Washington Street was lined with about 25 special education assistants, teachers and supporters picketing Wednesday to bring attention to the fact the assistants and Special Education Cooperative are still unable to agree on their pay.
They held signs that said, “Do my job for a day for my pay” and “My classroom does not work without my aide.” The picketers were out front of the Morris Illinois Education Association office, where mediation between the two parties occurred Wednesday evening.
The disputing parties are the Grundy County Special Education Cooperative Board and the Special Education Employees of Grundy County, the group that represents all of the special education paraprofessionals, also called assistants.
They have been negotiating a new contract since April and, in July, began mediation. Wednesday’s meeting was the second mediation session, said Pat Hendrix, SEEGC president.
“We got through the language just fine, now it’s down to insurance and salary,” she said.
The assistants three-year contract expired July 31, and they are now working on a one-year contract. A one-year pact was offered by the cooperative due to changing insurance laws and the SEEGC agreed, said Kent Bugg, president of the cooperative board.
Bugg said it took quite some time to get through the assistants’ language concerns and it went to mediation once it got to salary and insurance negotiations.
“We are trying to reach an agreement during these difficult fiscal times that we hope is fair to all involved,” Bugg said.
In their previous contract, the assistants received a 20-cent raise every year. At the start, the cooperative offered 2 cents, Hendrix said. The highest paid employee in their group gets $13.11 an hour.
“We’re not here for the money. We’re here for the students,” she said.
Because their pay is so low, they have a high turnover, she said. In the first week of school, they have already lost five employees. And every time they have such turnover, it costs the district more to have to train new people.
And those who are hurt the most by the turnover is the kids, Hendrix said.
“We work 176 days a year at about 6 1/2 hours a day. We asked for 3.5 percent, which is 35 cents. They came back with 7 cents,” she said.
During mediation Wednesday, she said, the cooperative offered 10 cents. The SEEGC is trying to stick with the 35 cents, which turns out to be about $30,000.
In addition to the dispute over the money, the cooperative is also trying to change their insurance plans, she said.
They are offering a high deductible savings plan. For a single-person plan it would be a $2,500 deductible, for a family, $5,000. There is an employer contribution, but for the family plan it is less than half.
“That [$5,000] amount is half the salary for those folks only making $10,000 a year,” Hendrix said. “We said from the beginning we can’t afford that. They have tried to reintroduce it, but we’ve said we just want to stick with the current plan.”
Currently the assistants have the same plan as the special education teachers, a PPO plan, Bugg said, and industry wide PPO plans are increasing dramatically.
With falling equalized assessed values lowering property taxes, and state funding decreasing and unpredictable payments, he said school district budgets are suffering and have had to make cuts across the board.
This is all on top of school districts having to deal with the unknowns of the state, such as the possible pension shift and transportation reimbursements.
“Raises are not the same as they were four or five years ago. It’s a sign of the economy we are living in right now,” Bugg said.
“At no time has the board tried to devalue what the program assistants do for our kids. We still value them tremendously, it’s just the economy that everyone is dealing with.”
The kicker for the SEEGC is looking at the General Fund, which is the highest it has been in four years at $3.5 million, Hendrix said. At their last board meeting they decided to increase what was planned to be reimbursed to the 12 member districts of the cooperative from a total of $1.8 million to $2 million.
“They decided to raise it to a $2 million redistribution right smack in the middle of our continued negotiations where they tell us they have no money,” she said.
The cooperative has no money of its own, Bugg said, its budget comes from payments from the 12 member school districts that use the cooperative’s services, such as their teachers and aides. A reserve is kept for the cooperative to make sure it is able to pay its bills at all times.
In recent years some school districts have chosen to decentralize and not use all of the cooperative’s services, such as hiring their own teachers. Because of this, the reserve has grown larger than needed because school districts have been overpaying for services.
“That money doesn’t belong to the coop, it belongs to the member districts, so that amount is being redistributed at the September coop executive board meeting,” Bugg said. “And the districts will use it how they decide because it is their money to begin with. That money belongs to the taxpayers of that district because they’re the ones that pay for it.”
Therefore, its not the cooperative’s money and the cooperative board cannot decide to use it for pay raises for the assistants.
The assistants are also displeased to see the cooperative hire two attorneys for $285 an hour when all they are asking for is an extra 35 cents an hour, Hendrix said.
But in mediation, the school districts have to protect themselves, therefore, need to hire attorneys to do so, Bugg said.
“There was not a lot of progress made in the salary and insurance pieces, but we are still in mediation, so that is a good sign,” he said. “We hope to meet an agreement that is fair to everyone.”
The next mediation meeting is at 5 p.m. Sept. 16.