RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond Public School teachers were the first in Virginia to gain collective bargaining rights to negotiate for pay, benefits and working conditions.

More than a year later, school district and union representatives celebrated the approval of tentative labor agreements that give teachers and staff pay raises and new benefits.

“This is truly a historic moment,” Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said during a Thursday press conference at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. “Sometimes people say that, and it’s not technically true, but this time it is absolutely true.”

Four collective bargaining units within the Richmond Education Association (REA), the labor union representing the school system’s employees, reached tentative agreements with the district that members voted to approve after months of negotiations.

The collective bargaining units include those for teachers, care and safety associates, instructional assistants and food and nutrition employees.

Union representatives spoke Thursday about the agreements, calling them “life-changing” and a step towards bolstering the district’s workforce and addressing teacher retention concerns.

“The contracts, the negotiations, they’re more than just salary negotiations. It’s about the quality of work life,” Charlotte Hayer, a business and information technology teacher at Richmond Community High School who sits on the REA Board of Directors, said Thursday. “It’s about how am I treated. It’s about so much more.”

According to the district, staff in the four bargaining units will all get salary increases over the three-year contract. Under the tentative agreement for the nutrition unit, food service assistants will get immediate health care access and three personal, paid days a year.

The tentative three-year contract approved by the teachers union Monday includes a minimum 12% pay raise over the next three years with a 6% wage hike in the first year.

Representatives from the bargaining units applauded the pay raises, saying they would give employees “a living wage,” help bring in new staff and improve the students’ experience.

“This started out with an internal committee, probably about three people with me leading the committee, and by the time we mounted the public campaign, we had a committee of over 25 folks,” Boaz Young-El, a UniServ Director at the Virginia Education Association, told 8News after Thursday’s press conference.

“And they were all employees from the school division that really wanted to make a difference, and I think that’s the real story. Folks think that it can’t be done and these changes are so hard to make, and while it was a long process and there were a lot of steps, being able to lead them and just kind of keep them on track and kind of give them bite-sized pieces, they were really able to show how exactly how strong they can be as an employee group.

“I think that’s a testament for folks to be able to see throughout the state, and say well look, if you’re in a school division where you feel like things have been stagnant, or your wages have been stagnant, just look and see what folks who are in a school division that has been severely disenfranchised by the laws, by funding, by a lot of other things. And they were able to come together and say this is enough, and we need to be at the table.”

The school board will ultimately decide whether to approve the ratified agreements in January, which will last for three years and be woven into Kamras’ proposed 2024 fiscal year budget.

Virginia’s longstanding ban on unions for public sector workers, which include teachers, law enforcement and firefighters, was lifted when state lawmakers passed legislation in 2020. The change led the Richmond School Board to vote 8-1 last December to make the school district the first in the state to allow collective bargaining.

Richmond Public Schools shared some of the terms from each unit’s agreements in a press release Thursday:

Instructional Assistants (IAs) Unit

  • Approximately a 40% raise over the next 3 years to a new starting salary of $30,000 by 2025-26 (the current starting salary is $21,690). This new starting salary is higher than what is stated as a living wage for the City of Richmond
  • Compensation of $100/day when covering for a teacher due to absence
  • Maintained decompression/annual step

Care and Safety Unit

  • 10% raise over 3 years for security supervisor roles
  • 14% raise over 3 years for care and safety associates
  • Decompression of the salary schedule and maintenance of “step” each year
  • Increased compensation supplement for care and safety associates serving in a “lead” role at a school

Nutrition Unit

  • 25% raise over 3 years for food service assistants to a new living wage (for the City of Richmond) of $18.93/hour
  • 10% raise over 3 years for nutrition supervisors
  • 15% raise over 3 years for nutrition managers
  • Decompression of the salary schedule and maintenance of “step” each year
  • For food service assistants, two new key benefits – immediate access to health care (do not need to wait a year, given non-contracted status) and 3 personal, paid days a year (since if they were sick previously, they did not get paid for the day)
  • For all nutrition staff, support in accessing RPS retirement match accounts, if desired
  • For all nutrition staff, inclusion in department hiring processes

Teacher Unit

  • Minimum of 12% raise over 3 years (6% in year 1)
  • Maintained decompression/annual step
  • Compensation of $55/hour when planning period is lost due to coverage needs or testing duties
  • Compensation of $27.50/hour when lunch is lost due to coverage needs
  • Updated job descriptions
  • Increased and/or new stipends for additional duties like testing or Chromebook management
  • Protection of time to include independent planning periods and time spent on after-school obligations

Looking ahead to the next contract, Young-El told 8News that the teacher unit will focus on addressing the transfer and assignment policy.

“Right now, teachers have no control over essentially if they’re involuntarily transferred. If there’s a need at a school, they can essentially move you according to the needs. I think folks would like a little more control over that process,” he said.