Vancouver school employees, district at odds

Pickets could reappear at school opening

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: September 2, 2011, 11:31 AM

 

Vancouver school students and parents — and teachers — might encounter picketing school secretaries and support workers next Wednesday, on the first day of class.

It’s possible some teachers will honor, or even join, picket lines.

The clock ran out late Wednesday on unresolved contract talks between Vancouver Public Schools and the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals. A one-year grace period that began after the prior collective bargaining pact expired in August 2010 ended at midnight.

After 18 months of sputtering talks, the district announced Thursday it will unilaterally impose cost-saving elements of its “best and final” contract proposal, as directed by Washington state law, it said.

To accommodate a 1.9 percent reduction in salary (equal to the reduction in state funding for teacher pay), Vancouver will cut about $145,000 in salary from the employee group, said Missy Hallead, district human resources director.

It will take weeks to set layoffs or hourly reductions, she said.

Following the district's move, the contract now runs through August 2013. It incorporates "best and final" language accepted by both sides, plus the layoff and scheduling policies opposed by the union.

The news comes after two mediation sessions in August, including a final stab Tuesday, failed to satisfy the district and VAESP, which counts about 200 secretaries, clerks, technical and other para-professional assistants in its ranks.

‘Can’t rule anything out’

The main sticking point is treatment of job layoffs, reduction in work hours and reassignment — and how much weight seniority should carry.

Thursday afternoon, VAESP members picketed back-to-school events at three elementary schools. The group said the district is trying to balance its budget “on the backs of the working poor,” and vowed to continue its resistance.

“Their utter disregard for employees is shameful,” said Lynn Davidson, regional Uniserve union representative for VAESP.

Will the group picket or walk out when school starts?

“I can’t rule anything out. We haven’t made any firm decisions about that, no,” Davidson said. “You keep hoping (the district will) act in good faith and behavior, and you won’t have to resort to extreme tactics.”

Hallead said there’s no hint, yet, of a shutdown by employees. “We’re planning on opening school as usual. They’re so important to getting school off to a good start,” she said.

Dozens of VAESP members, joined by several teachers, picketed outside the Aug. 23 Vancouver school board meeting. More “informational pickets” would follow outside the final Aug. 30 mediation session at district headquarters on Falk Road.

Support employees flooded the board meeting. Several spoke of deep disappointment in cuts they said will hurt teachers’ work and ultimately, students.

Many employees stand to suffer pay cuts of 12-17 percent from loss of weekly or daily hours, Davidson told the board.

The employees make sure classroom supplies and photocopying, transportation and internal accounts payable, purchasing, payroll and warehouse needs are met, she said.

“Our members have already received an increase in their workloads, yet they’re expected to maintain the same quantity and quality of customer service as always,” she said.

Carrie Newton, a Marshall Elementary School teacher who works with kindergartners, pleaded, “Please, please, please, reconsider cutting back hours from these people who are critical to our schools.”

‘Responsibility’ of district

Vancouver school officials’ statement on Thursday portrays the district as accepting conditions of the union’s “best and final” proposal made June 6, save for layoff and recall provisions the district maintains are vital for staffing flexibility.

The union rejected those provisions, then made a counter-offer Aug. 17. It floated a 1 percent salary cut, while the layoff issue would be sent to a “joint committee,” Hallead said in a two-page, written summary.

Both sides dug in heels. On Tuesday, the district rejected a union bid for binding arbitration on the layoff issue, Hallead said.

Bowing to seniority would tie the district’s hands, and could leave serious gaps in school and office support, Hallead said.

The Vancouver district “has a responsibility to determine the best means of restructuring the workforce to meet its educational mission,” Hallead said. “That responsibility cannot be relegated to arbitration.”

‘Fight’ to continue?

There was no easing of frustration on Thursday, when the VAESP issued a written statement attributed to Rachelle Durgeloh, a special programs clerk.

She blasted Superintendent Steve Webb for having decided “to save his own six-figure salary by eliminating and reducing hours and positions for support professionals making an average of just $17.50 an hour,” along with salaries of other “highly paid consultants and administrators at the district office.”

“We intend to fight and appeal this decision,” Durgeloh wrote. “Our members do believe in their own worth, dignity and capabilities.”

The Vancouver Education Association teachers union has issued a statement of support, pledging “assistance for any further action” if needed.

Does that mean teachers could join picket lines?

“I haven’t heard a huge, positive ‘yes,’ (or) a huge, positive ‘no.’ But, a union is a union,” said VEA President Courtney Hoover.

“They are our family, they are our VEA brothers and sisters. We stand behind them,” Hoover said of the support employees. “Really, I’m expecting the timeliness of this to allow each (teacher) to make their own choice.

“Sad. Sad, that they (the district) have gotten to this point,” Hoover said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.