Four support-staff unions in the Yakima School District have new contracts, finally closing a difficult 16-month period of negotiations.

Members of the four unions — paraeducators, pro-techs, custodians and maintenance workers — signed off on the contracts in mid-November. They include small pay raises or one-time payments for everyone, though leaders note that they are still not satisfied with the terms and would like to see the district do more.

Teachers and secretaries agreed on new contracts last spring, but the other four unions have been working without contracts for more than a year. Due to the delay, the four did not negotiate any increase in pay or benefits for the 2011-2012 school year.

Yakima schools superintendent Elaine Beraza called the new agreements a “win-win,” saying she’s pleased the district was able to give some additional money to each group.

The Yakima school board ratified the pacts Tuesday night.

The district also went back into a previously settled contract with cafeteria workers, which had not included the same increases, to “make them whole,” Beraza said, and to make it fair.

Union leaders, however, say the new contracts still don’t go far enough.

“The paraedcuators — 70 percent of them qualify for food stamps and free lunches for their kids,” said Kristie Maxwell, president of the Yakima Association of Paraeducators. Paraeducators who are providing insurance for family members make less than $1,000 a month, she said.

Maxwell is also concerned about the pay difference between paraeducators and custodians. With the new contracts, a starting-level custodian still makes more than $3 more per hour than a starting-level paraeducator.

Paraeducators may perform a variety of tasks in schools, from helping in the office and at recess to leading reading groups, providing extra help for struggling students and assisting teachers.

The paraeducator and custodian unions worked with the district on a job study in 2011 that leaders say showed their work to be of equal value, which they say the respective salaries should reflect.

“We’re in the classroom, like the teachers; we’re classified teachers now,” Maxwell said. “The discrepancy between the two was huge.”

Paraeducators are required to have a two-year degree or 72 credits or pass a state-issued test.

Under the 2009-2011 contracts, new paraeducators made $11.89 an hour and custodians made around $16 an hour. With the new contract, the lowest pay level for paraeducators will be $12.86 an hour.

Beraza acknowledges the difference, but disagrees with the union position.

“(The two jobs) are different in nature. They’re really not interchangeable,” she said.

Paraeducators work about six hours a day, while custodians have full-time jobs. If they want the higher salary, she said, “Any of our paraeducators are certainly welcome to apply for custodial vacancies.”

The other three unions could have settled earlier, but said they held out in solidarity with the paraeducators.

Union leaders take issue with the salaries of Beraza and other directors and superintendents, as well as their benefits packages and compensation for “extras,” such as cellphone and car usage.

They also worry about the district’s fund-balance, which this year has about $25 million in reserves and last year was at $28 million or so. With that much money in reserves, they say, the district should be able to increase employee compensation.

Beraza says much of the reserves are federal stimulus dollars. Since 2008, the district has received nearly $30 million from the federal government, but she says they can’t count on continuing to receive such large amounts.

She said the school board, therefore, is cautious and wants to hold onto reserves to pay for unfunded mandates from the state, as well as to guard against the Legislature redefining basic education so it can cut it further.

• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or mrosbach@yakimaherald.com.