SEPAC – South Orange/Maplewood

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SEPAC Letter to Dr. Taylor & BOE

The following letter was sent to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and members of the SOMSD Board of Education regarding paraprofessionals:

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February 24, 2020

Dear Dr. Taylor and Members of the Board of Education:

As you know, SEPAC has been expressing concern over the employment status of paraprofessionals in our district for the better part of a decade. Every year, SEPAC advocates for change and every year, the situation remains the same. Once again, we feel compelled to bring this issue to your attention.

Since 2011, when the district dismissed the paraprofessionals from direct employment in favor of an outsourced model, SEPAC has heard from many families gravely concerned about the quality and consistency of para coverage. This ongoing frustration is not surprising given a history where paraprofessionals had formerly been district employees with benefits and a possible career path. In those days, it was not uncommon for paraprofessionals to move on to more significant roles in their schools. Now these critically important support staff members are employees of the lowest-bidding agency, without significant benefits and with a much more difficult path to full-time employment status. Professional development, a key element in understanding the special needs of the young children with whom they interact all day, every day, was previously considered a long-term investment; now it is a short-term expenditure on a more transient workforce. There is no guarantee in any given year that the same service provider will return in the fall to vet, hire, supervise and train paraprofessionals. There have been three different vendors winning the contract in a three-year period. These all-to-frequent changes in service providers, combined with low pay and less training, has been to the extreme detriment of our most vulnerable students. We don’t know who would dispute these facts. Dr. Taylor, you have stated on numerous occasions that direct district employment of paraprofessionals is the preferred method of employment for these valuable and valued individuals.

One has only to read recent local headlines, specifically the sentencing of a male paraprofessional who performed lewd actions in the hallways of Jefferson School in 2017, to 10 years in state prison, to see the most immediate and devastating impacts of a district allowing vendors to provide insufficiently vetted and monitored staff to work with students. A district cannot outsource its responsibility for the health and safety of its students to a third-party vendor.

It is really, however, in the routine day-to-day interactions between students and staff where opportunities can be seized or lost. Particularly in the early years of schooling, vulnerable students benefit from high-quality and consistent support. This quality and consistency of support is so much harder to come by when a district does not have direct control over its staff. We have heard anecdotally of high rates of paraprofessional absenteeism in some schools, leading to a difficulty in the Special Services department meeting IEP obligations completely. There have also been reports of frequent, abrupt and poorly communicated staff changes. We know the paraprofessionals unionized last year, thus expressing frustration with the frequent changes in employers they have faced and the instability that creates. Particularly with low unemployment, we are concerned that some of the more talented paraprofessionals may seek work elsewhere. All the while, our students aren’t getting the appropriate support they require and deserve.

It is easy to measure the difference in the short-term financial costs associated with employment vs. outsourcing. It is much more difficult to measure the impact in lost opportunities for students and in long-term financial consequences to the district, which take the form of more intensive support requirements and out-of-district placements in later years. Money spent now on high quality, district employed paraprofessionals, who supplement and complement the efforts of special educators with advanced skill sets, is likely to save money later. Nobody we have spoken to has ever said that outsourcing has been good for students. What has been lacking is (obviously) money and the will by the Board of Education to make the trade-offs needed to support a return of the paraprofessionals to district employment.

SEPAC fully understands that the financial trade-off is significant and daunting. For that reason, we feel it would be a reasonable approach to re-employ the paraprofessional corps in a stepped approach over time as opposed to one potentially destabilizing move. We ask that in the 2020-2021 budget analysis, the Board and the public be presented with detailed analyses of various approaches to re-employing paraprofessionals. The analysis should be both qualitative and quantitative as well as multi-year. As illustrated below in the appendix to this letter, there has been much expressed support for re-employment. Bringing back paraprofessionals in house is not just a Special Services issue. Paraprofessionals interact with nearly all students, in every one of our district schools, enriching the academic and social experience within our buildings. SEPAC leadership asks the Board to do what it has promised to do and to act on what they know is right for our students.

Sincerely,

SOMA Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC)

Ann Leeb, President; Michele Richman, Vice President-Outreach; Michael Thompson, Vice President-Policy; Malia Herman, Secretary; Reesa Salomon, Past President; and Michael Donoghue, Budget Advisor

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Appendix

Current and past Board members, as well as Board candidates, have expressed support for re-employing paras, or at least doing the analysis to support such a move. Here are some excerpts from public statements:

Board of Education President, Annemarie Maini (June 13, 2019 BOE meeting@2 hours and 27 minutes/4 hours and 9 minutes)

Prior to a moment of silence in memory of a paraprofessional, Latoya Deck, who had recently passed away, Ms. Maini stated that the return of paraprofessionals to district employment would be discussed by the BOE members at their August 2019 retreat and pledged to find a way to make that return happen.

Board Member Johanna Wright (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“Over ten years ago, I was on the front line fighting to keep our paraprofessionals, and I am still on the front line trying to bring them back. I have used my voice on the Board to continually talk about how we must look for ways to bring not only our paraprofessionals, but also our custodians back to the district.”

Board Member Erin Siders (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“My priorities have always been to identify systemic issues that are barriers to the delivery of special education in our district. That includes; advocating to bring paraprofessionals back in-house.”

Board Member Thair Joshua (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“However, we need to work on curricular advances, teacher training and adequate paraprofessional staffing to strengthen the infrastructure of the Special Services program.”

Former Board Member Stephanie Lawson Muhammad (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“I support the exploration of bringing our paraprofessional staff back in district to determine if we can make that model viable again.”

Recent Board candidate Narda Chisholm-Greene (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“We also must work hard to bring our Paras back to the district. Not only is it costing us a lot of money to outsource our paras but the quality of people we have gotten to work with our most needy students is often subpar. I will work hard to try to bring the Paras back to the district if elected.”

Recent Board candidate Carey P. Smith (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“My second priority would be to bring paraprofessionals back in-house to insure proper training and monitoring of these employees. This will give our students consistency and continuity with staff members who will interact with the children every day.”

Recent Board candidate Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“In June, the board approved another switch in vendors for paraprofessionals (once again, neglecting to hire them in-house). The ripple effect would mean that the paras that my child had already connected with in his self-contained class would potentially not be with him for another year. That upheaval to a child—who was already one of the most vulnerable in the district—was seemingly made to save money. I recognize that the board had its reasons, but as a parent to a child in the special education program, I felt like no one was speaking for my kid, my family, and our community”.

2018 Board candidate Christopher Trzaska (2018 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“Budgetary constraints have been the bane of Special Ed in this district for ages, back even before the staff was cut and paras were outsourced to fix shortfalls, and should be something squarely on the BOE’s list of funding considerations for specific detailed review during the annual budget process.”


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