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Issues & Impact Spring 2016

Florida bus driver receives check for $3.93; school library collections keep pace with new family structures; and educator tax deduction expanded and made permanent.
Published: March 9, 2016

‘They’re Paying Us Poverty Wages’

Florida Bus Driver Receives $3.93 Paycheck 

By Amanda Litvinov

Becky Smith’s thoughts are dominated by medical bills that started piling up three years ago when her husband inexplicably began suffering from seizures.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pay off all these doctor bills,” Smith says. “There’s a $12,000 deductible on my health insurance for family members, plus we pay 20 percent of the cost of services and all those co-pays to boot.”

When her husband could no longer work, Smith returned to her position as a full-time school bus driver for Florida’s Clay County—a job she’d left a few years earlier to care for a sick daughter. Smith didn’t realize when she took the job that she would also become a vocal advocate battling the school board to pay its education support professionals a living wage.

At first, Smith says, she was happy being back behind the wheel. She cares deeply about the students, plus she knew the job would provide health insurance for her and for her husband, who is frequently hospitalized. As time passed, Smith realized things had changed since the last time she worked for the county. Employee contributions to the cost of health care premiums had skyrocketed, yet workers had not received a pay increase in seven years.

After deductions for health insurance, her mandatory retirement contribution, and long- and short-term disability insurance, Smith’s pay routinely amounted to less than $100 per biweekly pay period. Depending on how many work days fell within a given pay period, Smith generally netted $70 – $80. One paycheck was a paltry $3.93. It was for 63 hours worth of work, but after deductions for insurance and other fees, that’s all that was left. 

“I know I could make more money stocking shelves at the local grocery store, or I could go work in a neighboring district, but I love my students,” says Smith.

On one of her routes, Smith picks up teens who attend a special school that addresses disciplinary issues. She worries about them, especially. On days when they’ll open up, Smith asks them what’s going on, and how they can make better choices that will lead to happier outcomes.

“I tell them ‘There are always going to be people around who will jerk your chain, but you’ve got to get past it to stay focused on school to make a better life for yourself,’” says Smith.

Several of those teens have been able to return to their home schools, where they are surrounded by friends and can participate in activities they love—like sports.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” says Smith. “My job isn’t just to pick kids up then say, ‘We’re here, get off my bus.’ I care. We all do. That’s why we want to stay.”

Talks at an impasse

But some education support professionals (ESPs) have left their jobs in Clay County, because they simply had to.

“We’ve got people leaving for other districts, or going to work at McDonald’s,” says Teresa Dixon, a paraeducator and president of the Clay Educational Staff Professionals Association.

“Our base pay hasn’t been increased in seven years. At this point, most of us are four to five steps behind where we should be on the salary scale, with no cost of living adjustment. How can you expect to keep good people under those conditions?” she asks.

Over 30 percent of Clay County’s ESPs live below the poverty line.

“That means their children qualify for free lunches. They are on public assistance and going to food banks just to get by,” says Dixon.

She says that an employee with two dependents would have to be on step 14 on the 25-step scale to live just above the poverty line. On top of that, they’ve faced hefty insurance premium increases—a near 10 percent jump this year alone, all shouldered by employees.

Some ESPs, fearing repercussions, have hidden their faces under paper bags while they walk informational picket lines.

The school board and the educators have had a long-running and very public disagreement about whether there is money available for an ESP wage increase. Clay County received the highest amount of state aid of all districts in the fourth calculation in 2015, but support staff still did not receive a pay increase.

Several administrative positions were created, and some raises for administrators were more than some ESPs’ annual earnings. That’s why ESPs rejected the board’s offer in September for a two-year contract that would average about a $3 a month raise, says Dixon.

The next step is an arbitration hearing in early January.

And all of this is for the 2014 – 2015 contract, Dixon points out. “We haven’t even begun to address the current year,” she says.

‘We can vote you out’

Clay County school support staff handed out flyers and talked to the community about how their issues are unique, all while supporting the teachers in their salary struggle, says Dixon.

Rebecca Smith, for her part, has rallied, held signs at “honk and waves,” and spoken at most school board meetings for the past two years.

“It’s humiliating to beg for a raise,” said Smith. “It’s embarrassing to tell people you’re bringing home $3.93, or that you’re having trouble paying your mortgage. But I decided I will do what I have to do to make people see that they’re paying us poverty wages in Clay County.”

Several ESPs wrote checks to the district last year because their wages didn’t cover insurance costs.

Just weeks ago, Smith was able to remove her husband from her insurance when he qualified for Medicare coverage. Her premium costs went from $844 per pay period down to about $400.

But she has no plan to scale back her efforts to secure a living wage for education support professionals in Clay County.

“If it comes to it, I will campaign against these school board members in November,” says Smith. “Parents and teachers are a whole mess of voters, and they care who is taking care of their kids when they’re at work. I’m just saying—we voted you in, we can vote you out.”

