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Education Support Professionals

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Stay the Course

A ‘bullheaded group’ inspired by students is hard to stop 

It was three days before Thursday’s regular 7 p.m. board meeting in the Selah School District (SSD) of Washington state. People in this close-knit community near Yakima can set their watches by the long-standing gathering.

On that Monday morning in April, members of the Selah Education Support Personnel (SESP) and Selah Educational Office Personnel (SEOP) posted fliers on bulletin boards at five schools and the administration office announcing their Rally for Respect starting at 5:30 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

“They Can Run But They Can’t Hide,” the fliers read.

Tensions were already high. For 18 months, both unions and SSD had been bargaining a joint contract.  Notices of the rally strained negotiations further since it called for protesters to assemble just outside the board room building.

“We wanted board members to see all the support we had as they entered the parking lot,” says Cindy Huntamer, SEOP president. “We made signs and buttons…ordered pizza and sodas.”

But when it came time for the 7 p.m. meeting, the board room was deserted. School administrators had changed the meeting’s start time. It had already taken place—at 7 a.m.

Solidarity Wins the Day

District officials had apparently ignored a Washington state law requiring state agencies to provide 20 days notice to change a regularly scheduled meeting of this type.

“[They] claimed the decision was made the week before, but they didn’t announce it until the day before,” says Huntamer, a federal programs secretary at the district’s early learning center. 

“We found out by email,” Huntamer adds. “We were not pleased over the sudden change or that the meeting was now at a time when most people are at work.”

Unfazed, some members attended the early part of the meeting before checking in at work. Similarly, union officials decided to proceed with the demonstration.

“We’re a pretty bullheaded group,” says Butch Thompson, the district’s lead custodian and a former SESP president. “We had strong community support for that rally, so we decided to see it through.”

Despite knowing the board meeting was cancelled, more than 50 determined education support professionals (ESPs), teachers, parents, students, and community members appeared later in the day—closer to the rally’s planned start time. They carried signs, chanted, and passed out leaflets as planned.

“That rally was one example of how the community got behind us,” says Thompson, chair of the bargaining committee. Within weeks of the rally, a three-year agreement was reached.

“They had a large cash reserve and just didn’t want to give any of it to us,” Thompson says. “They (district negotiators) were more willing to talk after they saw what was happening.”

Board Actions Inspire Robust Activism

UniServ director Sue Laib of the Washington Education Association (WEA) says momentum built in the months leading up to the settlement. The SESP consists of approximately 120 paraeducators, 20 bus drivers, and 20 custodians, while SEOP is comprised of 20 secretaries.

“When administrators changed the time of the April board meeting, it showed how concerned they were about their employees being strongly supported by the community,” Laib says.

Fliers announcing the Rally for Respect were placed on car windshields across the district, in store windows and teacher mailboxes. As community interest grew, traffic on SEOP/SESP’s Facebook page got a boost and local media began to cover ESP events.

Amid tense bargaining sessions over fair pay and cost-of-living adjustments, there was another compelling reason administrators rescheduled the board meeting on the day of the protest: A vote to extend Superintendent Shane Backlund’s contract was on the agenda.

“We knew his contract was going to be settled almost immediately after it came up for a vote,” says Huntamer. “We hadn’t settled our contract in over a year.”

The superintendent is paid approximately $13,700 per month in base salary with a $350 car allowance, $650 monthly stipend, and fully paid family medical benefits.

At a previous board meeting, a paraeducator had confronted the board about the superintendent earning more in one month than she and many of her colleagues did in a year. Starting pay for paraeducators is $14.25 per hour, and increases  less than $2.50 an hour over the lifetime of an employee’s career.

Rallying the Community 

The SESP and SEOP units formed a crisis team to help inform ESPs about bargaining issues, create community awareness, and take the lead on logistics and protocols.

One of the first events team members organized was the March for Fairness where educators, friends, and family members produced dozens of signs and buttons in preparation for a protest march downtown.

In October, members had participated in another downtown event: Trunk or Treat. During a Halloween event, members set up an information table downtown with other organizations and handed out candy.

“From these events we built community spirit,” says Nancy Valenta, a WEA UniServ representative who helped SEOP with their organizing campaign and negotiations strategy. “They also helped bring the bargaining unit together.”

After a pattern of poorly-attended board meetings in previous years, attendance increased from an average of a dozen attendees per meeting in 2016 to about 40 people in February, then almost 90 in March.

When a district official announced at a board meeting that $400,000 out of $800,000 was being transferred from the district’s general fund to the capital fund, crisis team members helped get the word out about the transfer’s ramifications. Monetary transfers to a district’s capital fund are often permanent and used for structural improvements, not contractual agreements.

Valenta says previous negotiations in Selah had followed a familiar scenario where members accepted the district’s proposal and everyone went home.

“They (members) made it clear that this time they did not want to do that,” she says. “They were going to take a stand.”

Negotiations had never gone this long, according to Huntamer, a 27-year veteran with the district who works two additional jobs to help make ends meet.

