Editor’s Note – a previous version of this story included an erroneous quote: “Some of these kids have health situations that require a para that knows the needs of the child that the driver will not,” Lockett said. This quote was actually a reporter’s note, which was used by accident and attributed as a direct quotation. The individual to which this quote was attributed did not make the statement as it appeared. The North Kitsap Herald takes very seriously any issues associated with misquotation, attribution or misrepresentation of any of the subjects of its reporting, and we regret this error.
Decked out in blue, paraeducators confronted the North Kitsap School District Board of Directors during its Sept. 28 meeting, asking them to restore hours to paraeducators, librarians and office support staff.
Due to the budget shortfall, over 100 paraeducators had their hours cut back by half an hour. The cuts also impacted office support staff and librarians, though those cuts have been happening over the course of the last three years.
“These cuts impact the education of the district’s most challenging students,” Jay Webster, Business Agent for the Public School Employees Union said.
Paraeducators, also known as “paras” work in the classroom with certificated teachers as an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands. Many paras specialize in working with students with special needs or other learning, behavioral or physical challenges. NKHS special education paraeducator Kim Morrison noted at the meeting that paras are among the lowest-paid school employees.
“These decisions are not only absurd and unfair, these decisions do not support us — some of the lowest-paid — nor does it support our students or the district’s strategic plan,” Morrison said.
NKSD recently cut paraeducator and other staff hours back by 30 minutes, which may not seem like a lot, but for paras working with students in special education (SPED) its makes life in the classroom much more challenging.
Tina Jones is a pre-school special education paraeducator. She explained the impact that the 30-minute cut has had on students and staff.
“I used to come in at 8:45, now I come in at 9. That gives me and the other para and the teacher 10 minutes to set up. Those duties include preparing the day snack, unstacking the chairs, wiping down the slides among other miscellaneous things. We would also appreciate some time to discuss the day ahead with the teacher. Ten minutes does not allow us to get all of these things done and not having our activities for the day ready just creates chaos and causes some of our kids to have meltdowns,” Jones said.
Jones went on to explain how she and other paras have tried to adjust, but that it is still taking away from valuable teaching time and posing a safety risk to the children.
“To accomplish getting our work done and avoid unnecessary meltdowns, we have tried doing some work during playtime in the classroom. This is a time we are not only supposed to be supervising the children but actively engaging with them in all areas. Not to mention the safety aspect,” Jones said. “If we are cleaning up or preparing other activities we are not servicing these children with their full right to public education nor are we safely supervising them in the way that they need to be.”
Jones believes that due to the cuts, paraeducators and the teachers they work with are forced to make the hard choice between sacrificing education and supervision for making time to do prep and clean up work.
“Either way we do it, it’s not in the best interest of the kids,” Jones said. “We need that 30 minutes back,”
Another issue that came up at the meeting was the cutting of paraeducators from certain bus routes. Dana Lockett, another special education paraeducator, was reassigned to a position she didn’t want after being cut as a bus para.
“I was very fortunate to have a job, but it’s not the one that I really have a passion for,” Lockett said. “These kids need to have a para on the bus to help settle them down and work with them before they get to school.”
Often a bus para will also work with the students in the classroom as well.
Lockett also mentioned the safety risk associated with not having a para on the bus presents to not just the children themselves but to the bus driver and other children.
According to NKSD Communications Coordinator Jenn Markaryan, “bus drivers are trained for all emergencies and incidents, including how to care for SPED students.”
“Typically, special education buses have a paraeducator on them due to student need,” Markaryan said.
In 2016, NKSD was on the receiving end of two lawsuits following an incident on a special education bus. Due to ongoing litigation, and FERPA laws, the details of the case are not public.
Five months before these cuts to paras and office support occurred, they were given a raise of $250 per month, according to Vinland Instructional support para April Lord, the half-hour cut, basically took away that raise.
“By cutting that 30 minutes, we lost $250 per month. So that raise we got? We really didn’t,” Lord said.
Classified staffing levels — such as paraeducators and office support — are based on student ratios at each building.
According to Markaryan, NKSD funds more classified staff than any other employee group. Despite Markaryan’s claims, special education paraeducators still had their hours cut, while administrators received salary increases of 15-40 percent.
“The consequences of that were a sense of betrayal,” Webster said.
In her statement to the NKSD board, Lord questioned who voted for the raises to administrator salaries.
“We work with some of the most volatile students in the district, who rely on schedules and routines. We are understaffed as it is and our hours are cut. Who makes these decisions? Administrators that maybe spent a minute in our classrooms, didn’t know our jobs, students and certainly didn’t know us,” Lord said.
“They continually get raises, we finally get one and then it’s gone,” she added.
According to Markaryan NKSD makes of point of making sure all employee groups are compensated at or just above the median salary for their employee group.
“We use regional and district size-like school districts to compare salaries,” Markaryan said.
The $250 a month brought paras in the district up to the median salary of its employee group. According to indeed.com the median salary for paraeducators in the district is just shy of $31,000 per year, even with the increase. For administrators, the average salary is just above $173,000.
While NKSD restored the half-hour to 55 of the district’s 83 returning paraeducators, based on student ratios, 28 paraeducators have yet to have their hours restored.