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Mediation resumes in contract dispute between Springfield Public Schools and its paraeducators

Contract mediation continues Monday in the increasingly fraught contract dispute between Springfield Public Schools and the union that represents its paraprofessionals.

In public school classrooms, paraeducators, or "paras," assist licensed teachers. Some districts hire them to be a second classroom educator. Most of the time, they work with children who have high needs or are English language learners.

"I work with an amazing second grade teacher. I've worked with her for five years," said Susan Montmeny, a para at Springfield’s Mary Walsh Elementary School. "We're a great team because we can read each other and I can see her thoughts as she's making them and go to the child that's maybe struggling a minute. I’m very lucky to have that kind of working relationship."

Montmeny teaches phonics and reading, and said it is a measure of pride for her to see her students advancing to the next level.

A job with many moving parts

Paras who work in classrooms, like licensed teachers, wear many hats. In addition to assisting students one-on-one in the classroom, they get them off buses and supervise lunch.

Sometimes with short notice, when a teacher is sick or has a meeting, the para steps in as teacher for the day. The para's level of training is different and so is their hourly wage — often half of what a teacher makes.

At almost 67 years old, Montmeny said she and her husband, who is retired, are on a fixed income, so she has to keep working.

"After 25 years with an associate's degree," Montmeny said, "I made $28,000 last year. So $19.88 is my hourly rate."

'Not an entry-level job'

In Springfield and in other districts, two years into the pandemic, paras say their jobs have become even more significant.

A few weeks ago at a union rally Cathy Mastronardi, president of the Springfield Federation of Paraprofessionals, stood outside City Hall and told her members they are worth so much more than they're being paid.

"Two percent won't make a dent!" they chanted.

In an interview, Mastronardi acknowledged the chant is catchy, although outdated. By the time of the mid-March rally, negotiations with the district had moved past that.

"They actually gave us more than 2% on the second year of the contract," Mastronardi said. "Then the next two school years are 2 [percent]."

According to the Springfield Public Schools, the district has offered paraprofessionals an average increase of 15% over four years.

Cathy Mastronardi, president of Springfield Federation of Paraprofessionals, speaks at the rally in Court Square on March 17, 2022.
Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen
The Republican / MassLive.com
Cathy Mastronardi, president of Springfield Federation of Paraprofessionals, speaks at the rally in Court Square on March 17, 2022.

Because so many types of jobs are in the same bargaining unit, the raises are all over the place, Mastronardi said. The increases, like in many contracts, depend on years of employment. (Licensed nurse practitioners, in the same paraprofessional unit, in some cases would receive a 30% increase. The union also includes health aides, tutors, and physical and occupational therapists.)

One sticking point for Mastronardi is the district's hiring offer for a new classroom para with an associate's degree. For this school year, it would be $17.33 an hour.

"It's not an entry-level job," Mastronardi said. "You do have to have certain qualifications to perform those tasks — either educationally or you have to take a test, which is like an associate's equivalency," she said.

Mastronardi said that for a para with a bachelor's degree, the district has proposed $0.53 more an hour. Without being specific, she said the increase should be higher.

By comparison, according to the districts' most recent contracts, the lowest starting wage for a classroom para is $21.45 an hour in Boston, albeit with a higher cost of living. In Holyoke, the starting wage is $15 an hour. In Pittsfield, with an associate's degree, the starting rate is $12.81.

The potential to make more

The Springfield paraprofessionals' union and the school district encourage paras to become licensed teachers. And in contracts from past years, paras have the option to take on more responsibility and earn more by filling in for classroom teachers, tutoring, and taking professional development classes to administer MCAS exams. There are also longevity bonuses.

But across the state, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Teachers Association are both pushing for paras to earn at least a living wage — and currently they're not.

The unions applaud the Student Opportunity Act, a 2019 education funding bill that gives Massachusetts districts more money, including for salaries. But Beth Kontos, president of AFT Massachusetts, said many paras are getting raises that don't count for much.

"If you're making $14 an hour, a couple of percent is not very much money. So it doesn't add up eventually to a living wage," Kontos said.

'Spreading lies'

In Springfield, after months of negotiations, the school committee voted in February to bring in a mediator, a neutral third party.

Last month, Springfield Public Schools sent out a press release from the district’s chief contract negotiator, Sean Sweeney. It said, among other things, the union needed to "stop spreading lies."

“Mediation is not about staging media opportunities and twisting the truth,” Sweeney said in the statement. “Mediations are successful only when both parties are reasonable, contemplative, fair and honest. I’m hopeful we can still get there.”

Springfield School Committee member Denise Hurst took issue with the press release's language. She said the committee wasn't given the chance to review the statement, and wasn't aware it was being sent out.

"It was a tone that we have never historically used ever. And it was extremely insulting," Hurst said. "Those are the people who take care of our children. Those are the people that we see in our grocery stores, that are our neighbors."

Hurst said she fears the district has permanently damaged its relationship with paras.

When asked to comment for this story, Springfield Public Schools referred comment to Sweeney, who would not allow an interview to be recorded. When asked about his allegation that the union was spreading lies, Sweeney declined to elaborate.

Montmeny, the para at Mary Walsh Elementary School, said contract bargaining is not just about money, but also about respect.

"I don't think that the school department has the right to call its employees — or insinuate that their hard-working employees who work with children — have characters worthy of being called a liar," Montmeny said.

She'd like an apology, she said, at some point.

Jill has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing The Connection with Christopher Lydon, Morning Edition, reporting and hosting. In the months leading up to the 2000 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show The Exchange. Right before coming to NEPM, Jill was an editor at PRX's The World.
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