Targets upgraded training, higher pay for TAs

School Committee logo'It's the most impressive union budget report that I have seen.'
   -- Paul Schlichtman

UPDATED Dec. 6: The Arlington Education Association -- the local teachers’ union – wants more than $1 million in improvements made at Arlington Public Schools in 2023-2024, the School Committee learned Thursday, Dec. 1, at its regular meeting.

The AEA seeks better training for new paraprofessionals, teacher assistants paid more and some upgraded, a new special-education team, more English-language learning at Peirce School, improved HVAC at Dallin School and elsewhere and computer technology enhancements.

After the presentation about the $1.045 million in proposed operating-expense increases, officials responded positively but without specifics.

“You have painted a clear picture of what it’s really like” on the ground at local campuses, Committee Chair Liz Exton said.

“It’s the most impressive union budget report that I have seen,” said Paul Schlichtman, a veteran committee member.

Superintendent Elizabeth Homan said, “We agree with you, and we want to work with you.” She said she was previously aware of the district’s “heat-regulation challenges” and added that “Dallin is slated for some improvements” soon. 

Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason noted that ventilation equipment has already been purchased for use there.

Toward the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, which also covered many other topics, committee member Jeff Thielman referred to the AEA budget as a “bombshell.” 

In an email replying to an YourArlington inquiry, Thielman wrote Friday that his term may have been too strong – but added that “the facilities subcommittee will meet to look into the capital concerns the AEA president raised last night,” meaning the heating and air-conditioning woes.

Training, pay, turnover

AEA President Julianna Keyes emphasized the need for more, better-trained and better-paid paraprofessionals – people who work with students in classrooms but lack the credentials of full-time permanent teachers.

Keyes described an urgent need for training of new parapro­fessionals of all types, “especially as we hire more people from outside of education.” Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel has acknowledged in previous committee meetings that some new hires recently do not have previous experience working in public schools.

The cost of such training is pegged in the document at $35,000. 

See the AEA presentation at this link >>

The document also suggests that insufficient training has been a main factor driving turnover. The budget document says: “We hire and then lose employees because they are thrust into challenging situations without training. It should not fall to already overworked Unit A members [teachers] to provide all of the onboarding and training for new paras. This was the top request from most buildings [campuses] in the district.” 

How much does money matter?

Keyes called some paraprofessional categories “low-paid jobs” and said that “unfilled positions have really hurt this year.” She reiterated what is contained in the document – that she would like compensation made comparable to that at nearby districts. She added that if Arlington’s pay scale per se cannot be raised, perhaps hiring bonuses and/or retention bonuses could be implemented.

Keyes said at the meeting and in the document that she does not blame the district’s human-resources personnel, as classroom staffing is a nationwide issue. 

A recent article from a nonprofit news organization covering U.S. education, suggests, however, that it can simultaneously be local as well, with the level of vacancies often varying within a state, a county or even a district. 

The article is based on a recently released study done at Brown University analyzing data from Tennessee schools immediately prepandemic.

To some extent, it’s money that matters, but not necessarily a lot of money; that study says in part that “A 0.5 percentage point increase in teachers’ scheduled salary bumps was correlated with a 36 percent drop in vacancy rates.”

View from a TA

Speaking Thursday evening alongside Keyes was Teresa Spangler, a veteran teacher assistant at Menotomy Preschool, who said that she and her peers there are “a vital part of the classroom team.”

She said they do everything from assisting with beginning academics to handling mobility issues to imparting basic life skills, such as opening containers, obtaining paper towels and potty training, to the 3- 4- and 5-year-olds.

“Preschool’s not milk-and-cookies anymore,” she said.

TAs at Menotomy have even helped teach parenting classes. And they are trained in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and crisis prevention intervention, Spangler said.

TA salaries currently start at $17.31 per hour and top off at $20.91 per hour; there are six steps on the scale. That information and other compensation information may be found on page 18 within the relevant contract

However, TAs are not allowed to intervene with students who have high needs and complicated conditions. This, Spangler said, is not only a disservice to the students, but it also can be confusing for the little children and alienating for the adults.

One specific request in the AEA document is for TAs at Menotomy to be promoted to specialized support professionals, or SSPs, who are allowed to work with students with severe disabilities. SSP salaries now start at $24.15 an hour and top off at $27.60 an hour; there are also six steps on this scale.

Keyes considers the preschool to be, in essence, a supportive learning center given the incidence and nature of the disabilities of many preschoolers. She further noted that SSPs staff the district’s official supportive learning centers.

In response to a YourArlington inquiry, Keyes explained Friday that “The difference between the two positions [TA versus SSP] is that SSPs have a higher degree of training, which justifies the higher salary. Most of the TAs at the preschool have already completed the same trainings as SSPs districtwide.”

The document states that “students will benefit from a more-inclusive model where all adults work with all students” and estimates the cost of making this happen -- recategorizing Menotomy’s TAs -- at being somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000.

English-language learners

Also crucial in Keyes’s view is helping English-language learner students, particularly at Peirce School, where this demographic has been growing. 

“We don’t have [paraprofessionals] for ELL right now,” she said. 

Keyes wants a slot for a new full-time ELL teacher at Peirce, and possibly an ELL coach to serve grades six through 12 at Gibbs, Ottoson Middle School and Arlington High School, plus some other related needs.

This all could cost up to $250,000, the document estimates.

 Special-education concerns

In what she described as “going big here,” Keyes advocated for a districtwide evaluation support team for special-education concerns. This ideally would consist of a psychologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, speech language pathologist and social worker.

She also said that having increased help from clerical employees to do mailings and other laborious tasks associated with SPED – rather than having higher-paid staffers doing these things – would be a wise adjustment. 

Total cost for implementing this proposal would be in the realm of $625,000.

Computer needs

The AEA seeks to purchase additional Chromebook mini-laptop computers and attendant chargers to keep on campus and to provide as needed to students whose own such items are inadvertently left at home, are malfunctioning or are out of power. 

As things stand, teachers sometimes need to lend their own charging cords to students who do not have them with them and whose Chromebooks are brought to campus uncharged, Keyes said. 

The total of just over $78,000 in this proposed budget category also would cover more training for the PowerSchool computer program so that more staffers are able to easily look up needed data.

'90 or nothing’

“Climate control” is an ever-increasing need in Arlington, especially now that cold weather has set in, though the cost of rectifying this remains an unknown. The situation is most evident at the preschool, Dallin, Ottoson and the high school. 

Keyes said that often it is a matter of “90 or nothing,” meaning that building personnel have little ability to set and maintain a comfortable temperature. She said she thought that the district could “spend some money [that is already] in the capital budget” to make this happen. 

Watch the entire Dec. 1 meeting via ACMi:

Oct. 21, 2022: Michael Mason to become third assistant superintendent at APS

This news summary by YourArlington education reporter Judith Pfeffer was published Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, and updated Dec. 6, to add ACMi video window.

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