Paraeducators of Sumner-Bonney Lake march to district headquarters during fair pay strike

SUMNER, Wash. -- More than 200 people in the Sumner Paraeducator Association and their supporters marched to the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District headquarters Friday, yelling chants like, “We are all worth it.”

Nearly 10,000 students were not in class Friday, as paraeducators at all 14 schools went on strike for fair pay.

Paraeducators offer a number of resources in the classroom, including assisting teachers, supporting special needs children and acting as counselors for students.

Jen Dodson said she has been a paraeducator at Sumner High School for three years. Dodson said she and her colleagues are paid much less than other paraeducators in surrounding districts. According to the Washington Education Association, Sumner-Bonney Lake paraeducator’s salary fell below other districts.

“We are losing paraeducators to districts around us. They are leaving us for better pay. Because the districts around us are paying $4 and $5 more an hour,” said Dodson.

Teachers in the district were not on strike, but stood in solidarity with paraeducators, not crossing picket lines. High school teacher Sean Foster said the extra help in his classroom was more than just a teacher’s aide.

“Paraeducators are the difference between success and failure for some of the most vulnerable students. Our district says we want 100 percent graduation, and paras are the difference between high graduation rate and 100 percent graduation,” said Foster.

The Sumner Paraeducator Associations said its board started negotiations with the district and school board in June. Paraeducators were working without a contract since late August.

Administrators said they cleared their schedules all weekend to work towards a solution.

“We are definitely committed to reaching an agreement that’s in the best financial interest of the district. We want to definitely make sure everyone is feeling valued and is well compensated. They are worth being back in the classroom and educating our kids,” said Elle Warmuth, communications director for the district.

Warmuth said administrators are hopeful to reach an agreement, with the goal of having everyone back in school on Monday. Warmuth said she was not able to discuss the proposals due to confidentiality.

“I’m not at the table, but I have the utmost confidence of those who are at the table negotiating,” said Warmuth.

Dodson said the situation should not have escalated to a strike in the first place.

“This was the last thing we wanted to do. It hurts my heart, it really does, because the first thing that comes to my heart is the students,” said Dodson. “We need to do something. Enough is enough. We need to say this is what we want, this is what we’re asking for, let’s just do this.”

The district offered free breakfast and lunch at schools for children who depend on school meals. Warmuth said scheduling for events or after school activities was not impacted.

Warmuth also mentioned the district would communicate with parents during every step of the process so families could plan accordingly.