Salem-Keizer offers teachers 9% raise, $5,000 bonus as union seeks action to lower class sizes

Salem teachers would receive a 9% raise over two years, more money toward their health insurance costs and a $5,000 retention bonus under a new offer from school district leaders announced Wednesday.

The proposal, which drew mixed reviews from union leaders, is an attempt to settle a two-year contract with the Salem-Keizer Education Association after 10 months of negotiations. The union represents about 2,000 teachers and other licensed workers like occupational therapists and counselors.

Salem-Keizer School District Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said the $37 million package is the most the district can spend. She announced a similar $45 million offer Tuesday for the district’s classified employee union.

The district is planning deep budget cuts for next year, which Castañeda said would require laying off no less than 5% of district employees — hundreds of people.

“That outcome is not the result of our staff earning what they deserve,” she said this week, laying the blame on Oregon’s school funding formula. “We are still looking at reductions at a tragic scope and we’ll make them because we don’t have a choice.”

But union leaders say their members won’t approve a contract that doesn’t address large class sizes and caseloads, something Castañeda is adamant the district can’t afford to do.

If they can’t reach a resolution, the outcome could be the first teacher strike in Salem history — a development both sides say they want to avoid.

For that to happen, the union or district would need to declare an impasse in bargaining, something that hasn’t happened yet. Then, the district and the union would submit written final offers to the state mediator within a week.

After a 30-day cooling off period, district leaders could impose their offer and teachers could go on strike.

The two sides will remain in discussions into the night Wednesday with a state mediator in hopes of agreeing on a two-year contract after 10 months of negotiations. Union leaders are updating live from mediation in a document here.

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said midday Wednesday that union leaders have made their position clear to the district.

“We’re hopeful that they’ve heard us and will try to make something work around class sizes,” she said. She called the district’s offer “really mixed,” praising their willingness to be creative with offers like a retention bonus, but saying teachers are seeking adjustments to working conditions — not just higher pay.

If the district won’t make changes, she said the union would consider next steps.

“If that means impasse and strike, that’s the way we’ll go. We hope we don’t have to do that pathway but we are prepared to do that,” she said.

The union wants their contract to define optimal class sizes or caseloads, which vary based on the students’ grade levels and other needs, like special education. 

Under their latest proposal Wednesday, teachers, counselors and other educators in the contract would be paid an extra $1,500 per semester if their class size or caseload is over a trigger level.

Castañeda said an initial union proposal paying for large class sizes would have cost the district about $10 million per year, and that reducing class size during a period of budget cuts was “mathematically impossible,” since forthcoming layoffs will mean fewer teachers and other educators to serve the same number of students.

The union proposal also forms a committee on class size and caseload to work on proactive planning and calls for the district to share data regularly with union leaders about class sizes.

What’s in the district offer

  • A 5.5% cost of living raise in the first year and 3.5% in second year.
  • A one-time $5,000 retention bonus paid to teachers and licensed employees after the contract is signed. Employees working half-time or more are eligible for the full amount, and employees working fewer hours would receive $2,500. The money will be paid out of the district’s one-time federal Covid relief funding, which must be spent this year.
  • An additional 4% in pay for bilingual educators who pass a district language assessment showing proficiency, if they use their second language on the job and are not already working in a position where a second language is required.
  • Employees injured by “workplace violence” who have an accepted worker’s compensation claim would be paid by the district for up to three days — typically the amount of time before worker’s compensation payments kick in.
  • A new “teacher leader” position for teachers who guide professional development and data review at their schools. The position pays a $2,500 annual stipend. Elementary schools may have up to six teacher leaders, middle schools up to eight and high schools up to 10.
  • A $150 increase to the monthly amount the district covers toward employee insurance premiums over the two-year contract.

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.