff to prevent a student with unmet needs from escalating,” he said.

Following the march, educators wrote personal stories on cards and streamed into the Capitol, delivering them to senators’ offices.

Union leaders called on the crowd to continue pushing legislators with days of action on the second Wednesday of every month during the session.

Legislators are considering a request from Gov. Kate Brown to boost school spending by $2 billion in the 2019-21 biennium. That increase, however, will require higher taxes, the governor has said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.