Andrew Freeman, head custodian at Everett High School, protests with other union members outside of the Everett School Board Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Andrew Freeman, head custodian at Everett High School, protests with other union members outside of the Everett School Board Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘We work just as hard’: Everett paraeducators rally for fair wages

Paraeducators didn’t get the same pay increases tied to the McCleary decision. They’ve been in contract negotiations for months.

EVERETT — Paraeducators, wearing the purple and blue colors of their unions, lined the perimeter of the Everett Public Schools offices Tuesday to call for livable wages.

Dozens of workers — paraprofessionals, nutritionists, IT workers and facilities staff — rallied before Tuesday’s school board meeting, saying their income isn’t enough to make ends meet.

Paraprofessionals’ wages in the state average below $30,000 annually, below what the state considers “low-income,” according to a study by the American Institutes for Research.

The district’s uncertified employees, many of them represented by Public School Employees of Washington SEIU Local 1948 and SEIU Local 925, have been in contract negotiations for about six months.

“Paraeducators provide vital services to the students who need us most,” Laura Rogers, president of the Everett union chapter and paraeducator at Jackson Elementary School, said in a written statement. “It is time for Everett School District to implement competitive wages that minimize turnover and provide increased stability for the students who rely on us.”

The sun breaks through the clouds while protestors chant outside of the Everett School Board Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The sun breaks through the clouds while protestors chant outside of the Everett School Board Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

District spokesperson Kathy Reeves said, “We respect everyone’s right to express their thoughts.”

“We continue to bargain in good faith and look forward to seeing progress soon,” she added.

Shawn Bishop, the SEIU 925 chapter director, said the school board denied the union’s ask for a 10% wage increase, instead offering a 4% raise.

“We’re not trying to shoot for the moon, we’re just trying to stay on top of inflation,” Bishop said. “We understand about hard times, but we’re all living those hard times, right?”

Mass layoffs have loomed over Everett and surrounding districts, as schools across the county are expected to lose millions in funding by next year. Protesters expressed frustration at the pay gap between paraeducators and administrative staff.

The highest-paid paraeducator earns around $79,000 annually, while the best-paid teacher earns an estimated $142,800, according to 2022 salary schedules. A deputy superintendent, meanwhile, can earn over $250,000 per year.

Among other requests, union members were asking for Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Per state law, employers are not required to provide paid leave for holidays.

Turnover rates among paraprofessionals have doubled in Washington from 11% or less to 23% in the past decade, according to the American Institutes for Research study.

Gina Detlor, a district employee since 2015, said the child-to-staff ratios are unsafe, in some cases leaving one person to supervise hundreds of children.

Two children walk toward the Everett Public Schools building to protest with paraeducators on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Two children walk toward the Everett Public Schools building to protest with paraeducators on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“This is not safe,” Detlor said. “We are losing employees and not replacing them, and this negatively impacts our students and safety. We are told that budget cuts would not affect safety or lerning, but it’s become an issue.”

At the meeting, school board directors declined to respond to the protesters’ comments, in line with district policy.

“Please remember, your students are listening,” director Pam LeSesne said. “Students are listening here in the boardroom as well as online or even after the meeting.”

Cathy Rupe, the kitchen manager at Jackson Elementary School, said support staff works “just as hard as the teachers, if not harder.”

“We do before school, we do supervision, we do lunchtime, recesses,” she said. “We do after school, and if we weren’t there, the school building would not open without us. It just wouldn’t happen.”

Employees said they worry about how understaffing affects the students.

“I am concerned about what is happening in Everett,” said Jill Jackson, a paraeducator at Cascade High School, “and that it will ultimately be the students who suffer as employees seek livable wages.”

Ashley Nash: 425-339-3037; ashley.nash@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @ash_nash00.

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