Community Focus: School Paraprofessionals unpaid in unprecedented series of snow days.

Our area has seen extreme weather lately resulting in 9 snow days so far this year. Teachers and students and parents count mixed blessings as the days stack up, but for paraprofessionals, these unexpected days are unpaid and result in new or exacerbated financial hardship.

Jefferson Middle School Paraprofessionals

These are critically important people in our schools to students, teachers and families. My friends Jess and Ian have 2 sons who attend Siebert Elementary in Midland Public Schools.

“The paraprofessionals at Siebert are like touchstones for my family,” said Jess. “They know my boys by name and say hello and even have individual relationships with them, even though they are not assigned to my children. Paraprofessionals keep my kids safe in the morning as they wait for school doors to open, at lunch as they play, and throughout the day in the office as they make official attendance records, order lunches, and call me when my kids are sick. Siebert paraprofessionals make a positive difference in my family’s life.”

Tanya Ross has been a paraprofessional in Midland Public Schools for many years. She says the circumstances of the job are already very challenging even before this string of unpaid snow days. She and her colleagues are held to 29 hours per week to keep them ineligible for health insurance. The starting salary is $9.50 per hour. They are not paid over the summer and often take part-time jobs in the summer and throughout the school year to make ends meet.

The majority of paraprofessionals in our schools are assigned to students with special needs. Their work has a huge impact not only on the students they are assigned to but the entire classroom and school. It is critical to the students, the teachers, and the whole school community that we are able to retain great people in this important role.

But the situation has been so challenging in recent years that many districts have a very hard time hiring paraprofessionals and see very high turnover in the role. Tanya says that of the 183 positions in MPS, 158 have turned over in the last 4 years. That’s a 86% turnover rate for the role (a shocking level to this HR professional for any position let alone one that is so critical in the schools).

And now we have these 9 snow days and we are looking at another series of winter storms on the way. And with this many days where school is closed this year, they are now unpaid for most paras. The same holds true for most bus drivers, outsourced kitchen staff and outsourced custodial workers in our schools. This adds up to critical levels of financial hardship for the folks we trust to take care of our kids and our schools.

As parents, Jess and Ian need great and loving paraprofessionals in the school with their boys each day. We as a community need to have stability in this role in our schools for the sake of all of our children and our community’s future. But we are not set up to support and stabilize some of the most critical roles in our community. And Michigan now ranks dead last in k-12 school funding growth. And that has to change before it is too late.

Shelby Thompson is one of the wonderful paraprofessionals at Siebert Elementary with Jess and Ian’s boys and also my 2 kids. They have quite literally grown up with the loving influence of Shelby in their lives. It would be a massive shame for her to leave the profession but it could very well happen. “I love my job,” Shelby said, “and I love the kids. But I have to make ends meet for my family. All of us do. Paraprofessionals are critical in a school but many of us don’t know how much longer we can do it.”

Ms. Shelby and me at the Midland County Fair last August where she works at the cider slush truck in the summer to help make ends meet.

Tanya and Shelby suggest that we can help by attending MPS school board meetings every third Monday at 7:00 to show support for school employees, electing leaders who prioritize school funding, and spreading awareness of the situation by sharing this story.

UPDATE- 2/13/19:

After this story went out on social media and got the attention of thousands of community members, the Midland Public Schools administration has agreed to offer some relief for paraprofessionals. They will now be allowed to use one additional sick day for snow day coverage and an additional paid training day for the paraprofessionals will be scheduled which will mean an additional day of pay.

Thank you to everyone in our community for sharing their story and voicing your support for these critical members of our education community. Our efforts got results!

These additional days are appreciated and show a good faith effort of the district to go beyond the contract to offer some additional compassion and aid for school employees during unprecedented circumstances like this extreme winter. But more reforms are necessary to make the paraprofessional position one that provides a real living wage, benefits and security. Paraprofessionals should be supported and rewarded for the critical role they play in our schools for our children and our community.

The school Paraprofessionals are grateful for the outpouring of community support and are asking that the community show up at the February 18th MPS school board meeting. Just being there in solidarity with them will mean a lot and show the community is sympathetic to their situation.

The meeting is at 7:00 at the Midland Public Schools Administration Center, 600 E. Carpenter Street, Midland, MI.

Here is the schedule for future Midland Public School Board Meetings: