They’re volunteer positions, but it matters who serves on school boards, says UO labor professor Gordon Lafer, an incumbent at Eugene’s 4J district. The Labor Press asked him to explain why.
By SUZI STEFFEN
Why does the school board need union members?
GORDON LAFER: I’m just finishing my first four-year term, and based on that I can say that Board members’ collaboration and partnership with unions — especially but not only the K-12 unions — is critical. Every study over the last 50 years shows that the single most important factor determining kids’ educational success is how much money their parents have. Kids who grow up in poor or economically insecure homes do worse at school, no matter what else the school does. This means it’s important — for reasons of education, in addition to reasons of economic justice — for the Board to do whatever it can to support living wage jobs in our community.
What was your role in the contracts with district unions?
I helped lead the Board in negotiating a new contract for classified employees (OSEA) that raised the district’s minimum wage from $13.75 to $18 and that, together with an initial step increase, provided most employees a 25% wage increase over three years. This is an attempt to do right by employees, to make the district more competitive in hiring, and to enable more students in our communities to grow up in economically secure families. For EEA and OSEA, there are many critical places where the union’s interest and students’ interest overlap. I believe we will never get smaller classes unless class size is made a mandatory subject of bargaining. In the last legislative session, there was a bill to do this; in the end, there was a compromise that made class size a mandatory subject only for Title I (low-income) elementary schools. However, for all the rest of the schools, class size is still a permissive subject, meaning that if there is a progressive board majority, the board can voluntarily agree to bargain over all class sizes, even though it’s not legally required to do so. I hope that is what we’ll do in 4J in the next round of bargaining.
What about construction?
Supporting living wage jobs is also important for our high school graduates. Districts across the state are focusing on career and technical education (CTE) — because only a third of the jobs in the country require a college degree, and high schools have traditionally been overly focused on the college track. We launched a great construction education program where teams of students learn construction trades by building tiny houses for unhoused people. I think we can work more closely with the Building Trades Council at connecting this program to apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship programs.
What other issues does the school board address that affect local union members?
The single biggest problem for the school system is that it’s dramatically underfunded. Thirty-five years ago, Eugene class sizes were much smaller, and we had a lot more art, music, electives, etc. Oregon is now 45th out of the 50 states in class size. But the state is a lot richer now than it was 30 years ago. The reason we have worse schools even though the state is richer is because the richest people and biggest corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes. The share of Oregon income taxes paid by corporations is less than half now of what it used to be. As a result, working-class and middle-class families and retirees are paying a bigger share of taxes, and still seeing education for their children and grandchildren get worse. This isn’t something that a school board can do alone – it can only be fixed by the legislature in Salem. But school board members need to help lead that fight. And that fight has to be done in collaboration with the labor movement, because without that there’s no chance of legislation being passed.