WAYNE, NJ – Paraprofessionals are employed by the Wayne School District to work closely with special needs students and assist special education teachers in their classrooms. Currently, there are 172 paraprofessionals scheduled to work in Wayne schools in September. At this week’s Board of Ed meeting, a proposal was made to reduce the hours of 51 of these paraprofessionals to part-time, which would also reduce or eliminate their benefits. The discussion was held in public and in the end, the BOE did not move forward with the idea.
The BOE meeting on Thursday lasted well over four hours with the district’s reopening plan for September as the main topic. Secondarily, was the issue of the paraprofessionals.
Superintendent of Wayne Schools, Dr. Mark Toback introduced the idea and admitted that discussions about employees are usually held in closed, executive sessions, but the “Labor Representative” insisted that this discussion should be held during the public meeting.
Toback explained why the reduction of hours for many of Wayne’s paraprofessionals was something that needed to be considered.
“I, personally, feel very badly about this discussion,” said Dr. Toback. “As a result of the coronavirus, and through no fault of their own, many of our employees may be subject to a loss of employment, reduction in hours and loss of benefits. The administration felt an obligation to bring this discussion forward through the fact that there is a significant amount of taxpayer money involved.”
The district’s new hybrid re-opening plan, that was approved by the BOE at the same meeting, reduces the number of hours that students are in the schools, and because of this, fewer hours are needed for paraprofessionals.
“After analysis of all the classrooms, the numbers of students that they anticipate, the Special Services Department made the determination against all the IPS that are in play that require paras, and they've come to the conclusion that there are approximately 51 employees that are subject to this reduction in hours.”
The Superintendent then explained that the contracts the district has with their 172 paraprofessionals allows for flexibility in the school providing working hours based on need. He also explained that benefits are eligible if only a certain number of hours were worked.
The proposed plan would reduce the hours of 51 paras, to below the threshold for benefits. Of the 51, 14 chose to not take benefits, so only 37 of the 51 paraprofessionals would lose the benefits they currently enjoy.
He then broke down the cost savings to the district if the plan were to be put in place. “The loss of hours represents an approximate loss of $434,592 dollars to this group of employees. The loss of hours represents a loss of benefits that were valued at $946,617.”
During the public comments portion of the meeting several paraprofessionals called in to ask the BOE not to reduce their hours.
Dottie Blitzer is a paraprofessional who has been working for the Wayne school district for five years. “I was my school’s Educator of the Year last year and I’m on the list to be reduced and become part-time and lose my benefits,” she told the BOE.
“This would essentially have me performing all my duties at one-quarter of my previous compensation,” Blitzer added. “A lot of us count greatly on our benefits as part of our compensation package.”
Many of those who called in made other arguments in support of the paras. That paras are essential to kids with learning disabilities, and mental or physical disabilities. That the special needs students they work with need consistency and stability now more than ever. That some of these special needs students won’t understand or be able to keep a mask on all day or maintain social distancing. This will put paraprofessionals more at risk than other teachers from contracting COVID, and the district is essentially taking their health benefits away.
When the BOE members had their turn to discuss the situation, it was clear that all of them supported Wayne’s paraprofessionals and felt that reducing hours and eliminating benefits would force some of these well-trained people to move on to other districts. That it would not be fair in the midst of this shaky economy to hang the paras out to dry.
BOE member, Stacey Scher who is also a special ed teacher was passionate in her defense for the paras. “[During the pandemic] Special ed kids definitely suffered the most. They were the easiest ones to have regression. By taking away paras, we’re going to be in a worse situation when it comes to regression with these kids.”
Scher also made the point that there will be a lot of different tasks these paras could perform after their time with their student is over. This would help them fulfill their full time hours. “I can personally think of hundreds of things they could be doing to support teachers and staff,” she said.
Matt Giordano was also adamant in his support for the paraprofessionals. “We may need them in these buildings for other skills outside of just being paras. We're going into what's basically the COVID wild, wild west,” he said, and then laid out a long argument to keep the paras and not cut their hours.
Every BOE member supported the paras and spoke up on their behalf.
Toback calmly replied that it was fine if this was the Board’s decision to move forward and maintain the paras hours and benefits. He reiterated that he did not want to have the discussion, but he was obligated to do so.
Ultimately, the decision was made to remove the item from the evening's agenda, effectively leaving the paras with their existing hours and benefits. But how long will this last?
BOE President Cathy Kazan talked about a one-year sidebar that would allow the district to negotiate with the paras and provide them with a one-year contract. Both Dr. Toback and attorney to the BOE attorney John Geppert suggested that they leave things the way they are for now, begin negotiations and see where that goes.
The future is uncertain for so many district employees, but for the immediate future all the paraprofessionals are keeping their hours and their benefits. It’s a good sign for bus drivers and other school employees that may be facing similar tests in the future.