Paraeducators speak: We do crucial work — pay us better than poverty wages | opinion

The pandemic has shown that every single school employee plays an integral role in keeping our students safe — from building maintenance to staff who protect the welfare of each student. The pandemic has put a hyper-focus on the importance of each position in the district, even as we lose more staff.

We are paraeducators in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale ISD 622 School District, and we have been negotiating for months in good faith to get a fair contract that respects our essential work, and we’ve been struggling to come to an agreement with district leadership.

As paraeducators, we are essential in the day-to-day work ensuring our students have the support they need in the classroom, whether that is one-on-one attention or stepping in when someone is having a challenging day.

Watching our fellow paraeducators fight for a living wage and more sustainable working conditions in other districts has been both heartening because we are united, while also dismaying, as it shows how little value Minnesota currently places on the important work of paraeducators.

Consider a para who starts at $13.09 per hour. She works 175 days, six hours per day. This equals $13,744 in pre-tax earnings.

The federal definition of poverty for a single-person household is $12,760.

The income paraeducators currently receive is not respectful of the crucial role we play in the development of our children and the future of our community. On an hourly or annual basis, we earn less than people working at big-box retail stores. What does this say about our community?

Paras are also trying to serve students while simultaneously deeply anxious about our own health care coverage. Paras in our district hired before 1998 — of which there’s only a handful out of roughly 240 — get most of their health insurance premiums paid.

Everyone else uses their entire paycheck to pay for health coverage, with some even having to pay more out of pocket just to pay premiums. In other words, they make negative income just to have health insurance.

Historically, our district has operated at a minimal staffing level, and this affects our ability to serve the students appropriately, safely and equitably. Now, with the complication of the pandemic, we are barely maintaining. The social and academic outcomes of our students are hurting, and our work environment is even less sustainable.

What do we seek from the district? A living wage for new employees and a fair wage for the senior employees who have helped keep our schools safe and running for years, along with reasonable health care coverage. So far, the district has refused to give a reasonable offer to our paraeducator bargaining team and is unwilling to put any money towards family health insurance for hundreds of their employees.

What have they proposed? Our district has put forward proposals to lay off workers — even though schools are already running severely understaffed — while remaining staff would work more hours. We know that a reduction of paraeducator staff would endanger the safety and education of students. Not having enough staff in classrooms currently is not safe, sustainable or fair.

Our contract proposal identifies a solution that would appeal to both new hires and current employees. Our long-term employees find paraeducator work fulfilling; it is an honor to serve these beautiful children, exciting to be in a learning environment and to be amongst like-minded peers.

As it is, paraeducators work immeasurable unpaid hours — there’s not enough time in a 6-hour work day to accomplish assigned tasks, including third-party billing, required sanitation, data collection and entry, planning and preparation of materials to support lessons, and student job appraisals, to name just a few. To get all the work done, paras often work off the clock.

The district has proposed adding an additional 1.5 hours to the paraeducators’ work day – not in consideration of the current excessive responsibilities – but with even more responsibilities that are currently fulfilled by other positions, putting even more work assignments into our day without an appropriate increase in hours.

If our district does not offer to increase the hours of current paraeducators equally across the district, and proceeds with plans to reduce the number of paraeducator staff, those steps would be detrimental to the safety, security and welfare of the students as well as those employees . Eliminating the paraeducators who monitor lunchrooms, hallways and outdoor spaces — and requiring current paras to fill those gaps — would leave students unattended and teachers unsupported.

We believe that offering a living wage and strong benefits is the best way for the district to show that they are concerned about their paraeducators’ welfare and that they want to cultivate a long term relationship. By choosing to approve our proposed contract provisions, current paraeducators, who consistently show up and work tirelessly for the best interests of the students and the district, will know that they are supported, listened to and valued.

In order for our students to thrive, we know that consistency in the home and in the school environment is paramount. Paraeducators are dedicated, caring, committed and invested in the future. We are charged with supporting students, families, the district and the community by providing for the safety and security of the students while fostering their potential. We can only do that if we work together.

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