Lake Washington schools’ support staff take sick day Monday to protest wages

Most secretaries in the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) called in sick on Monday, March 8, but apparently not because of an epidemic. In a press release issued by Lake Washington Educational Support Personnel (LWESP) that afternoon, LWESP spokesperson Sheila Nokes wrote, “Desks of LWESP members were largely empty Monday with the vast majority of members calling in sick. The LWESP support staff members often go the extra mile to show up for work even when they’re not feeling well, but not Monday. And it’s no surprise, either. The administration seems to remain blind to the contribution those employees make, preferring to instead give themselves raises with annual increases that exceed $20,000 for top administrators, while stonewalling the support staff contract talks. On Monday, support staff said enough.”

Most secretaries in the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) called in sick on Monday, March 8 but apparently not because of an epidemic.

In a press release issued by Lake Washington Educational Support Personnel (LWESP) that afternoon, LWESP spokesperson Sheila Nokes wrote, “Desks of LWESP members were largely empty Monday (March 8) with the vast majority of members calling in sick. The LWESP support staff members often go the extra mile to show up for work even when they’re not feeling well, but not Monday. And it’s no surprise, either. The administration seems to remain blind to the contribution those employees make, preferring to instead give themselves raises with annual increases that exceed $20,000 for top administrators, while stonewalling the support staff contract talks. On Monday, support staff said enough.”

The LWESP organization has been battling the LWSD to receive “a living wage.” LWESP members said their job duties and costs of living have significantly increased while their compensation has remained stagnant.

In response, LWSD communications director Kathryn Reith said the district needs to maintain constant cost to anticipate its expenses — and that funding is limited by the amount the district can get from the state.

OUT-OF-TOWN MEETING

March 8’s LWESP press release also mentioned last weekend’s LWSD leadership retreat in Leavenworth.

Nokes wrote, “District leaders are returning to work rested and relaxed, we trust, after a weekend retreat on the taxpayers’ dime at a posh resort in Eastern Washington … as they contemplate which employee wages to freeze and what staffing reductions might be made next year. It’s a double standard to which district leaders seemingly remain blind.”

When asked about the reason for and cost of the retreat, Reith stated, “The school board has for years gone to an offsite location once a year that is far enough away to remove any distractions, ensuring the time and focus for significant reflection and work. They spend Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning getting reports from staff that result in productive discussions among the board, around district goals and directions. The complete cost for the board and staff members was just over $5,000. The board members do not take the $50 stipends they can take by law for each board meeting attended. Instead, the just over $5,000 that would come to (23 meetings at five members, times $50) is used to pay for this retreat.”

POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES

Could the LWESP members face negative consequences due to the mass “sick day?”

Nokes commented, “It’s true that an unusually high number of employees were out sick (March 8) because they didn’t go the extra mile that has become normal. Our members instead opted to follow the provisions for sick days under their contract and adhere to the advice of health professionals to stay home when we are not feeling well.”

Nokes added, “The district shouldn’t attempt to punish employees simply because they are no longer giving above and beyond what is required. It would be much more responsible for the district to devote its time and energy to settling a contract so that employees are willing to go that extra mile.”

According to Reith, however, “As specified in the LWESP contract: ‘Sick pay will be paid only for periods of absence caused by illness or injury of the employee or the immediate family of the employee.’”

Reith continued, “Individuals who ask for sick pay when the absence is not caused by illness or injury are asking to be paid for a day when they did not work and were not entitled to leave. That is tantamount to a theft of public funds. This offense is subject to discipline, anywhere from a warning up to and including termination.”

She said the district will investigate each individual who took sick leave on (March 8), to determine whether they violated the rule.

“Those who did will receive appropriate consequences,” said Reith.

WHO FILLS IN?

LWESP members’ job duties range from answering phones, maintaining records and ordering supplies to dispensing medication to students, etc. So if school secretaries call in sick, who takes on those duties?

“Indeed, our staff members are a critical link in the daily success of schools. … When LWESP members no longer perform above and beyond their job expectations for a single day, the impact is immediate and palpable,” said Nokes.

Reith said, “Something like ordering supplies can usually wait a day. On the other hand, dispensing medication to students and answering phones can not. (March 8), some schools were able to get substitutes. In others, volunteers and other staff members, including principals, pitched in to get the essential work done.”

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

According to the LWESP press release, “Base pay for Superintendent Chip Kimball jumped nearly $10,000 last school year, to more than $190,000. In recent years, the district has added as much as $68,500 a year to the superintendent’s wages in extra pay and ‘other non-detailed salary.’ The deputy superintendent’s base pay jumped $21,420 last school year. Base pay for chief officers jumped $22,225 each, to $144,050 and the district keeps three on the payroll. Those individual raises are more than the annual salary that the district pays to many of its support staff.”

Reith responded, “While individual numbers seem correct, they are taken out of context.”

Reith explained, “The district’s approach to bargaining with this and any group, including the administrators, is to aim for a compensation level that is third on a list of comparable school districts. That’s true for wages as well as for additional compensation, like that received by the superintendent. Those administrators received the raise in the summer of 2008. The numbers cited include both the raise and the 4.4 percent state-mandated cost of living increase that the secretaries also received. Administrators had not received a raise since 2005 and they have not received either a raise or a cost of living increase since then.”

Furthermore, said Reith on March 9, “The average secretary in our district makes $18.27 per hour, which comes to the range of $28,000 to $31,000 for those who work less than a full year. School secretaries work a 200-day year and office managers work 220 days. Other members of the bargaining group who work in the central office may work a full year.”

In an e-mail received Monday, March 15, Reith clarified, “I checked with payroll and got more specific information on salaries. The salary range for secretaries is actually $26,704 to $33,782 and the average school secretary makes $30,375. The salary range for office managers is $31,736 to $41,933 and the average school office manager receives $36,875. Secretaries who work a full year in the district offices make more but the bulk of the bargaining unit works in the schools.”

PUBLIC INPUT

Nokes said that parents in the LWSD have been very supportive of the LWESP.

Nokes added, “I think our communications director’s implied threat to cut our jobs highlights the administration’s disconnect with Lake Washington schools. Which would parents say is more important in the budget? The warm and smiling secretary who helps out in the health room and gets their students on the bus safely, or keeping communications administrators on the payroll to criticize their own staff members?”

The LWSD will conduct five public meetings this month, where parents and other community members can examine budget cuts proposed by the state and complete surveys indicating where they think cuts should be made.

Reith said individual secretaries from the district are welcome to attend the meetings and fill out forms, along with anyone else from the community.

“There is an open-ended question where they can comment on anything,” Reith concluded.

An online input form will be open from March 16-26 at www.lwsd.org.

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