Vancouver school support staff pickets district HQ

But labor conflict won’t disrupt first day

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver Public Schools bargaining at a standstill

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About 50 Vancouver Public Schools support employees rallied again outside district headquarters late Tuesday afternoon, drawing supportive honks and shouts.

The first day of the school year promises to be less chaotic.

Union members plan to settle in at school offices, in classrooms and other facilities without protest on Wednesday, while they continue to combat what they claim is a collective bargaining breakdown.

“(On Wednesday), people are going to go to work to get the job done, like they always do,” said Lynn Davidson, regional UniServ union representative for the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals.

The group includes school secretaries, clerical workers and classroom para-educators (assistants): about 700 employees, in all. (An earlier story in The Columbian incorrectly reported about 200 workers were involved.)

Last week, one full year after the previous contract expired, the Vancouver district announced it would impose conditions of a new deal that would extend through August 2013, as allowed by state labor law. The contract incorporates provisions agreed to by both sides, but also several employee layoff and scheduling changes the union has fiercely opposed.

“They want to be able to control money, days, months, hours, everything. There’s no leeway,” said Sue Prindle, VAESP co-president and longtime district warehouse worker who prepares all science kits and supplies for Vancouver students.

She said the union offered pay concessions similar to those absorbed by school teachers and administrators following a 1.9 percent reduction in state education payments, but to no avail.

Base hourly wages under the expired contract ranged from $13.85 for a beginning para-educator to $21.38 for a secretary with 26 years of service.

Vancouver district officials on Tuesday reissued a public statement that described recent bargaining sessions, offers and counter-offers made, and finally, failure to reach a final agreement. They said new flexibility to control employee wages and scheduling was essential, especially during a time of tight budget constraints.

The union said the district foot-dragged on talks and was happy to watch the clock run out so it could impose its desired terms. Leaders said they made it clear its members would never accept those new rules, and the district has since not budged.

There will be a one-day truce, at least.

“(Wednesday) we go to work and make it a wonderful, happy day for all of our students,” Prindle said. The 20-year district employee has two grandchildren in Vancouver schools, including one grandson just entering kindergarten.

“We don’t want to make their first day miserable. (It) needs to be a positive day,” she said. “We don’t want to frighten them, that’s not our goal.”

Still, Davidson said the union will fight on.

She plans to huddle with members across all district buildings this week, she said. There may be something brewing for Day 4 (Monday), an important student enrollment head-count day for state record keeping (and funding), she said.

To show support, the Vancouver district teachers union has delayed a ratification vote on its own pending contract, watching developments closely, Davidson said.

She said VAESP will file formal protest with the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC. The district may believe it can unilaterally impose the new contract, but “not when we still want to bargain,” she said.

Said Prindle: “As long as we’re willing to talk, (the district) can’t continue to say, ‘no.’ ”

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