Talking Issues in D.C

Every member of Congress from Oregon met with OSEA members last week as part of the American Association of Classified School Employees Fall Conference, including Senator Ron Wyden, center.

OSEA’s insistence that work shouldn’t hurt was emphasized by members during visits to Oregon’s congressional delegation this week.

They traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the American Association of Classified School Employees (AACSE) Fall Conference. OSEA Vice President Ma’Lena Wirth is president of AACSE, and OSEA was a founding group of AACSE.

Often members of Congress are out of town or otherwise unavailable, but OSEA President Tim Stoelb said every Oregon congressional member personally met with our members.

“That’s not at all easy to do with their schedules,” Stoelb said. “That speaks volumes to OSEA becoming more and more prominent on the national level.”

It can be both enlightening and disheartening to be reminded that classified school employees face the same issues around the country, Wirth said.

“We made an impact, but the reason was the people carrying the message,” Wirth added. “These are emotional and passionate messages, and our central focus was on the children.”

Specific asks included fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), removing the federal designation of schools as safe workplace — which would require school districts to report more employee injuries — and mandating inclusion of special education assistants in discussions about their students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP). Stoelb noted the fact that full-time equivalent rate of special education employees has decreased, while the number of students requiring services has increased.

“Congress has never funded IDEA like they are supposed to,” Stoelb said. “That results in staffing situations where, instead of being one-on-one or two-on-one with students who need a high level of care, you end up with a six-on-one where safety becomes a factor.”

Wirth said that elected officials and staff were shocked to learn that school employees were frequently getting injured by the students they served.

Other issues discussed included passing a school meals funding bill that would ensure summer meals for students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches. Reauthorization has been languishing in Congress for years, and the original proposal would also have lowered the income thresholds for free- and reduced-price lunch eligibility.

Yet Wirth added it’s also important to thank lawmakers for successes, such as the original school meals bill that OSEA is seeking reauthorization for.

This trip included an opportunity to meet with staff from committees that recommend funding for various programs.

“We discovered quickly we were speaking to friends,” Wirth said. “I felt the sympathy and the understanding.”