Focus turns now to paraeducators, food service workers

President of Tacoma Federation of Para-Educators, AFT 461 Barb Randall-Saleh works as a Speech Language Pathologist Assistant at Tacoma Public Schools. Her call and that of other paraeducators stand strong as negotiations start over their contract. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The start of school this week after a six-day teachers strike ended last week with the signing of a new contract didn’t end the labor negotiations for Tacoma Public Schools.

Next up are salary talks for paraeducators and food service workers, who want their share of the wage bump that teachers received. This comes at a time when the district faces a budget shortfall of $38 million next year if lawmakers don’t address the formula for state funding of education that all sides agree shortchanges urban school districts.

“Without changes in state funding, Tacoma Public Schools will face painful cuts,” according to the district’s statement about the contract.

Tacoma Education Association and the district reached an agreement last Friday that ended the picket lines outside Tacoma schools that delayed the start of the school year. The new contact increases teacher and certified staff salaries by about 14 percent, and bumps office staff wages by about 19 percent, which make them competitive for the region. Teachers in nearby districts have received similar wage hikes, courtesy of the state’s response to the Supreme Court ruling on the McCleary decision that the state was underfunding education, particularly wages for public educators.

Wage negotiations are about to start for the 600 or so paraeducators – the teacher’s assistants and specialists working in the district. Many work part time and have two or three jobs to make ends meet. Those talks begin with the teachers’ union remembering how the paraeducators walked the picket lines in support of their strike. They plan to reciprocate.

“This is no longer a moment,” American Federation of Teachers-Washington President Karen Strickland said during a rally this week that drew more than 100 educators and supporters. “This is a movement.”

The crowd then chanted, “When we fight, we win.”

Talks over wage increases for paraeducators started with the district’s offer of 3.4 percent raises with formal starts likely to begin later this fall and restricted to only wages since the current contract runs through 2020, said President of Tacoma Federation of Para-Educators, AFT 461 Barb Randall-Saleh. The union is prepping to fight for higher wages and more hours, which are often officially just four hours a day when many paraeducators work full days to aid teachers in crowded classrooms.

“We have got to stop giving the district hours,” she said.

Phil Bessenas is a special education teacher at Jefferson Elementary School and supports the fight for paraeducators getting wage increases. He was a paraeducator for the first two years of his 30 years in teaching with the district.

“I can’t do my job without their support,” he said. “They should get a living wage. The paras are a critical part of this picture. There are quite a few paras working for the district who are homeless and living in their cars.”

One of his two paraeducators buses to Tacoma from Puyallup every day because she doesn’t have a car.

“I’m not attacking the Tacoma School District,” he said. “This is a problem we have as a country. We have a ‘have and have not’ society. There is no middle class anymore. I think that if you are working, you should have a livable wage and not be in poverty.”

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  1. I hope the paras get a raise! Teenagers often make the same wages during their summer jobs.

    I also want to mention that substitute teachers did not get a raise. In addition, Tacoma Public Schools will only pay retired TPS teachers certificated pay for long term jobs. Alll of the other subs who fill the role of teacher for the same class for an extended period of time get the same daily pay as a regular sub. The daily rate of a sub equates to about $30k for the school year if the sub were to work every single day (extremely unlikely). Seattle offers much higher pay and benefits to subs, plus pay certificated pay for long term subs after 15 days. I am a certificated sub with a master’s and made less than $20k last year and most of the school year included a long term assignment. I choose to sub because it works well for my family right now, but I will think twice before taking on another long term assignment in Tacoma.

    p.s. Paras make way more in Seattle as well! it would be worthwhile to bus from Puyallup to Seattle instead of Tacoma to do the same job.

  2. I would be interested in an article that would showcase the difderence in pay between a para and an administrator. It is my understanding that Santirno makes nearly double my ANNUAL salary every MONTH. Are we still confused about where all the money went?

  3. Per a recent TEA official release, Santirno make $291,000. In perspective, Gov Inslee makes $171,898 and he is in charge of the whole state!

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