ESP - Teacher Collaboration pays off in Westminster
In non-bargaining Colorado, a wall-to-wall local stands strong.
By John Rosales
In 2007, the Westminster Education Association (WEA), north of Denver in Colorado, bargained a teacher starting salary of $40,000, which increased to $40,500 in 2008–09.
That year, education support professionals (ESPs) received a humbling 70-cent raise.
Under most circumstances, this might create some tension between ESPs and teachers, especially if they belong to the same wall-to-wall unit as in Westminster. Of WEA’s 760 members, about half are ESPs.
They were told that 2007 wasn’t their year. It wasn’t their turn. They would have to sit, wait, and trust that their teacher-members would accept a smaller percentage of the next salary package.
“ESPs thought they were the stepchild [of WEA] when it came to getting the rewards,” says Gary McKee, a maintenance technician who was on the contract negotiating team. “We told them to stay focused—we’ll get there.”
They did. During the bargaining sessions for 2008–09, ESP pay was the priority. Out of a 4 percent package, teachers accepted a paltry 1.25 percent pay hike while ESPs gained a minimum $1.25-per-hour raise, though in many cases the increase was much higher.
“That raised everybody up,” says McKee, who has been with Adams School District 50 for 13 years. “In order to gain ground, we had to get away from the traditional cost of living percentage increases.”
Across-the-board pay raises brought up the low end of the ESP pay scale where a music librarian, for example, earning $19,168 in 2007–08 is now at $22,240. Entry-level bus drivers ($15,422 to $18,270) and head custodians at elementary schools ($25,459 to $30,160) received raises of 18.5 percent.
It some categories, pay hikes were even more significant. Entry-level head custodians at secondary schools leapt $17,118 ($26,562 to $43,680), an increase of 64 percent. Pay for locksmiths increased $16,827 ($33,093 to $49,920) while that for carpenters and mechanics jumped $13,707 ($33,093 to $46,800).
In addition, longevity payments were doubled to $800 a year, ESPs covering a class gained a $4-per-hour premium, and a variety of ESP job titles were upgraded.
The collaboration between ESPs and teachers has produced successful contracts, and a representative membership where 74 percent of ESPs and 76 percent of teachers who work in the district belong to WEA.
The 16-member board includes two vice presidents (one from each group), a secretary and treasurer (both ESPs), and 11 other elected officers (of which five are ESPs). The WEA president, Melissa Walsh, a teacher, says the arrangement has worked well for all involved since ESPs joined WEA in 2000.
“ESPs and certified [teachers] get to know about each other’s jobs, and sit together at the same negotiating table,” she says. “We have the same pot of money.”
Before joining the 40-year-old WEA, ESPs were not represented in district negotiations. Colorado does not have a bargaining law.
“We didn’t have a choice in anything,” says McKee. “There was an atmosphere where you wouldn’t speak out because your job would be in jeopardy.”
After teachers voted overwhelmingly to sign up ESPs, both groups gained “great bargaining power because the district can’t play us against one another,” says Laura Wood, a WEA administrative assistant and former district clerical worker. “When it comes to common ground [like health insurance], everything negotiated for teachers is negotiated for ESPs.”
Recent contract gains are just the beginning, says Bill Lopez, the Colorado Education Association UniServ director assigned to Westminster. “We want to attract and keep the very best teachers and ESPs in the area,” Lopez says. “We want this to be the district where they really want to work because they are compensated and treated well.”
Despite recent bargaining successes, Lopez says the district struggles with high poverty, student mobility, and a low property tax base. While the district has not organized a living wage campaign, “it’s a goal,” says McKee.