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Solidarity and Teacher/ESP Pay: It Makes a Difference

By Dave Winans, NEA CBMA, September 2008

You're about to walk from wall to wall in Westminster, Colorado, and the larger Adams County School District 50, just north of Denver. School floors may be bare, but educator unity blankets the place like a broadloom. This tour is about solidarity and salaries.

The "wall-to-wall" (inclusive) Westminster Education Association (WEA), representing 750 teachers and education support professionals (ESPs), has just one bargaining team (half teachers, half ESPs) for both contracts, one set of leaders and activities, and one local objective: fair and equitable treatment and a "voice in the future of education."

For this struggling urban district, with challenges of high poverty, student mobility, and a low property tax base, WEA's unified voice is making a difference.

This NEA local affiliate overcame past labor-management struggles-it twice lost contracts, without protection of a state bargaining law-to build strong "organizational capacity" and leadership teamwork. WEA started down that road through brainstorming of local-wide and building leaders, who crafted a long-term local plan with objectives such as professional pay and working conditions-spelled out in annual goals.

WEA's amazing focus-and work with two successive superintendents-has gradually transformed District 50 from a "top-down, micromanaged" system to a "collaborative partnership," reports WEA UniServ Director Bill Lopez. Both parties, in effect, "negotiate" over the district's budget, direction, and learning environment.

That bargaining is delivering gains such as elementary planning time, a new elementary and high school (being built with bond money), facility upgrades, and quality educators to staff the buildings. "These kids are too challenging for inexperienced teachers," stresses Lopez. "We need absolutely the best teachers or we won't get anywhere."

And when WEA (headed by President Melissa Walsh) looks at the district budget, its filter is "priorities and choices," Lopez adds. "If the end result of education is really student achievement, we don't see how we cannot have the best teachers as a goal. This is America; money talks. Show [prospective hires] they are valuable, and they will come!"

Taking Turns at the Table

District 50 teachers and ESPs don't undermine one another in bargaining. That's unity.

In 2007 talks, it was the teachers' turn at bat. WEA bargained a 2007-08 teacher starting salary of $40,000, which increased to $40,500 in 2008-09. That's on the "left" side of a pay schedule with financial incentives to move horizontally (and quickly) across 11 progressively higher-paying "columns" for professional development. This pay grid encourages teachers to continuously polish their practice and become lifelong learners.

In 2008 bargaining, WEA leaders made ESP pay the priority. Teachers agreed to take a smaller percentage of the negotiated salary package so that ESPs could move ahead.

Among other things, ESPs gained a $1.25-per-hour raise for 2007-08, an increase in longevity pay to $800, a $4.00-per-hour premium for covering a class, and new minimum schedules. Special ed assistants, for instance, are now guaranteed 7.5 hours a day for 181 days, while office staff get 10 additional days-five before and five after the school year.

Moreover, bargainers implemented the recommendations of a joint WEA-District 50 Reclassification Committee, upgrading a variety of ESP job titles. "We increased, for instance, the top step of the custodian pay scale by $10,000," notes Lopez. "We want to get ESPs up to a minimum level, a decent standard, and we want our ESPs to be the highest paid in comparison with other school districts in the area."

Applying Best Practices for Pay

WEA's salary progress doesn't just stem from worker unity. It also draws on solid, tested compensation principles, right out of the NEA textbook.

WEA negotiators have applied "salary schedule theory" learned from New Jersey and Pennsylvania state affiliate researchers at an NEA bargaining conference. It's a simple principle: Create a "strong, short," single salary schedule with few (and evenly priced) steps to the top rate, which maximizes career earnings and enhances pay equity. The shorter the pay schedule, the higher the average pay in the unit, which means more money in the "base" (the total salary outlay), from which to bargain in future years.

"Four years ago, we significantly 'compacted' our salary schedule," Lopez notes. "We took out five steps from one pay column­-the starting Bachelor's column now only has three steps to the top rate-and took three from another, for instance. By 'shrinking down' these columns, we significantly increased the amount of money 'rolling' [through many vertical steps] of the teacher pay schedule, which helped to significantly increase the base."

At the same time, Lopez adds, "we radically increased the financial incentive to move horizontally across 11 columns. A new superintendent liked this idea as a way to recruit and keep quality teachers, and teachers became more engaged in their own learning-their morale definitely went up!"

Support professionals, too, have benefited from the application of rational pay principles. WEA and the district restructured the ESP salary system, which was once totally "random" and based on cronyism or how much you buttered up the boss. Today ESP job titles are placed on automatic three-step pay scales­, grouped into three broad occupational pay "bands": instructional support, non-instructional support, and auxiliary/technical support. 

Better yet, there's ongoing bargaining over the "value" of ESP jobs, starting with deliberations of the joint Reclassification Committee. The panel is chaired by a community member, a tie breaker respected by both sides. Each year, the committee reviews the pay bands, examines competitive market rates for ESP jobs, and hears appeals from groups of employees seeking upgrades.

"This takes politics out of the process," says Lopez. "Management and ESPs alike are supposed to go through this committee to justify a case for a reclassification." Committee pay recommendations then go to the bargaining table for final agreement by WEA and the district.

'Look at Yourself Before You Look at Us'

Before any NEA local affiliate tries all this "at home," it should heed the advice of Bill Lopez, an 18-year veteran of UniServ work. There are a "lot of different models out there" for winning professional pay and working conditions, "but there are unique situations in each local," Lopez stresses. "You need to start based on where you are at."

First of all, local leaders should deliberate, "discuss values," and set organizational goals, he recommends. "What do you want to accomplish? Where are you trying to get to?"

And it doesn't hurt to look at the bigger picture. WEA, for instance, talks about a three-legged stool supporting member advocacy: professional pay, a collaborative work environment, and well-maintained school facilities conducive to learning.

Kick away one leg, and the stool collapses. "Teachers want to be paid better, to have the ability to have an impact on the art of teaching, and to make a difference in [kids'] lives," Lopez observes. "Teachers just want to be successful. But.if they're not treated as professionals, pay will not really matter and they will leave."