OKLAHOMA CITY – Reps. Ronny Johns, R-Ada, and John Talley, R-Stillwater, today held an interim study to look at ways to increase pay for support professionals in Oklahoma's public schools.
"It is so important that we bring to the forefront how important our support staff is to our schools," said Johns, a member of the House Common Education Committee and a former high school principal. "Yet many of these people are earning very low pay. We're hoping to change how we compensate these professionals so they can make ends meet, which will in turn help our students and our schools."
Talley, who comes from a family of educators and has worked with youth for many years through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said, "We want to celebrate the crucial work our support professionals are doing. In nearly every small town I travel to, I see signs for bus drivers needed. I also know we have a teacher shortage. We must find a way to improve their pay so they don't search for other work."
Presenters at today's study explained the various roles support employees play in schools, including classroom paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, child nutrition specialists and clerical workers.
Lyndsay Cathy, a special education teacher and bus driver from Lone Grove Public Schools, said her classroom would not function without the two paraprofessionals who serve alongside her. They assist with duties such as changing diapers and feeding children through feeding tubes among many other tasks.
"They are taking care of children's medical needs, teaching, taking care of children's safety," Cathy said. "They are right there with me daily doing everything I do except all the paperwork I have to do. They only do this job because they have the heart for kids. If it wasn't for them, the schools wouldn't run."
Presenters also spoke about the struggles schools face to retain these employees – low pay being among the top reasons.
Bryan Harwell, an administrator at Ada Public Schools, described all the duties support staff are asked to perform often for very low pay.
Custodians, for instance, are asked to work from early morning until after school, to keep all classrooms, restrooms, gyms, cafeterias, office areas and other spaces clean and ready for students and staff, in addition to responding to any emergencies – and during the pandemic, to sanitize as often as possible – all for about $10 an hour.
Johnny Bailey, assistant superintendent of personnel for Moore Public Schools, gave a breakdown of support employees' salaries in his district, which stretch from $14,671 a year for bus drivers to more than $22,000 for custodians who work year-round. All of these positions fall below the federal poverty level of $26,000.
He and other school administrators said in the past they might have dozens of applicants interested in a support professional position. Now, that's not the case. Bailey said this year, in particular, it has been very hard to fill open positions in his district as workers are seeking other employment opportunities for better pay. He said Costco and Amazon's distribution center recently opened in Moore, both paying higher wages.
Other presenters agreed that support personnel can often earn more at places such as McDonald's or Starbucks, where starting pay is $15 an hour. They only stay in the classroom because of their love for children.
"I love my kids," said Wilma Bunting; a paraprofessional with Sky Ranch Elementary in Moore Public Schools. "I have a great time at my school because I love my job."
Bunting described some jobs, such as custodians, who often work extra hours with no compensation. Even when support personnel do choose to keep a low-paying job at a school, they often are forced to take extra jobs to pay living expenses.
Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, who chairs the House Common Education Committee and herself was a classroom teacher, asked presenters to give their solutions for how paraprofessionals should be compensated.
Bunting said a living wage is a start. Others suggested the Legislature needs to appropriate more funding.
Lawmakers attending the study, however, pointed out that education receives the largest share of state funding every year – a record high of $3.2 billion this year on top of about $2 billion in federal aid.
Johns asked presenters if they felt the state should line-item funding for support professionals' raises instead of sending the money through the funding formula and allowing local control. Many presenters said this might be best.
Respect and discipline issues were among other reasons support workers listed as being challenging to do their jobs. Many of the presenters said they are often hit, kicked, punched or more in their classrooms. They also are asked to do other jobs than for what they are hired. This includes being asked to substitute teach.
Mary Melon, president and CEO of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, explained her foundation's "grow-your-own" program, which began by asking bilingual paraprofessionals to help with the district's large Hispanic student population that speaks English as a second language. In asking these employees if they would like to become teachers, they found the answer was overwhelmingly yes, but the barrier was lack of financial resources to pursue a degree and certification.
The foundation began a program that pays 100% of tuition, fees and books for paraprofessionals to earn their teaching certificates in exchange for a three-year commitment to the district. They also must maintain a 2.75 grade point average in their courses and take a minimum of two courses per semester – a stretch for some paraprofessionals who are working a full-time job and raising their own children. The funding for the program is all privately raised. Melon said a dedicated funding stream from the state would be helpful for expanding this program to other school districts across the state.
She said the foundation also has started a diversity teacher pipeline to attract more teachers of color as studies show that students perform better under teachers that look like them and have similar background experiences.
Additional presenters in today's study included: Sahari Garcia-Acosta, a graduate of Teacher Pipeline Program, now with Arthur Elementary School; Courtney Hunter, a former paraprofessional and parent of a special needs student; Kathy Hale, financial secretary for Putnam City Schools; Sara Rebelo, a support professional for Perkins Elementary School; and Juli Mitchell, a resource teacher's assistant at Washington Elementary with Norman Public Schools.