School nurses, district administrators would be laid off under budget cutting plan

Salem schools next year will have fewer nurses to administer insulin and care for medically fragile students under a budget cutting plan announced this week by Superintendent Andrea Castañeda.

Castañeda said she planned to cut 46 jobs from the school district budget next year as part of a $31 million reduction in planned spending. Sixteen of those jobs are vacant.

Other reductions she has proposed earlier include spending less to buy vehicles and playground equipment and cut the reserve for pension obligations. She also is proposing that district administrators forgo cost-of-living raises in 2024. 

She is reducing supply and travel budgets this school year, but deeper cuts in those categories would come in the 2024 budget which the school board will adopt in the spring.

But the cutting isn’t over. Castañeda said she still has to find at least another $40 million in savings. That is likely to mean laying off or leaving vacant jobs for teachers, classroom assistants and other people working in schools.

The size of those cuts depends on what pay raise is ultimately negotiated by the district and its unions. Workers are seeking significant cost of living raises to keep up with inflation, while district administrators say every dollar given in pay increases is a dollar they’ll have to cut later to get a balanced budget.

Mediation with teachers began on Wednesday. An initial session with classified workers is scheduled for Dec. 28.

“Our contracts will settle with less than our staff deserve and more than our system can afford,” Castañeda said Thursday.

Castañeda said the core issue is that Oregon’s school funding formula hasn’t kept up with the growing list of services schools are expected to provide. That includes everything from helping homeless students find clothing and housing to addressing complex mental health needs.

“We do what we must to balance our budget and we do what we can to advocate for urgent changes in our state funding formula,” she said during a Thursday news conference. “Soon we are going to find many more districts struggling with this exact problem – the gap between what is expected of schools and what schools are able to offer.”

Castañeda proposed cutting seven district administrators, 10 licensed employees and 29 classified employees. She said affected employees who could lose their jobs next year have been notified. The district’s general fund, which pays for most operating costs, pays for 63 district administrators, 120 school administrators like principals, 2,818 classified workers, and 2,622 teachers and other licensed workers like therapists and nurses.

The position cuts are expected to save about $5 million in 2024.

“These are all positions that provide valuable services, but they are mostly district level services,” Castañeda said in a video announcing the cuts.

Castañeda in her news conference declined to say what positions are being cut, but union leaders said they were notified that some school nurses were among the positions being eliminated.

The teacher union was notified that 13 nurse positions would be eliminated, president Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg said Wednesday.

Those workers can administer medications to students and help care for medically fragile students with serious health conditions. Former Superintendent Christy Perry added more health workers to the district budget in 2022-23 after school returned from Covid, saying the pandemic highlighted the need for more employees to help students with disabilities.

Many of those new positions were funded through one-time federal Covid relief money, which runs out next year.

Castañeda said the district’s nursing corps would return to the size it was before the pandemic. She did not have numbers on how many nurses would remain or how many students each would be responsible for.

Scialo-Lakeberg said district leaders earlier had promised to first cut jobs where employees don’t work directly with students. She said there was a clear need for more nurses before Covid.

“We were absolutely shocked,” she said. “The superintendent made it clear we’re going to cut from the district level first. That’s not what happened.”

She reiterated that union members want the district to cut administrative overhead by reducing positions in areas like curriculum or behavior services that don’t directly help teachers or students. 

“In scarce times like the ones we’re in, everyone will have a credible position about a different decision that could have been made. I respect and value the position that the union brings on these matters,” Castañeda said. “There are many more rounds of discussion and debate to go and I feel confident that we will keep having the right conversations with the right people, and it will ultimately result in the right decisions.”

Much remains uncertain about the cuts and the impact on district employees. Because of union contracts, someone whose position is eliminated may not lose a job with the district. Instead, their seniority may allow them to “bump” more junior employees and take their jobs.

That means it won’t be clear for months which district employees will lose their jobs.

Castañeda said she would provide more detail on the cuts to the school board on Dec. 12.

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.