Learning with the SKEA President and VP

The Keizertimes recently spoke with Salem Keizer Education Association (SKEA) President Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg and Vice President Maraline Ellis about budget, staffing, school safety and more.

When there is a $1 billion budget and teachers are still buying their own classroom supplies, do you feel the district really supports the educators?

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg: That’s a little complex because schools today are expected to be cities unto themselves. We’re expected to treat the whole child. That takes a lot of resources, from speech language pathologists, we employ nurses, we employ occupational therapists, physical therapists, child psychologists. It goes on and on to treat every aspect of the child, which is wonderful, so they can access education. So that means that billion dollars, which sounds great, can really be sucked up fast when we’re talking about truly educating all children, which most nations do not do. If you are disabled, if you have learning issues you probably just don’t go to school in other countries, while we educate all kids. So with that comes a much higher price tag. That takes up a huge amount of the budget just to make sure all those resources are done. 

With that said, we’re a large district, I think we would see that there are some areas that we would like to see more prioritized more to the classroom. I don’t think any educator should be buying their own resources, and that includes, at times, desks, chairs, materials for their students. I think it should be supplied. But at the end of the day, there’s not always enough money to go around for all of that, but I think we need to think about  some of the priorities within how we do that. There’s definitely some non-negotiables that we have to provide to students, but I think there’ some areas that are squishy. 

“That billion dollars, which sounds great, can really be sucked up fast when we’re talking about truly educating all children…”

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, skea president

Does resource allotment seem to be even?

Maraline Ellis: Shortly after we entered the recession, or maybe the next biennium after the recession since we’re funded on a two-year cycle, our superintendent at the time was Sandy Husk and she laid out, using a pie chart graphic, which I know is an oversimplification, but what she was trying to say is “how much of our funds go for staff, for people, to do the jobs that we do to serve our students. What portion of the pie goes towards facilities or transportation?” And it’s been a number of years so I don’t remember the exact percentage, but it was in the ballpark of 82, 83, 84%. I was kind of blown away by that. Those are the non-negotiables. You have a classroom of kids, you have to have a licensed teacher in front of them, it’s what the parents expect and I think it’s what students need. So that leaves us with a relatively small chunk of the budget to figure out things like supplies for teachers, textbook adoption, which we’re required to do periodically, supplies for the school in general that are shared amongst various teachers. 

So when we fine tune down to what a specific teacher needs in their classroom, that’s really hard because Tyler’s going to want something different than I do, which means we don’t get the bulk rate because we’re not buying things that we all use together. I wish we had more resources, but with the bulk of the resources going into people, and I do believe we’re in a people business, I can’t really fault that part.

Are there any specific areas to steer some money away from?

T: Again, this is a two-edged sword. We’ve done some of the math, or I should say others have done some of the math, and we’ve seen percentages of growth from our licensed staff which include teachers, SLPs, anyone that holds a professional license, and our administrative staff which also has a license but they’re a different category. The rates of growth have been somewhat disproportionate. We are starting to see a rate of growth from district administrative personnel at slightly higher rates than teachers. Basically, school based personnel is at a slower rate than our district offices. 

That’s one of the things we’ve brought up and we’ll be pursuing that. While again, there’s a lot of people that do wonderful jobs, it does beg the question if we’re short staffed at schools, if we’re not able to fulfill what we need in front of students, how helpful is this supplemental type of staff? That’s where we are. We have more district positions being created. While there might be a need, again the priority of need. We just created the athletic director for the district. Each high school has an athletic director, middle schools do not. So maybe there’s a little bit of a need there, but does that need to be a district, managerial position, or could it be school based? There’s things like that, and then put more people in the schools that are direct with students. We have a lot of directors, we have a lot of coordinators, and that’s the group that seems to be growing. They don’t work in our schools. They create work for our teachers to do, but they don’t work in schools. Now there’s a need for some of these positions, but they have been growing at a slightly higher rate than our school based. So that’s a concern that we have. 

But then the double-edged sword, we were at a shortage before COVID. COVID has just exposed it more and also I think sped it up. We are in a shortage. We are having trouble finding people to fill our classified positions. When you take into consideration a lot of our instructional assistants are only employed maybe six and a half hours to seven hours a day so they get the full benefits, but only part of the year, at a lower wage. We have a lot of instructional assistants that work in some of our self-contained classrooms with some of our most disabled, with some of our most needy of students. And some of them with emotional disturbances and behavioral issues and they’re on the front lines to be hit and bitten and peed on. So it’s no surprise why people aren’t lining up to fill those positions. The teacher shortage has been coming for years when we’ve seen educational programs close over the nation. The pipeline of more educators, they’re not really there. 

