Detroit paraeducators, support staff protest potential job cuts

Two people sit in a shadowy classroom working on their laptops.
Parents and staff showed up in the Detroit Public Schools Community District showed up in large numbers at Tuesday’s school board meeting to challenge the district’s forthcoming job cuts for school administrators and support staff. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

Staff and parents upset about potential job cuts are pleading with Detroit Public Schools Community District officials to find other ways to address the budget gaps.

They brought their concerns to the Detroit school board Tuesday night. The district is weighing cutting more than 100 jobs, most of them central office employees as well as some school-based administrators and support staff. 

The discussions are happening as the district prepares for the 2023-24 school year, when its nearly $1.3 billion in federal COVID relief funds will be depleted and it will no longer have that money to cushion the blow from losing about $20 million in state funding because of a large enrollment loss during the pandemic. The district has lost about 2,000 students, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Vitti said the district and principals will need to make tough choices to keep the budget balanced while prioritizing teacher salary increases, keeping classrooms safe from program cuts, and ensuring the district remains financially strong and doesn’t return to the financial chaos that ruled for many years in the city.

Parents and staff worry about the impact on students and staff if principals can’t find the money for  school deans, assistant principals at small schools, paraprofessionals, school culture facilitators, and college transition advisors.

“It’s just shocking … scary to imagine losing these important people,” Kristen Egger, a parent of four children at Nichols Elementary School, told board members.

Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals, said she’s disappointed the district isn’t prioritizing the employees she represents. Paraprofessionals provide academic assistance to students. 

“These support staff continue to dedicate their lives filling the void for staff shortages and absences, covering classrooms and full time subbing,” Jackson said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Both paraeducators and school culture facilitators were very instrumental for students and their families during the height of COVID, risking their lives to report to work in person while other staff remain home to do remote work.”

Most of the district’s federal COVID relief money will be spent by the beginning of the next fiscal year, with the rest earmarked for a massive facility plan to renovate and rebuild buildings. The money, which was aimed at helping schools and students recover from the pandemic, has helped the district avoid staff layoffs and weather the enrollment losses. 

“None of this is final, but we are moving forward with changes,” Vitti said, explaining that district officials are still “going through the budget to solve that challenge and opportunity.”

He added: “When you look at the difficult decisions that have to be made, if we cut central office — which we are — the only where else to go is the classroom, and we’re trying to protect the classroom by not doing cuts there with programming and teachers.

“We’re going to have to continue to recruit teachers and retain teachers simply at the levels that we were before,” Vitti said. In order to do that, he said, the district will need to increase salaries. 

Increasing teacher salaries has been a key strategy of Vitti’s since he arrived in 2017. Starting salaries have seen a boost, from roughly $36,000 to over $51,000 during the 2021-22 school year. That strategy has enabled the district to reduce teacher vacancies, down from over 200 at the start of the 2017-18 school year to 50 current vacancies.

District officials have already begun to meet with employee groups to explain the potential budget cuts and field comments and concerns, Vitti added. Principals will get their budgets Wednesday and have a month to decide what they will prioritize.

Parents, caregivers, and teachers came to the board meeting in a show of support for their school support staff and administrators. 

“There should be some loyalty and support for those of us who stayed in the district during the dark days of emergency management so that our children could hold on to hope,” said Andrea Thompson, a college transition advisor who has worked in the district for over 25 years.

“Our children need college transition advisors to help them navigate through their processes of post-secondary education, whether it be college, skilled trades, military or even going into entrepreneurship.”

Next year’s budget will include cuts to the district’s summer school, after-school programming, and the end of COVID testing. The district used COVID funding to place contracted nurses in every school building. Vitti said that while officials believe they can fund districtwide mental health services, nurses may only be available in “at least three fourths of our schools.”

Budget discussions prompt early buyout talks

As part of the district’s budget decisions, Vitti said, some hourly employees have been told they may have to shift roles to fulfill school staffing needs.

“Our goal is trying to move as many hourly employees in particular, and even administrators with certification in open positions if they’re willing to do that,” Vitti said.

Whether or not employees will choose to move onto those new positions has opened discussion surrounding the possibility of severance packages for school-based employees. In response to a question from board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, Vitti shared the district’s current position regarding buyouts.

“We really have not dealt with severance for hourly employees in particular,” he said. “This is new territory for the district. We’ll work with the union leader for that group, if they’re willing to move forward with these efforts.”

The district can’t offer a severance or engage a severance without the approval of a union leader, Vitti added.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter at Chalkbeat Detroit covering education in Detroit. You can reach Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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