South Salem students lead community budget conversation

Organizers of the conversation Sofia Castellanos (left) and Noah Mayer (right)

Seated in the lower commons at South Salem High School, more than 50 members of the Salem-Keizer community gathered to listen to an open community conversation put on by three South Salem juniors, Sofia Castellanos, Noah Mayer, and Brycen Martin.

The reason for holding the event was simple, “We just want to support our teachers,” Castellanos said. 

The forum was held with support from the Salem-Keizer Education Association (SKEA) to conduct a student-led community conversation about the state of budget negotiations within the Salem-Keizer Public School District as well as a series of goals and ideal results for teachers that best benefit students.

“We wanted to work with the union to host a counter event so people can get both sides of what’s happening to have a better formed opinion for themselves,” Mayer said. 

Currently, the SKPS district is undergoing a budget crunch that has resulted in cuts proposed to save around $31 million by cutting things such as travel and supply budgets, according to SKPS Superintendent Andrea Castañeda.

Castañeda noted that more cuts may be coming in Spring 2024. 

The forum covered the size of classes, the large caseloads school staff such as nurses encounter, creating safer learning environments, reducing the amount of classes combined together, reducing the workload on teachers, increasing teacher compensation and allowing those licensed educators more autonomy when it comes to making decisions regarding school and district issues. 

The safety of educators has remained a point of friction as well as teacher’s salaries during the talks happening between SKPS and teacher’s unions. 

When asked how they acquired the information for the forum, Castellanos noted that “It’s a mix of [SKEA’s] data and our own outside research.”  

Mayer concurred describing how the information presented highlighted the issues that teachers felt strongly about.

“It’s purely what teachers feel,” Mayer said. 

When planning the forum, the pair described how the intention was to model the meeting after the “community talks” hosted by the school district last year as a way to bring more information to the community. 

“Our main thing [is] to inform and educate our community on the different perspectives regarding this big decision,” Castellanos said. 

The duo described how many feel the effects of these large budget cuts, especially students. 

“[A teacher’s] work environment is [a student’s] learning environment. If a teacher’s work environment is negative, that’s where we’re learning,” Castellanos said. 

The community conversation described issues with combining courses such as embedded courses or when honors students and regular-level students are placed in the same classroom using the same curriculum, an issue adding to the large class sizes in which Oregon has the fifth largest class sizes in the country, according to the National Council of Teachers of English.

Another issue brought up was the overworking of school staff and how positions like school nurses are overwhelmed leaving gaps in how well some students are able to receive care in school, straining a system here where there are already 3x the amount of students to nurses ratio as compared nationwide.

The current SKPS budget cut proposal includes the removal of five nursing positions in the district. 

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, described her elation when the students contacted her about this community talk.

Scialo-Lakeberg stated that some students were disappointed with the last district community listening session due to the seeming one-way style held by the district. 

Scialo-Lakeberg noted that talks between teachers and the district are ongoing and all parties are at the table “day and night” to find common understanding. 

One attendee, Ashley Carson-Cottingham, Zone 3 director on the Salem-Keizer Public School board, gave her support for the students at the forum.

She empathized with the issues the students presented, such as large class sizes, and described how more advocacy for students needs to occur at a state-level so as to secure more funding.

Carson-Cottingham described how current school funding levels did not come close to the amount needed to “Fulfill the duties of what society expects a school to provide for children.” 

For those interested in watching the forum visit, 

Conversation attendees Paula Doughty (left), Jule Rinault (center) and Bill Burich (right).
A group of the event attendees discussing information at the forum
SKEA president Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg giving credit to the efforts of the students who organized the event
Another group of forum attendees participating in the open discussion portion of the conversation
More than 50 people came to sit in, listen and learn more about the budget negotiations going on within the SKPS district

Contact Quinn Stoddard
[email protected] or 503-390-1051

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