District, teachers not on same page at bargaining table

The Philomath School Board faced a whole lot of red on Thursday night during its regular monthly meeting. The school district and the teachers union have not yet agreed on a contract through several months of negotiations.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, Clemens Primary School kindergarten teacher Charlene Opheim read a letter to the board and superintendent that outlined concerns and alleged that the district does not value its educators. Filling the room behind Opheim were several wearing red — symbolic of the “red for ed” movement that stresses public support for education.

The school district and Philomath Education Association last met at the bargaining table on Oct. 11. Another meeting will reportedly occur in early November.

“While employers around the state are increasing compensation in order to hire new employees and retain valuable staff, you are enticing us with a value that cannot keep pace with the price of living,” Opheim told the board. “You are telling me your anecdotal numbers and approximations have more weight than the simple facts.”

Opheim followed with what she identified as statistical facts related to the rising cost of groceries, gas, housing, energy and inflation. And as far as work in the classroom, she said, “It is Oct. 21 and I am exhausted. My colleagues are exhausted. This is a fact.”

The five School Board members and Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday did not immediately respond to the comments during the meeting, which is not unusual with that time set aside for the public to air their views.

Questioned after the meeting, Halliday said the negotiations started at the end of last year.

“There were some questions that we had asked in looking at some language from the beginning that has not made it a quick process,” Halliday said. “And then there’s been some back and forth about a number of changes … and what that means and what that looks like.”

Opheim said the district does not truly understand what teachers have gone through currently and over the last 18 months.

“You are telling me to increase my hours, increase my workload, increase my risk and my family’s risk of serious health implications,” she said. “And you are telling some to continue to work in a toxic environment but to do it with literally less pay and less respect.”

PEA representative Len Cerny had similar comments during a report to the board that it’s been a hard year so far, giving examples of the impact that COVID has had on himself, teachers and students.

“It’s understandable that across all the schools, we have teachers really struggling with additional workloads, additional demands and concerns, all kinds of things going on in our schools,” Cerny said, “and definitely we would like to have some things taken off our plate.”

Although working conditions and various other issues factor into the teacher union’s grievances, it’s a proposed pay raise that appears to be a primary sticking point.

“It is time to start bargaining in good faith knowing that we are valued,” Opheim said while reading the letter to the board. “So yes, I am concerned, very, very concerned. We have been demoralized long enough by those that do not ever step foot in a classroom. I call upon you, all of you, that have been elected by our community members to take this opportunity to talk to the educators in this district and to ask the tough questions because we do, we do have value and it is time for the district to show it.”

Halliday said it’s a matter of the financial limits that the district faces amid the after-effects of the pandemic.

“We’ve already taken money from our PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) reserve to be able to take care of shortfalls in order to balance the budget this year,” Halliday said. “And we don’t know what a downturn in enrollment will do or will mean in terms of our general fund dollars right now. We’re really just trying to be fiscally prudent in where we are.”

Halliday added, “There’s no question that our teachers work hard and there’s no question we value them. It’s what’s affordable at this point to be able to do.”

Toward the end of the meeting during time for board members to speak, Rick Wells thanked the staff for all that they do and showed appreciation for the teachers that showed up at the meeting to voice their opinions.

“It doesn’t go unheard and we will deal with it,” Wells said. “We understand the hardships … there’s people that are not in the education realm that are going through some of the same things and it’s hard on everybody — this COVID thing.”

Board member Joe Dealy had comments along the same lines.

“The staff works so hard — all of the staff,” Dealy said. “I stopped subbing as of last year and not being in the school, I just can’t even imagine what they are going through.”

In other news out of the Oct. 21 meeting:

• The board approved Christopher McMorran and Shelly Brown to fill two vacant seats on the Budget Committee with Terrence Ball to serve as an alternate.

• Halliday reported that the Clemens Foundation opted to discontinue four-year tuition scholarships to the top two senior swimmers, which have been in place since the 1960s. Look for more information in an upcoming story.

• Bill Mancuso, director of finance and operations, updated the board on a situation involving a district boundary change with Corvallis and an equalizing payment to account for tax proceeds that were misdirected to the Philomath School District by the Benton County Assessor’s Office. As such, PSD will pay the Corvallis district $34,085.57 for the tax years between 2009 and 2019. Mancuso said a payment plan would be worked out.

• A listing of personnel changes showed that the district has hired Kings Valley Charter School Executive Director Jamon Ellingson as a middle school success coach effective Nov. 15.

• The board had an extended discussion about a proposed out-of-state travel request by the PHS boys and girls basketball teams, which would like to compete in a tournament in Alaska in December. The issue at hand related to what would happen if a Philomath player tested positive for COVID while on the trip and was not able to fly home with the team. The board voted to approve the trip pending an approved COVID-response plan.

• Halliday reported that all current staff members in the district have met vaccination requirements, something that’s unheard of in other districts.

• The board heard several reports on various other topics, including details of the district’s report card, an update on COVID numbers and the response, the scheduling of a Nov. 18 meeting with KVCS to discuss charter renewal, a report on compliance with public school standards and information on the Student Investment Account of the Student Success Act.

• The board met in executive session for one hour prior to the regular meeting to discuss labor negotiations and to review and evaluate the employment-related performance of an employee.

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