One of the things with the Student Success Act, part of that process was to have input from the community and so forth. And that happened, but, really, we were marching for lower class sizes, lower case loads. We were marching for better wages to attract and keep a work force. Our district chose to spend some of that money in an indirect way to meet the criteria, but to open up more coordinator positions, that’s managers. Granted they have not been able to fill all those positions as well, but no, we want people at the school base. That’s some issues we’ll still have to work out. Again, a lot of money to keep our district going, very little money that we have to decide how that fits. 

“We can not fix education, but we can rewrite the narrative inside Salem-Keizer schools.”

tyler scialo-lakeberg, skea president

When you have a staffing shortage, what can be done about class sizes when there’s issues like kids standing in classrooms?

T: This is larger than Salem-Keizer schools, this is our whole nation. Oregon, the last time I checked just a couple months ago, we were fifth in the nation for largest class sizes, sometimes third. We usually toggle in the top-five. Our legislatures have not chosen to have any types of mandatory caps. There are other states like New Jersey, California, Florida that this is it, if you get to a certain level something needs to happen. The Portland Association of Teachers were able to get that in their contract years ago, so it does trigger a little bit of extra pay if class size exceeds that cap. We really need help from our state leaders to lower class sizes. You’re asking districts to make impossible choices. The other half of that, we need to make sure we have a professional workforce, and to do that we need to start treating teachers like professionals. This is a long time coming, it’s bigger than Salem-Keizer. One thing I tell our superintendent and even our school board, we can not fix education, but we can rewrite the narrative inside Salem-Keizer schools. We don’t need competitive wages with other schools because you’re kind of comparing crap to crap. 

The amount of education and training it takes to become a teacher or occupational therapist or any part of the licensed staff, then to go into teaching at a lower rate comparable then if they were to go into a different industry. Now some of that is we work 10 months, however in those 10 months, even our summers we’re eating into training and so forth so it’s not like it’s a paid vacation, we’re only paid for 10 months, 192 days. So treating the professionals as they are, I think we’ve had for years a societal expectation that if you go into teaching you’re kind of a missionary. You do it because of a good heart, and you should expect to be poor and expect to be overworked and you’re expected to keep your mouth shut. We’re professionals providing a professional service, and people should be paid for that. And that’s part of why people are not going into education. Why would I go into an industry where, one thing, in the news is attacked all the time, you’re blamed for everything, and you’re not even paid at a high enough wage to get your student loans taken care of and this and that. And, your 10 months of work, you’re cramming in way more than 10 months of work in. And you’re not often getting paid for that because it’s often “do it for the kids.” We have a parent night tonight, “it’s for the kids.” You’re expected to take time from your own family, your own self, your own health. And of course educators go into this field because they care, but I think that’s also been used against them. And because they care and because they have such big hearts they’ve also allowed it to happen. 

It’s a complicated issue, but if we really want there to be a pipeline of educators we need to have it treated as a highly respected field, and that comes with a highly competitive wage and pay for the work they do. When we get there, we will have people going back into teaching. We’ve all talked to many many students, we’re both high school teachers, so we’re getting kids when they’re getting ready to go to college. I’ve had many students come up and say “I kind of want to be a teacher, but I see what it’s like.” We have many student teachers that come out of college, they spend a month or two, sometimes a week or two, and they’re like “no, I’m expected to do all of this?” We’re losing teachers, I think within the first five years we’re losing a huge amount, and now we’re starting to lose our veterans too. We’ve had numerous people, especially this last year, say “because of my own health, the stress, the impossible expectations, I can’t do it anymore.” If we want to really change the narrative we need to re-prioritize. We need our legislature’s help for that and we need a rethinking of what our schools should look like. In a few years, if we keep going down this road, we will not have qualified educators. 

M: You look at what some other states are doing in response. I think it was Arizona I read about in the newspaper, they now require just an associates degree to get a license. We sometimes have people without college degrees, and there’s an emergency licensure work-in-progress type of thing so we can get someone with appropriate skills in front of a class. But that’s a dramatic shift moving from a bachelor’s degree to an associates degree. 

