While supportive of promoting education funding, the Klamath County School District is holding firm against a staff walkout planned for Wednesday, May 8.
The district will not close school that day, according to a statement sent to employees by KCSD superintendent Glen Szymoniak on Wednesday.
The walkout is being promoted as a day of action by union employees in the school districts, including teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, and other district employees.
The Klamath Falls City Schools District and Klamath County district employees aren’t the only ones taking part in the day of action. It is a statewide demonstration calling for the Oregon Legislature to increase education funding by $2 billion.
In lieu of walking out of school, unions are planning a Family Learning Expo at the Klamath County Fairgrounds with activities showcasing what could be possible with adequate education funding. But the county district is continuing to follow policy and employee contracts.
“The Klamath County School District Board of Directors, while supporting increased funding for public education, does not support actions that would interrupt learning for students or violate state laws, district policy, or district contracts,” Szymoniak said in a statement sent to all district employees.
“... While we share this goal, the district does not plan to close schools on May 8. It is a regular contract day for employees. Cancelling school would disrupt student learning and cause hardship for our working families.”
The statement was released on the same day as a county union meeting, where dozens of district union employees cast votes for and against participating in the day of action.
“Today was a day to get more information out and give people a voice,” said Jeff Sturgeon, a Mazama High School teacher and union president for county employees, following the meeting.
Sturgeon, who last week invited members of the county’s school board to the day of action, declined to speculate on the effort itself.
“It’s not what I think, and it’s not my opinion, it’s what our members want to do,” Sturgeon added.
Sturgeon said he wasn’t sure when a vote count would be completed.
City union employees are also expected to be polled by union representatives on their participation in the day of action.
City schools Superintendent Paul Hillyer plans to make a decision on whether to close city schools for the walkout based on information provided by a city schools union employee poll.
“That will totally drive whether we can conduct school on May 8 or whether we cannot, because I won’t be having school if it’s unsafe, because we don’t have enough adults on the premises,” Hillyer said.
“Some of it depends, too, on the schools themselves, individually,” he added. “If one school has everybody there, but another one has nobody there, that creates a situation at that other school that is unsafe.”
City schools’ stance
Hillyer is also uncertain how a proposed closure of school might affect athletics and other extracurricular activities.
“As the time gets closer, do we just cancel all of our extracurricular activities for that particular day, which we might have to do if one or both of the districts doesn’t have transportation,” Hillyer said.
“That’s one of the things that I really am kind of concerned about is if there is a walkout, just the extra challenge for parents to have to take care of their children on that day and a lot of them are working parents.”
Hillyer said he will give parents and guardians of students at least one week notice of a school closure. He said he’s never served in a district that participated in a walkout before, so the proposed event is new for him.
“I think we are on the same side as far as recognizing the great need for more state funding for education and the concerns we both have for not having the dollars to provide the services to our students, especially in our high-poverty community that they need to be successful,” Hillyer said.
Education funding from the Oregon Legislature used to hover between 40% to 45%, according to Hillyer, and now is down to roughly 30% of the budget. Hillyer said districts like the Klamath Falls City Schools District have experienced the decline in state funding firsthand, with shorter calendar days and limited extracurricular activities due to reduced funding.
“K-12 education has not been prioritized as it used to be in this state,” Hillyer admitted.
Even still, Hillyer emphasized the school district must follow state law and district policy.
“We cannot support a walk out action by our employees,” Hillyer added. “That goes against state law and goes against our contract and therefore is not strategy that we can support as a school system or school board.”
Shelly Hunt, human resources director for county schools, said this is the first time she can recall a walkout occurring in the district since 1985. She was a teacher with the Klamath County School District at the time of the walkout, which involved teacher wages instead of overall state funding.
“It was awful,” Hunt said. “Teachers pitted against teachers just because they struggled with the decision. It’s an action that takes a long time to recover from, which is part of what I worry about on May 8. It’s damaging to relationships and it takes a long time to repair those.”
Hunt said regardless of the proposed walkout centering around state funding needs, she believes the perception from the outside looking in is still the same.
“I think it’s the perception of people either reporting to work or not reporting to work,” Hunt said.
“That’s why I would encourage our (union) leadership to consider different options.”
Hunt emphasized the city schools have a great working relationship with union leadership and have in the past worked through challenges. She hopes the same can happen before May 8.
“Some districts are doing walk-ins where they’re starting in the morning with a rally and then school starts,” Hunt said. “Some districts are doing give back days to the community where that includes administration and teachers and classified folks and kids and families to really let Salem know we need some different funding sources. So we’re hopeful that our leadership will look at alternative options that don’t disrupt the school day.”
Hunt said disciplinary action for city school employees could look like deducted time and/or letters of reprimand if needed. Individuals with available personal leave can use those days on May 8, according to Hunt.
“Regardless of what happens on May 8, anybody who comes to work on May 8 will be paid for it,” Hillyer said. “Anybody who does not will not be paid for it.”
When asked, Hillyer said the county’s response to the walkout will likely have little influence on his decision other than that both districts share substitutes.
“If we have a general walkout, it’s going to be more difficult for either district to have enough subs to cover things,” Hillyer said.
“I hope our two districts kind of have the same outcome on this issue. There’s very little we can do to control that,” Hillyer added.
State Sen. Dennis Linthicum (R-OR) has not responded to an email regarding education funding as of press time. State Rep. E. Werner Reschke (R-OR) did not personally respond to an email sent by H&N but his staff said he would not comment on the issue at this time.
OEA is anticipated to hold a statewide member assembly Monday, April 29 to make final recommendations regarding the union day of action May 8.
For more information on the walkout, visit www.oregoned.org.