Stay the Course
A ‘bullheaded group’ inspired by students is hard to stop
By John Rosales
It was three days before Thursday’s regular 7 p.m. board meeting in the Selah School District (SSD) of Washington state. People in this close-knit community near Yakima can set their watches by the long-standing gathering.
On that Monday morning in April, members of the Selah Education Support Personnel (SESP) and Selah Educational Office Personnel (SEOP) posted fliers on bulletin boards at five schools and the administration office announcing their Rally for Respect starting at 5:30 p.m. on the day of the meeting.
“They Can Run But They Can’t Hide,” the fliers read.
Tensions were already high. For 18 months, both unions and SSD had been bargaining a joint contract. Notices of the rally strained negotiations further since it called for protesters to assemble just outside the board room building.
“We wanted board members to see all the support we had as they entered the parking lot,” says Cindy Huntamer, SEOP president. “We made signs and buttons…ordered pizza and sodas.”
But when it came time for the 7 p.m. meeting, the board room was deserted. School administrators had changed the meeting’s start time. It had already taken place—at 7 a.m.
Solidarity Wins the Day
District officials had apparently ignored a Washington state law requiring state agencies to provide 20 days notice to change a regularly scheduled meeting of this type.
“[They] claimed the decision was made the week before, but they didn’t announce it until the day before,” says Huntamer, a federal programs secretary at the district’s early learning center.
“We found out by email,” Huntamer adds. “We were not pleased over the sudden change or that the meeting was now at a time when most people are at work.”
Unfazed, some members attended the early part of the meeting before checking in at work. Similarly, union officials decided to proceed with the demonstration.
“We’re a pretty bullheaded group,” says Butch Thompson, the district’s lead custodian and a former SESP president. “We had strong community support for that rally, so we decided to see it through.”
Despite knowing the board meeting was cancelled, more than 50 determined education support professionals (ESPs), teachers, parents, students, and community members appeared later in the day—closer to the rally’s planned start time. They carried signs, chanted, and passed out leaflets as planned.
“That rally was one example of how the community got behind us,” says Thompson, chair of the bargaining committee. Within weeks of the rally, a three-year agreement was reached.
“They had a large cash reserve and just didn’t want to give any of it to us,” Thompson says. “They (district negotiators) were more willing to talk after they saw what was happening.”
Board Actions Inspire Robust ActivismUniServ director Sue Laib of the Washington Education Association (WEA) says momentum built in the months leading up to the settlement. The SESP consists of approximately 120 paraeducators, 20 bus drivers, and 20 custodians, while SEOP is comprised of 20 secretaries.
“When administrators changed the time of the April board meeting, it showed how concerned they were about their employees being strongly supported by the community,” Laib says.
Fliers announcing the Rally for Respect were placed on car windshields across the district, in store windows and teacher mailboxes. As community interest grew, traffic on SEOP/SESP’s Facebook page got a boost and local media began to cover ESP events.
Amid tense bargaining sessions over fair pay and cost-of-living adjustments, there was another compelling reason administrators rescheduled the board meeting on the day of the protest: A vote to extend Superintendent Shane Backlund’s contract was on the agenda.
“We knew his contract was going to be settled almost immediately after it came up for a vote,” says Huntamer. “We hadn’t settled our contract in over a year.”
The superintendent is paid approximately $13,700 per month in base salary with a $350 car allowance, $650 monthly stipend, and fully paid family medical benefits.
At a previous board meeting, a paraeducator had confronted the board about the superintendent earning more in one month than she and many of her colleagues did in a year. Starting pay for paraeducators is $14.25 per hour, and increases less than $2.50 an hour over the lifetime of an employee’s career.
Rallying the Community The SESP and SEOP units formed a crisis team to help inform ESPs about bargaining issues, create community awareness, and take the lead on logistics and protocols.
One of the first events team members organized was the March for Fairness where educators, friends, and family members produced dozens of signs and buttons in preparation for a protest march downtown.
In October, members had participated in another downtown event: Trunk or Treat. During a Halloween event, members set up an information table downtown with other organizations and handed out candy.
“From these events we built community spirit,” says Nancy Valenta, a WEA UniServ representative who helped SEOP with their organizing campaign and negotiations strategy. “They also helped bring the bargaining unit together.”
After a pattern of poorly-attended board meetings in previous years, attendance increased from an average of a dozen attendees per meeting in 2016 to about 40 people in February, then almost 90 in March.
When a district official announced at a board meeting that $400,000 out of $800,000 was being transferred from the district’s general fund to the capital fund, crisis team members helped get the word out about the transfer’s ramifications. Monetary transfers to a district’s capital fund are often permanent and used for structural improvements, not contractual agreements.
Valenta says previous negotiations in Selah had followed a familiar scenario where members accepted the district’s proposal and everyone went home.
“They (members) made it clear that this time they did not want to do that,” she says. “They were going to take a stand.”
Negotiations had never gone this long, according to Huntamer, a 27-year veteran with the district who works two additional jobs to help make ends meet.
“We had always sat back and said ‘OK, done,’” she explained. “This time we didn’t let down. It was: ‘Nope, sorry. If you can’t do better than that, we’re going home.’ We were more forceful this time.”