Educators from across Oregon walk along Chemeketa Street during the March for Our Students on Feb. 18, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
SALEM — You may see them wearing red, walking out of school or at rallies after the bell rings.
On Wednesday, public school teachers from Bend to Grants Pass are expected to voice their dissatisfaction with the amount of money state officials budget for public education.
The largest demonstration by far is expected in Portland, according to John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
In Salem, Larson expects that several thousand people will turn out for a trek from the waterfront to the Capitol building.
Educators in Umatilla are planning a “walk in,” inviting members of the public to visit the district’s three schools and see what a typical day is like.
Bend-La Pine Schools are holding an after-school march for students and inviting community members.
In Hermiston, teachers plan to rally before school.
By Tuesday afternoon, 23 districts announced plans to close for the day and three more to release students early, according to the Oregon Education Association.
Larson teaches high school English in Hermiston.
“I started teaching in Oregon 29 years ago, and it has been one year after another of cuts ever since I started,” Larson said. “And I think we’re really good in our schools of trying to absorb those types of hits to education and still give our students the most normal education possible, but it’s gotten to a point where it’s crisis level.”
On top of representing about 45,000 workers, the Oregon Education Association is also a big political donor. The organization spent about $880,000 on campaigns in 2018, according to state campaign finance records.
The legislature’s lead budget writers have proposed $8.8 billion for K-12 education in the next two years, $100 million more than they say is needed to maintain current services.
That’s not including a proposal to supplement that sum by $2 billion through a new tax. Not all of that money would go K-12. Some would go to pre-kindergarten education.
Lawmakers, through a special committee, have been working for months on more school funding, which supporters hope will boost graduation rates and improve student performance.
Democrats have significant majorities in each chamber, making the success of a tax-raising bill more likely.
Republicans have argued that the new tax would mean many household items would get more expensive.
On Tuesday morning, Senate Republicans didn’t show up for a floor session — where lawmakers were scheduled to take a vote on the bill — in protest of what they say is inadequate action to rein in the cost of retirement benefits for public employees.
OEA wants to make a strong showing on Wednesday regardless of whether the bill passes in the coming days.
The Legislature wouldn’t distribute the new money until the 2020-21 school year, and Larson argues schools need more money now.
They also anticipate opponents of the new tax could refer the matter to the ballot.
To save money, school districts have eliminated counseling services, others have large class sizes and fewer school days, while programs like art, music and technical education can get short shrift, Larson said.
“It’s different everywhere around the state,” Larson said. “But the pain is felt everywhere.”
Most of the educators OEA expects to make a showing in Salem Wednesday are from small and nearby school districts, including Dallas, Woodburn, Sheridan and Central School District in Independence. The Eugene Education Association will also attend, an OEA spokeswoman said.
On Wednesday, Salem-Keizer schools will close early, and afternoon preschool will be cancelled.
Planned AP and IB testing will go on as scheduled, as will field trips, even those that return after the earlier dismissal times.
The Oregon School Boards Association took no position on the walkout, but executive director Jim Green said it did advise many districts.
Green said districts and boards were told to look at their union contracts, which typically cover emergency closures. Since the walkout was organized for teachers, Green said districts have to be mindful of classified employees — like instructional assistants and custodians — who may still show up to work.
“You can’t shut school on the classified employees because that’s an illegal lockout,” he said.
Many districts that are closing intend to make up the day later in the year or use it in place of a scheduled professional development day, Green said.
In Beaverton, the district is counting the day as an unpaid furlough day to mitigate the budget impact.
Salem-Keizer schools won’t make up lost class time, but teachers are expected to make up those hours through other work, like chaperoning field trips or parent-teacher conferences, said Lillian Govus, district spokeswoman.
Classified employees, who are paid hourly, will work and get paid for a full day by doing professional development, helping with after school care and programs or in some cases packing in schools that are having construction work done over the summer.
Those who want to participate in the walkout can use leave to do so, Govus said.
Correction: This article misstated the starting location for the Salem rally. The rally will begin at Riverfront Park and then move to the Capitol.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241. Alexander is a reporter for the Salem Reporter.
Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.