Mary Kay Griffin, a paraeducator at Lyons Township High School, addresses the school board last week. Parapros have been working without a contract and last week refused the administration’s latest offer. (Bob Skolnik/Contributor)

Paraeducators at Lyons Township High feel underpaid and unappreciated. And, last week, the parapros, who have been working without a contract since the school year began in August, overwhelmingly rejected the school district’s latest contract offer.

 Seventy-seven percent of the parapros voted against the offer of a four-year contract with a flat $1.55 an hour raise this year and 3-percent annual increases over the next three years. 

Just 12 of the 41 members of Lyons Township Paraeducators Association (LTPA) voted for the offer, which was not recommended by the LTPA bargaining team. The LTHS administration sidestepped the bargaining team and transmitted the offer through the union’s executive board, a move that ruffled some feathers.

This was the second contract offer parapros have voted down. Last fall, they overwhelmingly rejected an offer of a $1 an hour raise in the first year and subsequent 3-percent annual raises.

Contract talks are now in mediation with Andrew Hasty, a commissioner from Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, serving as the mediator. One mediation session was held Jan. 27 with the next one not scheduled until March, though it could take place before then.

The current starting salary for an LTHS paraeducator is $15.45 an hour. The starting salary for a paraprofessional at Riverside Brookfield High is $16.50 an hour. Many LTHS parapros want a $3 per hour raise, arguing that they are underpaid in comparison with other school districts in the area.

Approximately 25 LTHS parapros attended the Jan. 18 meeting of the Lyons Township District 204 Board of Education meeting to indicate their displeasure. One paraeducator, Mary Fran Griffin, addressed the school board during the public comment period of the meeting. 

She claimed that some parapros are earning less than the federal poverty level and said that many have to take second and sometimes third jobs to make ends meet.

“No matter what we do, we keep falling behind,” Griffin said.

Griffin said that three LTHS paraeducators quit their jobs in the week before the meeting. According to some LTHS parapros, many of their colleagues have left the school over the past five years and say that the job losses have resulted in understaffed workforce. They say that LTHS has perhaps 40 percent fewer paraeducators than it did some five or so years ago.

“There’s just not enough of us,” Griffin said. “How does LT expect to continue to attract and retain well qualified and educated paras so that we can continue to provide the best education possible to all of our students when the pay is so low? LT has had a para shortage that began four years ago when other districts began paying more.”

As of Jan. 31, the LTHS website had openings for four full-time and two part-time paraeducator positions.

Some LTHS paraeducators have quit to take jobs in other school districts that pay more.

“We are losing the best of the best,” said LTHS paraeducator Vicky Cernetig, who has worked at LTHS for 17 years. “Other paraprofessionals moving to different schools. A girlfriend of mine moved over to Argo at $25 an hour.”

Morale among paraeducators, many of whom have college degrees, is low. 

“When you come to school you dread walking through that door,” said one member of the LTPA, who asked not to be identified because she is not authorized to speak for the union. 

Paraeducators typically work with special needs students, sometimes as one-to-one aides or helping a teacher in the classroom. Those working with most severely disabled students have to perform difficult and unpleasant tasks, such as helping students with toileting.

Attrition in the ranks means the remaining paraeducators have to work harder and try to cover for each other. 

“It is so disheartening and so exhausting that you’re in there and you’re sometimes doing the job of two or three paras,” Cernetig said.

Cernetig said that not all special needs students are getting the level of service that they should.

“Students that should be one on one are not,” Cernetig said. “I know parents have no clue this is going on, because we’ve been told not to talk.”

The paraeducator who asked not to be identified said administrators seem either not to know or respect how hard paraeducators work.

“Well never turn our backs on the kids; we go above and beyond,” the paraeducator said. “We miss our breaks. We work through our lunches. And now it’s just almost that they feel like this is something that we should do and it’s not right. Somebody should say ‘enough.’”

Most parapros want to continuing working at LTHS but said that they need to be paid more.

“Most of us want to stay in the community that we’ve grown up in,” said Cernetig, who graduated from LTHS. “This is in no way a living wage for our area. It’s getting very disheartening, because we started with over a hundred paras and we’re something like 50.” 

The paraeducators point out that LTHS is a well-funded district. The average teacher salary at LTHS is $115,414 according to the most recent Illinois School Report Card. Parapros point out that they have to contribute as much to their health insurance premiums as teachers, who are being paid much more. They also grumble that LTHS created two well-paid new administrator positions this year yet seem stingy with contract offers to the parapros.

“It’s such a small amount for this district,” Cernetig said.

“We’ve had it; we’re done. I don’t think you can run a school without the paras.”

Yet the paraeducators who spoke with the Landmark said that they don’t want to walk out.

“We don’t want to strike, we want a deal,” said the member of the union who asked not to be identified. “We’re trying to work a deal. Who does it hurt? It hurts the kids and we’re trying at all costs to avoid a strike.”

LTHS Superintendent Brian Waterman said that the district will continue to work with the LTPA to reach a mutually agreeable contract.

“Our BOE and administration is committed to continuing with the mediation process in the coming weeks,” Waterman said in an email. “Ultimately, we and the LTPA share the same goal of reaching a resolution on an agreement that is highly competitive and honors the unique, high level work our paraeducators perform on a daily basis.”