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West Sacramento News-Ledger

School District Labor Bargaining Brings Up Tensions

May 07, 2024 10:41AM ● By Angela Underwood, photos by Angela Underwood

Special Education Teacher Eileen Pipher tells the school board she is exhausted from case overload, which is now 35 and only should be 28.

WEST SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - Approaching labor negotiations for Washington Unified School District (WUSD) teachers and civil service employees concern some.

At the April 25 regular school board meeting, West Sacramento Teachers Association (WSTA) President Doug Knepp and Civil Service Employee Association (CSEA) Vice-President Ruth Pagano began voicing concerns about upcoming salary settlements on the bargaining table.

"WSTA is not asking to break the bank; we are asking for consideration that since 2021, WUSD has received 15% of new ongoing funds, and since that time, we have not negotiated," Knepp said, adding that teachers are unsure of how to maintain their careers as educators.

West Sacramento Teachers Association Doug Knepp

 West Sacramento Teachers Association President Doug Knepp asks officials to please bargain fairly in the upcoming labor negotiations for teachers.

Knepp said labor negotiations brought good conversation until 2024, but this year, it is "different," with high health insurance, the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), and rocketing gas prices as new factors to consider. Knepp said rumor has it that teachers "don't know if they can maintain this and look out for my family."

"That's what we are hearing this year and I know you know this," Knepp said, adding, "We know that money came, and we haven't been a part of receiving a share of that to help us keep our teachers and recruit new teachers."

While Knepp fought for retention, Pagano pushed for frankness.

"We need to be transparent as possible with the public and staff," Pagano said. "In that transparency, I want to share that we, CSEA, are being told by the district that we are moving into a time of uncertainty for the fiscal outlook of WUSD."

Civil Service Employee Association Ruth Pagano

 Civil Service Employee Association Vice-President Ruth Pagano claims inequity in pay while reminding school officials they should remain transparent.

The West Sacramento News Ledger contacted Washington Unified School District executive director Giorgos Kazanis on the upcoming negotiations and WSTA and CSEA concerns. 

"These labor negotiations are a crucial part of district operations as they provide an opportunity for us to collaboratively address concerns, ensure fair compensation, and ultimately enhance the working environment for our valued employees," Kazanis said, adding that the cost-of-living adjustment is a significant factor in labor negotiations.

"We recognize the importance of COLA in maintaining the financial well-being of our staff members, especially in the face of rising living expenses," Kazanis said. "By considering COLA in our negotiations, we aim to ensure that our employees can afford to live and work in the communities they serve."

Aside from finances, case overload in the Special Education (SPED) concerns Knepp, encouraging officials to retain and recruit more specialized teachers when bargaining. Case overload and exhaustion are exactly what Eileen Pipher has, according to the sixth-year K-5 Special Education teacher at Elkhorn Village. 

"It's the type of exhaustion where you are dealing with problematic behaviors on such a consistent basis that you cannot teach your other students consistently," Pipher said. "The SPED team has been on overload all year and I also know we are not alone; other SPED teams on all levels in the district have the same concerns."

Calling the Special Education team "terrified," Pipher pleaded for help, noting according to policy, a teacher should not have more than 28 cases.

"However, I was told there was no other option and I am currently teaching 35 students," Pipher said. "We are also supposed to be compensated if we do go over and I have not heard or seen anything."

Kazanis said the district acknowledges the challenges described regarding workload and exhaustion, due to caseload demands.

"WUSD is actively reviewing these circumstances and exploring potential solutions to alleviate these pressures," Kazanis said. "We are committed to supporting our staff and ensuring they have the resources they need to effectively support our students with diverse needs."

As far as retaining teachers, Kazanis said, “though teacher shortages both in California and across the nation are always at the forefront of Washington Unified School District's mind, it has successfully maintained a level of staffing consistency and stability” in recent years.

"Our goal is to continue working hard to attract and retain the best talent to provide the highest quality education to our students," Kazanis said.

Uncertain finances are not the only problem, according to Pagano, who said CSEA employees are not sure where they will work on district grounds.

"This comes in response to deplorable conditions our members have been working in for years, mostly in the front building, which is now condemned," Pagano said.

Though employees relocated to different site rooms "deemed safe," the district remains unresolved on a permanent location, according to Pagano, who said one optional move will cost the district $90,000 a month. 

"Please share this information with the public and use it in your consideration for any move, change, or lease agreement,” Pagano said.

Kazanis said since the previous school board meeting, WUSD has completed facilitating the district office staff feedback survey about working conditions and shared the results with staff.

"WUSD continuously seeks opportunities to improve transparency and communication channels, including providing regular updates on working conditions and addressing concerns raised by our staff members," Kazanis said.

Pagano then brought officials' attention to the "4.25% automatic annual increases for the superintendent and the CBO, which were not included in the original calculations for management salaries" but have since been rectified. Next was the one-time COVID funds being used to pay some salaries in this district.

"What's interesting is that no directors are being paid with these one-time monies because they have no deadlines, yet there are 34 CSEA positions that have deadlines with those one-time monies and grants," Pagano said.

Civil Service Employee Association employees are "feeling imbittered to what they think is an inequity in pay," Pagano said, adding it should not matter that administration officials have college degrees and some Civil Service Employee Association employees might not. 

"We are under the impression administration receives automatic pay yearly to an already large salary, which does not seem fair," Pagano said. "As negotiations move forward, I ask you to increase to wages that are equitable."

Kazanis said the district understands the concerns raised by some classified employees regarding pay disparities and perceived inequities.

"WUSD values all members of our team and recognizes the importance of fair compensation," Kazanis said. "While salary structures are based on various factors, we are committed to addressing these concerns through ongoing dialogue and fair compensation practices, which are part of current labor negotiations with our CSEA partners."

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