FILE — South Salem High School auditorium

The construction site for a new auditorium overlooks the athletic field for South Salem High School in Salem, Oregon. 

(The Center Square) – Oregon lawmakers are working on giving teacher bonuses for having too many kids in classrooms a required component of school-union negotiations, something that costs Portland taxpayers millions of dollars. 

A bill being considered in the Oregon Legislature this session, Senate Bill 580, would make class sizes a required component allowed in teacher union contract bargaining. The bill provides no increased state funding to schools.

Brad Cole, a student counselor and social studies teacher at North Clackamas School District, testified to state lawmakers in March that he feels under-equipped to teach 35 to 40 students at a time in his classroom.

Cole told the Senate Committee on Education he feels like a doctor with three hours to perform a six-hour surgery every day he steps into the classroom.

"You might be able to perform the surgery in that time, but what will the outcome be for your patients?" Cole said. "Is it really fair to them?"

Critics have called the bill an unfunded mandate that could outsource costs onto lower-income school districts when they can least afford to hire more teachers. 

If passed, Oregon would become the fifth state in the nation to enshrine class sizes as a compulsory subject of collective bargaining. It would join New Jersey, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts. 

Class size has been permitted as a topic of negotiation in teachers union contracts since 1995. It was a required topic for contract negotiations in 1989.

In Oregon, K-12 class sizes have grown almost every year over the past decade. Statewide, the median class size was 25 students during the 2019 school year. Sixth-grade classes average 26.5 students per class. Eighth-grade classes boast an average of 17.

study on the subject, Tennessee's Student Teacher Achievement Ratio project from the 1980s, found that 15 students outperformed classes of 22 students four years later.

In 2018, Portland Public Schools (PPS) set class size limits in its contract with teachers and agreed to payout bonuses to teachers instructing oversized classes. The limit is 24 students for kindergarten, 26 students for grades 1 through 3, and 28 for grades 4 through 5. Those bonuses amount to 3% of entry-level teacher salaries, equaling about $1,200 per year. 

The Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) reported to the Senate Education Committee in March that oversized PPS classes cost taxpayers some $2.5 million. Of that payout, it said, $1.8 million went to the top 25% of highest-earning teachers. The median PPS teacher salary is $59,782.

Funding for Oregon public schools comes from four sources: state income taxes, local property taxes, lottery money and federal grants. Property taxes accounted for more than half of the 2019 Portland Public Schools budget in Multnomah County, home of the highest property values in the state. 

"It is a bad policy to require school districts to bargain over penalty clauses in contracts for class sizes that are beyond their control," OSBA officials wrote in a statement. 

The bill passed the Senate last month by a vote of 17-11 with mixed reactions across party lines. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, joined the majority of Senate Republicans in voting "no" on the bill. State Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, was the lone Republican to vote "yes" on the bill. 

SB 580 awaits referral to the House Business and Labor Committee.