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Ashland schools’ classified staff pushing for completion of contract negotiations

During a school board meeting on Valentine’s Day, several classified employees of Ashland Public Schools spoke against a virtual backdrop of hearts with the words “Love Classified Staff.”

However, their stories of stressful jobs that earn a paycheck insufficient to help raise their families was anything but a token of affection.

Becky Sniffen, library assistant at Helman Elementary School, was the first to speak. She detailed her many duties, both paid and volunteer, and said that in 2021 she earned $22,000 while raising two kids.

“This is not a living wage,” Sniffen said during the board’s public comment period. “I love the staff, the students and the work that I do at Helman, but this contract dispute has made me think really long and hard about the amount of work that I do compared to the amount that I am compensated.”

She was referring to negotiations between the district and classified employees union OSEA Ashland Chapter 42 for a collective bargaining agreement. The previous agreement expired in July of 2021.

Despite President’s Day as a holiday for schools and most workplaces, Ashland’s classified staff does not plan to sit around at home. Some have planned to demonstrate from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in front of the district’s offices at 885 Siskiyou Blvd.

The district’s classified staff consists of 172 employees working more than 30 hours a week, plus another 46 working less time than that. But Sniffen said those numbers are the result of a serious decline in classified employees since July.

“The majority of those have left to seek higher wages in other places,” Sniffen said. “It says that there are better jobs out there. We certainly are hoping to have a contract that lures people to work here and stay here.”

Sniffen’s comments came the same week the school board approved a resolution for Classified Employee Appreciation Week, March 7-11 — an item she noted in her comments to the board.

“I do not need or want coffee or chocolates, pastries or emails about unity or self-care for Classified Appreciation Week,” Sniffen said. “I want to be treated like a valued member of the district and so want and need and deserve a fair contract.”

Lisa March, a custodian and Chapter 42 president, said both parties agreed to extend the agreement for another year, with full contract negotiations to begin this spring.

“We haven't had full contract negotiations since 2018,” March told the newspaper in a text. “Now in mediation, the district is proposing we put off full contract negotiations for another three years.”

Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove told the Mail Tribune this week that the district and classified employees are currently in mediation. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 22.

“We are continuing dialog (sic) in good faith and I have confidence in the process,” Bogdanove wrote in an email.

But Sniffen said in a phone interview she does not feel the same way.

“I do not have faith right now in district management that this will end in a way that is favorable to its lowest-paid employees,” she said. “(But we can) absolutely keep trying.”

Asked if a strike was possible, Sniffen said it has been discussed among union members, but it’s not something any of them want to do.

"It’s not an easy decision, and no one wants it to come to that. The entire union membership would vote on this question if it comes to that,“ she wrote in a text. ”Let’s hope Ashland district management doesn’t push us into that decision.“

A handful of other classified employees used the school board’s public comment period Feb. 14 to speak. Bogdanove said it was unusual in the sense that typically an OSEA local chapter representative is the one to make a report to the board.

March spoke in favor of classified staff during the meeting. She expressed dissatisfaction in the district’s apparent rejection of the union’s counter-proposal for a contract.

“Now, it feels like the district management is back-pedaling on what they said before were shared interests,” March said. “I’m fed up with bargaining against ourselves.”

She mentioned pay consistent with the cost of living in the valley and the ability for certain school employees to get a match on their retirement savings.

“The district management rejected this part of our proposal — the reason they gave was annual costs. But that’s looking at it from a budget expense lens,” March said. “Let’s look at it from an equity lens. Every employee should be offered the same benefit options to save for their retirement — especially classified staff — because they have lower pay and have to work years longer to earn and save enough to retire.”

The district’s rationale on how it offers retirement benefits amounts to classified staff being looked upon as “less valuable,” she added. But if the district decided to provide equal opportunity to classified staff’s access to retirement programs, March said, it would help Ashland schools in the long run.

“By investing in your employees, you dramatically increase the retention of your quality and experienced staff,” said March.

Bogdanove did not seem bothered by the uptick in classified employees speaking when he spoke about the contract negotiations in his typical report to the board. He began by saying he has “tremendous respect” for those employees, many of whom he has known for a while.

“I know that it’s stressful the length and the time that we’ve spent trying to come together in bargaining,” Bogdanove said, “but I truly believe that both sides are working with the best intent. … My hope is that we'll come to a resolution soon that reflects the value we have for our classifieds. They really do make a tremendous difference.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.