Woodburn School District and the Woodburn Education Association have gone through four mediation sessions but have yet to establish a renewed contract for district teachers, primarily differing on cost-of-living increases and class size.
Prior to the first mediation session, the two parties met 13 times between June of 2022 and Feb. 2, and they reached tentative agreements on many issues. They are expected to engage in another mediation session sometime in the third week of March.
Mediation sessions involve a third, neutral party that works toward a collective bargaining agreement.
WEA sources said the mediation hit a standstill after the district management “refused to budge on the issues of class size and compensation while sitting on $23 million in reserve funds.”
“After nearly 1 year of bargaining and over 8 months of Woodburn educators working without a contract, the district’s management team is still refusing to negotiate in good faith,” WEA President Tony Salm said. “The district likes to say we can’t afford to reduce class sizes or have a competitive salary, but the reality is district managers gave themselves a pay raise that’s 5 times higher than what they’re offering educators and are sitting on $23 million in reserve funds. This isn’t a budget issue — it’s a priorities issue.”
WSD Superintendent Joe Morelock said the teachers do have a contract, what they don’t have is a renewed contract. They are working under the same contract from the previous year. He acknowledged that WSD has been reluctant to use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) money on additional staffing.
“Some districts used federal funds to hire more staff, but those ESSER funds are going to go away,” Morelock said. “We have to look at the long-term health of the district and stay financially balanced.”
The ESSER funding was related to pandemic relief.
Morelock said district did cede on cost-of-living adjustments (COLA): it initially offered WEA members a COLA increase over three years of 2% the first year, 3% the second year and 2% the third year; that was increased to 3%, 5% and 4%, an overall increase from 7% to 12%.
According to a media release sent by Misha Pfliger of the WEA bargaining team, Woodburn Public Schools are experiencing an educator workforce crisis, failing to recruit and retain educators to the district because of challenging learning environments for students in crowded classrooms, and because of low pay for educators compared to neighboring districts.
“When we look at the cost-of-living adjustment, it’s a 3%, 5% and 4%, and those are very much in line with all districts around us, they are in line with what everybody else is offered,” Morelock countered.
The media release also said since the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year more than 63 educators, 19.5%, have resigned from Woodburn Public Schools.
In a statement issued on St. Patrick's Day, the district countered that despite reports to the contrary and a nationwide shortage of educators, WSD has excellent retention rates and very few vacancies. Since the start of the 2022-23 school year, Woodburn has permanently filled 23 of 27 open positions with licensed educators, and is currently using only four long-term substitutes.
Moreover, the district has given four retention bonuses, totaling $2,785 for each employee in the last calendar year.
According to a WSD website dedicated to the process, in each bargaining session when there are costs associated with the proposals, the WEA has refused to estimate the cost impacts of their items; instead, the District is expected to accept their proposals at face value.
"We must lead a district that is financially sound, stays within Board policy directives, and is also prepared for future budgetary issues," the webpage noted.
WSD sources estimate that WEA proposals would require hiring 60 additional classroom teachers and 81 non-classroom educators, such as specialists, substitutes and coordinators at a cost to the district of roughly $16.8 million per year. That figure is in addition to COLA and merit or experience-based salary increases.
The district website also notes that prior to the COLA increase from 7% to 12%, WEA was proposing a 22% increase over three years, which would cost around $8.2 million.
With a fifth mediation on the horizon, hopes are that a resolution will be in the works sooner than later.
“Our job is to educate the students and be fiscally responsible; there needs to be a balance there,” Morelock said. “At the end of the day we all have to come back to school and work together and do what’s best for the kids.”