Paraprofessionals unrewarded for work


Taeyeon Kim/Sagamore Staff

Math teacher David Knott speaks at a School Committee meeting. According to an MIT tool, paraprofessionals earn less than the living wage in the county.

According to the official town contract between the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) and the School Committee, a new, full-time paraprofessional is paid $18.64 an hour. According to a tool developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the living wage in Norfolk county for a single parent is $31.30.

The contract expired at the end of last year, and teachers and paraprofessionals are currently working without a contract. As BEU contract negotiations stall, the school’s paraprofessionals have found themselves at the bottom of the pile.

“It’s a poverty wage,” math teacher David Knott said at a recent school committee meeting. “A para working full time, after taxes, would have to spend their entire paycheck just to afford a basic one-bedroom apartment in Brookline. Isn’t there something shameful about that?”

According to guidance counselor and BEU negotiator Eric Schiff, there has been little to no progress on negotiating a new contract.

In May, the School Committee presented a new budget to the Town Select Board that would have included a raise for paraprofessionals, among many other items. The budget was approved by the Select Board. Even with the budgeted raises approved, the School Committee has not returned to the negotiating table.

Schiff said the raise for paraprofessionals is contingent on a new contract being approved by the School Committee, yet as of November 2019, the BEU has yet to hear back on their counter-proposal.

“In the past, we’ve been at the table and been told that things we asked for are not affordable because they haven’t been budgeted, and that was disappointing,” Schiff said at an October School Committee meeting. “This has been budgeted, and it feels really disrespectful to not get something that’s been budgeted.”

Currently, it is next to impossible for a paraprofessional to live in Brookline because of how little they are paid. Yet, according to career-finding site Indeed, in nearby communities such as Boston Public Schools, paraprofessionals are paid on average $22.35 per hour.

Special education teacher Monica Camara said that this disparity has become a problem in a variety of ways, including the high departure rates of paraprofessionals from the high school.

“We need people who are qualified and ready,” Camara said. “The problem is that they are not being paid a living wage in this area. Of course, we are going to lose the best people to other communities.”

Paraprofessional Kathleen Bernier said the low salary has negatively impacted her life.

“We would love to just be making a living wage,” Bernier said. “I have to work two other jobs outside of school, which makes it difficult to show up here and have full energy and do my job the best I can when I know I am not being paid the value of my work.”

Bernier herself lives in Watertown, which is a one-hour commute by bus to the high school each way.
Camara said paraprofessionals are paramount to this school community, as they often work with children who have a number of challenges getting through their day.

“There are a number of positions that have to be filled,” Camara said. “We are obviously understaffed, and that is a serious problem.”

Bernier said that it is not unusual for a paraprofessional to be scheduled for every block of the day, with little consistency as to where, when and with whom they will be working.

In an email statement, School Committee Member Sharon Abramowitz said, “paraprofessionals are vital, necessary and important educators in Brookline. They have a right to a living wage, professional working conditions, reasonable hours, professional development training and a work environment that treats them with dignity and respect. In my view, as a School Committee, we are not currently meeting our obligations to paraprofessionals. These obligations must be fulfilled quickly and efficiently, through a process of open, good-faith contract negotiations with the BEU.”

Abramowitz made it clear that her statement represented her personal views and not those of the School Committee as a whole.

Schiff said paraprofessionals hold an unmatched value with students who have special needs at the high school, and their pay is disrespectful because of the work they do.

“For the neediest kids at the high school, paras are on the frontlines. They are really in the trenches with the kids,” Schiff said. “To have them constantly taking lower pay while fast-food workers are moving up… shouldn’t a rising tide lift all boats?”