Job transfers, layoffs leave some Salem school programs in lurch

Heath Koerschgen’s students were preparing to take the stage last week for Sprague High School’s One Act festival when the theater teacher made an announcement.

Koerschgen told the school’s thespians he wouldn’t be returning to Sprague next year. He was one of the 112 educators who received a layoff notice May 17 as part of the Salem-Keizer School District’s budget cuts.

“When I told them, the air was sucked out of the room. We all had plenty of cries the next two nights,” Koerschgen said in an email.

He’s in his first year at the district after leaving Bend due to impending cuts.

The theater program at Sprague isn’t being cut, but students and Koerschgen said having a new teacher assigned to the school will undo hundreds of hours of work spent rebuilding the program after years of flux and stagnation. He is Sprague’s fifth theater teacher in as many years.

Sophomore Jester Quintanilla, who started an online petition to keep their teacher on, said Koerschgen has doubled the department’s budget by increasing ticket sales to shows, resurrected the school’s Thespian Troupe and turned theater into a family where everyone feels supported.

“He’s incredible,” Quintanilla said. “It’s a really big shock to have him leave because it’s getting rid of a safe place.”

It’s one example of the disruption happening in local schools as the complex layoff and bumping process ripples through classrooms and programs across the district.

Though district leaders pledged not to directly cut many programs, including theater, sports, arts, career technical education, special education and dual language, the effects of educator transfers between schools means the future remains uncertain for many in those programs.

Sprague students were planning to mount a production of the comedy “Urinetown” as their spring musical next year, but plans to buy the script were put on hold after Koerschgen’s layoff notice. 

Koerschgen said sustaining the program requires 10-hour workdays, with more hours during shows.

“This isn’t a plug and play position that you can throw any teacher into. You have to truly love this job or you will be burnt out quick. I hope whoever takes over will be willing and able to put in the required work,” he said.

Sprague High School thespians at state in 2024 with teacher Heath Koerschgen. Koerschgen was one of 112 educators the Salem-Keizer School District laid off May 17. (Courtesy/Heath Koerschgen)

Transfers cascade across local schools

School district employees received word over email last week if their job was being eliminated. Many of those whose positions were cut transferred into other vacant jobs in the district.

Because of union contracts and state law, senior employees can “bump” a more junior employee from their job. The process is designed to keep as many people employed as possible, but the result is that one cut job can result in multiple transfers of other employees as positions are filled based on seniority.

That means the layoff of 112 people has resulted in about 740 people transferring jobs to a new school or department. Nearly double that number were moved to new jobs in the same school or department.

In the week since the layoff, educators have reached out to their unions and the district’s human resources office, raising concerns about placements that they said don’t make sense. District officials and union leaders are working through those issues.

In a video sent to district employees Thursday, Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said employees have logged 450 placement issues. Thirty-three of those were true errors which have been corrected, she said. Others are placements that may not be ideal, and she said district and union leaders are working to revise placements where possible.

Starting Friday, she said the district would send updated jobs out to about 120 people, starting with elementary school educators.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to optimize now while still following the contract and the law,” she said.

The district is also beginning to recall employees who have been laid off as more educators retire or resign, opening up new jobs for next school year.

“All and all it’s just a really complicated process and it doesn’t feel good,” said Edie Buchanan, president of the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals.

She said about 100 members of their union had reached out with concerns or issues about their assigned job.

“We really need to push for more public school funding to avoid these situations in the future,” she said.

Behavior analysts cut as special education support restructured

Two positions cut from the budget are behavior analysts who help teachers and parents work with students struggling with acting out in class.

Parent Rob Owen said those workers have been instrumental in helping his son, an eighth grader at Leslie Middle School, remain in general education classrooms. His son was adopted from foster care as a toddler and can become aggressive when he’s struggling.

“Behavior analyst” might sound like an administrative or office job, but Owens said they’re in classrooms and special education meetings and have a direct impact on students.

One district analyst observed his son in class and found better ways to track how he’s doing and identify precursors to him acting out. Her suggestions helped Owen respond to his son’s behavior at home.

“These are critically important roles not just for special ed students but for the gen ed students. If my special ed kid starts flipping desks, all the gen ed kids have to have a room clear and their lesson is disrupted,” Owen said.

Many other special education teachers and classroom assistants were transferred to other schools.

Aaron Harada, district spokesman, said while the analyst positions were eliminated, the district is adding “expanded staffing to continue supporting response, support and professional learning related to student behaviors.” 

That’s part of an initiative next year focused on acute behavioral health and safety which will add support teams who help schools with behavioral crises, according to Chris Moore, the district’s director of mental health.

There’s no net reduction in workers focused on student behavior, Harada said.

The district also cut most of its instructional mentors, experienced teachers who help mentor other teachers and can fill in as needed in schools. That includes instructional mentors for special education teachers, who Owen said are often in classrooms.

“They are going out there when a kid is having a huge escalation and maybe relieving the teacher,” he said. “I’m just worried for those kids and I’m worried for the people we’re losing.” 

One of the mentors eliminated helped run the district’s Unified programming, a Special Olympics program that puts on athletic events where students with and without disabilities participate together. 

But Harada said the district is not shutting down its Unified program, which also includes many educators at schools who organize Unified events. He said district leaders are working with the Special Olympics on a plan to continue the program with district-level support.

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.