Public school employees demand better pay

The Public School Employees union of Oak Harbor is negotiating a contract with the district.

The Public School Employees union of Oak Harbor, also known as PSE 821, is still in the process of negotiating a contract with the Oak Harbor School District despite the previous contract having expired Aug. 31.

On Sept. 14, PSE 821 members gathered outside of North Whidbey Middle School — where negotiations were taking place — with signs to show support for their negotiating team.

As a result of the delay, more than 425 union workers — which include people who work in accounting, custodial service, warehouse, food service, grounds, maintenance, instructional assistance, secretarial/clerical, information services, transportation and technical services — are currently working under the 2020 contract and are demanding better pay.

The challenges, according to PSE 821 President Jason Hebb, derive primarily from the loss of the CARES Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds — which provided schools with financial support in the few years following the pandemic.

Additionally, the bargaining takes time. Hebb said negotiations started around March.

“I know they have their limits in what they can offer,” said Hebb, who works as a paraeducator. “We have comparable school districts that we go off of and so I’m just hoping that we can come to an agreement on the financial aspect that’s mutually beneficial.”

Under the expired contract, the base pay is $27.24 for a custodian, $21.72 for a food service worker, $22.83 for a paraeducator, $34.32 for a carpenter and $29.07 for a bus driver, according to the salary schedule.

In a message sent to PSE 821 members Monday, Hebb said the district remains behind on the general wage increase percentage compared to other districts in the area as it is unwilling to provide much above the regional implicit price deflator for personal consumption, an index used to measure inflation.

The union and the district have agreed not to disclose details of the contract, but Hebb said that the districts in Anacortes, Mount Vernon, La Conner, South Whidbey and Stanwood have all offered percentages above the IDP.

“We want to attract and retain quality school employees, but if they’re not paid a living and competitive wage, how can we keep them?” Hebb said. “How can our students receive a quality education if we can’t attract and retain quality employees?”

Dan Ritter, who works as a carpenter for the district, said public school employees want a livable wage that shows respect for what they do. He said they make much less working for the district than they would working for the general public.

He understands the challenges now that COVID relief funds are gone, but he thinks employees shouldn’t be paying the consequences. Instead, he said, the district should reconsider their priorities.

“Why should the members of our union who are the lowest paid have to pay for the fact that the district is now broke?” Ritter said.

The union will meet with the district bargaining team Wednesday and Thursday at North Whidbey Middle School. In his message to the union, Hebb encouraged members to show up again to advocate for competitive wages.

The district bargaining team was unable to talk to the press, but stated via email that the negotiation teams have successfully collaborated on many issues throughout the bargaining process and that the district looks forward to further productive discussions.