Enumclaw School District’s classified staff recently rejected a proposed wage increase, with union leadership saying the administration’s offer continued to place members on the bottom of the pay scale ladder and failed to address a general feeling of a lack of respect.
PSE SEIU Enumclaw No. 703 union members voted “overwhelmingly” against the increase last Friday, said President Deanne Fritschy. This vote was only about a base pay increase, only one item out of many in their full contract; it was not a vote on a full contract, nor a vote to strike. These sorts of contract negotiations, called a wage re-opener, happen once a year for two years for this union, which is when a full contract is then negotiated.
According to Fritschy, the main issues that led to this failed vote is not fairness, but a lack of inclusion and equality.
“Our members are the reason teachers can teach,” said Fritschy, giving examples of bus drivers transporting students, nutrition service staff serving meals and adhering to strict health guidelines, and paraeducators assisting vulnerable students. “The list goes on, and yet we are the lowest paid because we do not have teaching credentials.”
“The district is saddened to hear that members of our staff feel disrespected. Our district emphasizes relationships and appreciation, looking for any and all opportunities to thank and appreciate each person in our learning community,” said ESD Director of Communications Jessica McCartney, in response to a request for comment. “Though our appreciation can not always be a financial gesture, the District remains focused on ways to make sure each employee feels valued within our system.”
It’s unknown what wage request was proposed by the administration or countered by the union, which is typical for contract negotiations — it’s only after talks are successfully completed that knowledge can be made public.
So all that’s left for the parties to do now is get back to the negotiation table.
“Our goal is to find resolution,” Fletschy said, signaling that re-negotiating is the only way forward.
FEELINGS OF EXCLUSION
According to Fritschy, classified staff — which includes bus drivers, nutrition services, custodian and maintenance, office professionals, professional tech, and para educators — have been upset with the district for a while, but that their situation was exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
“As president, the concerns that are brought up quite often from our members are feeling disrespected, they’re not valued as much as our certificated staff (our teachers and our principles),” she said. “It’s an all around feeling that we’re just here to support all the other staff because they have higher leaning degrees, even though a large percentage of our leadership has Bachelor’s and Master’s as well. We are also licensed mechanics. We are licensed and certified CDL (commercial driver’s license) drivers. We have a lot of licensing that requires years of training, requires yearly renewal, yet, for whatever reason, we’re not seen as equal to the rest of the staff here at Enumclaw.”
Some of those complaints stem from the fact that classified staff feel they are generally excluded from trainings and decision-making discussions that are more available to certified staff (teachers).
“We have argued the merits of inclusivity to be included in our contract, but it always boils down to the willingness to pay classified to work outside their contracted hours,” Fritschy said. “Invitations to meetings, training, and other events are created with the ability and availability of certificated staff.”
McCartney responded that summer professional development for classified and certified staff is normally voluntary unless specifically required, since most of the content is specifically geared to teachers and classroom staff.
“Our classified positions do attend training required for their specific job responsibilities,” she continued. “Additionally, the District has offered and will continue to offer extra training opportunities for our classified employees as well as training related to safety and security.”
McCartney did note that classified staff are invited to building staff meetings, but they are often held outside their hourly work schedule.
INEQUITABLE PAY, LACK OF STAFF
According to Fritschy, one of the classified staff’s main grievances is that they feel the district supports, and pays, certified staff more because of their higher level of education.
“Certificated [and] classified… are two different skill sets that cannot be compared by degree or training. We are trades, we are licensed, we hold certifications, and we hold degrees too,” she said. “We tell our students that trades are just as important as a college degree. In that same breath… we do not treat and pay the trades personnel we have on staff with the same level of importance. Trades are essential whether in the public education system or in industry.”
Fritschy said that during the union’s last full contract negotiations, the union showed district administration that their pay was “significantly under” 27 other school districts.
“(At) our IT department… we had positions that were anywhere from $5 an hour less to $25 an hour less, compared to other districts within King County,” she continued. “And even though bus drivers received a 15% increase during those negotiations, “they’re still lower than other districts”, despite the fact that “they drive some of the craziest routes I have ever seen” given the district’s size (ESD is the 44th largest district by total square miles in Washington out of 295, according to proximityone.com).
The COVID-19 pandemic only served to exacerbate these negative feelings.
“Although I am thankful the school district didn’t lay any of us off, didn’t furlough us, we were still here… we were always here, while everyone else was at home,” Fritschy said.
During the full contact negotiations, Fritschy claimed the district said it didn’t have enough money to pay classified staff more for the additional work they were having to do, or hire more staff to share the workload.
For example, she said, IT worked extra hard to provide tech support for students who did not have internet to attend classes via Zoom; staff printed out physical assignments for those who continued to have unreliable internet; paraeducators worked in-person with students at school because remote learning could not be managed; custodians took on extra cleaning duties to conform to the ever-changing requirements laid out by the Department of Health and OSPI; and more, Fritschy said.
“And when we returned to in-person instruction our nutrition staff went from two lunch times to four lunch times… since legislators made all school meals free throughout the pandemic,” she continued. “Yet nutrition services staffing wasn’t increased, the time to prepare meals was not increased, and their wages were not increased.”
But at the same time the district said the budget didn’t allow for classified staff support, the district hired additional district-level administration, Fritschy said; “We agree that the district has the managerial right to increase labor. But then they tell us they cannot increase wages or increase [classified] staffing due to the district not making their budget because of the pandemic.”
Fritschy did not provide comparisons of ESD classified staff pay compared to other comparable or nearby districts by print deadline.
However, McCartney said “ESD pays classified positions similarly or higher than similar, surrounding districts.”
For example, bus drivers make between $26 and $31.50 at ESD, higher than White River, Orting, Auburn, and Tahoma (Auburn’s starting pay is higher than ESD’s).
Kitchen managers are in a similar situation; at a range of $23 to nearly $26, that puts ESD staff higher than Orting, Auburn, and Tahoma (White River has a lower starting pay, but slightly higher maximum pay).
McCartney also said that the claim of the district hiring administration during the pandemic was not accurate, and that various roles and responsibilities were split and spread among current staff. A new part-time public information officer was hited to help address the “significant increase in public record requests and… increased communication needs during and post-pandemic”, and others were hired to replace outgoing staff.
Finally, McCartney noted that additional classified staff have been hired after the 2021-2022 school year by nearly 14 full-time equivalent positions, from 204.55 full time employees to 2018.20 this year.
VALENTINE’S DAY BOMB THREAT
The Feb. 14 bomb threat, which completely closed the school to students and teachers, didn’t help classified staff feel better about their situation, either.
“Here was a situation where it was deemed unsafe for everybody to return to work, including students to not come to school, yet classified staff were called to come in,” Fritchy said.
In a later email interview, Fritschy clarified that some other building-level administration were also in the high school building because classified staff were present, but “this does not discount the fact that the threat was serious enough to close the high school for students and teachers.”
In response, McCartney said that despite the building being closed to students and teachers, the district and law enforcement determined it was safe for staff to be in the building.
“Following the threat, the district worked with our Nutrition Services Supervisor to create a plan to serve meals off-site, to ensure staff will not be working from the central kitchen if a situation like that occurs in the future,” she added.