The para paradox 

For paraeducators, there's no job security

Jeff Medley only joined Missoula County Public Schools part-time a few months ago. What started as a nine-hour-a-week gig overseeing the safety of a vulnerable preschooler quickly became a 24-hour-a-week paraeducator job in three classrooms in two schools. It's what Medley calls one of "those Missoula jobs...I've delivered packages for FedEx," he says. "I've done geophysical surveying out in Idaho, all sorts of jobs."

Medley, who worked as a substitute teacher in Missouri years back, isn't sure he was looking for anything permanent when he applied with MCPS. But already his future with the district is uncertain. MCPS recently faced a string of layoffs—39, all told—of paraeducators, who used to be known as teachers' aides.

The reasons for the terminations vary, from fewer oversize classrooms in need of extra help to the loss of federally-funded Title I programs at three schools. The latter means that Medley, along with several others at Lewis and Clark Elementary alone, will no longer have a job. "Now they're scrambling, and I guess what they're trying to figure it out is how to keep as many people as possible or to keep the help they need," Medley says.

That scrambling is evident from the work Steve McHugh's been doing the past few weeks. As MCPS personnel director, he's fielded phone calls from the Montana Office of Public Instruction about unforeseen funding that could save more than half the recently displaced paraeducators. Already, he says, the district's recalled 12 Title I positions, and he should know for sure about 10 additional jobs by the end of the week. MCPS is adding roughly 18 paraeducators funded through stimulus money and other avenues to a recall list, hoping some of them can be saved or transferred to new positions this fall. Seniority will be a major factor in those decisions.

click to enlarge Jeff Medley heads into what could be his last days as a paraeducator at Lewis and Clark Elementary. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Jeff Medley heads into what could be his last days as a paraeducator at Lewis and Clark Elementary.

"Everything seems to go on [enrollment] numbers or where the funding comes from," says Sheri Postma, a 20-year paraeducator and union president for MCPS classified staff. "We have to try to explain that to our folks, and when you're beside yourself you're not hearing a lot of this stuff. It seems like, 'Oh well, they're picking on us.'"

Postma saw this coming to some degree when the district started hiring new paraeducators two years ago using stimulus money. Now, either the general fund picks up that tab or many of those jobs disappear.

McHugh doesn't relish the potential layoffs that have come as a result of Title I eliminations, changes in oversize classrooms, and a stimulus shortfall at MCPS. With 16 years as a principal at Hawthorne Elementary and 16 years prior as an MCPS teacher, McHugh says there are a lot of people on the displacement list that "I personally know."

Paraeducators typically staff special programs or take pressure off overworked teachers in oversize classrooms. Some work one-and-a-half hours a day, others as many as 15. Medley's position at Lewis and Clark called for everything from grading papers and putting them in students' cubbyholes to sitting down with students to help with math and reading—"everything a teacher does," Medley says, "without running the classroom."

Before the end of this school year—when these layoffs take effect—MCPS will have 150 active paraeducators across the district. Jobs aren't guaranteed for these reserve units of public education, and Postma says there's not much union bargaining can do about that. The need for paraeducators is fluid. McHugh explains it like this: If a classroom of 20 suddenly gains an extra student or two, the state requires that the district either relocate those extra students or hire a paraeducator to ensure adequate instruction for the oversize class. But if a student moves and a classroom is no longer oversize, "that para position would have to go away. They're that temporary."

Medley's all too familiar with this unstable situation, despite his limited time at MCPS. After taking his first position as a preschool paraeducator at Jefferson School, he almost immediately landed a second job in an oversize third-grade classroom at Lewis and Clark. But just a few weeks later, he says, one student moved away and his position was terminated. "They lose one and all of a sudden they don't get that extra help," he says. "Luckily there was a guy resigning from another paraeducator position, so I transitioned from the third grade into the first and second grade."

Medley hopes MCPS won't start from scratch by hiring a different paraeducator for his Jefferson student next year. "The teacher at the preschool put a good word in for me at the district, so it might be easier to get my name in the pool for next fall."

But as summer break begins, employment uncertainty will likely persist for many paraeducators on the district's displacement list. It's an "ugly feeling," Postma says. She's been there before. Several times. "You're stuck out there in the summertime without unemployment. It's nerve-wracking. It's a very unfair situation, and I'm not sure what we can do about it."

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