Members of the Vancouver Association of Education Support Professionals voted Tuesday to authorize a strike if Vancouver Public Schools fails to offer what they consider to be a fair contract, citing wage insufficiencies and safety concerns amid a staffing shortage.
On Wednesday, the sides met with a mediator from the Public Employment Relations Commission for the fourth time and were again unable to resolve the stalled contract negotiations. Union members have been working without a new contract since Aug. 31.
According to union president Barb Plymate, the stall is primarily a result of the district failing to acknowledge dangerous working conditions for paraeducators, the largest group that the union represents. Paraeducators work with students with special needs and often serve in one-on-one roles with specific students who require consistent support.
As of now, the district has more than 50 unfilled paraeducator positions, a shortage that Plymate said has created particularly dangerous working conditions for many of these workers in one-on-one positions. She also questioned why the district has been slow to hire substitutes to aid these educators in comparison with nearby districts.
“The most vulnerable students are out there without the support they need,” Plymate said. “People understand that there are paraeducators out there, but they really have no concept of just how short-staffed our elementary school offices are.”
When paraeducators are stretched too thin, they may have to work with students with special needs who are typically used to consistently working with the same educator. Those positions require extensive training and familiarity with the individual student. Amid the shortage, untrained people are having to serve a number of students they wouldn’t typically deal with.
Class sizes in these special programs have increased due to the staffing shortages, something that Plymate also identifies as a safety concern. School nurses, too, have been forced into wider roles in facilitating quarantine annexes for students exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. In many cases, she said, those facilities have gone unsupervised.
“We really need the district to bend,” Plymate said. “There are real concerns about safety and injuries that are happening to members. When that happens, they quit.”
Additionally, Plymate expressed frustration that the district has not made any effort to make their negotiations in-person, despite possessing the space in district offices to do so while still maintaining proper social distancing.
“They really don’t have an interest in coming face-to-face,” she said. “That tells us they aren’t taking our concerns seriously.”
In a Oct. 12 school board meeting, union members and parents alike articulated how noise surrounding masks and vaccinations had distracted both the board and the community from serious issues in schools, such as these dangers resulting from the paraeducator shortage.
“This is not a worker shortage. This is a pay shortage,” said Christopher Smith, a paraeducator at Columbia River High School, during the meeting. “Your refusal to bargain in good faith is harming students, and it’s harming us.”
The union hopes to reach a resolution in the next few weeks. Another mediation session is scheduled on Nov. 3. In an email sent to all district staff on Oct. 22, the district said the board of directors and its bargaining team are confident that a new contract agreement will be reached soon.