Voters reject paraprofessional contract at special town meeting


December 10, 2009
WAKEFIELD — Voters strongly rejected a special warrant article that would have given Wakefield School District's paraprofessionals health benefits, more leave days, and an increase in wages.

Monday's vote was 421 against the warrant article to 92 in favor of it. Three ballots were voided. Residents were asked to decide whether or not the school district should accept an independent fact finder's recommendations regarding a contract between the district and Wakefield Paraprofessionals Union (National Education Association New Hampshire).

"We tried and we did get people supporting us but it wasn't enough," said Paraprofessional Cynthia Akers who was observing the election tally at the Wakefield Opera House.

School Board members had little to say about the results. Chairwoman Janet Gagon said the vote sends the issue back to the negotiating table in preparation for the March ballot.

"We're going to do it again," said Gagnon.

School board members Peter Kasprzyk and Priscilla Colbath had no comment when asked at the polls.

The outcome was unsurprising considering the school board voted 5-0 not to recommend the warrant article and the budget committee voted 8-0 with two abstentions, not to recommend the article.

"It would have been quite a feat to beat every elected official in Wakefield," said NEANH Eastern Region Uniserve Director Peter Miller who added he was "disappointed" by the result, which he said was partly due to the economy.

The next step for the union will be to hold a meeting to decide how to proceed. Miller estimated such a meeting could be held in a week. In the "long term" the union will not give up on getting health insurance for the paraprofessionals, he said.

Some residents were pleased by the outcome. Members of Concerned Residents Of Wakefield burst into applause when the numbers were announced at their meeting in Union.

"This is really good for the town, for the taxpayers, and the paraprofessionals," said CROW member David Lee. "It's going to force the school board and the paraprofessionals to go back to renegotiate, something that should have been their job to begin with."

The 516 people voted at the polls. That represents 14 percent of the town's 3,621 registered voters. School District Moderator Rick Sager said he was impressed by the turnout, calling it "phenomenal."

"I was thinking there would be a couple of hundred and we beat that by a long shot," said Sager.

CROW Vice Chairman Charlie Edwards said he was also pleased by number of voters. Edwards added he's starting to see an increase in civic engagement in town.

With the vote over, the tax rate can now be set. It will be based on last year's arrangement with the paraprofessionals, said Town Administrator Robin Frost.

In total, the district has 31 paraprofessionals, most of whom 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.

Background

Paraprofessional 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 of the warrant article current staffing levels would have been 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.

In the first year of the contract, the paraprofessionals would have received a wage increase of 62 cents per hour. In the second year, paraprofessionals would have received 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 have received 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 chart by the union.

Most of them have worked for 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.

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.

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