Classified employee members of the Lawndale Federation around a union banner

CFT’s top officers embarked on a statewide Back-to-School Tour in mid-August as many classified employees and teachers headed back to campus in-person for the first time since the pandemic forced distance learning for California schools and colleges. The road trip included stops from North Bay Counties to San Diego County, in both urban and rural districts.

CFT President Jeff Freitas, Secretary Treasurer Luukia Smith, and Senior Vice President Lacy Barnes met with dozens of members, including K-12 paraeducators and scores of classified employees at a community college.

Classified members report that the visits and one-on-one personal outreach provided welcome support and encouragement for their safe return to campus, especially during the ongoing uncertainty caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus. Members also had the opportunity to talk with CFT about the all-time high in public education funding and what it might mean for their campuses.

The Forward Together Back-to-School Tour attracted classified activists who have attended many union events over the years, but never hosted CFT leaders in their home locals. The tour stops also drew newer staff and rising local leaders who were presented their first opportunity to meet statewide leaders one-on-one.

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Arti O’Connor recently retired after leading the Gilroy Federation of Paraeducators for 10 years. The former AFT Local 1921 president already knew the CFT officers, but the tour stop on their last week of summer break was a first for her.

“It’s such a different experience having them visit Gilroy,” said O’Connor, who was this spring elected as a CFT Vice President. “Most people at the local level would go to union events if they didn’t have to leave town, but this time the union came to them.”

Gilroy members with CFT President Jeff Freitas

The Gilroy stop drew a mix of members, retirees and the local’s new leadership team.

O’Connor has been mentoring President Ramona Bañuelos, Secretary Rachel Vizzusi and Treasurer Jacqueline Stevenson. Bañuelos served as local vice president for a year. Vizzuzi and Stevenson are fresh faces. All three are special education paraeducators in elementary schools. And all three were meeting the CFT officers for the first time.

Bañuelos began working with the district as a yard supervisor 14 years ago, and as a para for the past eight years. She ran for president “because nobody else would, and I didn’t want all the good work our union leaders did to go down the rabbit hole.”

Most Gilroy paras, teachers, parents and children prefer being back in the classroom, Bañuelos said, and she was glad to hear that in-person learning would continue.

Secretary Rachel Vizzusi began working for the district about three years ago. Vizzusi enjoyed the casual conversation after the officers spoke. Safety protocols were discussed at length, she said, but the subject on everyone’s mind at the time was the vote to recall Governor Newsom.

“Now that we won, we can continue making progress against the pandemic,” she said.

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Paraprofessional Tonya Large also attended the Gilroy stop. Large has led the nearby Aromas-San Juan Federation for about 15 years. She has worked in that district about 22 years, and now teaches special education at the high school.

The AFT Local 4830 president said the tour was “Absolutely thumbs up!”

Large was also interested in the officers’ take on Newsom’s education budget, which provided the most money ever allocated to public education. She hopes to finish negotiating a two-year contract by October.

“We were very close to an agreement when we got up from the talks in June. Now I’m anxious to get back to the bargaining table. I want to see how that money gets allocated.”

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The tour was welcomed to Lawndale by Carl Williams, president of the CFT Council of Classified Employees, and school district superintendent Betsy Hamilton. Williams was honored that the tour stopped at Lawndale, and that a wide slice of AFT Local 4529 members — from maintenance and logistics to paras — came out.

“The tour was the shot in the arm we needed to face the challenge of opening up our schools after 18 months,” Williams said. “We could have held it on Zoom, but that wouldn’t have been the same.”

Paraprofessional Julie Baldwin has worked in the Lawndale district since 1996. Baldwin regularly attends union conferences and previously met the CFT leaders.

“To see our CFT leaders come out and embrace us like they did gives me hope that classified will be seen for our full value in the union and in education,” she said.

Baldwin was also impressed that district Superintendent Hamilton and several department heads attended. “If that would have happened before the pandemic, you might think it was an empty gesture, but when they come out and thank you in person these days it means much, much more.”

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CFT President  with members at East Los Angeles College

Staff Guild President Hazel Alonzo welcomed the CFT officers to East Los Angeles College, one of the nine L.A. Community College District campuses. Alonzo was an analyst in Human Relations at the college before being elected last year.

“We walked around the school so the officers could meet the members on the job and see the working and safety conditions,” she said.

Alonzo was elected first vice president, but after some internal changes she took office as Local 1521A president in May. She is now fully engaged in a job reclassification and contract negotiations. Salary concerns are at the heart of both, so information about Newsom’s state education budget was also of great interest.

“Our members have staying power,” Alonzo said. “We don’t have huge turnover, but we don’t have much progress, either. We don’t see enough people moving up to higher positions, or even higher job classes.”

That’s something Alonzo hopes to change, and realize more opportunities for 1521A members.

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The Forward Together tour stopped in San Francisco on the first day of school, and CFT officers joined members of United Educators of San Francisco to welcome students back to class.

“It’s a victory to meet again in person,” said Sean Nunley Willis, UESF’s recently elected vice president of paraprofessionals.

With about 2,000 members in the unit, AFT Local 61 is one of the most visible advocates for paraprofessionals in the state. Nunley is also a coach in the Para Leadership Network. Many members don’t believe school district safety protocols go far enough, he said, and UESF has mounted a Safe Air and Safe Sites campaign for air purifiers for all our classrooms, high quality masks for all students and workers, and universal weekly testing.

Nunley has good access to CFT leaders. During the Back-to-School Tour, he and other UESF leaders discussed the role of paras in union life with Jeff Freitas, Luukia Smith, Lacy Barnes and AFT President Randi Weingarten.

 “We want equity with our certificated peers, to be recognized as vital members of the community and education,” he said, adding, “and all that means in contract terms.”

—  By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter