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NEA News

The Power of Collective Bargaining for ESPs

2 articles about how the power of collective bargaining and schools that promote a collective staff effort benefits educators, students, and communities.
Published: 04/01/2017

Key Takeaways

  1. Coordinated bargaining results in overall success of schools and their communities.
  2. School administrators should not divide and conquer and gender bias with regard to pay needs to be addressed.
  3. The “Village Concept”, involving everyone from the bus driver, to parents, to principals, is a productive means for the success of the entire “village”.

Strong Contract Follows Joint Bargaining Agreement

Coordinated bargaining equals increased benefits for Students, schools, and members

By John Rosales

What happens when two Washington state local unions share a history of displaying high levels of unity and collaboration on behalf of students, schools, and members?

If those two unions are the Northshore Education Association (NSEA) and Northshore Education Support Professional Association (NESPA), they merge under the NSEA banner, use their combined power to bargain a joint contract with the district and create gains for the entire school community.

“The unity and support between members of both locals is such an amazing and wonderful thing,” says Karyn Sullivan, former NESPA co-president and current NSEA board member. “This feeling of unification spills into our jobs each day as we work with students.” Gains for the local’s 520 ESP (Education Support Professional) include a 19.3 percent pay raise over four years, plus a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 3 percent and 1.8 percent for 2015 and 2016 respectively. The COLA also extends for the next two years.

“The contract has given my family a little breathing room,” says paraeducator Robbi Reed, NSEA vice president for ESPs. “I am now contributing to the deferred compensation program to boost my retirement.” 

Bargaining Gains Boost Union Membership

The contract is retroactive to last year, with retroactive pay for full time ESPs of between $1,600 and $5,000. The contract also moves many part- time members working four hours per day or less to full-time status: 6.5 hours per day with full benefits.

“We expect the new contract will bring full time ESP members from about 54 percent to about 70 percent,” says NSEA President Tim

Brittell. “These hour increases also benefit certificated members and students who will have ESPs available for the duration of the school day.”

In 2015, about 90 percent of ESP members were situated on the low end of the pay scale, earning an average of $18 an hour. By September 2018, they will be earning an average of $23 an hour, plus whatever the COLAs are for 2017 – 2018 and 2018 – 2019. The local’s 1,300 certified members will receive a pay increase of 10 percent plus COLAs over three years.

“For many members, these gains are life-changing,” Brittell says. “We talked about a merger for over a year, and thanks to staff and members working together, we made it happen.”

Zero Tolerance for a ‘Divide and Conquer’ Mentality

The former NESPA local started bargaining their ESP contract in April 2015. After the contract expired that September, members began discussing the possibility of strike. At about the same time, certificated members with NSEA began bargaining their contract while also discussing with ESP leaders the possibility of a merger and joint bargaining.  

By April 2016, officials with the Northshore School District started bargaining with NSEA but not NESPA.

“We could not have confidence in an administration that wanted to divide our educators,” says Brittell. “We’re a team and would not tolerate a ‘divide and conquer’ mentality from the district.”   

In June, while NESPA and NSEA members voted and prepared to strike at the beginning of the school year, the district named a new superintendent to lead contract negotiations. Dr. Michelle Reid was known to have a contemporary, enlightened approach to labor relations.

“She is honest, smart, and filled with integrity,” says Brittell.

After a meeting between Dr. Reid and Brittell, the administration agreed to bargain jointly. A contract was signed by late August. A key aspect of NSEA’s bargaining strategy was to compel district officials to bargain jointly at one table with unified teams, common expiration dates, and the right to make single proposals that encompass both contracts.

“We did it by preparing our members for a strike and by making joint bargaining a major issue,” says Brittell, who started his education career as a paraeducator. “All certificated members were willing to lay it on the line for their ESP brothers and sisters and they came through in a big way.”  

In addition, district officials agreed to continue joint bargaining in the future.

As a member of the bargaining team, Sullivan says she was impressed by the support that teachers expressed for ESPs during bargaining sessions.

