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Paraprofessionals make case for raises

November 12, 2009
WAKEFIELD — A proposal to increase compensation for the school district's paraprofessionals received a mixed reaction from 110 registered voters at the special deliberative session on Monday night at the Paul School.

The proposal was set forth in an independent fact finder's report after negotiations stalled between the school board and the Wakefield Paraprofessionals Union (National Education Association New Hampshire). On Dec.7, residents will vote on a warrant article asking whether the district should accept the fact finder's recommendations. Residents made no changes at Monday's deliberative session.

The school board and budget committee have both rejected the fact finder's proposal, but the union accepted it. If voters approve it, the report would basically become the new contract. If not, the union and the school go back to negotiations. But no matter the result of the vote, the school board and the union would continue to negotiate in order to finish the contract, according to the union.

Some residents said the fact finder's report was fair and would give the paraprofessionals a living wage, but others said it's too expensive and would hurt the taxpayers. The budget committee recently voted not to recommend the contract.

During the deliberative session, Paraprofessionals Union President Sarah Major, of Wakefield, said the union had three objectives: to increase the number of paid leave days, to obtain medical insurance and a wage increase. The costs in salaries and benefits at current staffing levels are as follows: 2009-2010, an increase of $28,473; 2010-2011, an increase of $121,879; and 2011-2012, an increase of $33,513. The union estimated the following tax impacts: 2009-2010, three cents; 2010-2011, 13 cents; and 2011-2012, three cents.

The increases for 2010-2011 are based on 15 paraprofessionals taking the benefits. That number could go up or down. In total, the district has 31 paraprofessionals, most work about six and one half hours per day. Their function is to assist teachers with the instruction or supervision of children identified as having special needs, according to the district.

In the first year of the contract, the paraprofessionals would get a wage increase of 62 cents per hour. In the second year, paraprofessionals would get 88 percent of their health insurance premiums covered, an increase in paid leave days from five to 10 (with accumulation of up to 50), and a wage increase equal to the average paraprofessional raise across the region or 1.5 percent, whichever is greater. In the third year, paraprofessionals would receive another raise equal to the regional average or a 1.5 percent wage increase. Currently, paraprofessionals make between $14,742 and $17,450 per year, which appears to be slightly lower pay than most other paraprofessionals get around the region, according to a union chart.

"This is a good value for these people," said Major. "I think they all deserve to have a livable wage and the opportunity to purchase health insurance."

But resident Sharon Theiling said she thought the proposal cost too much at a time when the national unemployment rate is at 10 percent. Theiling said retired lake residents would be hit the hardest by tax increases and union will likely ask for more money in the future, she said.

"I don't think the town of Wakefield can't afford this," said Theiling. "The taxes will be astronomical."

However, resident Dave Schweitzer responded by saying the paraprofessionals deserve the increase and he has seen what they do in the classroom.

"I'm willing to pay the tax increase as a waterfront owner," said Schweitzer.

But Resident David Lee said he wanted voters to realize raises were cumulative and that each time a raise is approved it gets rolled into the operating budget.

Second grade teacher Valerie Drena said she wanted to make everyone aware of how hard paraprofessionals work. They toil all day, sometimes without lunch, to deliver special reading lessons and other services.

"These women and men are working their tails off," said Drena.

Several residents said they have never heard of part time employees receiving health insurance benefits.

Resident Paul Morrill had a yet another opinion. They told residents to vote "no" on the article because residents ought to stay out of the labor negotiations.

School district's attorney Gordon Graham, of Soule, Leslie, Kidder, Sayward and Loughman, of Salem, said voters had the legal right to amend the financial language of the warrant article at the deliberative session. However, he gave a lengthy explanation of a case where the Supreme Court ruled that fact finder's reports should not be broken into separate warrant articles.

"Now that, that's clear as mud, I'll stop talking," said Graham.

Moderator Rick Sager replied, "I think that baby who left the room crying had the right idea."

Peter Miller, of NEA New Hampshire, took to the microphone to disagree with Graham. Miller said no amendments should be allowed and added Wakefield could find itself in Supreme Court case if any amendment passed.

"That sounds like a threat," one man replied.

No one proposed any amendments and Major said approving the warrant article the way it was worded is necessary to provide paraprofessionals a livable wage and to attract and retain good employees. Major backed up her argument with a PowerPoint presentation.

Most of them have worked for the Wakefield school district for less than five years. Eleven paraprofessionals have no health insurance at all, said Major.

At least two quit over lack of insurance, said Major. Wakefield is the only school district in the region that doesn't provide health insurance to paraprofessionals. The other districts in the region are Milton, Farmington, Rochester, Strafford, Barrington, Governor Wentworth, Freedom, Madison, and Tamworth, said Major.

Kindergarten teacher Caroline McMullen described how she's seen paraprofessionals endure sickness and injury in order to help students.

"They give so much," she said.

Budget committee member Liz Olimpio asked select board chair Mark Duffy if he thought giving paraprofessionals insurance would set precedence in town government.

Duffy replied that he didn't know, but said the talks at the school district could lead to conversations between part-time town employees and selectmen.

Wakefield School District also provides the lowest number of sick days of any school district in the region, according to the union. The average school district allows paraprofessionals to have 11 sick days, two and one half personal days, four and one half bereavement days, and an accumulation of 83 sick days. Wakefield provides five sick days and no accumulation. In contrast, the town of Strafford provides 15 sick days, allows paraprofessionals to accumulate 120 sick days, two personal days, and five bereavement days, according to the union.

Wakefield has a relatively low tax rate and spends less than other districts per student, said Major.

But school board chair Janet Gagnon said the proposal would have consequences not listed in the report. For example, if the paraprofessionals get more sick days, the school district would have to bring in more substitutes. She added she has nothing against the paraprofessionals.

"This is not personal, this is business," said Gagnon.

Shortly after 8 p.m., resident Jerry O'Connor made a motion to end debate that was overwhelming approved.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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