Kaston Beckett, 6, joined the crowd Friday in front of the Clallam County Courthouse as it supported striking Port Angeles School District paraeducators. (Paul Gottlieb /Peninsula Daily News)

Kaston Beckett, 6, joined the crowd Friday in front of the Clallam County Courthouse as it supported striking Port Angeles School District paraeducators. (Paul Gottlieb /Peninsula Daily News)

School strike ends in PA; paraeducators, district come to agreement

PORT ANGELES — Port Angeles School District schools will reopen Monday after paraeducators approved a new three-year wage agreement with the district Friday, ending their historic two-day strike.

The pact to increase their wages about 15 percent as of Aug. 31 through August 2021 was approved by 94 percent of Port Angeles Paraeducators Association members who attended the Friday night union meeting, PAPEA Co-President Jennifer Abernathy Nanez said.

The increases will be about 5 percent a year, she said.

“I think everybody was excited and we are ready to go back to school,” Abernathy Nanez said.

“Both sides are happy, and we’re glad to be settled.”

The School Board is set to approve the agreement at its Dec. 13 meeting, district spokeswoman Patsene Dashiell said Friday evening.

Rally speaker Rebecca Gransbury, a paraeducator organizer, emotionally recalled a student thanking her, as a paraeducator, “for making me feel like I matter.” (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Rally speaker Rebecca Gransbury, a paraeducator organizer, emotionally recalled a student thanking her, as a paraeducator, “for making me feel like I matter.” (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

The pact was approved late Friday afternoon by school district and PAPEA negotiators following a demonstration by 150-200 paraeducators and teachers at the Clallam County Courthouse.

Confident about the outcome, district officials began calling parents shortly after 5 p.m. Friday notifying them that the agreement had been reached, “clearing the way for classes to resume Monday.”

“My belief is that both sides are very happy with the agreement,” Superintendent Martin Brewer said late Friday.

“We feel like it’s fair, we feel like it’s sustainable, and that’s exactly what we set out to do with all bargaining groups,” he said, echoing similar comments following a recent school district wage agreement with teachers.

First in state

The job action by the Paraeducators Association, a local of the Washington Education Association, was the first strike in Washington state by a paraeducators group affiliated with the WEA, WEA and National Education Association officials said.

It’s rare that any education support staff strikes at all, WEA spokesman Dale Folkerts said Friday, adding they include food service workers, groundskeepers and bus drivers.

“Paraeducators here are standing strong and breaking new ground in terms of expressing their need for fair and competitive wages,” Folkes said.

Strike supporters made their way in a long line around the courthouse Friday as they ended their hourlong rally. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Strike supporters made their way in a long line around the courthouse Friday as they ended their hourlong rally. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Debby Chandler, president of the National Education Association’s National Council for Education Support Professionals, estimated that at least 5,000 classified staff in Washington state are paraeducators.

“We don’t take time to toot our own horns,” Chandler said at the rally.

“These paraeducators work with the most vulnerable students, special education kids who are not able to read without the one-on-one paraeducators that they have.”

On Wednesday, the same day negotiations stalled, the district announced school facilities would be closed Thursday but that middle school and high school athletic activities would occur as scheduled.

The last negotiation session before Wednesday was Oct. 30, when an 18.5 percent gap separated the district and its paraeducators: The district offered paraeducators a 3.5 percent wage increase and paraeducators counter-offered with a 22 percent hike.

A week later, on Nov. 6, the paraeducators voted to strike beginning Thursday unless the district made a “fair and equitable offer” to resolve the dispute, PAPAE lead negotiator Barbara Gapper told Peninsula Daily News.

On Nov. 8, the district approved a 4.1 percent pay increase for other classified staff.

The base pay for paraeducators, whose duties include assisting teachers by helping to instruct students, helping educate and care for students who are disabled, and performing regular bus duty, is $15.68 an hour. The positions are not full-time but can exceed 30 hours a week.

The district averted a teachers strike Aug. 29 when the Port Angeles Education Association ratified a new salary schedule for the 2018-19 school year under which starting teachers are earning $47,000 a year.

As did teachers, paraeducators argued that money was available for the kinds of pay increases they were seeking, citing money the district received from the state Legislature for salary increases.

The district received the funds to fulfill the state Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund basic education under its McCleary decision.

School officials argued the district was cash-strapped due to a shortage of levy funding.

The PAEA’s agreement to honor the paraeducators’ picket lines was key to their clallroom colleagues’ ability to stand their ground, Paraeducators Association members said Friday.

Classified employees interviewed at the demonstration said the school district was calling substitute paraeducators to fill in for potential strikers mid-week last week and feared being replaced.

Paraeducator Linda Carraux was standing outside the courthouse shortly after the demonstration began.

A festive atmosphere already had taken hold.

Free pizza was being handed out, songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” were blaring from a boom-box, and Lincoln Street drivers were honking their horns in support.

Carraux estimated that at least 50 teachers were among those holding strike signs.

She said a substitute paraeducator had told her the district was trying to fill 26 striking paraeducator positions in anticipation of Thursday’s strike.

Then the teachers pledged their support by saying they would honor the strike, not working and thereby forcing the district to close the schools, making the hiring of paraeducator replacements a moot point.

When the rally moved to nearby Veteran Memorial Park, organizer Rebecca Gransbury thanked the protestors.

“We are making history because we are on strike,” she said.

“We know the sacrifice everyone is making.”

Eric Pickens, PAEA president, said paraeducators attended teachers’ rallies last summer during the PAEA’s dispute with the district, and now it was time to do the same for the paraeducators.

“We work side by side with them in our classrooms and our schools, so we are going to stand side by side with them in solidarity,” Pickens said, adding that the teachers’ action in support of paraeducators was unique, too.

Abernathy Nanez said the timing was right for paraeducators to press for higher wages because of McCleary money.

“This is the time to do it because this is when the money is here, and if we didn’t do it now, we’re not ever going to get it done,” she said at the rally.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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