“I think it was something we (ESPs) knew was always there, but to hear them stand up for us during negotiations meant so much,” says Sullivan, a school assistant. “We went through some hard times together. But it wasn’t just at the bargaining table where we united, [we are] all working together in many different ways for students and each other.”

Addressing Gender Bias for Fair Compensation

With regard to ESP wage and benefit issues, NSEA officials compared their work data with the state’s market pay scale for male and female workers doing similar work. Most NSEA ESPs are females who work as paraeducators, school assistants, nurses, deans, technology specialists, and other non-certificated employees.

“We asked district trustees to phase out the ‘low- pay-few-hours’ compensation model that is grounded in gender bias,” Brittell says. “Most school districts perpetuate low pay for classified women because they found them to be a group that stands up to fight for their rights the least. We asked district leaders to stop taking advantage of this and use the state’s market data that factors in male workers.”  

NSEA officials also asked district officials to create a professional development system, stop the hiring of part-time workers to avoid paying benefits, and combine jobs whenever possible so more full-time work is available.

“We educated our certificated members about ESP low pay and the institutional gender bias it was based on,” says Kraig Peck, the Washington Education Association (WEA) staff specialist assigned to Northshore. “In general, we built unity between the two bargaining units at the district and school levels.”

Working with Brittell and NSEA staff member Lydia King, Peck says the team established union support teams at work sites while encouraging members to speak one on one with less-active members and non-members. They also encouraged members to attend PTA and other community organization meetings.

“Having a wide network in place is essential for effective bargaining and communication,” says Peck. 


The Village Concept at its Best

School cultures thrive when support staff are fully included

John Rosales

The whole village concept for improving schools stresses the importance of all school employees working together to help students succeed—everyone from principals, custodians, and bus drivers to teachers, nurses, administrators, security, and food service workers. The objective is to create a school culture that helps students reach their full potential academically, socially, and emotionally.

“Everything that goes on in a school is important,” says Dr. James Comer, a child psychiatrist with the Yale University Child Study Center and renowned child development author. “ESPs are involved in ways that support everybody in the school and decrease behavioral problems.”

With almost 3 million school support staff working in our nation’s public schools, Comer says it’s imperative to the well being of students that ESPs be included in school activities. Comer made his remarks during a recent webinar sponsored by NEA and the Yale Child Study Center. Titled, The Village and the Whole Student, Comer says ESPs can help impact student learning and performance when they are respected and included as workplace partners.

“ESPs are often available in ways the classroom teacher is not,” Comer says. In reference to daily interaction with ESPs, Comer said: “You ask a child 20, 30 years later and they will tell you that what that person [an ESP] thought was  important [to them].”

Partners in Education

Approximately 75 percent of ESPs live, vote, worship, and work in the same school district. They often live in the same neighborhoods and shop at the same stores as students and their families.

“They have knowledge of the community that they bring to school,” Comer says. “There is a bonding.”

At most schools, support staff comprise 35 percent of the workforce. As such, ESPs interact with students daily while providing maintenance, transportation, security, clerical, food, and other services. Inside the classroom, paraeducators often work one-on-one with students. They are present and available at all times, says Comer.

“It’s not only during specific times…on the bus,  on the playground,” he adds. “It’s all the time.”

Against that backdrop, ESPs can leave a deep and lasting impression on students long after they graduate, Comer says. This interaction with students can create a sense of stewardship among ESPs that promotes a positive learning community.

“When students do well or don’t do well on tests, they talk to ESPs,” he says. “It’s an important interaction we don’t even see.”

The Village Model in Action

Pathway programs that teach students about the world beyond their doorsteps was one of Comer’s objectives when he and his Yale Child Study Center colleagues began to create the School Development Program in 1968.

A key aspect of the plan is professional development. Historically, in the case of bus drivers, for example, many were not properly trained on how to discipline students when they would misbehave on the bus.

“They weren’t trained to intervene,” says Comer. “There was a lot of turnover.”

Since behavioral problems on a bus can “spill over into schools,” Comer says professional development of school staff is vital for the whole village model to succeed.

“We helped bus drivers think about this so they could understand what goes on with children and their limits to deal with certain kinds of problems,” he says, “and how bus drivers could help kids deal with those problems.”


National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.