Educational assistants have saved the school district plenty in recent years, they say, and now they’d like that taken into account.
At the April 30 board meeting, CUPE Local 723 president Andrea Craddock, educational assistant shop steward Risa Branchi and Penfield Elementary educational assistant Juli Winstanley delivered a presentation to the trustees about the work situation EAs have faced in recent years. They wanted to outline findings from a EA pilot project this year and a previous CUPE BC study on EAs and unpaid hours. This year, the district created three seven-hour educational assistant positions, one for each school level, as part of a pilot project.
For some staff, the pay level means taking on extra work to make ends meet.
“I always have worked two jobs up until this year just to pay my bills,” said Winstanley, a 36-year veteran in education who is pursuing her masters degree.
“Why do I do this? It’s because I love my job,” she said, hoisting a placard with the same message.
Branchi outlined some of her work as an EA.
“I’ve worked at every school, every grade level and every program in the district,” she said.
This has included driving students around Vancouver Island for work experience opportunities, therapeutic riding, camping trips, field trips and more.
“I’ve donated thousands of hours of unpaid time, working at home in the evenings, weekends, lunch hours, before and after school on academic materials for students to meet their needs,” she said, citing several other functions to which she has taken students.
To make their point, the three used other props such as a skeleton and a whiteboard to illustrate what they do, how they feel about it and their importance to the education system.
“The role the EAs has dramatically changed over the years,” Craddock said.
EAs now possess a range of educational backgrounds and skill sets, and they fill a range of functions, she explained, such as supervisors, teachers, behaviour specialists, tutors, assessors, chauffeurs, counsellors and physiotherapists.
“This list goes on,” she said. “The mantra of an EA is flexibility. Like many EAs, we choose to go above and beyond.”
They highlighted a 2018 bargaining survey, in which EAs reported working between 30 and 120 minutes of unpaid time each week.
In the presentation, they pulled out a whiteboard to show their calculations on savings to the district, which they found amounted collectively to $816,480 through lost wages dating back to 2011. They based this on the number of EAs in the district, how much was saved per day and the number of school days in the year multiplied by the number of years.
They also included factors such as a “payroll error” in 2018. Following the meeting, School District 72 sent a backgrounder to clarify this was actually the result of a new agreement with the union regarding vacation pay.
The backgrounder also provided some context for the situation in recent years. For example, in 2011, the district reconfigured grades for elementary, middle and secondary schools because of declining enrolment, moving Grade 6 up to middle school and Grade 9 up to secondary school, which resulted in less EA time at middle schools because middle school days were shorter. The district also faced a $1.1 million structural deficit at that time.
As well, time for secondary school EAs was reduced in 2015 to offset costs for creating two new full-time EAs where students required full-time support for safety reasons but only received half-time funding from the Ministry of Education.
On the positive side, the EAs said the pilot project has meant more time for preparation, collaboration with teacher and helping students.
“The gift of these extra hours has made a difference in not only how I do my job but, more important, how it impacts on our students,” Winstanley said. “I call the extra paid time a gift, but it should be the right of all our EAs.”
The EAs are hoping the board will consider the issues facing EAs while completing its budget consultations.
Following the presentation, superintendent Jeremy Morrow acknowledged the effects EAs have had on students able to complete graduation.
“We do have students each year that cross the stage with dignity and purpose solely because of the role that educational assistants play in meeting the needs of a diverse group of students,” he told the presenters. “We do recognize the incredible contribution that you make to the outcomes of our students, and it makes a huge difference in the lives of those children and their families.”