T: I think it’s also part of the narrative that most people think “well I went to school, I’m an expert. How hard could it be?” Yet I’ve never heard anyone say “well I went to a doctor therefore I should tell doctors what to do because I know what they do.” And that shows the true lack of respect. Not everyone can walk in and engage and move 30 or 40 kids. It’s not only just the content, there are strategies, it takes expertise. But then the management and growing people, we’re literally growing people to be great citizens. That is inherently what we’re seeing in other states. I know Florida says if you’re a military veteran you can come in and get a license to teach, maybe a couple days of orientation. And there may be people with the skill set, but it’s also this idea that anyone can do it, it’s babysitting. And if it is babysitting, then pay every single teacher babysitting wages for every single student they have. And if you do the math, every teacher would be about $150,000 to $200,000 a year. Let’s do babysitting rates. But teaching does require expertise, it does require a professional person to do that. So again, why would I want to go into teaching where I’m not even considered a professional, people are telling me what to do even though they’ve never done this job, and, by the way, let’s give me some of the lowest pay rates for college graduates or people with a master’s. 

Shifting focus more towards the campuses, they’ve had or are going through major renovation projects, do you feel those projects have been focused in the right places?

T: I would say for the most part. I know that when the bond was in its baby form there was talk of “do we build another high school?” And yeah, we could make a shiny new high school, but at each of our schools there’s a lot of need. That was a really good effort. When you talk about true equity, it’s giving whatever you need to get to that desired outcome, so spreading that wealth among many. You have a school like West Salem, one of our newest high schools, they still have issues that need to be fixed, but they’re not getting the same amount of renovation as McKay or North Salem High School, which are two of our oldest schools. So I think that was the right move, there’s still more work to be done. What we want to see, since there’s a lot of classrooms created, we want to see bodies to fill that, teaching bodies, so we can lower class sizes and all of that. With the bond didn’t come an expectation of more teachers. 

M: I think the hard part also from the public perspective, maybe even from some staff perspective, is that some items included in the bond are solutions for deferred maintenance. And that doesn’t create anything brand new and shiny to look at. Sometimes we need a new HVAC system. Well nobody can really see that, but you can feel it, if you’re in the facility. But if you’re driving down the street you don’t see this new wing of the building, or new building, or parking lot, or tennis courts like at McKay. It’s a little different, but I worked at North Salem, I know a lot about deferred maintenance because I came to school one day and everything in my classroom was soaking wet because the buckets we placed in the attic to catch the drips from all of the leaks had filled and not been emptied because we were away at Spring Break, and my classroom was a minor flood zone. 

T: It is good to see that that work is being done, but it doesn’t look as noticeable as the additions at McKay and North which are beautiful. But it’s some really important work that needed to happen.

“The reality is our SROs did not keep our schools safe.”

Tyler scialo-lakeberg, skea president

With School Resource Officers (SROs) no longer on high school campuses, is that just one more thing that falls on the educators?

T: What I think needs to happen is an understanding of the truth. SROs did not deal with basic student discipline at all. SROs at the high school also went into other schools. So life is continuing as usual with or without an SRO. SROs would step in for issues that might have a type of criminal intent, but they did not deal with student behavior, and that’s a misnomer that a lot of people think. That all of a sudden we have to deal with it. Educators have always had to deal with it. First and foremost it starts in the classroom or the hallways and it’s educators that deal with that. We’ve had behavior specialists help with that process and administrators. The SROs rarely intervened in anything unless it was something of a criminal nature. With that, their absence, most people are not going to see any change. And this idea that behavior is up because of that is a really false correlation. Kids coming back from the pandemic, addicted to their cell phones, for some kids have been like running the streets, so now they’re back into a structured area that they didn’t want to fit into. Last year we had a lot of behavioral issues in the first few months of school, it had nothing to do with SROs. For most kids, they never saw an SRO, didn’t know they were there. Elementary schools have them, and we’ve seen elementary schools explode with behavior, and that has to do with the pandemic and their disruption of learning and disruption of social norms, or when you think about a kindergarten kid who hadn’t been around people for two years doesn’t really have a lot of socialization. The SROs, as far as we’re concerned, are kind of a non-issue in educators dealing with behavior. They will use the same ways they have done, we’re working on ways to improve that with the district through some collaboration. The district is finally having a cell phone policy. That’s something educators have wanted. The thing is, a lot of adults and parents in our society don’t realize the impact of these cell phones. We both have spent some time subbing last year, and we were both in schools that the school itself decided to have a cell phone policy like no, non-negotiable, and then others that did [allow cell phones]. I had kids coming in not even with earbuds in playing TikTok videos, and continued throughout class. One was almost to the point of violence when I tried to get them to turn off their videos. And that wasn’t just a one off, it wasn’t just that one kid, it was numerous kids throughout. One of the things that we’ve asked that every school during this time of in-service as a staff discuss what are their needs and wants and disciplinary reactions. And when we’ve seen that happen previously at other schools in isolation there was a huge difference as far as how the expectations school wide, they all knew it, they bought in and they supported it. And you saw a very different type of school happening than the other schools that the leadership did not take the time to include their staff or didn’t have a plan. We’ve had some schools that came up with a plan back in February, you’ve already lost. 