“We had always sat back and said ‘OK, done,’” she explained. “This time we didn’t let down. It was: ‘Nope, sorry. If you can’t do better than that, we’re going home.’ We were more forceful this time.”

Power That Lasts

Their health insurance coverage taken away, ESPs fight back and build a union

Two years ago, just before Thanksgiving Day, and without warning or provocation, 27 ESPs in California’s affluent Solana Beach School District were blindsided by an email from the district’s director of human resources.

The health benefits they received under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be cancelled in a month.

“It was a sad day in our district,” says Robin Park, an instructional aide for special education at Solana Vista School and one of the email recipients. “It showed there was nothing we could do when something like this happens to us [ESPs].”

The email sparked concern among the district’s ESPs. And the concern became a spark that lit an activist movement in this upscale community. 

Park, California Teachers Association (CTA) staff, and other educators returned from the holiday break prepared. They contacted CTA and got to work organizing a community petition drive and a public rally to be held at the December school board meeeting.

It was the first time, Park says, board members learned about the classified workers losing health benefits.

“They were shocked, just stunned,” he says. “Administrators apparently had not felt like they needed to tell the board about cancelling our health coverage.”

Since the medical coverage issue was not on the board’s agenda, an emergency meeting was called to address the matter. Workers at nine job sites were affected, including those in almost every classified job category, from custodians and paraeducators to technical, maintenance, and food service employees. A significant number of clerical service employees at schools, and the district’s child development center, were also affected.

“We knew it was time that classified and certificated employees be treated equally and fairly,” says Park, who holds a degree in elementary and special education from Northern Arizona University.

At the emergency meeting, board members voted unanimously to offer benefits to the affected workers through the district’s plan, which would no longer honor the benefits they received through the ACA. The district is only able to provide benefits as mandated by a law, such as the ACA; via a union contract; or through board policy. As a result of the policy put in place during the emergency meeting, the district will now offer medical coverage to ESPs who meet certain requirements. And ESPs now have coverage that is identical to what they would have received had the benefits they received under ACA remained in place. 

Looking Forward

With support from CTA and members of the Solana Beach Teachers Association (SBTA), classified workers continued their fight for workers’ rights. In March of last year, they established the Solana Beach Association of Support Professionals (SBASP).

“We hadn’t realized that we could overwhelmingly unionize across the district,” says Park—an SBASP founding member, who now serves as the organization’s president. “We eventually found our collective voice, Park says.”

Members of SBTA and CTA were instrumental in helping the classified workers get organized and ready to negotiate for fair wages, medical coverage, due process, seniority, and other provisions, says Park.

“We couldn’t have gotten this far without them,” he says. “They shared their expertise and helped many of us get trained in how to empower ourselves and improve learning conditions for students.”

More than 200 new classified workers from Solana Beach are now affiliated with CTA and NEA. And SBASP has gained recognition from  the district’s Public Employment Relations Board as the exclusive bargaining agent of classified ESPs in Solana Beach.

The local is now bargaining its first contract. 

“They had no leverage, no voice, no solidarity…Nothing,” says David Partida, a CTA regional organizer who helped establish SBASP. “How could they not form a union?”

Confronting Stigmas, Changing Culture

The formation of SBASP almost didn’t happen. Before joining, many classified workers were leery of unions, says Partida.

“For many of them, unions had never been part of their work culture or family history,” he says. “Some were hesitant to stand up and organize for fear of retaliation at their schools.”

After meeting with workers one on one and discussing job duties, job decriptions, workplace conditions, and other job issues, Partida says many had a change of heart.

“We found that many workers had the same job titles and duties as their colleagues at different schools, but were being paid a lot less for some reason,” he says. “They didn’t know this because they were isolated from one another…they had never connected.”

Park had worked for the district for five years, but had not met instructional aides from other nearby schools.

“I hadn’t even met other classified workers until we started getting together and exploring the idea of organizing a union,” Park says. “Once we started sharing our stories we realized that there were a lot of job inconsistencies from one school to the next, particularly involving wages.”

The ‘divide and conquer’ tactic had worked in Solana Beach several times in the past when ESPs attempted to organize themselves as a CTA affiliate.

“That won’t happen again,” Park adds.

Ample Funds in Reserve

Regional UniServ Representative Teresa Horton is a member of the negotiating team. She says pay equity is one of the issues under consideration.

“The district has a huge reserve,” says Horton. “They are flush with money while many of these workers cannot afford to live in the district where they work.”

Solana Beach is located in San Diego County near the wealthy seaside community of La Jolla.

“Many of the workers have long commutes,” she says. “The least the district can do is give them health insurance.”

Partida says proof of the district’s wealth is evident.

“They just completed construction on a new school and are in the process of renovating other schools,” he says. “They have the money.”

Park says settling a contract with the classified workers can address the needs of both students and staff. As with other locals across the nation, unions bargain for student-friendly provisions such as class size limits, relevant staff training, school building health and safety, and needed classroom materials.

In Solana Beach, the biggest impediment to settling the contract, which is not expected until next year, seems to be the issue that brought everyone together in the first place: health care coverage.

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