What to know about teacher union negotiations, strike possibilities for Salem-Keizer schools

Teachers in the Salem-Keizer School District could go on strike after spring break if they don’t reach an agreement with district leaders. But negotiations are continuing, with both sides saying they hope to avoid that outcome.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association and the school district submitted final offers to a state mediator Thursday. That comes after teachers last week declared an impasse, a formal declaration that progress had stalled in negotiations.

An impasse is the first step toward a strike, but teachers have to wait at least 30 days before going on strike under state law. The union has informally polled members about their willingness to strike but has not yet asked for a formal vote.

Here’s what issues are on the table, and what happens next.


Union final offer

District final offer

What issues are at stake?

Several major issues remain unresolved in the contract: pay raises, teacher preparation time, how the district handles large class sizes, and how full-time work is calculated for teachers.

The district’s proposal is a 6% cost-of-living raise this year and 3.5% next year.

The teacher union has proposed a 7% raise this year and 4% next year.

The district has said it cannot spend more than it’s offering on pay raises in light of the significant budget cuts facing schools next year. Both pay proposals would make this year’s raise retroactive to Jan. 1.

Both sides have agreed on a majority of the contract, with tentative agreements signed on 17 of 21 sections. That includes agreement on proposals intended to address the high rate of injury from students assaulting educators.

What does each side want on class size?

Neither side has a proposal that would significantly reduce class sizes or caseloads for workers like school counselors in the next two years. 

Both have proposed a committee that would meet to review class sizes and consider solutions for larger classes, like overage pay for teachers, adding classroom assistants or redistributing students. The district’s proposal would have a committee only for elementary school that meet as in the fall, while the union proposal would cover all grades and meet throughout the school year.

Class size targets are the biggest sticking point. Teachers say they’re unable to give students individual attention and meet a wide range of needs when they have upwards of 30 students in one class.

The union wants to spell out ideal class sizes and caseloads in the contract, something union leaders say is a first step toward reducing sizes in the future, even if it doesn’t hold the district to meeting them in this contract. District leaders have staunchly opposed defining ideal class sizes in a contract.

“We understand that there are budgetary constraints,” said Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, during a Thursday news conference. “We’ve never had class size language so it’s going to take some years.”

“Adding class size caps in our contract would be irresponsible in this budget climate,” said Superintendent Andrea Castañeda in an email. “The adjustment of class size ratios belongs in the annual budgeting process, not in a contract.”

The district proposes setting aside $300,000 per year for extra pay for elementary teachers with large class sizes, while the union proposes $400,000 that would be available to teachers in all grades.

How much would the proposals cost?

The district put the cost of its proposal at $55.2 million over two years. The union’s proposal is $72.3 million.

It’s not clear, however, what accounts for the large difference. Each side calculates its own costs when submitting its proposal.

The union is seeking a higher cost-of-living increase, but other disputed issues are about work conditions and generally have a smaller price tag. In several places, each side’s final offers report different costs for the same proposal.

The district calculated the cost of a one-time bonus to all employees at $16.1 million, for example, while the union put the cost at $17.8 for the same bonus paid to the same people.

Aaron Harada, district spokesman, said the district’s calculations are based only on employees in the district general fund, which includes most teachers, and did not otherwise explain the large cost difference.

Why is defining full-time teachers a major issue?

Disagreements between the union and district over teacher workload calculations date back to the start of the Covid pandemic, when teachers taught classes online and calculations of full-time workload shifted in the face of drastically different schedules.

In 2022, a judge found the district had committed an unfair labor practice by changing its workload calculations and ordered back pay for teachers affected by the change. Now, both sides are trying to cement their positions in a contract.

The union wants teachers’ full-time status defined by how many classes they teach, since each additional class requires more time to plan lessons and grade papers — work that often happens on evenings and weekends. That matters because it determines how much extra money a teacher is paid if they “sell” their preparation period, effectively working more than full time for additional money.

The district wants to define full time based on the number of hours an employee works. Castañeda said that’s the only practical way to standardize schedules, since not all licensed workers covered by the contract teach periods. Elementary school teachers typically teach a  single class, and the contract also covers teacher mentors, counselors and speech language pathologists, who all work different schedules.

Union leaders have raised concerns that the district’s proposal would allow the district to treat and pay an educator as part time while requiring full-time work, by simply scheduling a teacher to show up at school when classes start and leave when they end. That effectively would force the teacher to do all their preparation and grading on their own unpaid time.

Castañeda said the district has no desire to do that and added specific statements in the final offer intended to alleviate those concerns. Under the district’s final offer, a teacher selling their preparation time would be paid for an additional 30 minutes per week in addition to time teaching the class.

“We have no desire to deprive employees of their guaranteed preparation time or to suggest that 100% of teacher time is student-facing,” she said.

Scialo-Lakeberg said while she was happy to see some movement from the district, the latest offer still won’t fly with teachers.

“It’s still not acknowledging the workload that comes with teaching every class,” she said.

Will teachers strike?

That’s not clear. Union leaders said Thursday they still hoped to avoid a strike. 

“We are in a different situation than a lot of other districts because we are close,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

But the union on Tuesday asked members to sign a strike pledge. Scialo-Lakeberg declined to share an exact number who signed, saying hundreds of members are still voting. She said members so far are “overwhelmingly committed” to authorizing a strike if workload issues and full-time teacher definition aren’t resolved.

What happens next?

After submitting final offers, there’s a 30-day cooling off period under state law. Meantime, negotiations can continue. The district and the union are still meeting to negotiate on Thursday, Feb. 29, with another session scheduled for the week after.

After the 30-day period, teachers could go on strike. Before striking, the union would take a vote among members and give the district notice.

The end of the cooling-off period falls during Salem-Keizer’s spring break, so the earliest possible strike date is when school is scheduled to return from break on April 2.