M: It reminds me of growing up in my family, my sister and I learned early on if you want something you don’t as mom. Because mom is very serious and will say no, and dad will say yes to anything. Well kids figure out the same thing, so if teachers aren’t on the same page with what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, they’ll play one off the other thinking that “if I argue hard enough I’ll get what I want,” and it leads to chaos in a school. So what Tyler is talking about is a coordinated, school-wide so the kids know what the expectations are. And most kids, most of the time, when they know the expectations will meet them, and there are a few who choose not to. And really, when we talk about discipline, we’re talking about a very small percentage of our overall student population. But sometimes because of their needs they do take up a disproportionate amount of time. But with those needs it’s warranted. They need us. 

Going back to the absence of SROs specifically, have you heard from or about any educators not feeling safe on campus?

T: There are a small minority, and that was really when there was a discussion to have them or not. Since they’ve been removed it’s not really an issue. The reality is our SROs did not keep our schools safe. When you think about the size of our schools, if the SRO is in one part of the school, a whole host of things can be going on that they’re not a part of, and they’re not even there all the time. A large amount of our school shootings around the nation that are tragic, many of them had SROs. Police in general on their best day are reactionary, they’re not proactive. That’s just the nature of the job, and before I went into education I was in law enforcement, it’s the way our system works. There’s not the resources, the time, and also, how do you predict who’s going to do something bad? So you’re more reactionary. I think there was a false sense of security that somehow that kept the school safe. But the reality is SROs were not in the schools every single day, they were traveling to other schools. We have 65 schools, and 20-something SROs. You can do the math on that. They weren’t always there. Schools are big, so there’s been instances where kids let other people in. We’ve finally moved to locking multiple points of entry a couple years ago. If an SRO could stop that kind of violence I’d say “yeah, let’s line them up.” But the reality is, and again if you do the research, there are a huge amount of schools that had SROs assigned to those buildings. One person can’t be everywhere, they don’t know all the kids. In our high schools we have 2000-plus students. It’s impossible.

Looking at the recent decision from the school board to ban concealed carry for visitors on campus, how do you feel they did with that decision?

M: [Visitors] who we don’t necessarily know, and it’s always a concern. We do have issues around security and theft within our buildings. So one of the things a teacher has to do is, if I bring my purse into my school, where do I leave it just to be safe? Not because kids are bad but because some kids could be tempted. If you think about strangers coming in, if they’re trying to be a volunteer reading with students, they probably don’t want, I would imagine, having a weapon as they’re trying to sit on the floor and read with the kindergarteners. They may want somewhere to put it. We don’t have any place that’s 100% safe.

T: And when you look at statistics, Oregon’s pretty liberal for guns. We have concealed weapon laws, we don’t have to register weapons, it’s pretty lax. You rarely hear about any of these violent outbreaks, whether it’s a school shooting or a mall, being stopped by someone who had a concealed weapon. Because that’s just not how it works. Just because you know how to shoot a weapon doesn’t mean you know how to react in an emergency. Or that you’re in the right spot to. There’s so many factors, and we know that guns that are irresponsibly kept in a home are often more of a danger to a family than not having them. 

I can relate. My mom, after my dad passed away, my dad had guns, we learned how to shoot in the proper way, they were kept safe, all from a young age. He was a sportsman, he hunted occasionally. And my mom, who did not partake in any of that, wanted to keep one of the handguns. She just was convinced that if someone broke in, she’d know how to use that gun. That’s not how it works. So I made her go to the gun range, told her you can not keep it until you try it. She shot one time and threw the gun across the field. 

