Union BOE reverses decision, strikes deal to keep paras

An overflow crowd packed the Union Board of Education meeting on Aug. 20, with many adorned in red in support of the district’s paraprofessional aides.

UNION, N.J. — Nearly four months of lobbying, showing up at meetings and pleading has paid off for the public schools’ paraprofessionals.

The Board of Education reversed its previous decision, voting unanimously at its meeting on Aug. 20 to keep 95 paraprofessionals, aides who assist students with special needs, as district employees.

That abandoned its decision in April — when it approved a new budget — to hire an outside staffing agency; while paraprofessionals who had been employed in the district for six or more years would have been unaffected, the district identified 91 paraprofessionals who had been employed in the district for less than six years and they would have lost their district employment and had to seek employment from the outside staffing agency.

Following a two-hour closed executive session, board President Nancy Minneci emerged at about 10 p.m. to give many of the assembled gallery what they were hoping to hear.

“I’d like to announce to everybody that we’ve come to an agreement with the UTEA,” she said, referring to the teachers’ union local, the Union Township Education Association.

When the applause dimmed from the capacity crowd, many adorned in red “Save the Paras” T-shirts, Minneci explained the deal reached with the union means that paraprofessionals with four years or more of employment with the district will continue as previously employed.

Those with four years or less will need to work 29.75 hours or more per week to retain their district-provided health insurance. Regardless, they all will remain as employees of the district.

“No paraprofessional who reaches higher than their three- or four-year anniversary during this sidebar agreement shall be entitled to the health benefits,” Minneci said, reading from a statement.

It was not clear how many paraprofessionals would retain their old status under the new compromise and how many would lose their health insurance.

The decision resolved an issue brewing since a $137 million budget was approved at the April 30 school board meeting.

As a consequence, in May, Superintendent Greg Tatum sent a letter to parents stating that the district was issuing a “request for bids” from staffing agencies to replace the paras. The district has 156 paraprofessionals, and the original decision in April would have kept about two-fifths of them as employees. The remainder would have been subject to rehire by whichever staffing agency the district contracted with.

Students, parents and paras decried the passage of the budget and began a campaign against the move, with “Save the Paras” lawn signs appearing across town.

“These outsourced companies are only in it to make money,” UTEA Vice President Richard D’Avanzo said in an interview during the closed session. “They basically feed on school districts when they face financial crises in their budgets. They’ll offer a service which realistically doesn’t have the type of trained paraprofessionals that we have. It’s just a matter of a stopgap measure rather than looking at the whole.”

Prior to the closed session, several people pleaded with the board, as they had at meetings in May and June, to not privatize the majority of paras.

One man, who only gave his name as Greg, told how much paraprofessionals helped him when he was a student. He stressed that the private companies would not give students the quality of education that they need.

“Privatizing and outsourcing our paraprofessionals to companies that are unknown to us is something we do not want to have happen to our children,” UTEA President Ann-Margaret Shannon said. “It’s all about the children.”

Sherri Maloney, a paraprofessional in Union for six years, was especially concerned at how paraprofessionals, she said, were given short notice before receiving termination notices.

“Our district decided that there wasn’t enough funding to keep all of us this year, but in sudden notice they — I think it was May 15 — the only thing they told us was the budget didn’t have enough for us, which is unfortunate,” she said. “As you see at tonight’s meeting, we’re trying to get our jobs back. But there’s also on the table, they did seem to come up with an agency, but they also didn’t discuss that agency with the public.”