Members of the Yelm Association of Public Schools Employees “overwhelmingly” voted they have no confidence in the leadership of Yelm Community Schools’ Transportation Director Dawn Avery earlier this month.
A resolution dated March 7 stated the vote of no-confidence “is an alternative method to bring forth serious concerns of management” in the transportation department. The association cited Avery’s alleged lack of experience, unprofessional manner, an inability to communicate, and a failure to respond to employee concerns in a reasonable and respectful way as concerns.
The resolution also noted employees are reportedly subjected “to unacceptable treatment” under the leadership of Avery, who they stated had a “lack of overall concern for the well-being of our members.”
When reached by the Nisqually Valley News, Avery declined to discuss the letter or the no-confidence vote.
A letter to the school board and Superintendent Brian Wharton dated March 9 stated the union welcomes an investigation and can provide testimony to “the incidents and actions” that led to the letter of no-confidence. It stated the action aims to draw attention, rectify and improve the working conditions of the employees who are affected.
“The employees love their jobs and only wish to do their jobs, be respected, treated with professionalism, and not suffer the physical and mental stress they are currently experiencing daily,” stated the letter. “If the working conditions are not addressed and improved, the district will continue to lose valuable and dedicated employees.”
The March 9 letter stated the union spoke at a previous school board meeting, but no one reached out to them to discuss the issues or hear more about their concerns afterwards.
“These concerns have been unaddressed by the top staff at this school district for months now, which is completely unacceptable,” stated the letter signed by Shannon Sehlin, the field representative of the Public School Employees of Washington.
Sehlin provided the Nisqually Valley News with the no-confidence resolution and the union’s accompanying letter, as well as the response they received from Yelm Community Schools.
The response from the district was dated Thursday, March 23, the same day union members showed up to a school board meeting to discuss the apparent issues within the department.
At that meeting, Gabriel Iverson, Yelm’s Public School Employee chapter president, briefly spoke about the district’s response to the no-confidence vote.
“I’m here tonight to say thank you for addressing the concerns that PSE has brought forward to the board and to our superintendent,” Iverson said. “We hoped to have a response sooner so we could have something more to bring tonight, but considering we just received a response today, we’ll reserve any further comment until the future.”
The March 23 letter signed by Wharton stated the purpose of the district’s response “is to show our commitment to engage the staff of our transportation department productively moving forward.”
The letter addressed what Wharton said appeared to be “three broad categories of concerns.” Those included allegations the district had not engaged with staff to discuss the issues, that concerns were raised have not been resolved and that the district has not adhered to the collective bargaining agreement.
In the letter, Wharton said the district “has been highly engaged in working with transportation staff and administration to address issues raised.”
Wharton stated the concerns raised since last fall in HR labor management meetings have been listened to and discussed with the transportation director. He also noted the human resources director and her team have been in regular discussions with members throughout the year to provide updates on actions taken.
He noted the district had meeting logs which showed at least 22 meetings with transportation staff and administration from June 2022 to March 2023, which did not include “drop in conversations” with employees. Wharton noted “the district will continue to address concerns that are raised in a timely and productive manner.”
The letter also stated the district “quickly and effectively worked to resolve all questions regarding the CBA,” which included the topics of the driver trainer position, adherence to the route bidding process and issues related to changes when the department faces a shortage of drivers.
Following the Yelm School Board meeting, Iverson elaborated on some of the concerns addressed in the vote of no-confidence.
“There’s been a timeline, and an approach to rectify these concerns brought to attention by various members of the transportation department. There’s been consistent concerns dating back to last June, and the reality is the people in the department feeling intimidated by the director have spoken up,” Iverson said. “I feel that this consistent push by the union to work with HR has so far not really been successful. We don’t feel like the director has followed through with the direction they’ve been given.”
Iverson added that with Wharton’s upcoming retirement at the end of the school year, new concerns have been raised.
“In Wharton’s statement, he said he’d be happy for us to continue working with the head of HR and assistant superintendent after his retirement,” Iverson said. “From our point of view, it feels like what HR is trying to do is being contradicted by what the assistant superintendent is trying to do. We need both of them to work with us, and having a unified solution would help, but so far we don’t feel like we have that.”
