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Keeping Education Support Professionals Whole

Female bus driver standing in front of school bus

'School support staff care for hundreds of kids. It’s a disservice to public education when we don’t support them.'

Education Support Professionals (ESP) are a vital part of the school community, working to serve the needs of the whole student by keeping them healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. But this important work—and the professionals who do it—must also be supported. That’s why ESP across the country are working together in their unions, schools, and communities to fight for what they need to be whole.

A major component of feeling whole is earning wages and benefits that reflect ESP's workload, commitment, and experience. It also means workplace recognition and positive reinforcement, respect from colleagues and administrators, and access to quality professional development.

Standing Up for a Living Wage

In Yakima, Washington, that means fighting for a living wage that can sustain them and their families. A few years ago, most Yakima ESP were living below the poverty level at a base pay of $11.86 an hour. In fact, Yakima’s paraeducators have historically been the district’s lowest-paid employees for decades. Many Yakima support professionals have depended on public food and housing assistance.

Many ESP work less than full-time hours and may only work nine months out of the year. They are not eligible to collect unemployment benefits for the remainder of the year when school is out of session. Mike Horner from the Washington Education Association (WEA) underscored that Yakima ESP knew they could be making a higher salary working outside of education, but chose to stay because “they love working with kids. It’s great they love what they do, but they still have a right to live.” According to Horner, the Yakima school district has many students who live in poverty. With a high number of children with special needs, and many students who may get their only meals of the day at school, a dedicated support staff is that much more essential.

But inflation and years without a pay raise left Yakima ESP not even making a poverty-level wage. Obtaining an actual living wage seemed nearly impossible to Buffy Phillips, a Yakima ESP who was on the district’s bargaining team. “There’s such a tremendous love for the students and the pride in doing that, and yet there’s the fear at home. How am I going to buy the groceries? Where am I going to go?”

Yakima ESP, in coordination with WEA, began a living wage campaign by making community members aware of just how far behind ESP pay was compared with the wages needed to live in Yakima. “We started with the stories, our stories,” said Phillips. “There were fliers handed out at football games. We went to neighborhoods to let the community know what was going on with our district.”

They also emphasized the crucial role ESP play in students’ school experience and in their community. “Think of the bus driver – this is the person that picks a child up and drops them off. That secretary, the clerical worker knows the families, knows those kids, their moms, their dads. The cafeteria workers know about who gets fed or not. They know these children better than any administrator or director. They should really be paid more. They care for hundreds of kids. It is a disservice to public education when we don’t support them,” said Phillips.

In Yakima, thanks to the collective action of the ESP, the base pay is now $13.68 an hour. “It’s an honest thing we’re after. More money for our families, more money in our pockets,” said Kristie Maxwell, a classroom paraeducator. “We didn’t deserve to be poverty-level people. I work hard all day with my kids, and I deserved my living wage.”

Fighting for Job Security

Being whole also means feeling safe, and for workers that means having job security. Unfortunately, many districts have converted to, or are considering, privatizing or “contracting out” many education services into the hands of private, for-profit corporations.

While most of the attention has been on the traditionally contracted-out job categories of transportation, custodial, and food services, no ESP jobs are safe. Districts often contract out because private contractors nearly always promise cost savings, although they rarely deliver. Bids often do not take into account all the costs involved, and contractors may “low-ball” initial bids to win a contract, with costs rising significantly as time goes on.

And there is more to the work of ESP than just costs, and much more at stake when jobs are contracted out—the quality of education and even the safety of our children can be at risk. Private contractors may bring in strangers from outside the community with no connection to the students and families they serve, and cost-cutting can threaten student and employee health and safety.

Defeating privatization begins with educating school boards, parents, and our communities about the vital roles ESP play in our students’ educations and lives. There is no magic wand to wave—beating privatization takes hard work.

Members of Clearview Education Association (CEA) in New Jersey know this all too well. CEA is a merged local with 330 members, including about 100 ESP. On March 20, 2014, with 15 months remaining on their union contract, Superintendent John Horchak of the Clearview Regional School District told custodians and paraprofessionals that their jobs might be privatized.

“I was so broken up when I heard the news,” says Mike Larmond, a custodian for more than 20 years, known to students as Mister Mike. “I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I want to give my retirement speech at Clearview, not somewhere else.”

“The sooner you realize your school board is considering privatization, the better prepared you can be to fight it,” says Scott Wagner, a teacher for more than 30 years and CEA president. “You need to stay ready.”

Within a week, Superintendent Horchak began advertising bids for the ESP jobs. “Our people were told they could probably have a job with the private company, but for probably less pay, fewer hours, and no benefits,” Wagner says. “I don’t think any of the ESP were going to apply for those jobs.”

“I didn’t see that one coming,” says Diane D’Agostini, a veteran Clearview paraeducator for 18 years, whose four children graduated from Clearview Regional High School. “It was on my mind 24/7. I couldn’t sleep a wink.”
Soon after the March meetings, CEA launched an anti-privatization campaign with support from members, parents, students, and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). “We were able to act fast with the help of NJEA,” D’Agostini says. “They met with us and gave us ideas and attended board meetings.”

One of those ideas included D’Agostini working with an art teacher to create 8- by 10-inch cardboard certificates printed in the school colors of green and gold. The 30 certificates were not for framing. Long green ribbons were threaded in punched holes in the top corners of each certificate, creating miniature billboards that members could sport at board meetings.

The certificates read: “Proud to be a Clearview employee for __ number of years.” The number was filled in per ESP, as well as blown up using enormous block glittery figures, which shimmered in the light. “Those numbers stood out in a crowd and most were double digits,” says D’Agostini. “We bleed green and gold, and have always been proud supporters of our schools.” CEA also created 250 lawn signs in green and gold announcing the campaign’s theme: “No Strangers in Our Clearview Schools.”

Trustees eventually decided at an April 24 board meeting not to privatize paraeducators. One indication of CEA support occurred at the meeting when more than 200 CEA members, parents, and students showed up. Officials were forced to relocate the meeting from the library to the school auditorium. “It would have been a fire code violation to stay in the library,” Larmond says. “Everybody came to our board meetings, even ESP and teachers from other districts. Nobody wants strangers in their school.”

On May 7, board members also withdrew their proposal to subcontract custodial services. “It was announced in the middle of a three-hour budget meeting,” says Wagner, who was prepared to challenge the proposal at the meeting, but instead took the podium and thanked the board for withdrawing it. “People gave the announcement a standing ovation.”


Find out more about ESP and their work by visiting nea.org/esp. To learn more about how ESP support students, check out Education Support Professionals: Meeting the Needs of the Whole Student.


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