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Silver Linings for Silver Falls

A small but mighty local takes a dark past and turns it on its heels ­— winning arbitrations, school board elections, and a better future for its students and educators.

By Meg Krugel | Editor, Today's OEA

An atypical crowd has gathered in the choir room at Silverton High School. More than 100 educators­— and a handful of their children — squeeze in on the classroom’s built-in risers, creating a sea of red t-shirts. At the front of the room sits a long conference table, with two distinctive rows of chairs flanking each side of the table.

It’s late afternoon in September, and though it’s a choir room, there are no sounds of music here on this particular day. Instead — a single, clear speaking voice rings out. Definitive and strong, it’s the voice of Michelle Stadeli, the local president of Silver Falls Education Association, as she reads a statement prepared by the union to kick off the fourth bargaining session — an open session to the public — between Silver Falls EA and the district’s bargaining team:

“What we have prepared is based on listening sessions, surveys, and union-wide discussions of recent, documented events in this district. It is difficult to present these issues and be met with the response that these things do not happen here. They do. The fact that they do is evidenced by the fact that, since we began this process, there are four new faces on your side of the table...”

As Stadeli finishes the union’s statement, the team begins negotiations. That evening, ten of the members in the audience stand to give powerful testimony about the local’s lower pay in comparison to neighboring districts. To see 100 members of Silver Falls EA deeply engrossed in a bargaining session is almost surreal. Two years ago, involvement in the union was dismal. The local of around 200 people struggled to get even five or 10 members at a union meeting. Some of the schools in the local couldn’t recruit a single Building Representative to serve. As Stadeli tells it, at the time there was a culture of retaliation so pervasive from District upper management, educators dared not speak up or out about employee concerns.

A Dark History

This feeling of fear was really cemented during the 2017-18 school year, when two members who taught college-level writing at Silverton High School were sent letters of reprimand for tough grading procedures that some parents deemed unfair. The teachers, who were hired in 2014 and 2015, were co-teachers of an advanced writing course for “highly motivated and capable students” wanting to earn college credit, according to a complaint filed with Oregon’s Employment Relations Board in the Winter of 2018. The situation quickly spiraled from there – parent complaints led to an open investigation into the pair’s grading practices, leading building administrators to send a letter of reprimand about the educators to the Oregon Teacher and Standards Practices Commission (TSPC). Through it all, the teachers and their union maintained that their expectations fit the class description as a college-level course.

With the support of their union, the members filed a grievance, asking that the letters to TSPC be rescinded. At the time, Shari Read, a high school science teacher, was serving as the lone Building Rep for Silver Falls EA at Silverton High School, and represented these two members during the grievance period. “It was a really difficult time, but I did my best. I was the only one in the position and was going to meetings every day. The good thing is that people were starting to become aware of what was going on and there was real concern about members in our building,” Read says, explaining that the ‘hush-hush’ culture of years past was starting to crumble. “We started having union meetings immediately following our faculty meetings. It showed [administrators] that ‘we’re standing together, and we’re not going to take this anymore.’ I think that was a real turning point for us.”

Yet at the end of that school year, both teachers were involuntarily transferred to lower-grade schools. The case moved to arbitration, and after a careful review of administrator emails, a teaching evaluation, and motives spurring the involuntary transfer, the arbitrator ruled in the members’ favor, stating that the teachers had been penalized for formally disputing the actions of their principal – giving credence to any inner rumblings of a retaliatory culture in the district.

“(After the grievances were filed) the relationship between them changed so dramatically that it established a pattern by the school district of animus and intent to retaliate,” the arbitrator wrote in his 39-page decision. In the end, both members opted to leave the district permanently.

During this time, a probationary teacher at one of the district’s most rural elementary schools stepped up to take the helm as President of Silver Falls EA. Crystal Freer’s presidency as a probationary teacher felt both unprecedented and courageous, says Stadeli, who was serving as a Building Representative at Silverton Middle School at the time.

“Our previous President had been in the position for four years and when she stepped away, there was nobody who wanted to pick up that mantle. And then, Crystal Freer – a second-year probationary teacher – just stepped in when nobody else was willing. It was through her courage, and the courage of the two high school teachers, that the culture of our local really started to shift,” Stadeli says.

But the transition, of course, wasn’t easy. Once Freer took on the role of President, she experienced a stark change in her working conditions at the hands of district leadership – which many in the union saw as unnecessary retaliation. By the end of that school year in 2018, Freer made the decision to pursue a teaching career in another district.

Stadeli, who’d been teaching in the district since 2011, had just one year of Building Rep experience under her belt. But, having come from a family with deep ties to Silverton that spanned several generations, she decided it was her turn to run for President - albeit sooner than she ever expected.

“One of the things that I wrestled with in making that decision was the knowledge that the past two people who had been in the role of President were no longer working in our district. I knew it was a big risk,” Stadeli says. “But, I also felt like I had a couple of areas of protection. One was the fact that I’m homegrown – I’m well-known in the community. And, I have a solid reputation – I’ve always been well-respected by my peers, administrators, my students and parents.”

For Stadeli, a middle school social studies teacher, the risk was worth taking. “I felt like somebody had to do it – and that was me. This is my home, this is the district I’ve been a part of since I was a young kid. It’s really important to me that things function well and that people are treated well here. I wanted to make change for the better.”

A Turning Point

Following an uncontested run (and win), Stadeli and a new Silver Falls EA Executive Team (including members Frank Petrik as Vice President, Nancy Miller as Secretary, and Angi Miller as Treasurer) got right to work in repairing the harm that had been done from the upper management in the District office. The union’s fight on behalf of the two high school teachers had galvanized the membership base at the high school in new and unprecedented ways.

