When Vancouver Public Schools staff and students left for the holiday break last month, Superintendent Steve Webb sent them off with some good news. The district and its support staff union had reached a tentative agreement, ending months of contentious negotiations.
Now, nearly a month later, the two sides are at odds over a key component of that agreement: whether it exists at all.
Leadership and members of the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals said Tuesday that the district has backed out of the tentative agreement. District spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo, however, denied that.
“There must be a misunderstanding,” Nuzzo said. “The district absolutely has not pulled out or canceled the tentative agreement.”
The disagreement is the latest wrench in bargaining between the support staff union and the district. The two sides have been at odds over how much additional state money should be allocated toward staff salaries. Union leadership say they still can’t agree with the district on a salary schedule, a grid assigning staff an hourly salary based on their position and years of experience.
The district offered a lump sum of money to be allocated toward salaries, but the two sides disagreed on how much of a raise any given employee could expect to see, said Lynn Davidson with the regional office of the Washington Education Association.
Nuzzo, however, said bargaining was done last month.
“At this point we’re going to try to find out why they think … we walked away from the table,” Nuzzo said.
The exact details of the contract are still scarce. The only hint of the scale of the deal came last week in a press release announcing district budget cuts. The district pointed to VAESP’s contract among the reasons for an expected $11.4 million budget deficit in 2019-2020, noting the contract will cost about $3 million.
Davidson said district and union officials were emailing back and forth trying to agree on a salary schedule until Monday evening, but that the district’s latest salary schedule does not reflect what she believed the tentative agreement entailed or what union members would support.
“It would be unprofessional for me to put something before the membership they said they wouldn’t support,” Davidson said.
The VAESP represents more than 700 paraeducators, secretaries, clerks and other classified staff members. Those employees are paid between $16.53 an hour and $25.32 an hour, depending on their position and years of experience. Many work six hours a day, nine months a year. Davidson estimates the average VAESP member’s salary is around $20,000.
“They’re taking advantage of people who can’t afford it,” Davidson said of the school district.
Tuesday’s news means VAESP members could still go on strike. The union voted last month to hold a strike vote if a deal is not reached by Feb. 1. Davidson said she reached out to the state-appointed mediator to schedule additional bargaining sessions.
Davidson wouldn’t speculate on the thoughts of VAESP membership regarding a possible strike.
But, said Davidson, “I think they’re really upset. They’re devastated.”