Port Angeles School District, paraeducators aren't closer to a new contract

Membership voted to go on strike April 8 without agreement

PORT ANGELES — A nearly five-hour bargaining session between the Port Angeles School District and the Port Angeles Paraeducators Association did not bring them closer to an agreement on a new contract.

The two parties are scheduled to meet with a Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission mediator again on Thursday. The bargaining session took place last Wednesday.

PAPEA membership voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on April 8 if a deal can’t be reached.

Wages remain the hurdle in negotiations that began last summer and then stalled in December, leading the district and the PAPEA to request a PERC mediator to help resolve the impasse.

According to a representative with the Washington Education Association, which represents public school employees, the PAPEA is its only local whose members are working without a contract.

Paraeducators are seeking the same 3.7 percent pay increase the district and the Port Angeles Education Association, which represents teachers and counselors, agreed to in September.

The teacher contract guarantees salary resets each year over the next three school years based on the implicit price deflator (IPD) — the adjustment the state uses to counteract inflation’s effect on K-12 educator wages. This year, that number was 3.7 percent; it is expected to increase to 3.9 percent next year.

The PAPEA has said low wages have meant many of its members must work two jobs in order to get by. The low pay has also made hiring and retaining paraeducators difficult, it said, putting further strain on the current overtaxed workforce.

“We’ve made it so clear, we just can’t keep going on like this,” PAPEA President Rebecca Winters said.

The paraeducator salary schedule that expired Aug. 31 paid hourly wages ranging from $21.68 to $28.33. Like teachers, paraeducators work 10 months out of the year, but their salaries are paid out over the course of 12 months.

The district has said funding from the state for wage adjustments did not cover the cost of providing 3.7 percent raises for every employee, including paraeducators.

“We have more employees than what the state budgets for,” said Scott Harker, the district’s director of human resources. “We have more psychologists than what is funded, school nurses, counselors. That’s just the reality of public school funding in the state of Washington.”

The PAPEA has pushed back, acknowledging that perennial underfunding is a problem but arguing that the district needs make better allocation decisions that takes into account all employees — not just teachers and administrators — as part of the budgeting process.

“The state has never provided full funding for staff,” said Winters, who is also a paraeducator at Hamilton Elementary School. “You know what you need to pay your staff, so you need to have that budgeted. Teachers, secretaries, custodians, all us should have been budgeted in.”

In addition to a 3.7 percent raise, the paraeducators are asking the district to lower the salary step from four years to one year; pay enhancements for degrees and certifications; and revise the longevity payment schedule, which now requires 20 years of experience before a paraeducator can qualify for it.

Harker said the district has to consider the cost of those demands, not just salary, in negotiations.

“The total compensation package is the sticking point,” he said.

The district is wrestling with financial pressures on a number of different fronts, including declining enrollment that has led to decreased support from the state and from inflation that has made purchases more costly. Last spring, the district made $5 million in cuts — including letting go paraeducators — to meet its $55 million budget for 2023-2024.

Having fewer students has had a significant impact on state money for special education. The state caps funding for students with disabilities at 15 percent of a district’s total enrollment. However, 20 percent of students in Port Angeles require special education services, leaving the district on the hook to pay the remaining 5 percent.

The district has also felt the fiscal impact of having to switch in 2019 from administering its own health care benefit plan to a more costly mandatory state-run, single-payer system under which part-time staff like paraeducators are eligible to receive the same benefits as full-time employees.

“Most of or a great proportion of the paras receive full benefits,” Harker said.

If the district and paraeducators fail to come to an agreement next week, additional sessions with the mediator have been scheduled for March 19 and 27. If those discussions don’t lead to a new contract, the PAPEA could vote to go on strike.

In November 2018, a paraeducator strike closed district schools for two days when teachers refused to cross the picket line.

Winters said paraeducators are exhausted from fighting.

“We love our jobs. You’re like, ‘This is where I belong,” Winters said. “But man, you sure want to be appreciated for the work you do.”

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Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at paula.hunt@peninsulanews.us.

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