There are roughly 350 paraeducators across the Puyallup School District. The new two-year agreement will make it easier to hire more.

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Carie Sauders loves her job as a Puyallup School District Learning Assistance Program (LAP) paraeducator.

Every day, she works alongside teachers at Firgrove Elementary School to deliver instruction and support to struggling special-needs students. Sauders grew up attending Puyallup schools and was a Firgrove student herself. All three of her children attended Firgrove, too. She’s been a paraeducator for 15 years. For Sauders, the payoff of her work is always worth it.

But Sauders’ job as a paraeducator can be a taxing one — one that challenges her on a daily basis.

“It’s a lot of preparation to get your lesson plans ready,” Sauders said. “A lot of paras would either come in early or stay late, or they’ll work through their lunch break just so they can prepare their lesson plans for the day.”

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As the new Puyallup Education Support Professionals Association (PESPA) president, she knows all about challenges paraeducators face.

One of the biggest ones? Securing a “living wage.”

The most recent contract between the school district for 2017-19 and the paraeducators association included a cost-of-living adjustment that increased those wages by a small percentage, especially for Level 1 paraeducators. These are classroom support, library, building support, bus, crossing guard and playground paraeducators.

“Starting wage would have been around $14 an hour — now they’re going to make roughly $16 an hour,” Sauders said.

Starting pay for paraeducators in the Puyallup School District was $14.39 an hour. On average, Puyallup paraeducators make $18.10 an hour. That’s about $6 an hour less than what was recommended by a state Legislature panel in 2012, Sauders said.

While it’s not the $20 an hour they were hoping for, it’s a big win for the paraeducators association, which has been working for years to increase wages, its members touting the important role they play in helping students learn.

There are roughly 350 paraeducators across the district. The new two-year agreement will make it easier to hire more.

But an improved wage wasn’t all that paraeducators scored in the new contract.

“For the first time we were able to get language around sick leave — we can now use our sick leave to care for our newborn baby, adoptive or foster child,” Sauders said.

Before the contract, district teachers were able to cash out some of their personal leave and paraeducators were not, she said.

“Now we’re able to do that,” Sauders added.

The paraeducators association and the Puyallup Education Association, which was negotiating a new contract this year, were also able to work together — an uncommon occurrence.

“We sat and bargained at the table together, which we felt was really beneficial for both sides, and for the district,” education association President Karen McNamara said.

“We bargained on common issues. It was really good for the district to see our roles and how they helped our certificated staff,” Sauders said.

The School Board approved the last of the agreement at the Sept. 18 board meeting. Board President Dane Looker commended both sides for the outcome.

“I think the (PESPA members) are very happy,” Sauders said. “There was I think just a general feeling of the significance of our hard work as a bargaining team and the district’s willingness to meet us halfway.”

More highlights from the agreement are available at puyallupesp.org/contract.