Dozens turn out, call for ‘fair and equitable pay’
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Negotiators for Ashland School District classified employees and the district have been unable to reach an agreement, so they’ll resume mediation Tuesday, Feb. 22, in an attempt to reach an agreement. The classified employees are currently working under terms of an expired contract.
Four or five dozen of the workers and their supporters rallied along Siskiyou Boulevard in front of Ashland High School midday Monday, waving signs amid occasional snowfall in 40-degree temperatures.
Organizers calling for “fair and equitable pay” for employees tasked with caring for the daily needs of students at every level of primary and secondary education dubbed the rally “Ashland Schools: Leaving Loyalty Behind.”
“We want equity,” Lisa March, president of the Ashland chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA), told Ashland.news at the rally. “What equity would look like is there are benefits that everybody in school district gets, except for our group. And that’s not equity.”
Classified employees with eight or more years of experience with Ashland School District earn less than $35,000 per year on average, and many classified workers are concerned over the prospective reduction in their cost of living increase over the course of the next three years.
“People who worked less than eight years, the average annual income is $22,000 (per year),” March said. A starting educational aide might make as little as $12,000 a year, said Lisa Gourley, president of OSEA, who was among rally attendees on Monday.
Gourley, who came from Sweet Home (about 40 miles northeast of Eugene) to hold a sign in support of the classified chapter, said the current scenario for Ashland classified workers is “decades in the making,” as conditions for classified staff have worsened statewide.
“Statewide, we’re facing the same issues,” Gourley said. “A living wage, because annual-wise, the income isn’t sufficient to be able to put food on the table for their families.”
Gourley said that statewide, districts are losing many classified employees to other jobs in the community.
“You can’t be some of the largest employers in our rural communities and not pay them enough to put food on their own tables,” she said.
March, who represents about 200 Ashland classified employees, said the district is offering the classified union a cost of living allowance (COLA) increase of 2.25%, which OSEA officials said is lower than other districts.
She said she believes classified employees have made a lot of concessions at the bargaining table and just “can’t keep going lower.”
“We agreed to a reduced longevity benefit,” March said.
March said classified employees are also being asked to agree to three years of low COLAs.
She added that the district doesn’t contribute matching funds to classified employees’ retirement funds, as they do to other district staff.
Classified employees also do not have the ability to sign up for disability insurance at a low cost, March said.
March said the district also doesn’t pay classified employees for Indigenous Peoples Day, which is observed as a school holiday with holiday pay for other district staff.
Among other grievances listed by the union includes it being “nearly impossible” to find substitute workers; staff time is stretched thin for important student work; it’s a struggle to keep up with cleaning needs already, and staff are worried about the impact of custodial retirements; and the district is down two bus drivers.
Sarah Wofford, who serves on the Board of Directors for OSEA and is president of Rogue Community College’s OSEA classified union, was also among the attendees.
“We’re out here supporting classified school employees to get a bargainable contract, one in which interests were shared previously and now they’re no longer being shared,” Wofford said. “And so we need support from the Ashland district, from the people, from the community, to call school board members and tell them that they need to follow through.”
Despite snow and cold temps, the rally drew support from teachers, fellow classified staff from Ashland and across the Rogue Valley.
Aneiage Van Bean, who is in her second year as an educational aide (EA) at Helman Elementary, joined in the rally with her daughter in tow. The two bundled up, grabbed a sign, and stood in solidarity with fellow classified workers and supporters on Monday.
“EAs take care of a lot of things so that the teachers don’t have to,” Van Bean said, “like chaperoning recess.”
She runs an accelerated math group and a reading group, where students can get more one-on-one time.
“As a pretty new EA, it’s also important that the people who have been there a long time are getting increases in their pay,” Van Bean said, noting she has learned so much from longtime employees.
March emphasized wanting to come to an agreement with the district that would result in better, more equitable pay.
“To be clear, our chapter, we don’t want a strike,” March said.
“We would only strike if were like forced,” she added, “we’d have to be really be cornered with no other options.”
The impact of a strike on the day-to-day operations of schools would be enormous, according to OSEA officials. March believes a strike would shut down in-person learning due to staff shortages.
That would mean employees who supervise lunches, work in attendance, as bus drivers, in the IT department, as classroom aides, as custodial staff, and as security would not be on campus.
“This is why we don’t want to strike,” March said. “Can you imagine how devastating for parents, for families that would be to have in-person school shut down?”
What occurs on Tuesday between school board members and the union in mediation will determine what will come next.
“If there’s no movement in mediation for one week, then either side can declare an impasse,” March said. “Once we’re at an impasse, both sides will have to file their final offer.”
After that, there would be a one-month “cooling off period,” and then the district can implement the changes without the union’s agreement, March said.
If a strike were to occur, the intent to do so could be declared by the union within the next one to two months.
“Because then we don’t have a contract,” March said. “Right now we’re still operating off our expired contract, but once they implement (an offer), it’s no longer a collective bargaining agreement.”
In an interview with Ashland School District Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove earlier this month, Bognadove spoke generally about the bargaining negotiations.
“We’re dealing with some challenging issues, but I’m optimistic,” Bogdanove told Ashland.news.
“We absolutely value the resiliency, the spirit, and the hard work that our classified staff are doing to make sure our kids are having the kind of learning experience we want to have.”
District officials were unavailable for comment on Monday due to the Presidents Day holiday.
Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feb. 22 update: Story was changed to indicate the Feb. 22 meeting is not the first mediated session in this negotiating process.