Portland strike means slower resolution for Salem-Keizer teacher contract

A contract between the Salem-Keizer School District and its teacher union will be delayed at least a month after state mediators canceled a session Wednesday because of the high volume of labor disputes and strikes requiring state help.

Mediation between the district and the Salem-Keizer Education Association was scheduled to begin Wednesday. Instead, the parties will first meet Dec. 6 — 10 weeks after Superintendent Andrea Castañeda filed for mediation, saying she hoped to speed resolution of a fair contract.

“We’re disappointed, completely disappointed,” said Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, about the delay. “We want to get this settled.”

The delay is the latest sign of a volatile fall for labor in Oregon. Portland teachers have been on strike since Nov. 1, the first strike in district history. Yamhill County workers reached a deal with the county Tuesday night, ending a three-day strike.

Those strikes contributed to state mediators canceling Wednesday’s session.

“Conciliation is attending to a number of high-need cases at this time, including active strikes at Portland Public Schools and Yamhill County, and other cases that are working through the 30-day cooling off period. When matters reach these critical phases, all hands are on-deck to provide support to the parties,” wrote Sabrina Dunsworth, the mediation coordinator with the state Employee Relations Board, which mediates disputes between public employees and employers.

In Salem, the delay will challenge district efforts to respond to a looming budget deficit, the size of which isn’t known until contracts with the teacher union and classified employee union are settled.

The union objected in September to Castañeda filing for mediation, saying it was premature and the parties were making progress on many aspects of the contract. The parties had been bargaining for a two-year contract since April, covering about 2,000 district teachers and other licensed employees.

Teachers are seeking an 26% raise over two years, while the district has most recently offered 7%. The two sides also remain at odds over issues including teacher preparation time and safety in schools, particularly the handling of assaultive students.

The union’s bargaining team offered to meet with the district to continue negotiations as they wait for mediation, according to emails Scialo-Lakeberg provided to Salem Reporter.

John Beight, the district’s human resources director, said he was out sick and unable to meet Tuesday, but would provide counterproposals electronically for the union to consider.

The union and district have reached tentative agreements over five articles in their 22 article contract, including policies covering how employees are paid, the employee assistance program and layoffs, according to the district website.

Scialo-Lakeberg said she’s hopeful more agreements can be reached before mediation begins.

The Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals, which represents about 2,800 classroom assistants, bus drivers, custodians and other support workers, filed for mediation Nov. 1, saying they remained too far apart on pay.

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, and teachers would have to vote to authorize a strike.

With mediation beginning Dec. 6, the earliest teachers could strike under state law would be Jan. 20.

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.