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Negotiators haggle over wages for class aides

The union wants a 30-minute paid lunch for paraprofessionals. School Board negotiators want to reduce the extra pay allotted when they teach alone for extended periods.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


As Kim Englebert sees it, being a teacher's aide means doing a hundred things at once.

While the teacher teaches, Englebert grades papers. When she finds mistakes, she pulls kids aside to show them what went wrong and how to correct them.

If the teacher must leave the room for a parent conference, an illness or to confer about a child's progress, Englebert is left alone to run the class.

And on days when the teacher calls in sick and a substitute cannot be found, Englebert, who works in a first-grade classroom at Westside Elementary School, may have to be the teacher for the entire day, following a lesson plan left for her.

"I invite anybody to come in here and work with 25 6-year-olds. It's very stressful. It's tiring mentally," Englebert said. "You like it. If you didn't like it, you wouldn't be here."

For her efforts, Englebert, an 18-year veteran, makes $10.50 an hour -- which puts her almost at the top of the teacher's aide pay scale. More common are aides who make $8 or $9 per hour.

Benefits for Englebert, and other teacher's aides, are at the heart of negotiations between the school district and the union that represents support staffers like her, the Hernando United School Workers. The negotiations resume Tuesday.

Union negotiators want a new benefit for teacher's aides -- a 30-minute paid lunch.

Meanwhile, School Board negotiators want to reduce the extra pay teacher's aides get when they wind up teaching a class by themselves for more than 3 1/2 hours a day.

The school district employs more than 200 teacher's aides, known in education-speak as paraprofessionals or "paras." Most commonly, they are in elementary schools and in special education classrooms.

Colin Davies, the lead negotiator for the HUSW, says teacher's aides are a school's jack-of-all-trades. Frequently, they supervise children as they arrive from and go to their buses. They are occasionally called to act as substitute school nurses, he said.

In classrooms for severely disabled students, they change the diapers of teenagers.

What's more, Davies said, they are frequently left alone in classrooms. And, in a litigious age, they are just as vulnerable to lawsuits or wrongful claims of misconduct as teachers.

All for starting pay of $6.65 an hour.

Davies acknowledges that providing a paid lunch for teacher's aides would cost the district at least $100,000 more per year. But he said it's not uncommon for them to have to skip lunch, or eat on the run.

Negotiators for the School Board say that paid lunches aren't the norm for support staff unless they work an eight-hour day. Technically, teacher's aides are paid for 6 1/2 hours of work per day.

More important to the School Board is concern over a provision in the existing contract that says teacher's aides must be compensated at the base rate for teachers, roughly $16 an hour, if they spend more than 3 1/2 consecutive hours in front of a class by themselves.

Edd Poore, the board's lead negotiator, said teachers have more education and greater certification demands that warrant more pay than teacher's aides. He suggested that an alternative method of compensating aides for leading a class by themselves be adopted, but he offered no specifics.

Davies, at a recent bargaining session, reacted sharply to Poore's contention. He said aides, when left alone with students, are expected to do the same job a teacher does. They should be similarly compensated, he said.

To him, a certification and the degree requirements that Poore cites are little more than a piece of paper. "That irks the hell out of me," Davies said during the session.

Englebert said that if a child falls behind in reading, she practically keeps him at her hip to help him along. "You want to catch them right away because you don't want them to get upset," she said.

The difference between teachers and teacher's aides varies from classroom to classroom, according to Englebert. When the teacher is particularly skilled, there is a great difference, she said. When the teacher is so-so, the difference is not that great.

Officials with HUSW say they are mostly content with the current contract's allowance for aides to earn the base teacher rate after 3 1/2 hours. But they are open to a lower hourly rate that begins, not after 3 1/2 hours, but immediately.

While that could reduce the School Board's overall expense, it could also eliminate what union officials call an unfair practice -- a tendency for teacher's aides flying solo in a classroom to be suddenly shifted to another room with a teacher moments before they reach the 3 1/2-hour mark that triggers the higher teacher pay rate.

There's also a chasm between the two sides on wage and benefits issues for all union members.

The union's opening request was for an experience-based pay raise plus an additional 50 cents an hour for all of its bargaining unit members -- more than 700 people, including bus drivers, custodians and maintenance workers, among others.

Additionally, the union wants the board to pay half the cost of a higher insurance premium -- an amount equal to about $7 per employee per month.

Poore, the board's representative, called such a proposal "very unrealistic" and countered with an offer to cover half the insurance increase, with no wage increase.

When Poore lamented the gap between the sides, Davies offered a cavalier assessment of the situation, saying, "It will be a long, hot summer, my man."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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