Teresa Dixon hopes the outcome of the impasse hearing will help stanch the flow of support staff leaving their schools.

“Our students need stability, familiar faces, and to be surrounded by people who know and care about them,” says Dixon.

“It always affects students when people they know disappear from their lives.”

School Library Collections Keep Pace with New Family Structures 

Books about how it feels to have parents who are gay, homeless, or biracial benefit students

By John Rosales

Some students at Beehive Elementary School in Kearns, Utah, come from families with a mother, a father, and their biological children living together under one roof. Many of them will likely have a dog.

Other students belong to families with two dads or two moms. Some students’ families are headed by a single, working mom. Some have two parents who are both unemployed and unable to provide housing, so the family is homeless.

“The majority of my students come from single parent households, or have been adopted by family members who are not their biological parents,” says Caren Burns, a teacher at Beehive. “Others have LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning) parents, and some have parents who are incarcerated.”

As sweeping social changes redefine “family,” school librarians are frantically trying to stock shelves with progressive book collections to help students accept and understand the “new normal.” 

“To serve our student population as a country, we need to find them books that will relate to their family situations and various backgrounds,” says Burns, a member of the Granite Education Association.

A report by the Pew Research Center says today’s family structures include more:

  • Unmarried couples raising children.
  • Gay and lesbian couples raising children.
  • Single women having children without a male partner to help raise them.
  • People who live together, but are not married.
  • Mothers who have young children, and work outside of the home.

“Children who belong to non-traditional families often experience bullying, social isolation in school, and cyber-aggression on social media and other forums,” says Dr. Valerie Maholmes, author of Fostering Resilience and Well-Being in Children and Families in Poverty: Why Hope Still Matters.  “Awareness of these data and other pertinent information may encourage librarians to develop book collections addressing this issue.”

In Minnesota, parents, community leaders, school administrators, and members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals Local 59 are addressing biases against non-traditional families through a campaign that is working to end the use of an offensive phonics curriculum employed by the Minneapolis Public School District. The curriculum was filled with race, gender, and cultural stereotypes.

It is just as important to provide forward-thinking book collections about non-traditional families, as it is to purge library shelves of racist and sexist materials, according to teacher Lynn Nordgren, president of Local 59.

“It is critical that students see themselves represented in our schools to ensure they feel they belong—that their school sees them, believes in them, and acknowledges them,” she says. “Who is anyone to determine what makes a family legitimate,” she asks. “It is important to ensure we populate our libraries with materials that support all walks of life.”

Educator tax deduction expanded and made permanent!

By Amanda Litvinov

Shortly before adjourning last year, Congress expanded and made permanent the educator tax deduction that allows educators to deduct eligible unreimbursed classroom spending up to $250.

The deduction was significantly improved by indexing it to inflation and including professional development as an eligible expense.

The change is welcome news for public school educators, 99.5 percent of whom dip into their own pocketbooks to provide supplies and instructional materials for their students, according to the most recent survey of the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA).

“I’m just like most educators across the country in that I think of my students as ‘my kids,’” says Tamera Detwiler, an elementary school teacher from the state of Washington.

“I feel a responsibility to help meet their needs in any way possible, and that includes purchasing countless binders, books, and other supplies my kids need every year,” said Detwiler.

With a record number of students living in poverty, and education funding lagging in most states, educators have only seen students’ needs for basic supplies and classroom tools increase.

During the 2012 – 2013 school year, the NSSEA survey found that educators spent a total of $1.6 billion of their own money to help meet their students’ needs. The average teacher spent $485, and 10 percent spent $1,000 or more—double the percentage previously reported.

“It’s not my students’ fault if their family circumstances make it impossible for them to bring everything they need for school,” says Detwiler. “I can’t look away if there’s something basic they really need.”

It’s that generosity that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle wanted to recognize when they instituted the tax deduction in 2001. But the annual renewal process has often been a nail biter.

Last year, Congress renewed the educator tax deduction, but only retroactively for 2014; it then promptly expired.

NEA has long understood the value of the deduction, and the Association has rallied educators to share their stories about their own classroom spending so that lawmakers will understand why the deduction matters. 

“Making the $250 educator tax deduction permanent, adding the inflation enhancement feature, and including professional development expenses will greatly assist educators, who routinely go above and beyond to serve our students,” says Al Campos, who has fought for the educator tax deduction for 13 years in his work as a federal lobbyist at NEA.

“This helpful tax relief benefit could not have come to fruition without the tireless advocacy efforts of NEA members, bipartisan cooperation in Congress, and support from President [Barack] Obama,” says Campos, for whom the educator tax deduction became not just a job assignment, but a labor of love.

“I have enormous gratitude for all those who made it possible to enact this important educator tax relief provision,” Campos says.  

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