When contacted about the letter of no-confidence and the district’s response by the Nisqually Valley News, Wharton said he was unwilling to violate the rights of any of his employees by talking about the situation publicly.
“It would never be the practice of a school district to do the human resources work through a newspaper,” Wharton said in a phone interview. “We take our responsibility as the largest employer in the area very seriously. We work very hard to create strong working environments for our employees. Just as the board members said Thursday night, a public forum is not the place to do the work we’re talking about.”
Iverson said with new leadership comes new priorities. He hopes the transportation department remains a focus for the new superintendent next year.
“After thinking about the response over the weekend, my biggest concern is since the superintendent has put in for his retirement, will the board follow this guideline that the superintendent has put into play?” Iverson asked on Monday, March 27. “And that is to continue working with the union to find a solution. Will the new superintendent follow along, too? Or will this response not carry any weight once a new superintendent is hired?”
When asked about what a resolution would look like, Iverson said it would include a better work environment where employees aren’t intimidated by a supervisor. He said transportation employees shouldn’t have to worry about being spoken down to, either.
On Friday, March 24, Sehlin, the field representative with the Public School Employees of Washington, said members of the union hadn’t yet viewed the district’s response sent the prior day, which led to the vague response from the union at the school board meeting.
Sehlin said the district’s transportation director has been hostile toward employees in the department. She was informed about a prior meeting, where Avery, the transportation director, allegedly told employees to leave if they wanted to because they are “replaceable.”
“It’s close to a very hostile work environment. There are times where I say it has crossed that line, too,” Sehlin said. “They’re bleeding out bus drivers and they can’t get people to come to Yelm to work. It’s not because of pay, it’s because of the director.”
Sehlin said the biggest issue presented in the vote of no-confidence was what union members said is Avery’s “inability” to run the transportation department.
“She’s going against our collective bargaining agreement. Seniority is a big thing for bus drivers. They get to bid routes that they want and she’s pulling these drivers off the routes that they want, which is against the CBA,” Sehlin said. “Since COVID, bus drivers have bent over backwards and been the unsung heroes for the district. They’re doubling their routes, sometimes going to the same school twice just to make sure these routes are covered. Unfortunately, they’re being treated very poorly. There’s a lot of favoritism from the director.”
She added the district’s bus drivers are tired, but find their way to work each day because they’re good people.
Sehlin noted they will continue to contact the district as they search for a resolution until the situation is resolved, which she anticipates will be a long and drawn out process. She noted receiving the response from the district on the day of the school board meeting was very “telling.”
“I believe this is a smoke-screen from Superintendent Wharton because he’s leaving and he doesn’t care,” Sehlin said. “It’s my personal belief that he’s putting this off because of his retirement.”
Sehlin said she has plans to meet with the school board and employees of the district alongside Iverson within the next several weeks to “hopefully” move closer to a resolution.
“We came to a board meeting and nobody wants to address anything. I guarantee you the only reason we got a response is because they knew we were coming,” Sehlin said. “We’re keeping everything respectful, but we’re not going to back down. Depending on the response, or lack of response, we will be keeping those school board meetings on our calendar.”
All the bus drivers want is respect and appreciation, according to Sehlin.
“The biggest point is there’s no respect there whatsoever. A comment to be made from a director telling their employees they’re replaceable, what kind of work environment is that? The drivers love what they do, but it’s respect that they’re asking for. They’re exhausted, and they get no recognition whatsoever,” Sehlin said. “One driver said she was super sick and was going to take a COVID test, and was told basically not to take a test because then she can come in.”
Iverson agreed, and said being told employees are replaceable has “stuck” with a lot of the people in the department.
“It creates a work environment where you don’t want to show up. We’re here for the kids, and with transportation, these people are the first and last to see your children everyday. When we’re being told we’re replaceable, it creates a bad head space for drivers,” Iverson said. “I don’t know what the perfect end game is. It’s not that we expect rainbows and unicorns, but we should be able to expect to go to work not anticipating being talked down on. We should be able to expect that when these situations do arise, they’re met with proper leadership.”
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