116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Paraeducators who work with special education students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District are getting a pay raise of 17 cents an hour this fall, the lowest increase in more than a decade.
Paras and teachers say paras are hard to come by and harder to keep, which they attribute to low pay.
Kandy Bekeris, president of the Cedar Rapids Organization for Teacher Associates and a para, said it's the lowest pay increase she’s seen for her profession since 2008.
“We’ve watched quality paras leave our district over and over again,” Bekeris said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard great people doing great things say, ’I love being a para, I love helping students, but I can’t afford to keep working here.’”
Bekeris, a para at Washington High School, has worked for the district for over 20 years and is the highest-paid para in the district because of her additional responsibilities planning professional learning for paras. She earns $26 an hour.
Only 26 paras in the district earn more than $20 an hour, according to the Iowa State Education Association. The hiring and pay scale related to paraeducators is based on State Supplemental Aid and student enrollment numbers.
The district enacted a paraeducator hiring freeze in fall 2020 when facing an increasing budget deficit in special education, said Wendy Parker, executive director of special services. This led to the number of paras hired going from 480 to 370, a loss of more than 20 percent.
Parker said the number of paras needed is determined by Individualized Education Plans — a legal document developed for public school students who need special education created with the child’s parent or guardian, teacher and other district personnel.
There are different types of paras: those assigned as classroom or program paras, and those who work one-on-one with an individual student.
The district was able to reduce the number of paras in a classroom in some situations, Parker said, and still be able to provide the services outlined in the Individualized Education Plan. The district tends to have between 10 to 40 para positions open at any given time, Parker said.
“These are difficult positions to hire as they are not 40 hours per week positions and the contracts are not for a full year,” Parker said.
In the Cedar Rapids district, paras receive an additional $385 a month toward health insurance. They also receive 14 paid holidays — a negotiation made through previous years of bargaining — opposed to other groups such as custodians who get 10 paid holidays.
In the most recent negotiation this past spring, the agreement was a 1.1 percent raise for the 2021-2022 school year. The Cedar Rapids Education Association, an affiliate of the Iowa State Education Association, is the bargaining representative for all staff in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Cedar Rapids schools Superintendent Noreen Bush said the district has 11 specialized employee groups, including paras.
“ (The district) would always be a proponent of employees getting a pay raise, but it must adhere to a budget that is affected by cuts and a decline in student enrollment,” Bush said in an email.
This year, the district is facing a drop in enrollment, a $2 million dollar loss in revenues from Medicaid and increases in salaries and benefits not covered by the state’s allowable growth.
Iowa State Education Association Director Kim Miller said the district has reached a crisis point in being able to hire and retain paras — “a problem exacerbated by the Legislature that is notoriously underfunding public education,” Miller said.
Parker agreed, saying the funding for special education in Iowa is not adequate to cover the services and supports outlined in Individualized Education Plans.
“Almost every district in Iowa is running a deficit (in special education), and the total deficit in the state has increased dramatically over the past 10 years — 305 districts out of 327 districts run a deficit — now exceeding $158 million,” Parker said.
Miller, however, believes the district and school board can give larger pay raises to paras if they choose. One way they could do that is to spend an additional $500,000 a year for four years for para educators’ salary, which could move the starting wage from $12.28 to $15 an hour.
“It’s not a lot of money in the school district’s $250 million budget,” Miller said.
The cost of the entire para bargaining group of 422 employees was just over $10 million during the 2020-2021 school year.
The Cedar Rapids district has been increasing its unspent balance of funds available in the general fund to approximately $1 million each of the last four years. The district’s unspent balance is now just over $18 million, representing an unspent balance of 8 percent.
Some of that balance could be used to increase the salary for paras, Miller said, without affecting pay for others.
“They have a moving target with spending and revenues, so it is more complicated than this, and we understand that. But this is how it could work if it was a very high priority for them to address this need,” Miller said.
Paras are the “heart and soul” of special education programming, said Sara McBride, a teacher at Pierce Elementary School with 18 years of experience teaching special education.
Anne Hagie, a para at McKinley Middle School who has worked for the district for 21 years, assists teachers in reinforcing lessons, keeps students on task and is an extra pair of eyes in the classroom.
Paras are aids to students with disabilities and behavior problems or with physical or feeding needs, she said.
“The most important role of a para is to be flexible,” Hagie said. “Many paraprofessionals also build strong relationships with students they work with, and spend more one-on-one time with students than the other adults on staff.”
Candy Clark has worked as a para for the Cedar Rapids district for 23 years and also is one of the highest-paid paras in the district, making $20.30 an hour during the school year. Clark is assigned to work with a student on a one-on-one basis required by his or her Individualized Education Plan.
But most days, Clark said she finds herself doing the job of two or three people because there are not enough paras to meet the needs of students. Clark said the student she works with one-on-one is not getting the required hours outlined in her Individualized Education Plan because of this.
“None of us feel we are being appreciated when we’re given such a ridiculously low 17-cent raise,” Clark said.
Paras are leaving the district because of the mental, emotional and physical demand of the job and inadequate pay, said Kim Baldwin, a para at Nixon Elementary School.
“Every time a para leaves the district, it breaks a bond, trust and routine for students,” she said.
Baldwin, who has been working for the district for three years, earns $12.52 an hour. She is often injured on the job.
“I’ve been bit, slammed against a wall and injured both my wrists,” said Baldwin, who works in a level 3 autism classroom. “We don’t have enough help in the classroom.”
Baldwin stays because she loves helping students who need it most, she said.
“In our job we have days that we cry from stress or exhaustion,” she said. “On other days, we cry for the progress these children are making in our classrooms.”
Amy Plotz, a special-education teacher at Hiawatha Elementary School, said if a para is out sick for the day, “we all have to scramble.”
Students with limited mobility or health concerns such as seizures need someone like a para to work with them during the school day. In addition, behavioral issues often arise when students are struggling academically.
Plotz said they want to “avoid that level of frustration increasing,” and paras help with that by being an extra support to the student.
“Paras are undervalued and not paid well,” Plotz said. “We wouldn’t be able to serve all our kids their legally required minutes without them. We need people who show up every day.”
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