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A tiny local has a big win

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Fern Johnson Centerville EA
Fern Johnson, Centerville fifth-sixth grade teacher.

Centerville hadn’t pushed hard for contract gains in years. They decided to seek 150 hours of additional pay, but were denied. So they decided to stand tough, and will end up with 180 additional paid hours instead.

Centerville had never been the center of union activism in Washington.

The town’s K-8 school has five teachers and a half-dozen more support staff to transport students to and from school, prepare and serve healthy meals, clean and care for the school building, answer the phone and assist with teaching students in the classroom. The full-time principal is only a recent addition. The superintendent is contracted to work one day a month.

“It’s a very unique school,” says Fern Johnson, the fifth-sixth grade teacher. In Centerville, everyone teaches two grades. Each day is a half-hour longer, too, because schedules have to include time to ferry students to Goldendale, where 9th- to 12th-graders attend high school.

“Teachers that were here previously have been here for about 30 years,” Johnson adds. “There were long periods of time with no turnover. Very, very, dedicated teachers, very selfless —  as most teachers are.”

So when work demands increased, when teaching duties crowded out prep time, Centerville’s teachers took on the extra load and demanded nothing in return.

Their wages fell behind, with three extra days to prepare for the school year, but nothing more.

Recent retirements opened the door for change as three new teachers joined the staff. Because of

the bus schedule, however, it was hard to shorten the length of the school day. With each teacher

already teaching two grades, no specialists offer an instructional respite to create planning time.

With very few options to cut back on work, Centerville’s teachers decided the only solution was to ask for additional hours of pay. So last spring, they outlined their reasoning at the bargaining table.

“Our proposal was 150 hours at per diem,” recalls Lucy Rinehart, the first- and second-grade teacher, and the teachers’ local president. “When we as a union were respectfully declined, we looked at other ways of doing that. … We didn’t give up. And we worked toward something that we were all in agreement with.

“We ended up with 140 hours the first year, 160 the following year, and then 180 the third year of  the contract.”

That’s 18 additional days of pay in year 1, or 10 percent of the school year, 20.6 days in year 2, and 23 days in year 3. The school day, at 7.75 hours, is now officially 15 minutes shorter than before, and teachers have one more paid day to prepare for school, bringing the total additional paid time by the third year from 3 days to more than 27 days annually.

Third-fourth grade teacher Jody Daniels said part of the success of winning more paid hours than were initially requested was setting a fixed hourly rate and then phasing in the increases over time.

“I don’t think that the board didn’t appreciate us and didn’t appreciate our time — it was never that — I think that the issue was that they couldn’t plan financially,” Daniels says, “until they knew how much to expect for each year.”

Centerville’s support staff are still locked in negotiations as of late December. Key issues include increasing pay, and equalizing pay between jobs. It’s a philosophic point, but also the reality

when job duties overlap in the small school.

“It’s important that everybody goes up (in pay) but it’s also important whose job is valued more,

and so we think everybody is valued the same, job-wise,” says Karie Rolfe, president and paraeducator. “Let’s try just a base wage for everybody, and then, based on seniority, go up.”

The common thread is that it doesn’t take a big union to move contracts forward.

“If we can do it in Centerville, everyone can stand up for themselves,” Daniels says. “There’s only five of us, and we accomplished a pretty large task that was set forth in front of us in a fairly small amount of time with some assistance from the WEA. But we accomplished it by working together, and by sticking to our guns.”

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