Teachers in both Woodburn and Silver Falls have voted to authorize strikes after months of bargaining with their respective school districts.
Union officials say that of the 329 members of the Woodburn Education Association, 91% voted to allow a strike. In Silver Falls, 198 union members, or 88%, they voted in favor of the strike.
Woodburn and Silver Falls unions won’t go on strike immediately. Both sides have said they can’t reach a deal and have started a 30-day cooling-off period. Only after that can a strike begin.
Emily Rao is a social studies teacher at Butte Creek Elementary School in the Silver Falls School District. She works with fifth and sixth graders. She said that she is “worried” about a possible strike.
“Striking means we’re not in our building and we’re not with our students,” Rao said. “For some of our students, school is a safe place, so to be the reason to take that away is scary — but we also, as a union, are unified and willing to fight and strike if we have to.”
Pay is the main issue in the Woodburn district, which has 5,000 students and is north of Salem. Union leaders there have said that low pay and a stressful work environment have caused many teachers to leave the district, some in the middle of the school year.
According to an OPB story by Elizabeth Miller published on February 14, 2023, the number of kids enrolled in kindergarten through high school in public schools has dropped by more than 30,000.
Teachers say they still don’t have enough substitute teachers and have more work to do since returning to full-time school after doing distance learning.
In Silver Falls, a district with 3,600 students near Woodburn and Salem, the main problem is the size of classes at schools with many low-income students. Teachers at this Title I school have put on rallies to ask for help from the rest of the district.
The district’s Derek McElfresh Said, “We are still trying to find a solution that will work for both sides. We have another mediation session planned before SFEA could strike, and we are still hopeful that a strike can be avoided by continuing to negotiate and mediate.”
This week, McElfresh said that district officials brought up two ideas about class sizes during a mediation session. Both plans include a plan for extra support options and a committee process for when a teacher is “dissatisfied” with a class with too many students compared to the ratios set by the district.
The Silver Falls Education Association wants the number of students in each class to be included in the contract. Also, on SFEA’s bargaining team, Rao says that consistent numbers would mean a teacher would get support without asking for it. This can be especially helpful for the district’s newer teachers.
“Having those numbers in there evens the playing field and makes it equitable across all of our Title 1 school,” Rao said. “And it also gives teachers who are afraid to ask for help a guaranteed help at a certain point.”
The two unions are in talks with their school districts to agree on contracts. However, Oregon Education Association officials say a strike in Silver Falls could happen as soon as next week. Before the strike starts, the union must give the district 10 days’ notice.
The Woodburn School District didn’t say anything Thursday because talks with the teachers union continued.
The Salem Statesman Journal says that in 2020, teachers in Silver Falls were close to going on strike. At the time, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley backed them.