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Phoenix-Talent classified staff get early raises

Deal that amounts to $1 to $2 pay increases went into effect in January

While most school districts don’t address wage adjustments for employees until contract negotiations are underway in the spring or summer, the Phoenix-Talent School District decided to get in front of that timeframe and issue $1 to $2 per hour pay increases to classified employees as a way to recruit and retain them amid challenging times.

The agreement, approved by the district and the Oregon School Employee Association Chapter 96, was solidified in December. Raises started hitting 143 employee paychecks in January, according to a news release.

Classified staff fill a range of positions, including secretary, electrician and groundskeeper. A Phoenix High School student manager named Christie Sanders, who also acts as the union’s president, applauded the developments in an Tuesday interview.

“It speaks volumes for our district and their desire to do right by their employees,” Sanders said, noting the district came to union members with the proposal. “Our staff was really excited about this.”

“Surprised” was also a word she used to describe her classified staff’s feelings, because they had only received stipends in the past that were equal to certified employees.

“For them to make this statement to actually raise our wages rather than just give us a stipend, our staff was ecstatic to see the value the district has in having them employed,” Sanders said. “We’re hoping to put this into the contract permanently as we go into negotiations this year.”

Those negotiations are expected to take place after spring break, from March 17-25, and Sanders is confident the union will prevail in its request.

In an interview Tuesday, Superintendent Brent Barry talked about the circumstances that led to the wage increases, saying that while it’s typical for the district to have a number of applicants for various positions at the beginning of the school year, that proved not to be the case this time.

“We just realized we’re competing against a job market that we weren't necessarily very competitive with to get applicants,” he said. “So we recognized that ... we needed to ensure we create a position with competitive wages. It made a big difference right away with our applicants coming in.”

He was not able to say how many more applicants applied for district jobs since the wage increases went into effect, but Barry was quick to note that the agreement also is meant to reflect a commitment to current classified employees.

“We wanted to make sure we honored the employees that have been here for a long time (who are) on the upper end of the scale, as well,” Barry said.

He noted how grant funding allowed Phoenix-Talent schools to increase the number of support staff working with lower elementary-level grades — the kinds of employees the district started thinking about back in December, when negotiations for raises were underway.

“It started off, really, by increasing the lower end of our pay scale, in some of our positions, but then when it came down to it, we decided to do the increase across the board,” Barry said.

The district examined “competitive wages” for similar classified positions regionally and took a look at overall budget numbers before settling on the $1 to $2 per hour figures.

“If we’re not filling a number of positions, that’s not coming out of the general fund,” Barry said. “We were in a position to make a fair and reasonable increase that worked for both parties (while) still being responsible with our funds.”

A little more than a week ago, classified staff with Ashland Public Schools celebrated their own victory — a four-year collective bargaining agreement that was reached after expensive and time-consuming mediation sessions. The agreement, impacting 218 Ashland schools employees, means wage increases for them — depending on their position — up to 2024.

Sanders’ and Barry’s comments come the same week Phoenix-Talent schools are taking time to honor classified staff through an official Appreciation Week.

“Our classified staff are critical to the operations that we do,” he said. “We hope they feel appreciated all year round.”

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