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Union calls for living wage for school support staff

'We don't do this for the money'

STERLING – Mindy Donoho has two jobs.

She has to: Her primary job as a classroom aide at Dixon High School simply does not pay enough.

“It’s a struggle,” Donoho said. “… We’re not choosing whether to go on vacation to Hawaii or the Bahamas. We’re choosing whether to pay the gas bill or buy groceries.”

Donoho has been a paraprofessional for almost 15 years. She has asked herself every year if she can afford to stick with the job; meanwhile, she has watched fellow aides leave for better-paying jobs, schools cut support staff and aides take on more work, including students with more intense special needs.

“We don’t do this for the money,” she said. “We do this for the love of working with the kids. I ask myself every year: Why am I coming back? And I do because I know I make a difference in the lives of children.”

The Illinois Education Association believes that school support professionals should be paid a living wage, or enough money to cover the basic needs of food, shelter, transportation, health care and child care. The union at a roundtable meeting Wednesday threw its support behind a national call for a minimum starting salary of $28,000 for all education support professionals.

Education support professionals fill many roles in local schools – from instructional assistants to office workers, food service workers to custodians and bus drivers to security guards, the association said.

They help keep school buildings safe and students healthy, and they impact students every day. But they are “woefully” underpaid, often barely able to live in the communities in which they work; some qualify for government assistance, or even work two or three jobs just to feed, shelter and clothe their families, the association said.

Sara Kipping, an elementary school teaching assistant and college tennis coach, is glad the union is bringing the wage issue to the forefront.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand that is what our wage is,” she said. “I think they assume that since we have a 2-year degree – or more than that for a lot of us – we are making more or the same as a teacher.”

For local districts, it’s an impossible dream.

“It makes sense, but where does it come from?” Dixon Superintendent Michael Juenger said. “It comes almost at the expense of the student. … The cost has to be passed on. In business, it’s passed on to the customer. In education, it can be passed on to the taxpayer, but I don’t know if that would ever happen.

“Would I love for everyone to have a living wage? Yes. But how does that happen? I don’t know that it can just like that.”

Starting wages for support staff range from $8.25 an hour, which is minimum wage in Illinois, to $14.50 an hour in local districts, depending on the job. Most wages increase with experience and education and are competitive with what other districts in the area pay their support staff, district officials said.

In the Morrison School District, a kitchen staff member starts at $8.27. In the Rock Falls Elementary School District, a teacher’s aide with no experience and no degree starts at $9.25 an hour. And in the Erie School District, a custodian starts at $13.17.

But a starting salary of $28,000, as the union is calling for, is close to that for teachers in most districts. A living wage in the Sauk Valley – where the cost of living is lower than, say, in Chicago – likely is less than $28,000, district officials said.

In the Amboy School District, a brand-new teacher starts at $30,861. In the Rock Falls Elementary School District, a teacher starts at $33,635. And in the Dixon School District, a teacher starts at $35,320, which includes retirement benefits.

“I would not be able to fully staff my district with paraprofessionals and support staff if that’s what the starting wage was,” Amboy Superintendent Jeff Thake said. “I just wouldn’t be able to do it. And it saddens me to say that.”

Several local superintendents called a living wage a “nice” thing – something they wish they could give all district staff members. But they said a starting salary of $28,000 is something they cannot afford; one superintendent even likened the union demand to an “unfunded mandate.”

“If I could, I would,” Rock Falls Elementary Superintendent Dan Arickx said. “I think it’s great the union is pushing for better salaries, but I have to answer to the people across the street; their tax dollars are paying for that. … It just wouldn’t be feasible.”

“These types of conversations are best had locally and individually,” Erie Superintendent K. Bradley Cox said. “There are very few times when a blanket statement or wage or any other thing like that really fits every situation.”

For Donoho, that’s a bunch of lip service.

District salary budgets are like a pie chart in which the support staff have the smallest piece of the pie – so small that the almost undetectable sliver must be labeled with a line off to the side of the rest of the pie, she said.

“They don’t have the money for us,” she said. “We’re a line. We’re a line. That’s how we feel. … They have the money, they just don’t have the money for us.”

The Illinois Education Association is just getting the living wage conversation started, said Susan Goudreau, UniServ director for most of the districts in the Sauk Valley.

Union members must take action within their local groups as well as at the state level to make wages a priority. They also must discuss the issue at the bargaining table with their local school boards, she said.

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