A November 11th board meeting for Great Falls Public Schools yielded some positive results for paraeducators across the district.
The board unanimously approved a proposal to increase pay for all paraeducators by $1.00 per hour, effective immediately.
Trustees hope that this will be the first step in the process of slowing down the rate at which paraeducators are leaving the district due to lack of competitive pay. GFPS is already understaffed as it is when it comes to paraeducators, according to Director of Student Services Dale Lambert. He says the ideal number is about 125, and the district currently is 17 short of that.
“It changes based on children moving in and out of the district, children moving from different classrooms,” said Lambert. “The ideal number is probably about 125. We’re at about 108 right now, so we’re still 17 short. It doesn’t sound like a big number when you look at the whole, but it is when you look at a single classroom, where you know that this child needs extra help and you can’t quite get that position filled to make it happen.”
This increase in salary will be drawn from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. IDEA is a federal law that defines how special education is implemented across the state and the country. Schools submit their reports on how they plan to comply with IDEA to their districts, who report to the state, who then report to the federal government.
“The ultimate goal is that every child goes to a neighborhood school,” explained Lambert. “They get the chance to get that education that fits them, and IDEA, the individuals with disabilities act is really just that law or those guiding principles that say ‘this is how you will deliver those services.’ It includes informing the parents, it includes ensuring that that program is individualized.”
Special Education funding is a combination of federal, state, local, Medicaid, vocational rehabilitation, and tuition funds. According to GFPS officials, the cost of now improving pay for the paraprofessionals far outweighs the financial implications of giving them the salary increase.
“It’s, from my point of view, a pretty easy argument to make,” Lambert said. “If you follow schools in Great Falls, you know that last year the staff received a one percent increase. If you’re a para, a paraprofessional, and you’re making about twelve dollars an hour, a one percent increase in twelve cents an hour. It really is not an incentive and I believe that’s one of our flaws. We need to acknowledge that these individuals are a critical part of our team, and we need to pay them as such. We need to recognize them as such, and obviously, if we do our job and we keep them in our system, if we support them, it’s very hard when you have a paraprofessional and they leave, another comes, they learn the child, and right now because of the economic job market, there are other jobs available, they leave again, and so our goal is to get to a point where we are actually providing a livable wage, that they have the support, and ultimately our goal is to provide the training in a manner that they are recognized as an integral part of the team, they have the skills and they stay here, because we know the programs are better for children if they’re here.”
Lambert also added that the school district is always looking for new paraeducators, and you don’t need a degree to become one, all you need is desire to make a difference.
“Being a paraprofessional is challenging, if I’m honest,” said Lambert. “Sometimes you’re that caring adult who helps you to learn about school or to get through the day. Sometimes you’re also that individual at the high school level who may need to remind you that you need to do something you don’t want to do. That’s not their training, they have to learn to be that teacher-like role, but, well, for me this is 41 years in education, and I did it because I thought the most important investment that I could make was in the children of Montana, and I think it's a chance for individuals who are looking to make a difference to do that, to be a part of public schools and to be influential in the lives of children.”
Here are some of the general responsibilities and duties of para-educators, according to the GFPS website :