Car horns blared as megaphone-led chants echoed across Lancaster Drive Friday afternoon.
Outside of the Salem-Keizer Public Schools district offices, more than 50 people lined the sidewalk in support of the Salem-Keizer Educators Association and the Association of Salem Keizer Education Support Professionals as the two unions are currently in mediation with the district for new contracts.
This wasn’t the first demonstration, nor is it planned to be the last, but this one was a little different. On the first day of winter break, this demonstration was organized by 17-year-old West Salem High School senior Lauren Stenerson.
“Student voices are often not heard as loud as other voices,” Stenerson said. “And it’s really important for us as students because we are the people that feel the effects of everything that’s happening in the district. We know what we need better than anyone else and it’s only right that we get a say in what happens with the budget and how our teachers pay impacts all of that.”
The district’s budget is a major topic these days. As SKPS bargains with both unions, the district is also needing to cut $70 million from the books, and that number could increase depending on how mediation goes.
Earlier in the month, SKPS announced an initial plan that would save the district around $30 million. These cuts came mostly at the district level, with the aim to impact students as little as possible.
District layoffs, administrator salary freezes and changes in spending, among other moves, accounted for less than half of what the district needs to cut. The next wave, one that will directly hit classrooms and students, is planned for the Spring. Many of these will come with input from the community following the district’s listening sessions it held in October and November.
But there is still a level of unknown when it comes to the specifics of where these cuts will come from and what programs may fall to the wayside. This is why Stenerson felt it important to organize the student body to join with their educators in support.
“Our favorite teachers, our favorite programs, the reason that we go to school, it’s all on the line right now and it’s our jobs to go out and protect those,” Stenerson said.
There has been no indication from the district as to where the cuts will come from yet, though Superintendent Andrea Castañeda has said that athletics and music would not be first on the chopping block.
The reaction Stenerson got from most students when informing them of the situation was one of surprise. According to Stenerson, the majority of what students know about the situation comes from and is often dependent on their parents’ opinion.
“You just have to show people what’s happening and they can make up their minds for themselves,” Stenerson said. “I didn’t go out and tell people, ‘you’ve got to come here.’ It’s a matter of, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening. If you want to come, great. If you don’t, great.’”
And out they were.
Some held signs calling for more of the budget cuts to come from the top, some played makeshift drums while others led chants regarding teachers’ low pay.
Students and parents from middle through high school showed up, as well as members from both unions. Even local celebrity Cesar the No Drama Llama was out on Lancaster in support of educators.
“It’s really, I don’t know the word, inspiring, to see everyone come out here and support our students, support our staff,” Stenerson said. “Yeah, we’re here. We want to be seen.”
The district certainly took sight of them. According to SKPS Director of Community Relations and Communication Aaron Harada, Castañeda invited a number of the students inside for a conversation. The conversation lasted for about an hour, and Castañeda described it as “delightful.”