The pressure is on for Vancouver Public Schools and its support staff to reach a tentative contract agreement before union members strike on Friday, a move that could keep kids out of class for the second time this school year.
The Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to strike if a deal granting improved wages is not reached by midnight Thursday. It was the latest flashpoint in months of heated bargaining between the two sides, which in recent weeks has prompted the cancellation of a tentative agreement and warnings from the district that it will be filing an unfair labor practice claim against the union.
It seems unlikely that school will open on Friday if the more than 700 paraeducators, clerks, secretaries and other classified staff members go on strike. Paraeducators in the Port Angeles School District went on strike in November, closing school for two days.
That’s in no small part due to the reaction from the Vancouver Education Association, the teachers’ union. A large percentage of the organization’s members say they will not work if their peers are on strike, VEA Executive Director Rick Wilson said.
“The strong support our members have shown to VAESP leads us to the conclusion that the significant majority of our members will choose not to cross the picket lines,” Wilson said.
Students missed four days of school last summer when teachers went on strike for higher wages. They were joined on the picket lines by classified staff at the time.
Still, district spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo was hesitant to say whether or not school could be canceled on Friday.
“We’re really hoping it doesn’t come to that,” Nuzzo said. “Of course we have to plan in the event and will notify parents, but at this point we’re hopeful it won’t come to that.”
A state mediator was working with the union and district Wednesday and may continue Thursday if a deal is not reached.
“Everyone on both sides wants to get to an agreement,” Nuzzo said. “We all work together. We all have the same goals as far as serving students and families in our schools.”
Vancouver Public Schools announced a special board meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Bates Center for Educational Leadership, 2921 Falk Road, Vancouver. The board will consider a slate of resolutions allowing the district to take action responding to a strike, including limiting access to school grounds, authorizing the suspension of compensation and district-paid insurance premiums, and allowing the district to pursue an injunction to stop the strike. The district approved the same set of resolutions when teachers went on strike last year.
State law prohibits public employees from striking, but there are no penalties for public unions that do strike. A Superior Court judge can issue an injunction ordering employees back to work at the request of a school district or community group and level penalties against unions who defy that court order, but fines and punishments aren’t standardized.
The law has gone relatively untested in Clark County. Battle Ground Public Schools filed for an injunction against the Battle Ground Education Association during last year’s teacher strikes. The union voted to defy that injunction, but the district and union settled before teachers returned to the picket lines. No other district in Clark County filed an injunction against its teachers’ union.
Representatives from VAESP were unavailable to give an updated comment on Wednesday.