| Sarah Heinonen
HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – The Hampden Wilbraham Regional School District met on May 15 with the sole purpose of discussing a paraprofessional furlough. After much discussion, the committee voted unanimously for Superintendent Albert Ganem to begin furlough negotiations with the educators’ union, the Hampden-Wilbraham Education Association (HWEA).
Committee Chair Patrick Kiernan began the meeting by expressing to paraprofessionals in the district that “what you do matters.” Many paras had only found out about the furlough talks via second-hand information or social media. Kiernan apologized for that, saying the district should have been more transparent regarding the topic.
The position championed by Kiernan and supported by several members of the school committee was that the paraprofessionals were not being effectively utilized and that the district could save substantial money with a short-term furlough.
Kiernan said that paraprofessionals would be eligible for unemployment and an extra $600 per week while on furlough due to the most recently-passed federal coronavirus relief aid. He said many would make more than they do while working. The furlough would end on the last day of the school year. At that point, the paras would be brought back and they would be paid through summer as per their contract. Kiernan made the point that a “temporary furlough” reduced the chance of “permanent reduction” in positions due to budget constraints.
Of the district’s 104 paraprofessionals, 22 have been identified by the district as able to directly support learning. This includes paraprofessionals who work one-to-one with students to fulfill IEP requirements. The rest of the paras, who have restrictions on the number of hours or type of work they can do, have been engaging in professional learning.
Howard Barber, director of finance, operations and human resources, laid out the financial costs associated with paraprofessionals. He said paras cost the district an average of $113 a day, which translates to roughly $9,268 per day for the district.
Were the district to furlough the 82 paraprofessionals not identified is directly supporting learning during this time, the district would be responsible for 50 percent of the unemployment cost. This would save approximately $4,800 per day, about $190,000 over the more than 20-days of furlough.
The district looked at how the action may impact the paraprofessionals. For the 34 to 39 paras who will be retirement age by FY23, a furlough will reduce their potential retirement benefits. Barber said 2020 would still qualified as a full year of service, but the lack of contribution to a retirement account during the furlough would have a slight impact on the amount of retirement income for which the paras are eligible.
Barber said the benefits would still be intact and the district would still contribute the same amount to those accounts.
Ganem called paraprofessionals “an instrumental part of our team,” and stated his support for them to continue working.
School Committee Member Maura Ryan asked if the paraprofessionals could be used to help families who were struggling with remote learning in a one-to-one format or through tutoring. Member Sean Kennedy picked up Ryan’s question, asking “how have we been utilizing are paras to help during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Ganem explained that the district can only utilize paraprofessionals in a way that does not violate their contracts. Director of Student Services Gina Roy said the district had been collaborating with the HWEA to decide what responsibilities the district's paras should take on during the school closure.
“If we haven’t used them in the past month for the direct education of our children, then most likely, we won’t use them in the next month,” Kennedy pointed out.
Committee Member Sherrill Caruana defended the work that the paraprofessionals have done, including professional learning, during the closure. She cited testimonials from paraprofessionals included in a survey from the HWEA.
“I’m not ready to say that of the 104 paraprofessionals, only 22 have actually worked with kids,” Caruana said. “That’s not the impression I got.”
Roy said that some paraprofessionals had received permission to collaborate with teachers, but Kiernan noted that in some of the testimonials, paras “felt that they could be used in different ways and that they could be more effective if they were used more.”
Ryan said, “If [paras] can be used, I want them to be used.” Otherwise, she said, it was a “financially responsible” decision to furlough them.
If the responsibilities of the paras wouldn’t shift “drastically,” and soon, Kiernan said it made sense to save the money for FY21 in light of the upcoming struggles the district will have with fewer interventionists, especially in the area of social-emotional learning.
Ganem again made the case not to furlough, saying that the work the paras are doing “looks different” than the work done in-person, but that it would make them better at serving the needs of students.
Kennedy asked how the paraprofessionals felt about the possibility of being furloughed, taking into account the positive aspects that Kiernan had laid out. While there was no direct answer to that, Reminder Publishing later reached out to Damian Konkoly of the HWEA for a statement.
“We are concerned about the many ways a potential furlough can have a negative impact on our members and are preparing to negotiate,” Konkoly said via email. “We are equally concerned about the teaching staff not being at full force to connect with students and to support students and families with remote learning.”