NEW BEDFORD — Sheldon Smith is one of the public schools’ many paraprofessionals lobbying for more hiring, a new contract and better pay, asserting that current staffing shortages are leading to illegal conditions for students with special needs.
Smith, in his 24th year working with New Bedford’s neediest students, is seeing his pay stall out below $25,000 as another union contract expired without renewal. The current agreement — under which the average paraprofessional (sometimes called instructional aides) in the district earns about $22,000 per year — expired in July.
Without a resolution and under the pay schedule in the current contract, many could receive less than the state minimum wage when it increases to $15/hour this January. However, a spokesperson for the schools said “it is district practice” to move staff above minimum wage when their contractual pay falls below it.
“It’s awful,” Smith said. “I just want the district to realize that we matter. I don’t know what they think we do, but we educate children all day.”
Dozens of the paraprofessionals held a demonstration at this week’s School Committee meeting to voice their concerns. A shortage of the aides is leading to illegal conditions for New Bedford students with disabilities, demonstrators said.
Within the schools, nearly 300 paraprofessionals work in classrooms with high-needs students, but staff has been declining while the special needs population has rapidly increased. Students with disabilities are often guaranteed a paraprofessional by law — sometimes to work with individually, other times to ensure that the classroom teacher has support.
There’s now a shortage of nearly 90 paraprofessionals across the district, and many students are not receiving these required services. Lawrence Genereux, a paraprofessional at New Bedford High, said that he works in a group setting with students who are supposed to have individual support.
“We should have about 45 or 50 [paraprofessionals] at the high school,” Genereux said. “Now we have 30.”
During the School Committee meeting, Heather Emsley, director of human capital services, did say the district is conducting outreach and working with local community colleges to attract more workers.
Jillian Zangao, president of the paraprofessional union, calls the current situation illegal. “There are students throughout the city whose IEPs are in violation right now,” she said, referencing the federally enforced documents, called Individualized Education Plans, that protect students with recognized disabilities.
Zangao says the shortage of paraprofessionals is connected to how the district treats them.
“Our contracts are never offered on time,” she said. Though the current contract supposedly stretches back to 2019, it was only agreed upon in 2021. According to Zangao, two school years passed where, without a current agreement, many paraprofessionals didn’t receive timely raises or other benefits. In the negotiation cycle before that, New Bedford had gone seven years without an up-to-date contract.
“They don’t mind if our contract expires, because it saves them money,” Zangao said. “We [along with teachers] work together to run a classroom, so we should all get the same respect.”
Another paraprofessional attending the School Committee meeting, Nicole Baptista, has worked as a paraprofessional in New Bedford for 18 years.
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“I can’t survive on one job,” she said. After school finishes on Friday, she goes straight to her second job taking care of disabled adults. Her Friday shift ends at 11 p.m., then she works all weekend. “So basically seven days a week,” she said.
On signs and during a public comment period at Monday’s School Committee meeting, many referenced a living wage study from MIT, which found that a single adult in Bristol County with no children needs $37,679 to afford basic expenses. The current proposal from the union, which was rejected, would raise the average paraprofessional salary to $23,600 and would also fall within the budget cap provided by the district, organizers say.
“The pay does not equate to what we do,” Zangao said, pointing out that someone could just as easily find a job at Dunkin’ and make more money.
Andrew O’Leary, director of finance for the school district, said a fully-staffed paraprofessional workforce would encroach upon the district’s allocated budget. “Our new budget is based on the 400 paraprofessional positions that we have identified to meet the needs of our current students.”
“The district is obliged to show it can cover the cost of all positions,” he said.
“There is no way they’re going to hire 90 paras this year,” Zangao said, using shorthand for paraprofessionals. She said respecting and retaining the current workers is the best way forward.
In the meantime, the shortage affects the 24 district schools that have a current need for paraprofessionals. The union also covers a small number of lunch aides and mailroom aides.
Nancy Furtado, who is in her 23rd year in the district, says that safety is her biggest concern. She works one-on-one with a student who has behavioral issues — including outbursts of hitting, yelling, and throwing furniture.
Having paraprofessionals, “helps keep everyone safe,” she said. But arguing for a decent wage in her free time, she said, is dispiriting.
“We feel like we don’t matter.”
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 21, 2022, to include information on the NBPS policy regarding minimum wage.