Lawrence parents call for school district to increase pay for paraeducators to help address what they believe are hiring, retention issues

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Pinckney Elementary School, 810 W. Sixth St., is pictured in this Journal-World file photo from Sept. 15, 2018.

This school year, Danae and Kyle Johnson happily began sending their youngest of two children to Pinckney Elementary School to begin kindergarten.

But as the school year progressed, the Johnsons noticed their son, who has special education needs, was not receiving the full care he is required to receive through an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The federally mandated program is important to the educational development of their son, Danae Johnson said.

“The years between kindergarten and third grade are super crucial for learning and development,” she said. “If he doesn’t get that now, there is a really diminishing ability to catch up as he gets older.”

After researching the issue, the Johnsons believed the lack of care was caused by a shortage of paraeducators, or paras, in the school. Paras are classroom teaching assistants who do not have a teaching license but provide additional support to students. They often provide one-on-one support for students with special needs as part of their IEPs.

Johnson said she found paras receive low wages but are expected to provide important services in the school district. She believes the disparity in pay and responsibility is leading to a shortage of paras, particularly at low-income schools like Pinckney.

Paras are paid $10.74 an hour, according to the school district’s job listings. That’s less than what is considered a living wage in Douglas County, $11.18, according to a living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In recent months, the Johnsons, as well as parents from New York Elementary, have called on the school district to find a way to increase para pay to help address the issue.

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Lawrence Public Schools YouTube Channel

Danae Johnson, a mother of two students at Pinckney Elementary School, speaks to the Lawrence school board about paraeducators during the board’s meeting on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

The school board has heard their calls, but whether they will be addressed soon is unclear.

• • •

Kelly Jones, a Lawrence school board member, told the Journal-World increasing pay for paras is a goal of the board. She also said the board supports the idea of the school district’s paras unionizing — much like the faculty — which would give them bargaining power with administration to advocate for higher wages.

“Districts across the state have challenges recruiting and retaining paraprofessionals,” Jones said. “In Lawrence, we could improve recruitment efforts by increasing compensation and by improving the para-specific professional development opportunities.”

Board member GR Gordon-Ross said he too is interested in increasing pay for paras, but he’s not sure how the school district will be able to do it because there may not be funds in the district’s budget to address the issue soon.

A large portion of the funding for the school district comes from the state legislature, often outlined by law for specific purposes. Additionally, the school district has limited taxing authority and may not have the ability raise much additional funding. That means the board would likely need to make cuts in the budget elsewhere to make room for higher para pay.

“We have a hard ceiling on how much money we can spend,” Gordon-Ross said. “When we choose to spend more money in one area, we then choose to spend less money somewhere else.

“So, yes, I believe that we need to do more in paying our paras — but I do not have an answer in terms of what must we give up in order to find the money to do that,” Gordon-Ross added.

Melissa Johnson, board president, said she agreed with Gordon-Ross and Jones about raising para pay.

“It is the priority of the board and part of our strategic plan to improve the compensation and work environment of paraeducators, as well as other classified and certified staff,” Johnson said. “The board has demonstrated this by allocating funds, when they are available, to salaries and benefits.”

It’s unclear if the school district believes there is a para shortage, though. The district did not respond to the Journal-World’s request for comment. However, as of Friday, there are 50 para positions — 30 of which have been posted after Aug. 15, near the beginning of the school year — that are currently open and being advertised on the school district’s job listing website.

Gordon-Ross told the Journal-World that he does not have data about the school district’s staffing of paras.

“I can speculate that we, like surrounding districts, struggle to fill our para spots,” he said. “Is it better or worse than years previous? I simply don’t know.”

• • •

Along with the Johnsons, parents at New York Elementary voiced their concerns to the board recently. They said they feel the pay for paras is unfair because of how important they are to the school and how hard their jobs can be at times.

Jamie St. Viva, president of New York Elementary’s PTA, asked the board to find a way to raise the pay of paras in the school district during the board’s meeting on Monday, Nov. 11. She told the Journal-World that New York Elementary does not have a shortage of paras, but an issue where paras are having to deal with student-on-student violence and getting caught in the crosshairs.

“They really are getting punched and kicked,” St. Viva said. “They are professionals who are really on the front lines and are being paid so little.”

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Lawrence Public Schools YouTube Channel

Jamie St. Viva, president of the New York Elementary PTA, calls on the Lawrence school board to raise paraeducator wages during the board’s meeting on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

St. Viva said the New York PTA’s advocacy last year focused on increasing pay for teachers, which she feels was accomplished. This year the group believes it would now be appropriate to increase para wages.

“Our paras are passionate and they really want to do this job,” St. Viva said. “I feel a huge sense of loss for everyone because we have these potential change makers in our school and we are forcing them out because we are not giving them a living wage.”

Since Danae Johnson raised her family’s issue to the school administration, they believe their main concern has been addressed. She told the school board during its Oct. 14 meeting that their son’s IEP requirements are now being met.

But she said she fears the solutions that have been provided are only temporary. To make sure Pinckney has the paras needed to provide the required IEPs, she said the school district hired temporary staffers rather than permanent employees.

“Yes, they have a warm body in the seat supporting the child, but they are transient,” she said, suggesting the temporary paras are not deeply invested in the school or its students.

Danae Johnson said she also worries that certain schools are not getting the same amount of para support as others. She wonders whether low-income schools — such as Pinckney and New York — are getting the same amount of support as higher-income schools.

She said she’s asked for data from the school district to show whether para staffing is equitable across the school district, but she has yet to receive it. Without the data, she said the school district cannot verify, and may not know, whether the paras are being used equitably.

She said she knows those issues will be hard to address as well, but she won’t stop advocating for it.

“We can’t stop beating the drum even though we know (the school district) is working on it,” she said. “We have to keep that heat turned up and keep that attention on it until we fix it.”

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