School district, support staff negotiate new contract

‘Our bottom line was a living wage for everyone’

In a unanimous decision last Thursday, the Vashon School Board voted to approve a new two-year contract between the district and 42-member support staff union, one that includes a considerable wage increase.

At the meeting, the board expressed gratitude for the work of the Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP) and characterized negotiations as a success, following the expiration of the previous one-year contract in August. But the new state education funding structure as a result of the McCleary decision — leaving the island with less money for teacher salaries than neighboring districts — looms large.

“It’s the product of a lot of hard work, and a lot of people coming together behind a single voice and saying, ‘You know what, this is a big problem for the school district,’” said Mary Reeves, president of VESP, crediting administrators and the board for their cooperation and persistence.

The district originally maintained that there were no available funds to support salary increases for VESP members, having already made concessions to support raises for teachers, but they were able to get it done through the work of the bargaining teams, according to Superintendent Slade McSheehy.

Pay for support staff under the terms of the new contract — which was updated with language regarding employee rights and the definitions of sexual harassment and assault — will begin retroactively, observing the agreement as effective in September.

Support staff are paid monthly, said Reeves, and their next paycheck will include back pay at the new rate — constituting a 16 percent overall wage increase across all VESP positions to start, and a 4 percent additional raise beginning next year.

Pay for the support staff on Vashon is based on experience. The lowest paid classroom paraeducator in Vashon earned $16.33 an hour, according to the last salary schedule, and now they will begin earning $19 an hour — slightly more than the highest paid paraeducators in Riverview or the Snoqualmie Valley. A Vashon Island School District library assistant with one year of experience will now earn about $19 an hour, which is 50 cents less than the hourly salary offered to the lowest paid library assistant in Bainbridge — but surpassing Riverview, which pays $16. In Tacoma, the lowest paid special education paraeducator now earns $16 an hour — before the wage increase, the same work on Vashon offered $1 more, but now the starting salary will be nearly $20 per hour.

Reeves said the increase will assist staff with families in time for the holidays and retain those struggling to get by as the cost of living on Vashon climbs higher.

“It will make their lives so much easier, and it will particularly help people who are trying to still remain on the island, to survive on the island. It’s going to make them able to stay,” she said.

Under the McCleary decision, the state must fully fund basic education. Legislators have reserved additional funding that was intended to support teacher salaries across Washington. They used median home values to calculate the amount to distribute to each community, ranging from 6 and 12 percent in some to 18 percent in others. But while many nearby districts will receive 18 percent for salaries next year, Vashon will receive only 12 percent.

Reeves said that the issue, called “regionalization,” is not faced by Vashon administrators alone and that VESP will join any effort in support of acquiring additional funds for teacher salaries. Staff and faculty love their work in the district, said Reeves — but something had to give.

“Our bottom line was a living wage for everyone,” she said. “We felt that once we got the rock bottom minimum wage [increase], we had accomplished many things, including for people who had been here for a very long time and for people with strong educational backgrounds. We felt that the district’s offer really met our needs.”

Zabette Macomber, the chair of the school board, said the McCleary decision fundamentally changed the working relationships between school districts and teachers unions in Washington.

“I think that the way the McCleary decision came out, the Legislature kind of set a potentially bitter climate, pitting the unions against administrations, which is not helpful because ultimately we all want the same thing,” she said.

According to Macomber, funding education across the state is much more complicated than the legislators behind the McCleary decision assumed it was.

“All the districts are so different, and so there is no one-size-fits-all, but that’s sort of what they did. It works for some, it benefited others, but it really did not help many of us, especially in the Puget Sound area,” she said.

Macomber added that as much as administrators want to support faculty and staff to the fullest extent possible, “you have to keep the doors open.” After negotiating a new contract for the island’s teachers last summer and raising their salaries, she said, the district had to dip into its materials and supplies budget to pay for it.

“We’re kind of taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other. So now our teachers are getting paid, but we’re back into the scarcity model because we don’t have enough materials. Now we have to say, ‘You can’t just go to the supply closet and get what you need.’”

Acknowledging that negotiations with VESP took longer than the union or the district would have preferred, she said the process was aided by mutual trust.

“That’s what helped us all along — we’ve built this relationship between the administration and the unions for a long time,” she said. “We went as high as we could, and they came down as low as they found comfortable, and so we found our sweet spot.”

Macomber noted that the stage is set for a confrontation with the Legislature next year during their upcoming session. Considering regionalization, she said, an 18 percent increase in state funding devoted to salaries would have “easily” supplemented the pay raise for Vashon’s teachers, as opposed to 12 percent.

“Now we go to Olympia, and we say we want to pay our employees a livable wage, and we need to balance our budget, and we can’t do both,” she said. “Either we get more money from the state, or we have to trim our budget.”

For the board, Macomber said that it was both frustrating and heartening to hear the testimonies of VESP members describing their work in the schools, as well as the challenges they face in order to keep doing it.

“I wish more people would have been there to hear the testimonies. We know how important the paraeducators are,” she said, adding that many in the district have children who work closely with them. “When they were saying, ‘This is what we do every day’ — we are just so lucky to have them.”

The full VESP contract and new salary schedule is available online at https://bit.ly/2AclHWX

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