Classroom assistants, classified workers seek state mediation with Salem-Keizer over pay, safety

This story was updated following a response from the Salem-Keizer School District.

Salem’s bus drivers, custodians, classroom aides and other education support workers are seeking state mediation to reach a contract, saying they’ve made little progress on pay increases and school safety after seven months of bargaining.

The Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals, the union representing about 2,800 classified employees in the Salem-Keizer School District filed for mediation Wednesday. ASK ESP is seeking an 18% pay increase over two years, as well as moving employees up two ranges on the district’s wage scale, which would raise pay roughly another 10%.

The district has offered 8% plus other targeted increases leaders say would cost $17.5 million over two years.

“It has become painfully apparent that we are getting nowhere trying to reason with a district administrative team who all received outrageous pay increases last year while they offer us the leftover crumbs. We need to take the next step to push this tone-deaf district to bargain in good faith and reach a fair settlement,” union leaders said in a statement posted to Facebook Wednesday evening.

Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said she supported the move.

“We are grateful that ASK ESP has filed for mediation,” she said in a statement posted to the district website. “We share a sense of urgency to resolve this contract for the good of our students, schools, and community.”

The move is the latest sign of a gap between district leadership and unions, which have historically had good relationships, during a year when Salem-Keizer and other school districts are preparing for significant budget deficits in 2024.

Castañeda said the district is facing a minimum $38 million general fund deficit in 2024 as federal Covid relief money expires, enrollment has declined and the cost of wages, benefits and materials grows faster than state funding for schools. That deficit would grow with any additional increase in pay or benefits to district employees.

Castañeda filed for mediation with the teacher union, the Salem-Keizer Education Association, in late September after six months of bargaining, over objections from union leaders. A mediation session is scheduled for Nov. 8.

Either a public employer or a public employee union can seek state mediation after 150 days of bargaining. Mediation must take place for at least 15 days, after which either party can declare an impasse. 

Following a 30-day cooling off period, workers can then go on strike. Salem-Keizer has never had an employee strike. Portland teachers went on strike Wednesday for the first time in district history.

Edie Buchanan, president of ASK ESP, said pay and employee safety are the main sticking points in negotiations. With rising health care costs, she said most employees would see little additional money in their paychecks with the district-proposed raises.

District spokesman Aaron Harada said the district offers an insurance plan for full-time workers that covers medical, dental, vision and basic life at no cost for the employee and eligible dependents.

Classroom assistants, one of the largest groups of classified employees, currently start at $17.28 an hour. Many work 6.5 hours per day, meaning a beginning employee would earn about $21,000 over the course of the school year.

The union’s most recent pay proposal on Oct. 16 kept the ask for an 18% raise, but reduced the number of steps the union is seeking to add to employee pay scales from 10 to 8. 

Employees with no experience start at the bottom of the pay scale for their job and go up one step each year, earning a raise until they reach the top of the pay scale. Adding more steps means the top wage an employee can earn in a given job is higher.

Buchanan said aside from pay, protecting staff from violence and assault by students is a top concern.

The union has proposed protections in the contract that include requiring training on violence reduction and trauma-informed care before employees begin work, requiring a timely response from administrators when classroom employees call for assistance from students and requiring protections for employees from “violent or abusive students.”

The union’s proposed contract would also require schools to review proposed changes to disciplinary policies with employees prior to implementing them.

Buchanan said those items are in response to a significant increase in students injuring school workers this fall, where workers have suffered concussions from chairs being thrown across the classroom and other injuries with lifelong impacts.

District leaders during bargaining have said the district can address those issues through policies, rather than a union contract, but Buchanan said that’s not sufficient.

“The fact of the matter is that policy can change at their whim. We absolutely do not trust them to take care of this in policy because they’ve had numerous years to take care of it in policy and that has not occurred. We need that in the contract,” she said.

Correction: This article was corrected to reflect that the union is seeking timely responses from school administrators, not office workers, to classrooms when students are being disruptive or violent. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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

SUPPORT OUR WORK – We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

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.