A hundred or so paraeducators and supporters from the Evergreen Public School Employees large group union gathered before Tuesday night’s board meeting to advocate for increased wages and schedule adjustments.
The union — which represents an estimated 1,000 classified staff members in Evergreen, including about 650 paraeducators — has been bargaining with the school district throughout the summer and fall and is still without a new contract.
Dressed in blue pro-union shirts, the members led a short march from LeRoy Haagen Memorial Park in east Vancouver across the street to Evergreen’s district office before delivering testimony to the board about their experiences and challenges this year.
“Many say that something is worth or valued at what people will pay for it,” said union President Mindy Troffer-Cooper, speaking directly to board members during the meeting’s public comment section. “Paraeducators in the Evergreen Public Schools district are grossly underpaid and therefore grossly undervalued.”
Throughout the negotiations process, Troffer-Cooper said the union’s primary goal has been to give its members a wage that matches neighboring districts, including Vancouver and Battle Ground public schools.
In Vancouver, general paraeducators had a starting salary of $20.63 per hour in 2021-2022, per page 68 of the Vancouver Association of Education Support Professionals’ comprehensive professional agreement. In Battle Ground, para-instructional support service workers had a starting salary of $19.31 per hour in 2022-2023, per the district’s PSE salary schedule.
Evergreen, however, offers Class I paraeducators a starting wage of $17.01 per hour and Class II paraeducators had a starting wage of $18.08 per hour in 2020-2021. Class I paraeducators include roles such as cafeteria monitors, 504 plan note-takers, one-on-one support staffers and study hall supervisors. Class II paraeducators include classroom support staffers and counseling support specialists.
Speakers articulate struggles
Several of Tuesday night’s speakers highlighted their struggles with affording living costs while working as paraeducators.
“I was able to support myself as an individual working in Oregon working as a regular education assistant,” said Sierra Gerber, a pro-tech trustee and union member. “I moved across the river just a few years ago, and while it was OK for a little bit, the amount of pay that we receive and the process by which we are allocated onto the pay scale is a little concerning.
“I had about seven years of experience that was not counted for anything,” Gerber said. “It’s a little frustrating that I’ve gotten this far and can’t even rent an apartment in the area.”
Other speakers highlighted the dangerous results of the staffing shortages that have come as a result of what they deem inadequate pay in recent years. Last year, according to Troffer-Cooper, the district had as many as 300 unfilled paraeducator positions.
“Districtwide, there has been a surge of students needing (Individual Education Program) level care, especially in kindergarten and first grade, leaving staff stretched extremely thin and exhausted,” said Shelly Prothro, paraeducator at Hollingworth Academy. Prothro mentioned in her testimony that her school has as many as 10 unfilled paraeducator positions, and she and her staff have experienced students whose needs aren’t being met lashing out physically.
“We’re exhausted, because there’s too much need and not enough staff,” she said.
Earlier in the meeting, District 2 director Rob Perkins, the board’s legislative representative, highlighted funding for special education as something he plans to advocate for in his meetings with the Legislature in the coming months.
“We’ve been aware of the shortcomings for special education for years now,” Perkins said. “The federal government has never fully funded it. Now with the pandemic and its fallout on top of the great recession anxieties, we need this more than ever. It’s stressing every member of our community.”
Perkins described the stories shared in Tuesday’s meeting as “heart-wrenching.”
“I believe them. I have personal experience with one or more of my children who has access to those services. I know what it’s like to be in that position asking for those services, I’m so appreciative of the services they were able to provide for my child,” Perkins said. “I’m really hopeful that the bargaining process will conclude favorably for everyone.”
Bargaining between the two sides will continue in the coming weeks. District representatives were not able to share details on how recent sessions have gone, but maintain the message that they hope to reach a deal soon.
“Evergreen Public Schools continues to bargain in good faith with our union partners with the hope of reaching a fair agreement,” the district said.
A full recording of Tuesday night’s meeting can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPI71E9B6hw.