It was hard for teachers Laura Bassani and Karin Heley to carry on a conversation Wednesday afternoon as they stood on Pacific Boulevard in Albany, car horns blaring. They were the hype crew.
“We think it would be nice for them to hear the cars honking,” Bassani said, gesturing over the fence and in the direction of the recess field at Central Elementary School in the distance, where spots of red were starting to appear.
Those spots would become groups and those groups would become a crowd of about 250 educators decked out in red shirts, joining in Wednesday's statewide demonstrations advocating for education funding.
“This is not pie in the sky, this is the bare minimum,” said Oregon Education Association representative Ken Volante. “This is the bare minimum and they’re $2 billion short right now.”
Teachers and educators took to the streets throughout the state — some walking out and causing school closures in places like Portland, where 500 teachers said they would participate and an estimated 25,000 people massed in Tom McCall Waterfront Park for a rally before marching through downtown — to encourage the Legislature to pass the Student Success Act. It would invest $2 billion in Oregon’s K-12 system through a tax on certain businesses that make more than $1 million a year.
Helen Jacobs has been the president of the Greater Albany Association of Classified Employees Union for 16 years and in the district for 24 years.
She has a member who manages a school garden at Calapooia Middle School and harvests the vegetables to make salsa to sell for donations to take students on field trips.
“It’s not OK anymore,” she said. “The average pay for classified personnel is $14,000 a year. They’re bus drivers, food service workers, instructional assistants, and they don’t leave. They take two or three other jobs because they know the students need them. This isn’t about PERS (the state's public pension program), it’s about educating the kids.”
Sue McGrory, Greater Albany Education Association president, agreed.
“In the media, they hear about PERS — that’s not what this is about. It’s about funding all schools,” she said.
The Albany event was held after school hours to minimize disruption to students and parents. It gained the support of the school district with Superintendent Tim Mills and Assistant Superintendent Lisa Harlan present as well.
GAPS school board member Frank Bricker donned red and spoke to the crowd, noting that he had been on the board 25 years but also had spent the previous three years on the budget committee.
“That was 28 years ago. Twenty-eight years ago, we had Measure 5. Anyone younger than 28, your entire life has been spent with poor school financing,” he said. “It’s been 28 years of ‘Yeah, education comes first, but we’re not going to pay for it.’ ”
Measure 5 passed in the early 1990s and put limits on property taxes; schools were limited to $15 per $1,000 assessed value.
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Corvallis educators also joined the statewide demonstration, opting to rally in front of schools before the start of classes and at local businesses after school.
“If our community wants to know about disruptive, violent behaviors happening in my own children's classrooms, come ask,” said Christa Schmeder, Corvallis High School teacher and vice-president of the Corvallis Education Association, via email.
“Come ask how many room-clears our kids are experiencing. Come ask how many acts of vandalism and violence our students are witnessing each week. Come ask how that is already affecting our test scores, even in elementary schools," she said. "Also ask us how much we love our students that are causing the disruptions. ... We probably can't tell you how much personal money and love we have given to them to try and alleviate their hurt or need. We can tell you we need more funding for mental health and trauma-informed counseling services at every level. We can tell you that our classified support staff are drastically underpaid and overworked.”
Jacobs, of the classified employees' union, said when she first started in the district, classified employees accounted for 1,000 of the total number of employees. Today, there are approximately 1,100 total employees and just over 500 of them are classified.
“Our kids deserve better,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to cut textbooks, our students shouldn’t have to share textbooks or worry about whether or not there’s pencils in the classroom.”
For some students, cuts mean more than supplies, it comes down to whether or not they can go to school.
Tonya-Jo Robinson described her son Owen as medically fragile, but it didn’t stop the pair from rallying Wednesday afternoon. She said she was lending her support as both a classified support staff employee and a parent.
“It’s the difference between him being able to attend school or not,” she said. “They do the bare minimum because that’s what they have the funding for.”
McGrory said, “We’re working to get community support. We want them to understand what the issues are so they can reach out to their elected officials.”
The crowd left the field at Central Elementary at 4 p.m. after speakers encouraged them to continue contacting lawmakers, and marched to the highway overpass about a block away. Standing in a sea of red in the middle of the bridge, a teacher called out to the street below — where a student was waiting for the traffic signal with his bike — “Where’s your helmet?”
“My members can’t keep the lights on or pay for medication, but they stay because educators are educators, and they care,” Jacobs said.
The walkout follows a wave of teacher activism that began in West Virginia in 2018 and was followed by Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere. Teachers in North Carolina and South Carolina rallied at their respective state capitols last week to seek more money.
Unlike other states, Oregon teachers are not seeking pay raises or other union demands. They say they're walking out to highlight classroom conditions and how years of low funding has affected learning opportunities.