The pandemic has shown that every school employee plays a vital role in keeping our students safe – from building maintenance to staff who protect the well-being of each student. The pandemic has emphasized the importance of every 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 have been negotiating for months in good faith to secure a fair contract that respects our essential work, and we have struggled to come to an agreement with neighborhood management.
As paraeducators, we are essential in the daily work of ensuring that our students have the support they need in the classroom, whether it is one-on-one attention or intervening when someone is going through a hard day.
Watching our fellow paraeducators fight for decent pay and more sustainable working conditions in other districts has been both heartening because we are united, while heartbreaking because it shows how little Minnesota is currently giving of value to the important work of paraeducators.
Consider a para that starts at $13.09 per hour. She works 175 days, six hours a day. This equates to $13,744 in pre-tax income.
The federal definition of poverty for a one-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 yearly basis, we earn less than people working in big-box retail stores. What does this say about our community?
The paras are also trying to serve students while being deeply anxious about our own health care coverage. Paras in our district hired before 1998 — of which there are only a handful out of about 240 — get most of their health insurance premiums paid.
Everyone else uses their entire salary to pay for health coverage, with some even having to pay more out of pocket just to pay the premiums. In other words, they earn negative income just to have health insurance.
Historically, our district has operated with a minimal level of staff, which affects our ability to serve students appropriately, safely, and fairly. Now, with the complication of the pandemic, we are barely maintaining. Our students’ social and academic outcomes suffer and our work environment is even less sustainable.
What are we looking for in the neighborhood? Living pay for new hires and fair pay for 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 make a reasonable offer to our paraeducational bargaining team and is unwilling to invest money in family health insurance for hundreds of its employees.
What did they offer? Our district has put forward proposals to lay off workers — even though schools are already understaffed — while remaining staff work longer hours. We know that a reduction in paraeducational staff would endanger the safety and education of students. Not having enough staff in classrooms right now is not safe, sustainable or fair.
Our contract proposal identifies a solution that would appeal to both new and current employees. Our long-time employees find paraeducation work rewarding; it is an honor to serve these beautiful children, exciting to be in a learning environment and to be among like-minded peers.
As things stand, paraeducators work immeasurable unpaid hours – there is not enough time in a 6-hour workday to complete assigned tasks, including third-party billing, sanitation required, collecting and entering data, planning and preparing materials to support lessons, and student job evaluations, to name a few. To do all the work, paras often work off the clock.
The district has proposed adding an extra hour and a half to the paraeducators’ work day — regardless of the current excessive responsibilities — but even Continued responsibilities that are currently carried out 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 proceed with plans to reduce the number of paraeducators, these actions would be detrimental to safety, security and well-being. be students as well as these employees. Eliminating paraeducators who monitor dining halls, hallways and outdoor spaces — and requiring current paras to fill those gaps — would leave students unsupervised and teachers unsupported.
We believe that providing a living wage and strong benefits is the best way for the district to show that it cares about the well-being of its paraeducators and wants to cultivate a long-term relationship. By choosing to endorse our proposed contract terms, current paraeducators, who consistently show up and work tirelessly for the best interests of students and the district, will know that they are supported, listened to, and valued.
For our students to thrive, we know that consistency at home and in the school environment is paramount. Paraeducators are dedicated, caring, committed and invested in the future. We are responsible for supporting students, families, the district, and the community by keeping students safe, while nurturing their potential. We can only do this if we work together.