West St. Paul schools approve cuts despite paraprofessionals’ protests


When the West St. Paul School Board unveiled plans to balance its budget by slashing the hours of paraprofessionals working in special education classrooms, it sparked outrage in the community – outrage expressed by 70 district residents and staff at the June 7 board meeting. Unfortunately for the district’s 73 special-education paraprofessionals and the students they serve, outrage wasn’t enough to change the school board’s mind.

At its June 21 meeting at Henry Sibley High School, with members of Service Employees Local 284 rallying in the parking lot, the board voted 4-2 to authorize district administrators to cut paraprofessionals’ hours by up to 60 minutes per day.

For the district, the cutbacks will achieve significant cost savings – not so much in wages as in employer-provided health coverage. By keeping paraprofessionals’ workweek below 30 hours, the district reduces its contribution to their health insurance costs from 92 percent to 80 percent.

But for students and teachers in the West St. Paul Schools, the cutbacks are anything but positive.

West St. Paul paraprofessionals
Paraprofessionals Cheryl Petersen, Sue Bomberg, Ellie Schwartz and Jacque Bejblik demonstrated outside a meeting of the West St. Paul School Board.

Special-education paraprofessionals work in every branch of the school district, providing the most vulnerable students with guidance, assistance and, most importantly, stability throughout their school day. They accompany students into mainstream classrooms, which is a big help for teachers already struggling with growing class sizes.

Mark Krey, a special-education paraprofessional at Heritage Middle School, said the cutbacks won’t just affect special-education students, but every student in the district.

“Special-ed students are, without a doubt, one of the most vulnerable groups in the district,” Krey said. “Consistency is what keeps them going and allows them to be successful in mainstream classes.

“It’s so important to have the same person there from the beginning of the school day to the end of the school day.”

Local 284, which organized community opposition to the cuts, said it will continue working to prevent them from going into place next fall.

Krey, who is the steward of the special-education paraprofessionals’ unit, said he and most of his colleagues already work second and third jobs to make ends meet. The cuts would increase the cost of family health insurance coverage to $1,042 per month, which would leave some paraprofessionals making less than $50 in take-home pay over a two-week pay period.

Krey wondered how many of his colleagues would stick with the job next fall.

“We have a lot of longevity in our unit; there’s not a lot of turnover,” Krey said. “Our formula works. We have a lot of special-ed students that are open enrolled from other districts because it’s a draw for parents, the way we work with students with special needs.

“This is our career for the majority of the paraprofessionals in this unit. A majority of us have second and third jobs to make ends meet, but we’re fine with that, we’ve accepted that, we’re good with that because we know we’re making a difference in our students’ lives.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org