More than 200 Vancouver Public Schools support staff demonstrated at district offices Tuesday, as their union and district leaders continue to negotiate a contract.
But if the secretaries, paraeducators and clerks who gathered in the dark and rain hoped to make a point to the school board, they were disappointed. The district’s regular board of directors meeting was scheduled for Tuesday but canceled late last week. The district denied any connection between the cancellation and the planned demonstration. The district has rescheduled or moved the location of five school board meetings since 2015, district spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said.
Members of the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals have been a regular feature at school board meetings for months, testifying in favor of higher wages and improved working conditions.
Negotiations have been ongoing between the district and the union since the summer, with a brief break as the Vancouver Education Association negotiated its own contract with the district.
“It feels really slow,” VAESP President Andrea Adams said. “We’re both back at the table now and we’re confident that we can and will reach an agreement.”
The ongoing negotiation has much in common with that of the teachers’ union. There are questions about how much money the state Legislature allocated for support staff in recent school funding laws, and whether significant raises will exacerbate existing strains on the district budget. District Superintendent Steve Webb has come under fire for his frequent updates to parents, with VAESP leadership criticizing him for attempting to control messaging. A state mediator is now assisting at the bargaining table.
And there are whispers of a possible VAESP strike, which would be unprecedented here in Clark County, and rare in the state. The union will have a general membership meeting today, and some demonstrators, who declined to be named, say they believe the union should consider striking pending the outcome of today’s bargaining.
Adams declined to comment on whether she believes members are likely to vote to strike.
“I hear from individuals from time to time, but I can’t say what all of our members think,” she said.
A letter Adams wrote, posted to the VAESP website, calls on members to “take action,” but does not specify what that action might look like.
“It has become clear that we need all of us to take action in order to secure a decent contract with the district and get livable wages, enough money to live on, for all of our hard working members,” Adams wrote.
Support staff went on strike in the Port Angeles School District last month, shutting school down for two days as teachers refused to cross the picket lines. It’s unclear what the impacts would be to Vancouver Public Schools if VAESP members vote to strike. School was already closed for four days in the district when teachers went on strike in August.
Pat Dahl, a first-grade teacher at Chinook Elementary School, attended Tuesday’s rally to show her support for VAESP members.
“If we don’t have our classified staff, we don’t have the district,” Dahl said. “They’re the nuts and bolts that hold us together.”
‘Not giving up’
The district and union last met on Dec. 6, where, according to a letter sent to parents by Webb, the two sides left “still far apart.”
According to the district, VAESP’s latest proposal would include 20.6 percent salary improvements, which would cost the district $4.93 million. The district projects a budget shortfall of $9.1 million to pay for the contract settled with the teachers’ union.
VPS countered with a 6.6 percent salary increase, which Adams said includes the 1.9 percent inflationary increase required by the state. The district says VPS’ proposal is $400,000 more than VAESP’s share of state education funding provided by the state in light of legislation connected to the McCleary decision.
VAESP and the Washington Education Association, which is providing some support in negotiations, disagree with those numbers. Adams said an additional $7.2 million is being sent to the district for educational support professional salaries.
“That money is supposed to go for a living wage for people,” she said.
Toni Burnett, a special education paraeducator at Fir Grove Children’s Center, was among those demonstrating. Burnett said she makes $17.35 an hour, working 32 hours a week.
Burnett said the students at Fir Grove have advanced behavioral problems, and are some of the most difficult students to teach. But Burnett said she’s there to make a difference.
“I wouldn’t still do this if I didn’t love the kids,” she said.
Burnett, the union representative for her campus, said many of her co-workers work two or three jobs to pay their mortgages. She called on the district to look at the services that classified staff provide, and acknowledge that schools “would not be able to run without us.”
“We’re not giving up,” she said.