MIDDLETOWN, NJ - Much of Middletown Public School District’s paraprofessional community, as well as several parents, spoke out strongly against the Middletown Board of Education (BOE)’s proposed resolution to eventually use a third-party vendor to help with some of the District’s paraprofessional staffing needs during the BOE’s March 27th meeting.
The District’s goal is to fill some of the vacancies in paraprofessional positions that are the hardest to fill, which are usually those that run in the hours from 7 to 10:30 a.m., by leveraging the resources from the outside vendor; and the District does not intend to use the resolution as a way of replacing existing paraprofessional staff, District Superintendent William O. George said.
“You are an important resource, you are valued, and you are respected,” he said. “It is not our intention to supplant your services. That’s not the intention of this board. Our intention is only to fill our hard to fill hours.”
Numerous paraprofessionals, which are mostly staff members who work either as substitute teachers or as teacher’s aides working with special needs students, voiced to the BOE that they strongly opposed this resolution because they viewed it as unnecessary, and because of worries that it would undercut the work they do for their special needs students.
One such paraprofessional, Kristen, has worked at New Monmouth Elementary School for 15 years, said the District could just as easily solve their staffing problem with its own paraprofessionals, if they were willing to offer them better pay. “We were told that if we came in to fill that need, that we would be paid at (the lower substitute teacher pay) rate,” Kristen said. “That was a mistake. I will not work for $7 an hour less than what I should be getting. We got a lot of good people here, trained people, that will fill your spots. “Pay us our rate. Solve it (meaning your problem) by paying us what we deserve.”
Another paraprofessional, Anita Clark, said the BOE’s proposed move would put many of the district’s special needs students at a major disadvantage, since the new, incoming paraprofessionals from the outside vendor may not know these children as well as the experienced paraprofessionals do; and as a result, they might not be as invested in these children.
“There’s certain people that they now they can rely on, that’s who these paraprofessionals are,” Clark said. “These students, they’re going to make bonds with these paraprofessionals, very tight emotional bonds. They become like family. Outsourcing is going to destroy these bonds.”
Marie McGovern, who has been a paraprofessional for Middletown’s Public Schools for the past 17 years, said she loves her job and that she wishes that the BOE members would see her and others like her in action as they work with special-needs children, and the major positive impact that their work has on these children. “Come for a half-day, come for a full day, come for lunch, come for recess, you’ll see what we really do,” McGovern said. “If I had to write a book, it would be titled ‘A Day in the Life of a Paraprofessional’.”
McGovern then told a personal story about her work in which one of her special needs students asked for a milkshake, and she gave him one as a gesture of kindness and friendship.
“My little boy was demanding on his ipad, ‘milkshake, milkshake, milkshake’,” she said. “What (do) I do the next couple of days? I go to McDonald’s and buy him a milkshake. We know our kids inside out.”
McGovern concluded her remarks by saying how outsourcing would undermines this dynamic between the special needs students and their paraprofessionals.
“Do not outsource – it’s not the way to go,” she said. “It will be a revolving door, and there is a saying that you get what you pay for.”
Naomi McKenna, a mom to a special-needs student in the district, spoke about how her daughter has hearing, visual, and other physical limitations, and on how paraprofessionals help her make progress in school despite her limitations. “Paras have an impact on the students’ lives on a daily basis, you don’t want to underestimate the role of a para in the school,” McKenna said. “I need her to be able to learn efficiently with someone who works with her everyday. This can’t happen with a sub-para. Please don’t do this disservice to my daughter. Help her, don’t hurt her.”
In addition to listening to public comments about the resolution, the BOE also proclaimed April to be Autism Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month, as well as gave official approval to the resolution allowing the district to eventually use a third-party vendor for some of its paraprofessional staffing needs.
Following this vote, Middletown paraprofessional Lauri Fish said she felt dismayed and disappointed by that vote, saying the vote does not reflect the promises that George seemed to make when he said the BOE held the district’s paraprofessionals in high regard.
“Don’t say you respect us and vote the way you did,” Fish said. “That’s not honest – that’s dishonest.”
Albert Cartwright, a Dad of an 8-year-old child with developmental disabilities who he said has tremendously benefitted from the paraprofessionals at Middletown Public Schools, said that the paraprofessionals should not have their work outsourced, and that if this was meant to cope with overall budget cuts, paraprofessionals are not the place worry about money, since the interest of special needs children should be the top priority.
“It’s not about money,” Cartwright said. “Until you’ve been in my shoes, or one of their shoes, you shouldn’t try to put a number on them.”