While students in Vacaville Unified School District attend their campuses during the school day, the district’s classified staff work from early in the morning until late at night, ensuring that students have the best possible learning environment. From keeping the school clean, to serving as secretaries and paraprofessional educators, or paras, classified staff work tirelessly to keep students learning and on track.
But in recent weeks, SEIU union members of the classified staff at VUSD have come to board meetings to express concerns over compensation levels and safety concerns. Dressed in purple T-shirts and carrying signs, union members have filled public comment with harrowing stories and concerning allegations about their experiences.
Similarly, parents from Hemlock/ACE Elementary raised concerns at a school board meeting weeks ago about student safety with regard to special education classrooms that have been understaffed this school year. Arianna Musgrove, a parent volunteer who spoke at a VUSD meeting, said students from these classrooms have eloped and run around and off school grounds, hitting, kicking, punching and biting people while paraprofessionals are forced to chase them down.
Musgrove said classrooms were put on hold during these incidents, halting instruction for other students across the school. Both general and special education students have been affected, she said.
Shelly Fair, another parent, spoke to the frequency of these events in an October board meeting.
“This is every single day multiple times a day — with no real solution in sight,” she said.
Fair said communication with parents has been poor on the issue, with the school’s principal sending out just one “vague” email about the incidents. The email notes issues that have been unsettling and/or alarming for the school’s staff, but does not elaborate further on the nature of the safety concerns.
Barbra Hamilton, Chapter President for SEIU and an administrative assistant at VUSD, said classified staff at Hemlock/ACE have described a difficult situation in three particular classrooms, which have been critically understaffed and undertrained for the situations they have faced with student behavior this year.
“They are leaving our staff abandoned and helpless,” Hamilton said.
Shelly Martin, a union steward and paraprofessional with the district for 17 years, said these three classrooms at Hemlock have gone without teachers this school year, relying solely on paras to teach the classes. Students in these classrooms have been traumatized by the behaviors they have seen this year, she said.
Hamilton said some paraprofessionals at the school have had to take time off to deal with the mental stress, exacerbating an already dire staffing situation there among paras. One staff member tripped and injured her foot while chasing an eloping student, she said, and another paraprofessional who takes blood thinners had to be hospitalized after being bitten by a student. He was placed back in the classroom later that day, she said, and he was chased with scissors the following day.
The district has diverted resources to solving the problem, but Hamilton and Martin said it has not yet been enough to solve the issue. One new addition, assistant principal Stephanie Ariza, has been helpful and kind to staff at the location, they said.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t administrators on campus every day until this has been taken care of,” she said. “What could be more important than these kids?”
If the site had full and qualified staffing from the beginning of the year, these behaviors would not have gotten off of the ground, Martin said, and the students in these classrooms could have been much better served by VUSD.
“Hemlock is definitely not under control,” she said. “There is no learning going on there. There’s a lot of trauma going on there.”
This situation has also played out as classified staff at VUSD negotiate a new contract with the district, and compensation has been a serious concern for union members. According to a statement from the union, negotiations have been ongoing since May.
“The parties have met to bargain nine times so far,” the statement, reads the Nov. 14 statement, “and despite record increases in education spending by the state of California and an unprecedented COLA increase to the Local Control Funding Formula, the District has yet to meet the modest salary demands of SEIU 1021 members.”
The statement also notes the safety and staffing concerns.
“Since the start of the 2023-24 school year in August, paraeducators have faced dangerous working conditions due primarily to understaffing. There are approximately 20 vacancies for paras within the District, leading to critical staffing shortages at multiple school sites. These shortages, coupled with a lack of support from site administrators and lack of guidance from District leaders, have burdened VUSD paraeducators with the unenviable task of addressing dangerous situations for students and staff that can only be reduced with increased training, support from administration, and staffing.
VUSD Board of Trustees President Michael Kitzes said the board takes the concerns of the classified staff seriously, and they will continue to do so and encourage administration to work with them.
“We are committed to making sure that every kid and every staff is safe,” he said “and we are continuing to work relentlessly to make sure that happens.”
These issues arose because of insufficient notice around staff leaving, he said, and the difficulty of hiring in this environment.
“After the last board meeting, I stayed and spoke for a half an hour with two of the people that spoke,” he said, “and I will continue to listen to all concerns about safety.”
Lindsay Kelly, a recently elected member of the board who campaigned on special education and parent collaboration said the reports given during public comment from staff were concerning to her. She said it is important for the board to hear those concerns directly from those affected.
“While we do get communications about some of the incidents,” she said of speakers during public comment. “A lot of the stuff that they were were telling us were things for the first time.”
Superintendent Ed Santopadre said the district is urgently hiring more classified staff in areas of need, but it has been a challenge in the current job market.
“We understand it’s a hard job, and it’s hard to fill,” he said. “We want to look at ways to compensate and get people wanting to do this”
Last year, he said, the district gave classified staff the largest raise he can remember in his time at the district. This year, he also hopes to increase compensation.
“I want to give the best raise we can give while keeping the district healthy,” Santopadre said.
As the situation at Hemlock became severe, he said, the district brought as many resources as possible to the campus and has tried to help support the staff in place there. In hindsight, however, he acknowledges that could have been handled differently and the district could have reacted faster.
“I wish we had done that a little bit earlier,” he said.
Santopadre said as a former principal he knows that communication is key, and he wishes communication with families had been clearer in this situation.
“With 12,700 students, we’re going to have issues that come up,” he said. “It’s important that we identify the issues and get to solving them quickly.”