Classified staff union says ‘staffing crisis,’ including 50 paraeducator vacancies, is affecting Lawrence students

photo by: contributed

A couple dozen members of the union representing classified staff, Personnel Association of Lawrence-Communication Workers of America (PAL-CWA), participate in the Lawrence High homecoming parade on Sept. 21, 2022.

The Lawrence school district currently has 85 classified staff vacancies, and the union representing classified employees says the district needs to take immediate action to address understaffing that is directly affecting students.

A couple dozen members of the union representing classified staff, Personnel Association of Lawrence-Communication Workers of America (PAL-CWA), participated in the Lawrence High homecoming parade Wednesday evening, carrying signs and banners with messages about how low wages are affecting employees, staffing levels and students.

The union pushed for wage increases during contract negotiations ahead of this school year, but the agreed-upon contract fell far short of the union’s goal of bringing minimum pay to $15 an hour. PAL-CWA President Hannah Allison-Natale said that since then the living wage for Douglas County has increased to $17.07 per hour, according to the MIT living wage calculator, and that the district can’t wait until next school year’s contract to increase wages or take other action to address staffing.

“We are immediately — right now — facing a staffing crisis that we can’t just wait until bargaining; something has to be done to alleviate the staffing crisis,” Allison-Natale said. “For paraeducators and food service workers, we’re talking about people who are barely able to do their jobs and in some cases the work is just not even happening. We’re so short staffed on paraeducators that we’re not even able to serve all the students we need to serve.”

Classified positions include paraeducators and other instructional support staff, food service and custodial personnel, and secretarial, clerical, and technical services staff in the district. According to the district’s job posting website, there are currently 85 open classified staff positions, the vast majority of them paraeducators and food service workers. Specifically, there are 51 openings for paraeducator positions, including paras who work with students with autism, students with disabilities, students who are “emotionally disturbed” or students who have other special education needs. The paraeducator positions are advertised at between $10.91 and $11.80 per hour. Another 23 of the vacancies are in food service, with many of those positions being part-time.

A PAL-CWA news release issued following the parade included comments from two paraeducators expressing concerns about not being able to properly assist and support students because of the staff shortages. A statement included from Lawrence High School kitchen staff said employees were doing the work of four or five people and could not keep going at that pace.

Allison-Natale said the vacancies add to the workload of existing staff, contributing to employee burnout and the turnover already occurring due to low wages.

“When people leave, they’re coming to us and saying, ‘I just can’t keep working for this low of a wage,'” Allison-Natale said. “And they’re saying that to the administration too.”

Though bargaining for next school year’s contract will begin in the coming months, Allison-Natale said the union was encouraging the district to increase wages or take other action before that. Allison-Natale said that could include using additional pandemic relief funds to help pay classified staff or waiving school fees for the children of classified staff. The Lawrence school district has used pandemic relief funds to pay retention payments to both certified and classified staff, as well as to provide free preschool for the children of classified staff for at least the next two school years — a program Allison-Natale said was appreciated.

The Journal-World asked the school district to confirm the number of classified vacancies and how many total classified staff positions there are districtwide, but was not provided that information. A response provided by district spokesperson Julie Boyle said that the current numbers of classified staff and vacancies will be discussed as part of a human resources report at Monday’s school board meeting. The newspaper also asked what the typical number of vacancies has been in past years, but Boyle said that staffing vacancies are not tracked over time by the HR system. In its response, the district did note that various factors affect those numbers, including the national labor shortage.

“The number of vacancies fluctuate due to classified staff turnover and changes in student needs and our buildings’ plans for meeting student needs,” the response states. “Much like other employers, the district continues to face challenges filling openings due to a national labor shortage.”

The response noted that the district made $6.4 million in cuts to staffing and programming for this school year, which included reallocating $1.9 million to increase salaries for both certified and classified staff. An additional $806,336 was allocated toward classified staff wages, amounting to a 2.863% raise, and the district and PAL-CWA leadership also agreed to form a committee to reconsider the classified wage matrix.

The response states that several recruitment efforts are ongoing, including participation in career fairs, sharing openings with the University of Kansas School of Education, and attending introductory KU education classes to promote open positions. The response goes on to state that the district recently created a committee, the Futures Planning Committee, that has begun discussions related to next school year’s budget, and that PAL-CWA leadership was invited to participate.

“These and other challenges our schools face in meeting the needs of every student require a coordinated community effort to develop innovative solutions,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in the response. “This is why the board contracted with RSP and Associates for data collection and analysis and the facilitation of a Futures Planning community engagement process.”


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