Region 20 School District Employees are “Grateful and Proud” to Welcome New Era and Contract

For most union locals it is standard practice that every few years a contract is negotiated. When it comes to AFSCME Local 75 (Region 20 School District) their members welcomed a new contract on top of having a new president, employer and organized local – all within a year.

Starting in July when their contract goes into effect, 102 members of Local 75 will see firsthand the benefits of union membership. Half of the members, who work as educational assistants, administrative assistants, school nurses, tech support and custodians, are new to being in a union.

It will also mark the start of the Region 20 School District, a combined school system comprising of Board of Education employees from Litchfield (formerly Local 1303-392) and Region 6 School District which includes the towns of Warren, Morris, and Goshen.

Although the transformation took several years, it paved the way for expansion of the Local and their collective power since former Region 6 employees were unorganized. With the daunting task of forming a new union, organizing members, and finalizing a contract, Local 75 President Barbara Sanford stepped up last October after their former president retired after 17 years.

Sanford, a 23-year Litchfield Public Schools educational assistant, helped organize the local by visiting schools and speaking to non-members about joining the union in anticipation of the new school district forming. These efforts were led by the Council 4 Organizing team and Litchfield BOE Staff Representative Attorney Tricia Johnson.

“It was empowering to be able to tell them all the benefits that takes worry off my shoulders,” Sanford said. “We get paid for things like snow days and have 20 PTO days [as opposed to] Region 6 which didn’t have a union, nor these benefits negotiated in a contract. I said the fact that we have all those days paid…not only pays [for] itself and the dues, but even beyond.”

Sanford’s active leadership has paid off in many ways. She is excited that she can name 90% of the members – a quality she says helps them feel worthy and important during membership meetings. She has also fostered cohesion throughout the negotiations process by ensuring the negotiations team included members representing each job within the bargaining unit and both school districts. It’s an experience that has given her a new outlook, one that elevates the significance of meeting in the middle.

“It was a learning process in a lot of ways,” Sanford said. “One group might want this, and another group might want that, but we're all in the same contract. And so how do we move through that? The contract addresses all these different job titles and 10-, 11-, and 12-month employees. Overall, we managed to make it work. And I think everybody is happy with it.”

L-R: Susan Leigh (Secretary) Julia Turtoro (Treasurer), April Saade (Vice President), Barbara Sanford (President), and Tricia Johnson (Council 4 Staff Representative Attorney) on March 6 after members overwhelmingly ratifed their first contract as a new local. 

The 3-year contract, ratified in March by an overwhelming majority (69 – 1), includes the following benefits and was led by Tricia Johnson, Council 4 staff representative attorney:

  • 10-14% total wage increase
  • Creation of retirement plan with 4% match
  • 15 paid holidays including a floating holiday Juneteenth
  • Stipends for educational assistants, nurses and custodial/maintenance
  • Longevity pay, sick leave bank, and “happy cash” for good attendance

Aside from taking on new roles as president, organizer, and serving on the negotiations team, Sanford has activated members – specifically educational assistants also known as paraeducators - to be involved politically. This past legislative session she testified for an Education Committee public hearing in support of higher wages for paraeducators, mobilized other paraeducators to submit testimony, talked with her state legislators, and attended Governor Lamont’s proclamation signing for Paraeducator Appreciation Week.

“[When speaking with legislators] it's good to hear someone say that your job is really difficult and not everybody could do your job,” Sanford said. “To have them say, we look forward to talking and working with you more makes me feel like what I do does matter. It’s acceptance.”

L-R: Governor Ned Lamont and Barbara Sanford, President AFSCME Local 75 (Region 20 School District Employees), during the Governor's proclamation signing declaring the first week of April Paraeducator Appreciation Week in Connecticut. 

Sanford’s experiences as an educational assistant supporting students and raising her sons as a single mom have fueled her passion of fighting for justice for her members and all paraeducators. She is not alone in her story of struggling to make ends meet but her desire to inspire others towards action and set an example of being an active union member and not merely a bystander is exceptional.

“Some people say, I can speak up, but nothing's going to change, or it doesn't matter,” Sanford explained. “Well, I disagree. Speaking up for myself and others does make a difference. And if I want to see change, I need to be a part of the change.”

She added, “Being a part of the union is life changing. And working as an [educational assistant] pushes me to fight for it too, because I do love it.”