When in any stressful situation, fine motor skills are the first thing to go for anyone, unless you’ve done training  over and over and over to have a muscle memory type reaction. So this idea that people are going to react like that in a heightened emergency just isn’t realistic.

“They have a variety of steps they can take when those questions come up, but I’m really proud of our district that they have not banned anything outright.”

Maraline ellis, SKEA Vice president

Staying on a more national-level issue, stories about books being pulled or calls to have them pulled from curriculums and libraries have been popping up seemingly more and more frequently. Where does the union stand on some of these controversial works, like Gender Queer?

T: That book is a little questionable. It has very explicit pictures. I know it’s gone through a review. It’s gone through a second review. I think it’s only in three high schools. That one, it’s not even the subject of transgender, I think it’s the issue of the pictures. But as a whole, we don’t support banning books. There might be a one off, I don’t know if this Gender Queer book is appropriate to have in schools. But parents can also ask that their child not be able to check it out, too. So there’s ways to make those choices. You hear of different districts banning Mark Twain or things like that. People need to understand that just because a book is in the library, it isn’t part of the standard curriculum. But also, I think that history has shown any time we try to limit ideas and information, we’re going down a bad road. And so to fear different perspectives, whether fiction or nonfiction, I think that’s a really scary place to be. Part of what we do in schools is give the information and let kids come to their own conclusions, not to teach them what to think. 

M: Our district also has made very good use of the protocols they have in place for when there is a challenge of a book, or sometimes it’s curriculum materials and not necessarily a library book. They bring  together a representative group, so it’s got our library media staff, some district folks, some parents, community members, teachers. They really explore it. They look into what other areas have done related to that particular text, and then make a decision. They decide age-appropriateness, and if there needs to be any further restrictions. They have a variety of steps they can take when those questions come up, but I’m really proud of our district that they have not banned anything outright. 

Another big thing nationally right now is the diminished gains for students from during the pandemic. Math and reading comprehension in younger students is way down. What do you feel educators and school systems can do to try and catch those kids back up and on track?

T: I have a lot of feelings about that. I just want to see people calm down. A lot of that is based on our standardized tests. They’re not tests that are actually, I think, as evaluating of students as they could be. Also, depending on students with different language backgrounds, the accessibility of the language. Third grade class you have to type, well how many third graders type? You have a lot of different factors that go into that test. While there might be a little dip in that right now, things like standardized tests do not show the amount of growth. There’s a lot of growth happening and we just need to trust our educators to do what they do best. And that means that they will be teaching and meeting the needs of those students. And as far as I’m concerned, so what if it doesn’t measure perfectly? We’ve had societies survive wars and other pandemics, people are resilient, they’re going to be okay. The standardized tests should not be the end-all be-all of measurements of a child. And that’s where I think we use that as a focus and sometimes a weapon against public education. We need to realize that kids are growing, and a part of that, if there’s a huge dip, there’s some kids who don’t have a dip because their parents worked with them, or read to them. We have a lot of kids in Salem-Keizer that don’t always have that support at home, and it could be because both parents are working two jobs. It’s not a matter that they don’t care, it’s a matter of they don’t have the capacity for one reason or another. When you think about a child coming into kindergarten, a child that’s been read to already has a base of literacy. We have some kids come in that have never seen a book. So think about the growth that happens there. It will happen, these kids will be fine. They will go on to graduate and they will go on to be prepared to be whatever it is that they want. Because that’s what we will do. Now all of that will not be measured on a standardized test, so people just need to not worry about it so much. And if their kids are happy and functioning, and they can read and write, there’s progress, they’re going to be fine.

M: You also have to think about the skills they’ve learned that we never tried to measure or  capture. How many kindergarteners in the past managed to navigate a Chromebook, figure out how to go to class and participate. We’ve got maybe some burgeoning technology geniuses. We don’t know. But these are things we would not have asked of a kindergartener in the past. We’ve got a different experience but we’re using our old assessments. It doesn’t match.

I would love to see us step back, don’t do standardized testing for a year or two, so that we can recapture those as instructional days, and then see where we’re at. So three years down the line, let’s see where we’re at, test then.

