Paraeducators take center stage in Northshore labor negotiations

A far-lower percentage of Northshore School District support staff are eligible for benefits than in surrounding districts, an analysis by the Reporter shows.

A far-lower percentage of Northshore School District support staff are eligible for benefits than in surrounding districts, an analysis by the Reporter shows.

Support staff, or Education Support Professionals (ESP) are a central issue in labor negotiations with the district this summer. Union officials claim the district is shortchanging paraeducators in salary and benefits.

Union officials representing support staff and teachers said there was “nothing to report” from negotiations with the district on Monday, June 27 with more bargaining talks scheduled for late July.

Currently, of around 500 members of the ESP union, NESPA, 178 are not eligible for benefits. A large percentage work only four hours a day, and 20 hours per week, as a way to cut health benefit costs.

According to district records, the number of ineligible members continues to shrink, from 325 in January 2015 to 178 members in May 2016.

One group within NESPA is hit harder than others. A majority of NESPA members are paraeducators serving in an instructional capacity, 30 percent of whom are not eligible for benefits.

By contrast, Lake Washington School District — which covers Kirkland, Redmond and Sammamish — has far fewer support staff without benefits.

A majority of the members of Lake Washington’s Trades Bargaining union, representing paraeducators, instructional assistants and some secretaries, have benefits: only three percent of 277 members are ineligible.

Numbers from Shoreline School District, while lower than Lake Washington, also differ greatly in comparison with Northshore. Shoreline has 169 employees who do paraeducator work at least on a part-time basis, of which 12 percent are not eligible for benefits.

Though Northshore Education Association President Tim Brittell denied any bargaining goal was of greater importance, he and Kraig Peck spent a majority of their time discussing two points: support staff and a voice for the union.

Among the more contentious issues surrounds the district’s denial for joint bargaining of the certified teachers and support staff unions, which merged several months ago. The merger, which formed NESA, allows over 1,800 members to bargain — or strike — as one group.

The denial led to a union vote of no confidence in the head of the HR department, Jeff Sherwood, who is representing the district in bargaining talks.

The groups are closely tied, according to Brittell and Peck, who is the head bargainer in contract negotiations for both groups of people. By Peck’s reckoning, the teachers and support staff are fighting for many of the same ideals and it doesn’t make sense to argue the same point twice.

But it goes deeper. With a large portion of ESPs working part-time, teachers have to take time out of the day to touch base with paraeducators, many of whom assist students with special needs.

Time with paraeducators, if the support staff works only four hours per day, means time away from the rest of the class, according to Brittell and Peck.

The union also claims a pay gap in comparison to surrounding districts — notably Seattle — leaves ESPs drastically underpaid, something Northshore School District refuted in a statement released after the union’s vote on June 8.

In the statement, the district claimed to “remain competitive” with employee salaries.

The union’s voice in important matters is another sore area. Brittell said he was invited to give input on a new superintendent, but only once. Otherwise, he said, the union was “completely shut out” of the process.

Brittell said he hopes the district will agree to work more closely with the teachers and support staff in developing ideas, rather than bringing pre-formulated ideas to the teachers for approval.

One such process is the use of district-required testing, something the union said has been ramped up in recent years to the point where the last month of school is spent test-prepping, rather than learning.

It’s also closely connected to the seventh goal on the list, which aims to cut down on non-teaching requirements for teachers — meetings, paperwork and the like.

School safety, the highest bargaining goal on the list, goes back to the last bond passed in 2014 in which the union said dollars were set aside for safety upgrades.

But still, the union said, two thirds of classrooms in the district have doors which must be locked from the outside in the event of a lock down.

“[Teachers] have to walk outside and hope to God they don’t get shot,” Brittell said.

The union is also asking for better camera coverage at school entrances and better record-keeping for incidents.

More discussions between the district and union officials are set for late July, with bargaining also scheduled in mid to late August. Certified staff contracts — teachers — will expire on Aug. 31.

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