School district, support staff continue contract negotiations

Last week on Wednesday, members of one of the island’s unions stood on the corner of Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road with signs declaring what they want: a livable wage for working in Vashon’s public schools.

Taking part in the informational picket were members of the Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP), which is in negotiations with the district for a new contract. The previous one-year contract expired Aug. 31, and the 42 members of the union have been working without a contract since then. This summer, similar negotiations took place across the state, bringing wage increases to educators after legislators provided $2 billion in the last two years to public schools to comply with the McCleary decision, which mandated that the state fully fund basic education. Vashon’s teachers’ union agreed to a 10 percent raise earlier this year, but it has been a difficult process in many communities, and an unprecedented number of strikes resulted. Across Washington, educators have asked for the better pay many legislators had promised, and district officials have contended with complexities of a new funding model that, for many, included more state funds but reduced local levy and federal revenues.

Now, VESP leaders and members say it is their turn for improved wages and time to change the district’s funding priorities.

“We are asking for equitable wages,” said VESP President Mary Reeves, stressing that the members — office managers, paraeducators and library assistants, among others — do not feel they are respected for their work and are the lowest paid employees at the district. Some are leaving Vashon, she said, unable to afford to live on this increasingly expensive island on their current wages.

“My impression is that the board does not value classified staff,” Reeves added. “If they do not have respect for us, if they do not think it is important to support their staff as they have their teachers, then there is a real problem.”

At the school board, however, Chair Zabette Macomber said the limiting factor for wages is not a question of respect, but of finances.

“They should get more money. They work really hard. The jobs that they have tend to go unappreciated, which is ironic because they are really, really appreciated,” she said. “It is frustrating. We all know how important the (VESP members) are, and we don’t have any money.”

Superintendent Slade McSheehy, new to the district this year, spoke similarly, saying that one of his priorities now is to create a cultural shift, so that classified staff feel as important as teachers. Next year, he said, the district will negotiate VESP’s contract first.

“We are a family. We have to be together. How do we do that? Part of that is through salaries,” he said, adding that he is “looking for every penny” for wage increases. “My intent is to honor them.”

During the negotiations with the teachers’ union earlier this year, the educators and district officials disagreed on what the McCleary funding plan means for the district financially; that disagreement is occurring in these negotiations as well.

The district’s budget is nearly $23 million, up about $1.4 million from the last academic year’s budget, a typical increase, district officials say. For this year, the state provided nearly $2.5 million for Vashon’s public schools, but that increase was offset by a $700,000 decrease in local levy funds and a $340,000 reduction in federal money, bringing the district back to a $1.4 million increase. After the teachers’ contract was negotiated, former Superintendent Michael Soltman said that the district would cut its program budget to help offset some of the higher salary costs. Moreover, the district’s Executive Director of Business & Operations Matt Sullivan is projecting a $300,000 deficit next year. Macomber has called it a return to the scarcity model at the district.

Adding to the financial squeeze, McSheehy said, is that enrollment is down this year by about 24 students, which equates to about $150,000 less for the district. Final numbers might be different than that, he said, with more solid enrollment figures expected in October.

“As tight as we run it, everything in the budget is a big deal,” he added.

VESP leadership, assisted in the negotiations by the Washington Education Association, however, disagrees with the district’s assessment of its position, saying the approximately $2.5 million the state provided for the district was intended for wages and that there is plenty to pay the VESP members a professional wage for their work.

“Our analysis of the budget shows us that they have decided their priorities are such that we get the bottom, we get the leftovers. We are sort of the loose end on the fiscal calendar,” Reeves said.

Contract negotiations are not public, so both sides are limited in what they can say, but district officials and VESP leaders characterized the pace of the process differently last week. McSheehy said he believes progress is being made in the negotiations, with the distance between the two sides growing smaller, a sign that both parties are listening to each other and taking into consideration each other’s perspectives. But he made clear there is more work to do.

“I am not satisfied with the progress because obviously I am not going to be satisfied until we come to a resolution,” he said.

VESP Secretary Elizabeth Parrish, however, said union members are not pleased.

“We would say we are far apart because we are not near getting our members a living wage,” she said. “We want the majority of our members to get a wage that will allow them to be able to live and work in this community, doing what we love, which is working with kids.”

Earlier this year, Reeves said VESP’s goal is to ensure that no VESP member makes less than $20 per hour — that is still true, she said.

Both sides say they look to other districts during salary negotiations. McSheehy said districts like to be above average in what they pay, but not at the very top. In that position, he said, it would be questionable if the districts are being good stewards of tax dollars. District officials say that districts comparable to Vashon include Bainbridge Island, Tukwila, Snoqualmie Valley and Riverview, which includes students from Carnation, Duvall and the surrounding area.

Online salary schedules from those districts, for paraeducators — which make up more than half of VESP’s membership — show that the 2018-19 lowest starting salaries are $15.98 per hour in the Riverview district, $16.07 in Snoqualmie Valley, $19.50 on Bainbridge and $23.29 in Tukwila. On Vashon, with last year’s salary schedule still in use, the lowest starting wage for a paraeducator is $13.45 per hour. Beginning secretary positions in the other schools are $17.64 in Riverview, $18.67 in Snoqualmie Valley, $22.80 on Bainbridge and $24.51 in Tukwila. A beginning secretary salary on Vashon is $15.44 per hour. The 2017-18 VESP salary schedule shows that wages range from $13.45 to $30.41 per hour for all union members.

In recent months, VESP members have decided to become more active, Reeves said, and have started to speak out at school board meetings and hold informational pickets, such as the one last week. At the last board meeting, on Sept. 13, the room was filled with VESP members and teachers wearing red and carrying signs such as “Fair Contract Now” and “Don’t Under Value Us.” Several members addressed the board, stressing the value and range of their work and commenting on low morale and their need for a livable wage. In one case, a paraeducator at McMurray expressed frustration that her high school-age son can earn more mowing lawns than she can teaching children.

Members of the Vashon teachers union are supporting the VESP members. Last week, co-presidents of that teachers’ union, Glenda Berliner and Sarah Hamill, provided a written statement to The Beachcomber, saying that teachers could not do their jobs without support professionals and that Vashon teachers expect the board to provide VESP members competitive pay raises.

“Our students deserve great teachers, and they also need qualified, caring support staff to provide the personal, one-on-one support needed to be successful,” they wrote.

Addressing the negotiations, board Chair Macomber said the board has two responsibilities: ensuring that the district educates all children to the best of each child’s ability and making sure the district is financially stable.

“It is moments like this when it is really challenging,” she said.

She added that the district is a publicly-funded agency, and its books are open to anyone in the community.

“Our budget is there for everyone to see,” she said.

While VESP members and district leaders may disagree on the district’s ability to provide substantial wage increases, they share frustration about the McCleary funding plan.

McSheehy, crediting board chair Macomber with the idea, said district officials would like to stand on the streets with signs, calling out the legislators, who implemented the McCleary plan.

Reeves shared a similar thought.

“I think the legislature is going to get an earful when they are in session,” she said.

In the meantime, negotiations were expected to continue on Tuesday, after press time, with neither side predicting a resolution. A board meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. tonight, Thursday, at Chautauqua. The public is welcome.