Tacoma schools superintendent gets raise at same meeting paraeducators are laid off

Tacoma schools superintendent gets raise at same meeting paraeducators are laid off
During a Tacoma School Board meeting Thursday, June 25, a pay raise for Tacoma Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno was discussed and approved unanimously. The case was made it was her first raise in two years. (City of Tacoma)

TACOMA, Wash. — The Tacoma Public Schools Board of Directors on Thursday approved a new contract for Superintendent Carla Santorno, which includes a salary increase of around $9,000.

The decision drew criticism when, immediately after the approval of the superintendent’s new contract, the school board also voted to approve layoffs for numerous paraeducators.

“Frankly, it feels like a slap in the face when her monthly salary is what most paras make in a year,” Kari Madden, a 13-year Tacoma paraeducator who had her hours cut next year, told The News Tribune through text. “I recognize she has a tough job, however I struggle to see the rationalization of that amount she was making before but especially taking a large raise during a pandemic.”

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The new contract increases Santorno’s salary from $298,895 for the 2019-20 school year to $307,862 for the 2020-21 school year. The three-year contract is a rolling contract that is evaluated by the school board every year at the end of June. Santorno is in her ninth year as superintendent for Tacoma.

Four of the board’s directors approved the contract. Director Lisa Keating was absent.

At Thursday’s meeting, board directors defended the new contract, saying Santorno has been a leader in past years and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year in particular, we have faced the unthinkable and never missed a beat,” said board director Elizabeth Bonbright.

Bonbright added the board is also lucky to have Santorno, who is Black, as superintendent during a time when the district is building up anti-racist structures and addressing implicit bias.

The board also pointed out that Santorno waived any voluntary salary increases she could have received in the past two school years.

Santorno did not immediately respond Friday for a request for comment.

“I understand the optics — that giving somebody a pay raise in this time, where so many people are out of work, and so many people are struggling — is a challenge,” board president Scott Heinze said at Thursday’s meeting. “So I want the public to understand that this is not a decision, I believe, the board has come to lightly.”

Still, many felt slighted by the action and took to the comments on Facebook during the live meeting, asking the school board to decline both the superintendent’s contract and the paraeducator layoffs.

Paraeducators, who fill a variety of roles in the district, including assisting special education students, were notified of layoffs or reduction in hours earlier this month.

The layoffs are a result of not knowing what paraeducator roles will look like in the fall in light of COVID-19 — not because of budgetary reasons, according to district staff.

Heinze told The News Tribune on Friday the district has funds to recall staff once more information is available closer to the start of school. With the layoffs, Heinze said, the district has more flexibility to bring back paraeducators with new roles that otherwise would not be outlined under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

“If we need to create a different support for a student that is outside of that existing task of the CBA, that gives us the flexibility to do it,” he said.

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, which represents teachers, told The News Tribune on Friday she has concerns about paraeducator layoffs and what harm it might do if paraeducators look for employment elsewhere.

“They might not be around to rehire,” Morton said.

Liz Walle, secretary of the Tacoma Federation of Paraeducators union, told The News Tribune by phone Friday that the timing was “terrible” to have both a salary raise for the superintendent and educator layoffs back to back at the same meeting.

“It seemed like a disconnect,” she said.

At the same time, Walle said she was overwhelmed with the number of people who watched the meeting on Thursday and commented nearly 6,000 times on the live Facebook post.

“The parents, the families, the teachers … There’s so many people behind us,” she said.

On Wednesday, a letter signed by eight state legislators from Pierce County was sent to Santorno and the school board, stating concerns that the decision to layoff paraeducators would have “significant consequences for our most vulnerable students.”

“We also have questions about the decision-making process that led to this serious action. We have not heard of any similar proposals from other school districts despite them facing similar challenges,” the letter continued.

Other school districts have different CBAs with their unions and therefore different deadlines with which to notify their staff of layoffs, Heinze said. Layoffs and reduced hours of paraeducators in other districts could be coming, he said.

With the the layoffs now approved, Walle said her union has lost confidence in the school board and is working on its next steps.

“(We are) disappointed, but not at all ready to give up the fight,” she said.