Maria Knight has been a paraeducator at Beaver Lake Middle School since 2007. She can’t afford to live within the Issaquah School District (ISD), but she still chooses to commute more than an hour every day to school to support the special needs students in her classroom.
Paraeducator salary is among the lowest in the district — almost on par with custodians. But, for Knight, she said she makes the sacrifice because she loves the kids and the district she serves.
When she and other paraeducators in the district learned they would be receiving a 4-percent salary increase with their new contract, knowing there was also a cost of living adjustment (COLA), Knight said she was happily surprised.
“It almost seemed too good to be true,” Knight said. “Now, we know it was.”
As of Sept. 1, the beginning of the district’s fiscal year, ISD office personnel and paraeducators were expecting to see their salary increases as well as the COLA increases they had each bargained for during last year’s contract negotiation.
The district honored it’s contract agreement for the office personnel’s salary increase of 2.5 percent and the paraeducators salary increase of 4 percent, but the district is not honoring its contract agreement for each group’s COLA.
COLAs, also known as “pass-throughs,” function to counteract the effects of inflation identified by the State of Washington through legislation or initiative.
The majority of ISD teachers and staff live outside of the district unable to afford Issaquah’s higher cost of living. Many rely on the COLA as a stable financial addition.
Emily Freet, the assistant to the principal at Maple Hills Elementary and new chapter president of the Issaquah Association of Educational Office Professionals, said when she received the news that not only were they not receiving their COLA, but also the term itself no longer existed, she lost trust with the district.
“The district usually tells us what [the COLA] will be, but when we hadn’t heard from them our union rep reached out to the district and asked what it was going to be this year, and they said we weren’t going to be getting a COLA this year — that the term no longer exists,” Freet said. “They said they were going to replace it with a few other things, but that it wouldn’t even come to half of what the COLA raise would have been… We were startled, to say the least, because we were in the middle of the contract. They had already agreed to pay us that money. That money was scheduled and funded, and they chose not to pay us.”
Hollie Caley, the assistant to the principal at Issaquah Valley Elementary and the former co-president of the Public School Employees (PSE), part of the bargaining team that put together the current contract, said the district is claiming misinterpretation of the “pass-through” money designation.
“They chose not to recognize the ‘pass through’ money from the state as COLA this year because they said their interpretation was that it was not designated as a cost of living,” Caley said.
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between ISD and Issaquah Association of Educational Office Personnel for September 2017 through August 2021 under Section 17.2.1, the district “shall pass-through cost-of-living adjustments” for the periods covered in the contract. “Effective Sept. 1, 2018, employees shall receive a 2.5 percent [salary] increase above COLA for 2018-2019.”
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between ISD and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925 Paraprofessionals for September 2017 through August 2021 under Section 17.6.3, each step on the wage schedule will receive a COLA “plus a  percent [salary] increase.”
These excerpts from the paraeducators and office personnel contracts suggest each party agreed there would be a COLA for the duration of the contract.
ISD declined to comment due to participating in ongoing bargaining meetings with union representatives.
“We’re talking about a small percentage — we’re not talking about a huge amount of money this year,” Caley said. “It’s more about the respect and trust… They don’t respect us, and now we don’t trust them to do right by us.”
Knight agrees that money isn’t the point.
“It’s really not about the money. It has more to do with the fact that the district doesn’t value or respect us… It feels kind of like a slap in the face,” Knight said. “We’re upset that both parties agreed to this and they are choosing not to honor the contract.”
More than 100 grievances have been filed against the district.
“We have been following the proper grievance steps, and we will see this to resolution,” Freet said.
The office personnel and paraeducators aren’t planning to walk out because they believe in the work they’re doing, Caley said.
“We’re still coming to work everyday and proud of our job,” she said. “[Office personnel] are usually the first ones in and the last ones to leave… We are the people that make it run, and so it wouldn’t benefit the kids and families we serve everyday to walk out.”
The office personnel, paraeducators and their supporters gathered for the Oct. 10 school board meeting and handed out a petition with more than 100 signatures and delivered it to board members. They are planning on forming some kind of collective sign of support at the next board meeting scheduled for Nov. 7.