T: Before I stepped out of the classroom I had juniors, which is another year for a lot of the standardized testing. And the way it was done it was done in windows, so each student might take a couple weeks testing. But then to stagger it, it was about six weeks a third or half of my class was gone, and then the next day the other third was there. So I’m not going to move things along where the kids that are out testing have this huge makeup thing, so I created like six weeks worth of stations. It was really difficult, there’s a lot of lost instruction in those times. But then when those kids would come to class they were so exhausted from days in front of a computer screen testing. I had to be as creative as possible, but that was about six weeks of a lot of lost instruction. Now as a junior, they’re okay, but you think about the younger grades that really need a lot of skill development, that’s really impacting them.

M: And part of the assessment is a piece of writing. A junior, while they may struggle, can hammer something out much faster than a third grader. But as long as students are making progress, they’re allowed to keep working, so you could have a student plugging away on some piece of writing for a very long time. 

You mentioned language barriers, so it feels like a perfect transition to the Salem-Keizer dual language program. How do you feel the edistrict has done setting this program up and how it will help the students?

T: I think it’s absolutely a step in the right direction. We know that our past bilingual education was an attempt to take children with a native language other than English to transition to English. To do that, a lot of these children are kept very separate, so it was almost like a segregated type approach. And then at the end of the day, the intention wasn’t to replace their native language, but that was kind of the trajectory. With dual language, you’re talking about maybe a native Spanish speaker and a native English speaker coming together to learn, and kids are thriving. And they’re thriving not only in language academically in that regard, but also as people. It’s not separate, it’s together, and I think that’s huge. There’s a lot higher level  of language acquisition for continuing the native language and actually acquiring another language. There’s statistically a lot  more success in that kind of program. We’re really glad that we’ve gone to that, it’s been a lot of years coming as the transition was happening, as we’ve learned better as a district, and as we’ve also hired so many bilingual educators we have the capacity now to do that and grow that. 

“Our role is to try and change that narrative, elevate our workers’ voices so they can succeed. Or else we’re not going to have teachers much longer.”

tyler scialo-lakeberg, skea president

Moving away from education directly, as the president and vice president of a union, what do you feel the role of a union truly is when it comes down to it?

T: You go back to the basic concept of unionism and that’s protect your workers’ rights. That’s a huge part. As a professional association, we not only want to protect our employee’s rights, but we also want to make sure that in a school setting the actual professionals and the people doing the work have input and say and consideration in the decisions being made about how they do the work. Doesn’t mean they’re going to make all the decisions. Like most industries, it’s very top down. But I would say that those industries, whether private or public, that seem to thrive, are the very ones that take into consideration the users of whatever it is that they’re asking them to do, to be more efficient. When you have a cycle of listening to the very people doing the work, to the decision makers, and back and forth, you have a very healthy organization. Education is still very top down, not just in the school district, but we have the legislatures and our departments of education that people who sometimes have never been in a school other than their own K-12 experience making decisions, and it is mind boggling. It’s like asking construction workers “why don’t you build a house with a staple?” We have that kind of thing, so as an association we want to make sure we elevate our members’ voice so they have the resources and their needs met so that they can educate our kids the best they can. One of my personal  philosophies is put our educators first and our students will succeed. And that’s getting away from “well it’s best for kids.” What’s best for kids is not always realistic or sustainable. Of course we want the best for kids, but we don’t always have the resources for that. So if you bypass the people trying to serve and do the best for kids as if they don’t matter, then you’re never going to get to the end goal. We want to protect our employees’ rights. We have a lot to do for our wages, we have a lot to do for the workload and work environment. We have seen mass exodus from education across the nation, we have also seen that here in Salem-Keizer. We are ones that people call us first “how do I resign?” And walk them through, and ask them why. And they’re like “I love teaching, I love kinds, but I can’t do this anymore.” And this is often, in a big district, all the things they’re asked to do. All the different departments coming up with different ideas. They all funnel down to the people working with the kids, and there is not the capacity to do everything they’re asked to do. So our role is to try and change that narrative, elevate our workers’ voices so they can succeed. Or else we’re not going to have teachers much longer. 

Another key role for a union is representing members when disciplinary issues come up. Do you feel it’s your responsibility to represent and protect each individual equally, or is there a hierarchy?

T: Let me change that question. We do not protect anyone. We protect due process. So everyone should be treated fairly. There’s people who make poor choices. We do not protect those choices, we do not condone certain behaviors. We do want to protect that due process is followed. So that’s a different narrative than protecting an individual. 

