School service employees to be furloughed, rather than laid off

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The Blaine school board voted unanimously to approve a letter of agreement between the district and a union representing school service employees that will furlough employees until October 31. Under this agreement, staff such as bus drivers, food service providers and paraeducators will keep their health insurance. Previously, service employees feared they would be laid off.

“This is not the ideal but given all the things that we know right now, it’s where I think we can feel good about the support we’ve given our people,” said Blaine school district superintendent Christopher Granger during the August 24 school board meeting.

This comes after an August 18 layoff announcement to union members from Blaine’s Service Employees International Union 925 chapter. Local union representatives said they sent the letter after receiving the impression that the district would not budge with negotiations. Granger told The Northern Light in a previous article that the district believed it was still in negotiations at that time.

Union members protested in front of the district’s office on August 18 and wrote letters to the school board members. The day following the union’s announcement, the board held a special meeting in executive session to discuss collective bargaining.

“I’m so happy that our efforts paid off,” said Kim Ingham, a bus driver and food service worker who rallied at the district’s office last week. “Everyone is happy they got a little more time with their medical.”

Ingham said she’s filing for unemployment after working with the district for 29 years. Although she describes the process as daunting, she said the district has eased the transition with quick communication.

Sue Schroeder, the Blaine union vice president, said the union is happy about the agreement and optimistic it can come to another agreement in mid-October.

The district and union will begin meeting before October 9 to discuss employment status after the October 31 agreement expires, according to the letter of agreement. If the district and union have not come to an agreement by October 15, the district can lay off employees on November 1.

The district is anticipating lower enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 school year that will decrease the district’s funding from the state, which is already not enough to compensate all staff for their salaries, according to the agreement.

The district had previously adopted a hybrid plan that allowed district employees to continue their employment before the Whatcom County Health Department recommended schools start the year with remote learning.

Granger said during the board meeting that he hoped students could start returning to the school by the end of September or early October. The district plans to phase students in to the classroom, starting with those in special education and life skills programs, those experiencing homelessness and those without internet access.

The district will ask service employees to return to work by seniority, according to the agreement. Employees who are high risk for Covid-19 and senior employees can continue to volunteer for furlough as long as it’s available.

“I think it’s a good way to move forward and gives our people time to adjust and gives the district time to see how it’s going to play out in the next couple of months,” school board president Charles Gibson said. “It gives us the flexibility of being able to bring people back as needed as we move into hybrid education. That is our intent and has been our intent all along.”

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