When Read decided to end her long stint as Building Rep at Silverton High School, she told her colleagues that “somebody needed to step up and be brave” to take on the title. The staff answered in force. Based on membership numbers, the building ideally would have had five or six building reps for the next year. According to Read, seven or eight members volunteered to serve. “For the first time that I can ever remember, we had to have a vote for Building Rep. Our people really stepped up to the plate,” Read says.

Over the summer of 2018, Stadeli and the Executive Team met often – laying out goals for the coming year. “We wanted communication to be an important part of our practice with our members, with administration, the School Board, and the community. We talked about transparency being really important – we knew that we were going to have tough conversations. We wanted to work as a collective – always putting multiple sets of eyes and ears on conversations that were going on.”

The local association had been told early on by the then-Superintendent, Andy Ballando, that they were not allowed to communicate directly with school board members without looping him in. “From the beginning, we didn’t feel like that was a healthy situation,” Stadeli says. “It felt very much like the Superintendent was in control of the school board, rather than the school board having some oversight of the Superintendent. We knew that the School Board elections coming up that year were going to be really important for us as a local. We weren’t going to be able to make a lot of these foundational changes with the dynamic that was in place.”

And so, a union who just one or two years ago could scarcely cobble enough members together to fill a conference table was now diving headfirst into organizing to ‘flip’ the school board in their favor. There were four seats up in the May 2019 primary – two of those candidates running unopposed. For the seats that were contested elections, Silver Falls EA organized a candidate forum with questions posed by members of the community. The local made endorsements for four candidates, and in the weeks leading up to the election, members canvassed and phone banked on their behalf. “We didn’t donate money, but we had a lot of people power standing behind them,” Stadeli says. On election day, three of the Association’s four endorsed candidates were elected to the Board. “It’s been really good so far,” she says of the flip.

Finding Common Ground

On the heels of a major political success for the union, the local moved into a season of bargaining over the summer of 2019. The Executive Team maintained a commitment to open and transparent communication with its members. “We ascribed to the OEA playbook – we were just really diligent about putting systems in place for our members so that they felt like they had a voice in their union,” Stadeli says. “We started with surveys and collecting personal email addresses. We learned that our members had really strong opinions about bargaining topics.” Chief among her members’ concerns were class size, conditions of facilities, and comparable pay scales to neighboring districts. “Those were the issues that really got people out of their classrooms and into our meetings – and there, they could see they weren’t alone. Other people in their buildings were feeling similarly. That sense of coming together as a collective was really empowering,” she says.

Walking through this experience as a young union leader has coalesced well with her position as a social studies teacher, as Stadeli guides her students in understanding social reform movements spanning the last two centuries. She remembers teaching about education reform around the same time that thousands of educators descended on the State Capitol last February for the March for Our Students on President’s Day. “I was able to talk with my kids about why we were doing that March… that it wasn’t about politics, it was just about getting better funding for their education. It was about advocating for them,” she says.

Opening the Bargain Up

Read, having since moved on from her Building Rep role, now supports the bargaining team in new ways – helping photograph events and attending bargaining sessions. “If it weren’t for those two gentlemen,” she says of the members she represented three years ago, “we wouldn’t be here. They were brave. And if they could do what they did, we can certainly be brave and stand up to demand respect.” The open bargaining format allows members across the district to do just that.

The local is using the outcomes over the past year as justification for some of their top issues, namely language changes. “When there is generic language in a contract, a lot of it is left up to interpretation. We know that when something is left to interpretation, it’s usually up to the district to decide what that ends up looking like,” Stadeli says, pointing to the arbitration cases and other testimonies given by members who were feeling fearful on the job, for one reason or another. “We felt very strongly that some significant language changes were needed because of our members’ experiences.”

Once again, upheaval was underfoot. Midway through the summer bargaining sessions, Ballando resigned his post as District Superintendent without notice. Dan Busch, who’d been hired as Assistant Superintendent just a few months earlier, quickly moved into Acting Superintendent and chair of the District’s bargaining team. “Dan is someone that I have felt has been really good to work with – he came in from outside our district and was kind of handed a hornet’s nest,” Stadeli says of the transfer in leadership.

On July 23, the two sides met for their first bargaining session with Busch as Superintendent. Stadeli recounts how that session had a completely different tone than every session prior – everybody around the table participated in the discussion, and though they didn’t’ make a lot of headway (the District had four new bargaining team members at that session who needed to come up to speed on the process), the union’s team felt optimistic as they moved toward the August negotiation date.

Yet, when it arrived, the August bargaining session left the Silver Falls EA negotiations team scratching their heads. The culture of collaboration had all but vanished in a month’s time. “The tone from the district was entirely different – it was like they came out ready to play hardball, and that felt disrespectful to our team,” Stadeli says. After caucusing, the union made the decision to recess until they could return to the table with their members back at work and available to attend the session.
And that brings us back to last month, when the local showed up en masse for the first negotiation of the 2019-20 school year. The opening remarks of the union’s team set the tone for a return to the type of session they saw in July, one in which the conversation is productive and all parties are heard. By the end of the evening, the teams reached agreements on several of the union’s priority proposals – with promises that they’d pick back up in October.

The session left the local’s bargaining team feeling energized – and better yet – truly supported by their members. It’s a feeling that’s been a long time coming – a slow stitching up of the deep wounds caused over the last few years. “We don’t know when or how this is going to end,” Stadeli says. “But I think that’s OK. The progress we’ve made – for our members and for our students – is really what’s worth highlighting.”

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