Woodburn School District and teachers at impasse


by: JEFF MCDONALD  - Cherene Mills, president of Woodburn Educators Association and teacher at Valor Middle School, wore light green Wednesday to stand up for teacher concerns in the district. With a special session taking place in Salem that could impact education budgets across the state, contract negotiations have stalled for the Woodburn School District and its teachers union, which are battling over a $2.3 million difference.

Issues include teacher salaries and the district’s contributions to their insurance coverage. Teachers want to be compensated for stagnant salaries and some of the extra work placed on them over the last five years.

At question also is the amount that the school district has in its coffers as Woodburn’s state legislator says many districts around the state including WSD are not planning for the full amount that has been budgeted.

Licensed teachers at Valor Middle School and across the district wore light green shirts last week as they rallied for support.

“We would like some adjustment or recognition of the fact that we have helped the district,” said Cherene Mills, a teacher at Valor and union president for the Woodburn Education Association. “Our members have been asked to do more and more.”

The district, meanwhile, says it must prioritize how it allocates state funding, which it says is insufficient to support significant increases in spending.

“Do I believe our staff has taken huge financial hits in the last five years?” said Chuck Ransom, superintendent. “Absolutely, I agree with them 100 percent. But what we’re trying to agree on is how fast we can come back from this and manage other priorities at the same time.”

District priorities include staff benefits and salary, materials for curriculum and instruction, technology upgrades and additional teaching and administrative positions, according to Ransom.

“Allocating too much in one area means cuts in others, and that would be untenable to staff, the community and our students,” Ransom said in a prepared statement. “As a result, the Woodburn School Board believes in building back these areas slowly instead of over-reaching and needing to make cuts again.”State Legislator Betty Komp criticized school districts around the state, including WSD, which opted to use the $6.55 billion figure as the basis for their budgeting process. That ignores the extra $200 million in PERS savings created at the end of the last legislative session, Komp said.

Many districts are taking a more conservative approach because they fear the legislature’s plan to increase school districts’ spending power by cutting some of their necessary contributions to PERS will be overturned in the courts.

“Local school boards have the authority to create their own budget,” Komp said. “We too as a legislature expect that when we pass a law, it will be implemented.”

Komp said she feels confident that the budget will stand up in courts. There also has been $200 million set aside in case the courts override the statutes, she said.

Ransom disagreed.

Many districts, including WSD, are waiting until the court makes that decision, he said.

“Very few districts and very few people who are dealing with the finance on a day-to-day basis share their confidence,” Ransom said. “It’s great to make that statement and to have the belief that things will turn out well in courts, but for me and most districts, I have an obligation not to take that risk. It could bankrupt our district.”

The Oregon Education Association, meanwhile, is one of the organizations filing suit against the PERS reforms.

Union leaders would like to see revenue reform without taking out of the PERS accounts, but since the legislature has already acted, they would like to see the district use the money.

“Our expectation is that districts will utilize the savings from the PERS adjustments to bring their budgets back,” said LeAnn Traylor, a consultant to the Woodburn Education Association.

The district’s ending fund balance last year raised some controversy. At its regular meeting in April, the school board voted to reduce the ending fund balance for the 2013-14 budget cycle from 10 percent to 5 percent with a 1 percent contingency fund.

Ransom said at the time that reducing the amount the district carries over to the next school year helped stave off more planned cuts to school staff.

The union president Mills said she would like to the district use more money from its ending fund balance to pay teacher salaries.

“We probably have a disagreement in how the funds are allocated and the ending funds balance that the school district tries to maintain,” Mills said. “If they want us to do everything they’ve asked us to do, we want fair compensation.”