Organizers say paraeducators want union for more than wage increases, are frustrated with school board’s inaction so far

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

Lawrence Public Schools district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

A union for paraeducators in the Lawrence school district would not only allow paras to negotiate for better pay, but would also be in the best interest of students, union advocates say.

Leaders of the para organization that is seeking union recognition recently told the Journal-World that the group is hoping a union will give paras the ability to negotiate for increased training and to be protected when speaking up on education issues, both of which benefit students, they say.

“Training for us is a paramount issue,” said Mary Lee, a districtwide speech para and treasurer for the group’s executive board. “I think the district views salary as a paramount issue, and that’s not ours,” she added.

Paras are classroom teaching assistants who provide additional support to students. They often work one on one with students for their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, which are federally mandated services provided to special education students.

The organizing group, known as Paraeducators Association of Lawrence, is working with the large national labor union Communications Workers of America. The group recently asked for the Lawrence school board to recognize their union, which requires the school board to “opt in” to Kansas’ Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, or PEERA, union leaders have said.

Whether the board will recognize the union is unclear. The board is scheduled to discuss the topic during a work session on July 27, said Julie Boyle, a spokeswoman for the district.

But paras said they are frustrated with waiting and they want the board to act faster. Lee said the group wants the board to put the issue to a vote before the end of July.

Goals of unionizing

Para pay has been an issue that has come up at school board meetings, including last fall when Lawrence parents called on the district to increase the pay to address hiring and retention issues.

During the 2019-2020 school year, paraeducators were paid $10.74 per hour, according to job listings on the school district’s website at the time. That’s less than what was considered a living wage in Douglas County at the time, $11.18, the Journal-World previously reported.

Increasing pay is still a goal for the paras, but they are also focused on making sure they are properly trained and have the ability to continue to improve their skills as educators.

Lee said the group wants a program that trains newly hired paras for at least three days before they are put in a classroom working with students. The paras also want to make sure the district provides them with professional development opportunities. Lee said those opportunities are important because they would benefit the paras and students alike.

“If you don’t have training, it puts students at risk,” Lee said.

A recognized union could also provide the paras with a little more job security, said Melissa Clissold, a para at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School and secretary for the group. That could help paras advocate for what they feel is best for the students they work with, she said. Because paras often work one on one with students, Clissold said she may have a better understanding of what individual needs students may have than their classroom teachers.

That was an issue Clissold ran into last fall, shortly after starting her job as a para. She said she was in a situation where she thought a student would be better served by taking a test differently from how the student’s classroom teacher was administering it.

But Clissold said she did not immediately speak up about it because she was afraid she would be fired if she went against the classroom teacher’s plans. With a union, she would have been able to speak up without fear of retribution, she said.

“I know the union would provide the paras with a safe space to better advocate for students,” Clissold said.

Union recognition?

While the board plans to discuss the union recognition request next month, the group’s leaders said they are frustrated about waiting. The group asked for recognition during the school board’s June 8 meeting, with one member specifically demanding the board recognize the union by June 22, the date of the board’s following meeting.

Hannah Allison, the chair of the group’s executive board, said the group has been working on organizing efforts for three years. It’s not clear, however, exactly how many paras have joined the effort to unionize.

Boyle said the school district employs about 420 full- and part-time paras. Allison, while not giving a precise number, said that by late May more than half of those had signed union cards.

“They simply need to vote to opt into PEERA and then vote to recognize our union,” Allison said of the board in an email to the Journal-World.

But Board Vice President Kelly Jones said during the June 8 meeting that the request would not be considered as quickly as the group demanded, noting the board had many other items it had already scheduled to discuss during board meetings before the union request was made. Boyle said the board’s next meeting, which is July 13, would focus on the board’s annual reorganization, which includes appointing board leaders and organizing the board’s committees, among other things. The board will then discuss the request during its following meeting on July 27, she said.

Additionally, Jones told the Journal-World last school year that she supported the idea of paras unionizing and the board deems increasing para pay a priority.

Regardless, Lee said the recognition shouldn’t be difficult for the board. She noted the first step would just be recognition, and negotiating between the two sides likely wouldn’t begin until later, possibly next school year.

“We feel like that step would make paras feel like they are being listened to and will eventually be part of the team,” Lee said.

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