Committee seeks $1.5m more for teachers, aides in Salem-Keizer budget

Kids in Salem schools will have a few more teachers and aides working with them next year following a budget committee vote to redirect money to classroom positions.

But the changes won’t make a dent in class size for most schools, and will mean deeper cuts to administrative positions in an already challenging budget year.

Salem-Keizer School District Budget Committee members voted to recommend a $1.3 billion budget for the 2023-24 school year to the school board, which will vote on adoption in June. At a meeting Monday night, committee members also approved an amendment directing Superintendent Christy Perry to cut $1.5 million from non-instructional positions to add to classroom positions like teachers and instructional assistants.

School board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham made the motion, saying she wanted more money available for addressing large class sizes or other student needs.

“We should have a strong emphasis on ensuring as many of our licensed educators are in the classroom as possible,” she said. “We’ve heard it as a major priority from labor and from parents for the last two years.”

The budget committee consists of all seven elected school board members, plus seven appointed volunteers selected by the board who serve three-year terms.

The direction comes as district leaders are already cutting some district-level positions that work on school curriculum and mentor teachers. Those cuts are being made because the budget assumes state funding will be below the level needed to sustain current positions.

Salem-Keizer and other Oregon districts face substantial financial uncertainty and the looming possibility of deep cuts for the 2024-25 school year, when federal Covid relief funding runs out. In Salem-Keizer, Covid relief money funds about 54 elementary school teachers and 116 other jobs, including school nurses and social workers. Perry said the district will need to find about $54 million to cut next year when that funding runs out.

State legislators have not yet agreed on how much money to put into the state school fund for the next two years, the primary source of funding for schools’ operational expenses. Legislative leaders Monday evening proposed a $10.2 billion state school fund, an hour before the budget meeting began.

Perry, who is retiring at the end of the school year, built the budget on the $9.9 billion state school fund included in Governor Tina Kotek’s state budget proposal. With rising costs for supplies and wages,  Oregon Association of School Business Officials says districts need $10.3 billion to maintain current services.

The extra allocation toward classroom teachers and aides won’t impact most kids in the district, which has 65 schools and is projecting about 39,000 students enrolled next year.

With taxes and benefits, a full-time teacher costs the district about $100,000 per year, so the extra money would pay for about 15 new teachers, or more classroom aides. Perry said it would take about double that amount to add enough teachers to cut the district’s average elementary school class size by just one. That ratio is currently 24.2 students per elementary teacher, though some classrooms have as few as 18 or as many as 30 students.

Carson Cottingham said she intended the money to be as flexible as possible because district leaders know best where additional teachers or classroom help would make a significant impact on students.

She suggested focusing on reading instruction in early elementary school or addressing behavioral problems and students falling behind in middle school as two possible avenues.

Carson Cottingham acknowledged the amount was small relative to the overall budget.

“It is a step towards reducing class size and it is a step towards having more educators working directly with students in a classroom,” she said.

Others on the committee were more skeptical.

“I want to be clear that this is I think an effort to make this body feel better and the impact on students will be minimal,” said budget committee member Nancy MacMorris Adix, before voting for the amendment.

Nine of the budget committee members present voted for the change, with Marty Heyen and Maria Hinojos Pressy voting against it. Both sit on the school board.

Heyen asked Perry how much staff time would be required to find the cuts and make the change before voting “no.”

Hinojos Pressey said she was concerned that cutting more district-level positions would negatively impact schools because of the support those employees provide to both teachers and students.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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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.