UNION, NJ — Paraprofessionals with six years of employment or less with the school district could be hired through staff services starting next year, administrators revealed at the April 30 Board of Education budget hearing.
Of the 156 paraprofessionals in the district, 91 would be affected by the change.
The more than $137 million budget, which increases taxes by $78 for the average Union homeowner, was approved by an 8-1 vote at the meeting, with Vito Nufrio being the sole board member to vote against the spending plan.
Daily and long-term substitute teachers also will be subcontracted, and when the district has chosen a staffing service, current paraprofessionals will also have a chance to enroll in the program, according to Superintendent Gregory Tatum. He also said the district will be involved in the hiring process of all paraprofessionals when the service is selected.
“It’s an option that won’t take away any positions in the district,” Tatum said, adding that salaries will remain the same.
“We will be vetting every paraprofessional that comes through that door,” he added. “It’s part of the requirements for someone to get a contract in this district.”
Salaries and benefits for paraprofessionals in the district who have between one and six years of service come to $3.9 million, Tatum said, adding that the total cost for the 156 employees is $7.7 million.
At the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, parents and staff pleaded to the board not to outsource.
Chastity Santana told the board that the paraprofessional who works with her child has become an essential part of his education.
“I’m here to tell you, as a parent, that my current para is the one that brought peace to my mind,” she said. “For so many years, with my sixth child, I had no idea what I would do with him. I would drop him off at school and I wouldn’t even go home. … I would just park because I knew that I was going to get a call in a little while because something would’ve happened.”
“Without my paras — and not just mine, without all of the paras — I don’t know how I would live every day with my children,” Santana went on, pleading to the board to reconsider the outsourcing.
David Castaneda, who has worked as a paraprofessional for four years at Burnett Middle School, stated that he has impacted students’ lives in a positive way, even helping them participate in a Special Olympics event the previous weekend.
“Working as a para has afforded me the opportunity to work with students beyond the classroom,” he said. “I’ve been involved with our ‘play unified’ program for several years now, watching students with disabilities grow beyond their limitations.”
Castaneda said that a team of three athletes attended the event in Old Bridge and that the entire team will be moving on to the state competition, as they all took home two medals each.
“It is also in the classroom where miracles are made,” Castaneda said, adding an anecdote about a student who came to the district only speaking a few words and communicating through an iPad, and could speak in sentences just a year later, thanks to his teachers and paraprofessionals.
“I cannot take credit for this. It takes a village to raise a child and, in this case and so many other cases, results come from the concerted effort of a team of all paras and teachers in the room,” Castaneda added.
Board member Kalisha Morgan, who currently serves as the interim principal at Columbia High School in Maplewood, said she hasn’t had issues with the outsourced paraprofessionals in the South Orange-Maplewood school district.
“I, too, was concerned when they were brought on, but this year has been great,” she said. “I can only speak for what’s happening in my building, but they show up every day on time. I have a student that’s in a wheelchair that requires the use of an elevator every day and when we have drills or emergencies, that paraprofessional is right there by his side.”
Tatum assured the parents and staff in attendance that it’s a difficult decision to privatize the paraprofessional staff.
“It’s never our goal to hurt our employees,” he said in response to the comments. “It’s never our goal to take away from our district. The last two years have been fiscally challenging. This is a plan to try to keep our district solid, keep everybody working and also to maintain the level of professionalism that we have here, with all of you.”
Board President Nancy Minneci was brought to tears at the end of the meeting as she reflected on her 40 years as a special education teacher.
“I want to let you know that we do value you and that this is not easy at all and I’m sure everyone can see the tears in my eyes,” she said. “I taught for 40 years and I had a para at my side every day.”
“I hope that we can work something out,” Minneci added.