Our salaries are paid by our members’ dues. So as far as we’re concerned, our time is owed to our members. Someone who chooses to not be a member may call and ask a question, and we’ll be cordial, but it’s going to be a very different conversation than one of my members. We’re resources. I have people that can’t make our workshops, so I’m making appointments to go out to them to walk them through whatever questions. We’re also educators so we often get questions about a sub plan, or help writing an education goal. It’s that whole, full-round customer service that  we do. 

But at the end of the day we want to make sure we have a good contract, and we continue to have a good contract. We’re going into a bargaining year, and so we have a lot of things, language that needs to be cleaned up that we see, there’s certain goals that we want to meet, but at the end of the day it’s not that far off from the district’s goal. We want a highly qualified workforce to come to Salem-Keizer schools and to stay at Salem-Keizer schools. And so how we get there, we might have some difference of opinions with our district leaders, and that’s what we have to hash out at the table as far as how we get there.

We’ve talked about salary and other things, so when it comes time for that negotiation period what are some things that you don’t have that you want?

T: We want the wages to reflect the work. At the same time we want some of the workload to be reasonable. For example, I’m an elementary teacher and I’m expected to attend XY and Z parent night every week, I should be paid for that. 

M: Or Saturday school. The things that are  outside the regular work day. 

T: That’s something that’s going to affect everyone since our membership is a wide base from teachers to nurses. Some groups get differentials. Our differentials have not been looked at for decades or adjusted. We also need to figure  out  what is that differential is defined as. What is it to cover? That’s been something we have not been able to in previous bargaining to get to an agreement of what that means. 

We have internal transfer issues, like if you teach at North Salem and you want to go to South you’re almost treated like an external candidate right  now. How can we  streamline that? And HR are in agreement I think for some of that streamline.

So there’s so many nuances to our contract that might not  mean a whole lot to everyone, but it will affect certain groups. But overall we need higher wages, competitive wages, that are going to draw and keep a high quality workforce.

M: And make us competitive to inflation. We’re worried about that.

T: Some things are wishy-washy, we want to make things more clear. We want smaller class sizes, we want caseloads smaller. We have counselors with caseloads of 500-and something students. How are you going to get to know them? We have special-ed teachers with maybe 40, 60, 80, 100 kids on their caseload. We want to streamline some of that with specific language. And just like in any bargaining, you’re not going to get everything you want but we hope to move the dial in a reasonable way.

When will you start this negotiation?

T: It won’t be until spring that we come to the table, and we’re going to be having open bargain. That will be difficult I think because we’ve always traditionally had a closed bargain. The statutes for negotiating collective bargaining rights is that by default it’s open unless both parties agree to close. And we have not had this conversation with the district yet, they’ve probably heard we’re planning on open bargaining although we have not come together formally to set our bargaining rules yet, but  we plan on making it open. So since we will not be agreeing to closing it, it will be open by default. As leaders we both have been involved in contract negotiations in the past, but now we’re in the position to make this decision, and we both agreed it should be open, it should be transparent. Anything behind closed doors, sometimes that’s necessary with confidentiality and people’s information, but there’s just too many assumptions that happen. And if it’s closed or restricted then our members aren’t engaged, and we want them to be engaged in the process and have input.

So when did the process and prepwork begin?

T: We started last year with our prepwork. We have a bargaining team, we have a court team and we’ve also been building our representatives from every work site. We still have a couple to fill. And the idea is they’re kind of a liaison between the bargaining process and their schools, because we want our members to feel engaged in this process and own this process. It’s their contract. It’s not just mine, it’s their contract. And so that’s a different approach than we’ve had in the past.

We’re also reaching out to community and parents because often, I don’t think it’s intentional, but community and parents are over here, school district and then staff. And we need to bridge that because we’ve already found in our listening sessions they have a lot of the same shared goals. Especially with this last year of not having enough teachers and their kids coming home everyday like “I had another sub.” I think our community is interested in having and maintaining a highly qualified staff. That’s some of the ways we  know we can get that. With more competitive wages you’re going to attract more people and with that you’re going to keep better people. 

We’re doing our job to prepare. And that’s looking over the contract, where do we need better language, what areas do we need edited, deleted? 

M: I didn’t realize how complicated it was until I was involved in actual bargaining. The phrasing of a particular sentence can dramatically change meaning, which then has impact on all the affected employees. So you want to get it right. It’s almost  like a puzzle, thinking  through all the possible interpretations to make sure it’s really going to do what your intention was for it to do.