Layoffs ripple across Salem-Keizer as 111 educators lose jobs

Salem streets were quieter Friday without the rumble of school bus engines idling at red lights.

Schools across the city sat empty as thousands of school district employees absorbed the impact of the largest Salem-Keizer School District layoff in over a decade. The effects were so significant that district leaders canceled classes Friday.

After weeks of anticipation, district officials said Friday that 111 employees will lose their jobs at the end of June.

Another 250 support workers had hours reduced.

And about 740 educators were moved to a different school or department, while about double that number were moved to a different job at the same school or department.

No school is unaffected by the changes.

The school district employs about 5,140 people and has about 38,000 students.

The layoff figure was far smaller than the estimate Superintendent Andrea Castañeda provided in April when the school board approved the reductions.

At the time, she said she expected about 300 people would lose their jobs, while others would be transferred to vacant jobs.

On Friday, Castañeda said the estimate proved high because the district did not know how many of the employees designated for lay off could instead be matched with an available job.

In all, the district is eliminating 377 jobs through layoffs or because they are vacant. 

A teacher who’s licensed only for elementary school, for example, couldn’t be assigned to teach middle school English, and a bus mechanic and bilingual classroom assistant require different skills.

“We didn’t want to overstate the vacancy number and thereby create a potentially false sense of reassurance,” Castañeda said.

The new budget cut district administrative positions by 13%, with 15 administrators or manager jobs eliminated. No employees were laid off as a result of those cuts because administrators were either reassigned to licensed teacher jobs or positions were vacant.

Because of union contracts and state law, eliminating a job doesn’t mean the person holding that job is laid off. Instead, they can “bump” a more junior employee from their job. Figuring out the cascade of job changes as a result has occupied district leaders for the past few weeks.

More school district employees have retired or resigned in the weeks since that work began, adding new vacancies for people to remain employed.

Restaurants and coffee shops around the city took to social media Friday offering free drinks, cupcakes, pizzas and other specials for district employees with badges.

Rob Thrasher, a second-year teacher at Keizer Elementary School, was among those who lost their jobs. He wrote on Facebook that he was “deeply saddened and disappointed.”

“I plan to stay in the teaching profession as my passion has only grown stronger over the past two years of facilitating learning with 5th grade students,” he wrote. 

Thrasher said he hoped he might be recalled over the summer.

Brenda Varty Bly was among the employees who learned they’d be moved to a new school.

She has worked for four years at McKinley Elementary School, the same school her daughter attended. Half of her job was as school health assistant – a position district leaders added during the Covid pandemic to handle the increased need for nurses and medication help.

The other half is as an instructional assistant, working with students with behavioral problems.

At 5:45 a.m., she received an email telling her she’d be moved to Crossler Middle School as an instructional assistant – a job with a later start time and more hours than she wants to work. Her passion is working with younger students, she said.

“I don’t know what it looks like because my strength is not middle school,” she said of her new job.

Her job as a health assistant is one of a few that are being almost entirely eliminated across the district. Varty Bly said knowing that, she believes the district could have handled the process better by allowing employees some input on their new jobs.

“I’m not very hopeful that I’ll find a home where my heart has been for years and years,” she said.

Varty Bly said McKinley employees were sharing news Friday. It sounded to her like six to eight people at the south Salem school had been transferred.

“McKinley’s a tiny school and that’s way more than we were expecting,” she said. 

She worried about the impact on students who rely on the school to be a stable place in lives that can be chaotic.

“We are such a safe place for them that moving their familiar faces out, it’s just going to devastate some of these kids,” she said.

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.