District seeks mediation with Salem-Keizer teacher union as budget shortfall looms

Salem-Keizer School District leaders are seeking state mediation to help resolve negotiations with its teacher union, saying the two sides’ proposals remain over $50 million apart on compensation after months of bargaining.

Superintendent Andrea Castañeda announced the step Tuesday in a news conference. Her decision was prompted by the union’s Sept. 18 proposal for a 13.5% raise in the first year and 12.5% raise in the second year of the two-year contract, which district leaders say would cost $74.4 million over two years.

District leaders have proposed a 3.5% increase and other targeted increases which would cost $20 million over two years.

“We need some additional support and resources to help move bargaining forward in a way that is fair, that is competitive and is also financially sustainable for the district,” Castañeda said.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association represents about 2,000 district teachers and other licensed employees, like school counselors and occupational therapists. Union leaders have been bargaining with district leaders for a two-year contract since April.

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said she was surprised by the request for mediation Tuesday and that it raised transparency concerns.

“We believe this is very premature. We’ve been making steady progress. We still have a long ways to go and there are many articles the district has yet to even respond to,” she said.

After 150 days of bargaining, either a government body or public employee union can request mediation unilaterally.

Bargaining between the teacher union and district has been public for the first time this year, meaning anyone can observe as representatives from both sides negotiate. Scialo-Lakeberg said a mediation process would be closed, preventing teachers from observing in detail.

“We have been engaging our members a lot. We really believe in transparency and open dialogue and this is going to stop some of that,” she said.

The move toward mediation is a significant step for a district that has historically had good relationships with its union. Salem-Keizer last went to mediation during 2005 contract negotiations, according to records of the state Employee Relations Board, and has never had a teacher strike in the board’s recorded history.

Castañeda said mediation is necessary as the district stares down a projected budget deficit of at least $38 million in 2024. That deficit is based on the district’s most recent offers to its two employee unions and would increase if further pay increases are bargained.

Castañeda took over as superintendent July 1, after bargaining was underway.

“It is our absolute goal that mediation is successful,” Castañeda said. “I know it can be because we all want the same things.”

A starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree is currently paid $45,478, according to the district salary schedule, while a teacher with 10 years of experience and a master’s degree would be paid $69,130, according to the salary schedule. The teacher pay scale tops out at $89,512 after 16 years of experience.

Scialo-Lakeberg previously said the large increases are necessary to keep up with rising cost of living, and has criticized the district spending money on raises for principals, supervisors and top administrators last year.

District administrators, including principals, received a 7.85% pay increase last year, a one-time adjustment intended to bring them closer to market rates. Some top cabinet members got raises of 10% or more.

Castañeda said those raises cost the district about $2 million, which would not make a significant dent in the gap between the district and teacher union proposals. She called the idea that administrative cuts could make up the gap “mathematically flawed and philosophically inconsistent.”

“Administrators also deserve fair and competitive wages. Our bargaining and our budgeting process is not the mechanism to effectuate income redistribution. It’s a way to maintain a competitive workforce. And our job is to have great people in every seat,” Castañeda said.

Neighboring districts have settled contracts over the past year with higher wage increases.

The Woodburn teachers in April settled a contract with a 7.75% pay raise for the 2022-23 school year, and 5% for the two years after.

In southwest Washington, Camas teachers settled a contract Sept. 7 following a week-long strike with a 6.4% raise. Evergreen teachers settled for a 6.6% raise Sept. 10 after a strike.

Portland teachers are now in a 30-day “cooling off” period after reaching a bargaining impasse with Portland Public Schools. The district has offered teachers a 4% annual raise.

Portland teachers requested mediation in June and declared an impasse in mid-September, potentially setting the stage for a strike.

Salem-Keizer’s request for mediation goes to the state Employment Relations Board, which will assign a mediator.

The board generally tries to schedule mediation about three weeks after receiving a request to allow time to speak to parties and review bargaining to date, said Janet Gillman, state conciliator with the board. She said the timeline depends on the availability of mediators.

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.