Educators and parents packed a school board meeting Feb. 18, 2020 to speak about a $35 million Salem-Keizer schools spending plan. Parent Angelica Lagos, right, approaches the podium. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Dozens of educators and parents waited for more than two hours Tuesday night to have their say on a sweeping district plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to close achievement gaps in local schools.

In a lengthy meeting of the Salem-Keizer School Board, many educators criticized a plan advanced by district administrators for spending too much money on professional development, new administrators and curriculum over hiring more teachers and other employees who work directly with students.

“We are using Band-aids to heal broken bones,” said Courtney Clendening, a first-grade teacher at Clear Lake Elementary who served on a district task force that recommended how Salem-Keizer should use the new state money.

Such testimony contrasted with a group of parents from the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, a 20-year-old advocacy organization for Latino families, who said the plan directed much-needed money and resources toward helping bilingual students and others who haven’t been well-served by the school system.

“Our children are facing many daily barriers, and this investment will make a big difference in the educational trajectory of our children and reduce the inequality of opportunities,” said Angelica Lagos, a member of the group’s parent leadership group and mother of three students, speaking in Spanish.

Several educators also weighed in with support.

The plan advanced by district administrators would add 240 full-time employees, lengthen the middle school day and spend about $9 million on new curriculum, training and after school programs.

It’s the result of Oregon’s Student Success Act, the most significant change to K-12 education funding in Oregon in more than two decades. Salem-Keizer expects to receive an extra $35 million per year from the state.

Assistant superintendents Linda Myers and Kraig Sproles spent about 90 minutes at the start of the meeting presenting the plan. Educators in the back of the audience at times reacted with groans or, less frequently, murmurs of agreement. Board and district budget committee members then spent about an hour asking questions and sharing their thoughts before turning to the public.

Class size was a frequent theme in comments from educators, with Salem-Keizer Education Association leaders suggesting the district start over with a new plan focused around reducing student to teacher ratios. Many in attendance came with signs saying “Class Size Matters.”

By law, Salem-Keizer can spend the money on reducing class size, but those reductions must be tied to specific state targets around improving test scores and graduation rates, or to improving student mental health and behavior.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Money is also supposed to help groups of students who regularly struggle in school, including low-income students, students with disabilities and students of color.

“It really is requiring us to target who are the underrepresented students who have not yet been successful in our system and how are we going to change to respond to that,” Myers said.

Administrators said they did provide for class size reductions by concentrating on eight elementary schools with struggling students. Each school would receive new teachers in kindergarten and first grade to focus on reading, with a goal of bringing class size down to 20 students per teacher.

“We know that class size does matter, and class size matters both in academics and the way that the classes feel to the kids who are in them,” Sproles said.

That effort will take 17 new classrooms between those eight schools, Sproles said. The district doesn’t have the space or money to expand that effort to every school, he said.

During last year’s school budgeting process, Myers said administrators calculated that reducing class size in kindergarten and first grade by just one student would cost $1.5 million.

Clendening, the first-grade teacher, said that approach concerned her because of the high needs of students across local schools. About 80% of the district’s 41,000 students belong to one or more groups the money is intended to help, and 70% are low-income.

“The bulk of this plan is targeting two high schools, two middle schools and eight or maybe 16 elementary schools,” she said. “This money should be used for more innovative and groundbreaking ideas that help all of our underserved students across the district.”

Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, speaks at a Feb. 18, 2020 school board meeting about the district's Student Success Act plan (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

More than 2,000 district employees in a survey had ranked reducing class size as a top priority, and many educators who spoke to the board said the possibility of those reductions is what motivated them to lobby for the Student Success Act.

"I did not walk out on May 8 so that more than a quarter of the money we fought for and won would go to purchasing new curriculum and providing professional development,” said Kelsy Dunlap, a McKay High School science teacher. "No amount of professional development helps me learn 180 names."

She and others questioned the plan to hire more mentors, trainers and other employees dedicated to coaching teachers in schools, rather than people employed to teach students.

“Salem-Keizer public schools already employs experts in teaching and learning. We are called teachers,” she said, drawing enthusiastic applause.

There was broad agreement among speakers about several parts of the plan, including a move to hire more school outreach workers to help families and students one-on-one, and to make it easier for low-income kids to participate in sports and after-school programs by lowering or eliminating fees. Many of those recommendations came from a task force led by community volunteers.

Several speakers also said additional funding destined for art curriculum was inadequate. Administrators set aside $400,000 for middle and high school drama, art and music programs, but didn’t include any arts programming in elementary school.

Parent and art instructor Laura Mack said incorporating art and more space for creativity would help curb behavior problems by engage kids in school.

“It's part of a well-rounded education. Kids see school now as drudgery,” she said.

District administrators are meeting Wednesday to consider what they heard Tuesday. They’ll present those changes to the school board on Tuesday, Feb. 25, and again give the public a chance to speak up.

The board is scheduled to vote on a final plan at that meeting but could choose to delay the vote to early March.

This story was updated to clarify the school board's timeline for voting on the plan.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.