The union that represents hourly Lawrence Public Schools employees has launched a public campaign in support of its members’ demand for a $3-an-hour raise.
The school board voted unanimously at its June 14 meeting to formally recognize the Personnel Association of Lawrence – Communications Workers of America as the bargaining unit for classified employees. Teams for PAL-CWA and the school district have been negotiating the union’s first contract on behalf of hourly employees such as paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries, electricians, and maintenance and food service workers.
In a news release this week, PAL-CWA Interim President Hannah Allison said the union had received an offer during negotiations July 21 that members considered “a huge insult.”
Allison wrote that “after weeks of our side coming up with solutions to try and increase our pay and improve our schools in doing so, the board and district administration told us they would not be willing to reallocate funds in order to give us more than a 2 cent/hour raise.”
During a negotiations meeting a week later on Wednesday, July 28, the union continued voicing its frustrations with the offer and countered with a request for a $3 an hour pay increase, which would bring the minimum wage for most hourly employees to $14. Allison said a wage calculator used during the negotiations process suggests a living hourly wage in Douglas County is $14.38.
“We’re in a district where we talk a lot about equity,” Allison said Friday, adding that the union wants to see anti-oppression work manifested in a way that shows the district values its frontline employees. “This is a piece of the equity puzzle. We want to make sure that all of our classified staff make a living wage.”
In the union’s news release, paraeducator and PAL-CWA bargaining team member Chrystal Hunter said employees who “survive on food stamps” and “give plasma” affect the education of district students. “You also know that while your classified staff and teachers survive on minimal raises and wages, there are 34 administrators that sit in newly remodeled buildings and offices making a very comfortable 6 figures (salary). If COVID has taught us anything, it is that we are a community and that we need to help and uplift one another, especially those in the most need.”
Allison said the union represents about 650 hourly employees, many of whom rely on public assistance and work second or third jobs to make ends meet. Allison said during a summer of negotiations, the union had proposed several “creative ideas” to help cover a wage increase for its members during a tough budget situation.
“We know it’s going to be difficult to get to a living wage given what’s going on with the budget, but we also know that we see administrators’ offices being remodeled,” Allison said. “Are we really valuing our frontline workers?”
Creative ideas proposed by the union, Allison said, included pursuing more flexibility in use of the district’s COVID-19 relief grant funding for salaries, selling unused district property that could generate revenue and allow for budget shifts, and spreading “the money around.”
“Can we ask everybody to pitch in a little, to take a cut, so that more people can survive?”
At Monday’s school board meeting, the board ratified its master agreement with teachers for the 2021-2022 school year. The agreement doesn’t give certified staff raises for vertical movement, which is the process of moving up on the pay scale according to experience, but they can earn additional wages for pursuing their education further. The school board approved a three-year contract renewal for Superintendent Anthony Lewis, without a raise on an annual salary of $226,530, at its meeting July 12.
With the district’s budget deadlines approaching, Allison said union members have welcomed the community’s help in negotiating the contract. Members took to social media this week asking friends to virtually attend negotiations sessions and to contact district administrators and school board members in solidarity. The school board’s calendar shows the district budget will be presented at its meeting Monday, Aug. 9, and a budget hearing will take place Monday, Sept. 13.
“I don’t know exactly what will happen next, but we are going to keep fighting for this, pushing for this, because that’s what our members are saying. Our members are texting our bargaining team and saying, ‘I can’t afford the things I need to survive. We’ve got to keep fighting,'” she said. “… We know we can’t do a good job of cleaning the buildings, of educating the students, feeding our students if we’re worried about where the food is going to come from for our families.”
Year after year, Allison added, hourly employees have been expected to take on the duties of multiple positions, whether due to budget cuts, the COVID-19 pandemic or low wages. As of Friday afternoon, the district’s jobs website listed openings for 55 paraprofessionals, 26 food service employees, four custodians and more. The district sponsored a recruitment fair and a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic at its administrative offices Wednesday morning. By Thursday, Aug. 19, all K-12 students will have started the school year.