Special education aides and paraeducators in the Detroit school district are calling for higher hourly wages as demanding workloads, staff vacancies, and inflation amid the pandemic have taxed support staff.
Members of Local 345 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees came to Tuesday’s school board meeting to criticize the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s offers in its current negotiations with the union.
“Despite the love and passion that we all share for our students, our wages remain mediocre,” said Sheila Wilson, a special ed paraeducator at Moses Field Center. “On any given day we perform multiple roles, from being a security guard to a substitute teacher. We desperately need a raise to support ourselves and our families.”
The board on Tuesday approved contracts with other employee unions representing security officers, office employees, and school administrators. District officials also reported improvements in the number of students enrolled in college courses, and encouraging enrollment trends following Count Day last week.
Special ed aides call for increased wages
In 2021, AFSCME and DPSCD agreed to a two-year deal that increased hourly wages to roughly $15 to $17.66 for the union’s district employees, who include trainable aides, custodians, bus attendants, and food service workers. Special ed aides currently make $16 an hour.
Michelle Lee, president of AFSCME Local 345, said union members “expect the recognition of our sacrifices and dedication. However, all the district can offer us is a mere 3% to 5% increase.”
“When the world faced the daunting challenges of the COVID pandemic, it was the members of Local 345 that stepped up,” Lee said. “We put our lives and our family’s lives on the line.”
DPSCD and other Michigan school districts have struggled to recruit and retain school employees in light of statewide staffing challenges and budget cuts. In recent years, the district has hosted monthly hiring fairs for hard-to-staff positions such as security guards, cafeteria workers, and bus attendants. This past spring, the district moved to cut and consolidate hundreds of positions due to enrollment losses and the loss of federal pandemic aid.
The district has about 20 special ed paraeducator vacancies, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. The district employs roughly 400 special ed paraprofessionals and aides.
DPSCD’s negotiations with AFSCME come on the heels of a one-year contract the board approved with the Detroit Federation of Teachers in September. The contract raised pay for senior teachers by 6% and provided retention bonuses to all members. In recent years, the district has prioritized improving teacher salaries to compete with neighboring districts.
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In the past several weeks, the board also approved contracts with other unions for hourly employees.
AFSCME members “deserve a fair contract, or the district will continue to shed staff,” said DFT Vice President Jason Posey, and AFSCME members’ duties will fall on the shoulders of DFT members.
Crystal Lee, a DPSCD special ed teacher, said that when she was a paraprofessional at Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency 25 years ago, she made $14.51 an hour, only a dollar less than what district employees currently earn.
“That is not a livable wage for no one,” Crystal Lee said.
Vitti said the district remains committed to increasing salaries and wages for teachers and support staff. Hourly wages for special ed aides, he added, have improved from $13 at the beginning of his tenure in 2017.
Vitti did not say what the district’s current offer for special ed paraprofessionals and aides is, but said it is above Michigan’s livable wage. That would be $16.27 for an adult with no children according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
“That offer is there and could possibly increase,” he said. Another bargaining session between AFSCME and DPSCD officials will take place Wednesday.
More DPSCD students flock to college-level classes
College-level course enrollment in DPSCD is back to pre-pandemic levels, following a sharp increase in the number of students seeking credit recovery over the past several years.
Fifty-five percent of high school students are currently enrolled in college and career-prep courses this year, the same percentage as the 2018-19 school year. During the 2021-22 school year, only 39% of students were enrolled.
“We’re starting to make inroads in the damage that was created by the pandemic when students were losing credit,” said Vitti.
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The number of DPSCD high school students enrolled in credit recovery programs jumped from 2,742 in 2019-20 to 4,901 the following year. By 2021-22, credit recovery enrollment was 7,480, over half of the roughly 14,000 high school students the district enrolls each year.
School districts have long used credit recovery programs to give students another chance to earn course credits. However, the numbers increased in Detroit and around the country as schools tried to recover from pandemic-related disruptions that left many students off track for graduation due to failing grades, absences, and challenges with online learning.
“As we have more students catch up and (get to) where they should be as far as credits by grade level, then we opened the schedule up for more dual enrollment, more advanced placement, more international baccalaureate classes, more JROTC and general elective classes,” Vitti said.
District enrollment trend looks positive following Count Day
DPSCD student enrollment is projected to be up from this time last year, Vitti said.
The district reported that it has 47,843 students, roughly 350 more than last October. DPSCD schools, however, are still struggling to keep students. The district’s re-enrollment rate has remained roughly 70% since before the pandemic.
“We’re bringing in new students to the district, the lower grades and ninth grade in particular, which is again positive,” Vitti said. “What’s happening, though, is we’re not retaining students that are already in the district from year to year.”
That’s primarily due to the “high transiency rates of our families just moving around the city and out of the city,” he added, as well as competition with city charters and neighboring school districts.
Despite that, Detroit-area charters have consistently reported greater enrollment losses than DPSCD in recent years.
Vitti said he will give a more detailed account of the district’s enrollment trends at the November board meeting.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit, where she covers arts, culture, and education. Contact Micah at email@example.com.