Lawrence school district para-educators seeking to unionize for better wages, recognition

Lawrence Public Schools

Ceri Goulter can only make a wild guess at the number of fellow para-educators she’s seen come and go in her 13 years with the Lawrence school district.

“Hundreds,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s terrible for students, especially when we are talking about the most vulnerable, at-risk students needing the most support. As a parent of a daughter with cerebral palsy who has an Individual Education Plan as a special education student, I can tell you having someone who knows her needs is essential. It’s hard for her to build relationships with new staff.”

Goulter has been at the Lawrence College and Career Center the past three years after spending her first 10 years as a para-educator at Southwest Middle School. Like the majority of district para-educators, she works with special education students, she said. In her current position, she helps students with assignments and homework and communicates with the colleges offering courses at the center to assure the students’ special needs are met.

Lawrence school district para-educator base pay

• Para-educators assigned to computer labs and in-school suspension and instructional duties, $9.95 per hour

• Para-educators assigned as community transition/job coach or to special education duties, $10.35 per hour

• Para-educators assigned to autism or other specialized classrooms or working with emotionally disturbed students or those multiple disabilities, $10.76 per hour

• Instructional support assistants, $12.59 per hour

Goulter is also the center’s para-educator building representative to the Lawrence Education Association, or the Lawrence school district teacher’s union. She is one of about 150 para-educators who have joined the LEA as part of an effort to gain collective bargaining rights with the school district.

Gene Neely, regional field representative with the Kansas National Education Association, said he first met in January with a small group of paras interested in organizing a para-educator “bargaining unit,” which would be able to enter into collective bargaining with the Lawrence school board. The school board would have to agree to recognize such a para bargaining unit, he said. Although low wages, turnover and difficulty in finding quality paras is common throughout Kansas, only the Wichita school board has a collective bargaining arrangement with its paras, he said.

The Kansas City, Kan., school district had a para-educator bargaining unit, but the school board decided to end it, Neely said.

“Kansas law is not particularly favorable to labor,” Neely said. “Only teachers and state employees have the guaranteed right to organize. City, county, school district or other public employees only have bargaining rights that their governing bodies give them.”

Goulter joined the LEA and the organizing effort in April, she said. She is convinced collective bargaining will help the district recruit and retain quality paras through realizing the organizers’ goals of securing better pay and job security, increasing paras’ respect and input in the educational process, providing more professional development opportunities and enhancing district- and building-level communications with paras.

More than 50 percent of the district’s 385 para-educators and other classified staffers who work directly with students, such as instructional support assistants, need to join the LEA before they can petition the board to recognize a para-educators bargaining unit, said David Cunningham, chief legal counsel and human resource executive director for the Lawrence school district.

“It would then be a board decision to recognize a para-educator bargaining unit separate from the teachers,” he said. “The board is not required by law to recognize them.”

Paycheck to paycheck

Better pay is, of course, a motivation behind the organizing drive, Goulter said. She and her husband, Chris, a school district security guard, live paycheck to paycheck, she said. They are grateful for the year-round health insurance the district provides classified employees, but she said their decision to pay for their two children’s health insurance out of her wages “makes it seem like I’m working for insurance.” They also have to scramble to find temporary jobs during summer months when there is no school or district paychecks, she said.

“When we are being asked to help educate children, it reduces the value of the work paras do when we aren’t paid what we are worth,” she said.

Neely, who got involved with the paras’ organizing effort at the invitation of the LEA, said although wage compensation is an important aspect of the organizing effort, paras also want respect and recognition for their role in the education of district students.

“I went to that first meeting thinking all I would hear about was low wages, but I was surprised with what I heard about the respect and inclusion issue,” he said. “They want to be valued and supported. It’s a pretty big issue with paras.”

From the paras’ viewpoint, respect and inclusion means that their opinions and input on the students they work with is welcome and seriously considered, Goulter said.

“One of the biggest things about para retention is they don’t get respect,” she said. “I know that was a big reason some paras left was because they didn’t feel like their input was important after they spent hours and hours with students. It’s about inclusion in the general building culture, of feeling like you’re an integral part of the building instead of peripheral staff.”

Related to respect is greater professional development opportunities for paras, Goulter said.

“I think a lot of paras get thrown into the job without a clue with what they are doing,” she said. “You have newly hired paras start the year going to work in an autism classroom and not having an understanding of the needs of students. To not know how best to help a student is a frightening thing. Of course you’re going to lose paras if they don’t know what they are dealing with.”

Teacher support

Laurie Folsom, LEA president, said LEA members welcomed an overture from paras to attempt to organize a bargaining unit within the organization and support their goals. Turnover is a big concern, she said. The LEA estimates less than 40 percent of district paras have been in their positions for more than five years.

“I think of it as our paras are our partners,” she said. “One effect the state budget cuts had that people may not understand was when certified staff was reduced, class sizes went up. We rely more and more on our paras. I don’t think we would stand for it if we had the kind of revolving door for teachers as we have for paras. The narrative is that there is nothing we can do. We’re trying to change that.”

To help the para-educators realize the more than 50 percent union membership threshold needed to petition the board for collective bargaining rights, the LEA’s teacher building representatives voted not to charge local union fees during the organizing effort, Folsom said. Paras still have to pay $140 in KNEA and NEA fees, she said.

“That may not seem like a lot for a teacher, but $140 is a substantial sum for someone who makes less than $10 an hour,” she said.

Neely said it traditionally takes from two to three years for a union organizing drive to successfully recruit the needed members, but was encouraged with the about 150 paras who have signed up with the LEA. The plan is for organizers to take stock of where the drive stands this spring before planning activities for the 2018-2019 school year, he said.

One focus of the second-year effort will be to educate para-educators on the benefits of collective bargaining, Neely said. He and the paras also need to start talking with the board, as well.

“We haven’t had that kind of conversation with existing board members,” he said. “I think we need to do that as we go forward.”

Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball said she had no opinion about recognizing a para-educator bargaining unit.

“I would view it with an open mind,” she said. “I don’t have enough information to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay.'”

Kelly Jones and G.R. Gordon-Ross, who were elected to the board on Tuesday, said at a candidate forum last month that they would support collective bargaining for para-educators. Jones, whose father was a union organizer, said a union would attract better and more qualified paras to the district.

The target for the second-year activities would be realizing the more than 50 percent threshold, Neely said. Wage increases and job security talks would start only with collective bargaining, but not all of the para-educators’ goals needed board action, Neely and Goulter said.

Proposals and recommendations for enhanced communication and additional professional development would be shared with district and building administrators this spring, they said.

Goulter, who is a member of the LEA para communication committee, said paras would request they be informed of such things as school schedules, staff email chains and be included in staff meetings.

“I think they are starting to do some of the things we are asking for,” she said. “We are invited to professional development meetings at the start of the school year for the first time. I think they heard we were coming and preparing for it. I think they know we’re not going to make unreasonable demands, but what we are asking for is in the best interest of the students.”