Kenyon: The working class

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 06-12-2023 2:09 PM

After this upcoming Friday, school will be out for the summer in Hanover and Norwich. For students, that is.

Teachers and educational assistants have been told by their bosses that they need to continue working for another week or so. Never mind that with students gone, they’ll be arriving to empty classrooms.

And in the case of dozens of ed assistants, it doesn’t look like there will be a final paycheck to collect. (More on that shortly.)

What’s this all about?

The Dresden School District, which consists of the four public schools in Hanover and Norwich, had five “snow days” when classes were canceled due to bad weather this winter.

Since Dresden had already exceeded state instructional hour requirements, school officials opted not to have students make up snow days.

No such luck for teachers and ed assistants.

I get why Dresden wants to maximize teachers’ output. They’re salaried public employees working under a union contract that calls for them to put in a certain number of days. Teachers can use the time when students aren’t around to plan for the next school year.

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But ed assistants? They’re hourly workers — and not well paid ones at that.

Their starting pay in Dresden for the current school year was as low as $16.16 an hour — hardly a living wage in the Upper Valley. (The MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates it takes a $16-an-hour job for a person to make ends meet in Grafton County, but anyone looking for an apartment in Hanover or Lebanon will tell you that’s unrealistic.)

Ed assistants are sometimes overlooked by the public. Along with assisting in classrooms, those working in lower grades handle recess and bus duties.

Some work one-on-one with students who have learning and physical disabilities. They help students with special needs during restroom and meal breaks. They “often serve as advocates for students in the classroom,” according to a job description posted online for an ed assistant opening at Hanover High.

“It’s work than can be draining,” Dresden Superintendent Jay Badams said in an interview last week.

And, Badams acknowledged, ed assistants are “grossly underpaid.” It’s long been the case, but to make matters worse, the three-year contract with Dresden’s support staff was negotiated just before inflation took off in 2022, he said.

Ed assistants at the top of the pay scale can earn more than $25 an hour, if they’re working with students who have “intensive special needs” or subbing for a classroom teacher. Even then they’re hard-pressed to make $30,000 during a 10-month school year.

Which brings me back to snow days.

As hourly employees, the “no work, no pay” rule applies to ed assistants. But in a nod to how low-wage workers often live paycheck to paycheck, Dresden didn’t dock ed assistants’ pay at the time that school was called off for weather reasons.

Except it wasn’t so much a benevolent gesture as an advance on their pay. Dresden now wants them to reimburse the district by working additional days.

Fiscal hawks probably support Dresden’s stance. Why pay someone for work they didn’t do?

That’s one way to look at it. But it’s shortsighted. Like many school districts, Dresden suffers from a severe shortage of ed assistants. How will nickel and diming workers at the bottom of the wage scale help with recruiting and retention?

Some ed assistants put up with low pay because their work schedules match when their young children are in school. With classes ending soon, I imagine some are scrambling to arrange childcare for days they weren’t planning on.

Ed assistants receive three personal days per year, which they can use, if they haven’t already, during the time they’re scheduled for make-up duty. The federal Juneteenth holiday pushes their final work day to potentially June 26.

Dresden isn’t looking to cause families undue hardships, Badams said. “This isn’t us trying to exact our pound of flesh,” he said.

I talked with Dresden Board Chairman Rick Johnson and Norwich Board Chairman Garrett Palm about the plan. They agreed that it was Badams’ call. “I’m supportive of Jay and confident that he’ll do what is fair,” Palm said.

In a May 12 email to the staff, Badams announced that in “recognition of Teacher Appreciation Week,” the elected boards that govern Hanover and Norwich had approved a “gift of time.” Teachers and ed assistants would only have to make up four of the five snow days.

Which begs the question: What will ed assistants do for four days with no students to interact with?

“We’re looking at an opportunity that we don’t often get,” Badams told me. “It gives us time to work together on professional development and planning with the staff.”

In theory, a worthwhile exercise. But if staff development is a priority, I say pay ed assistants for participating.

Money shouldn’t be an issue. Hanover and Norwich rank in the top 10 in their respective states for median household income. They can afford to pony up.

Between the four schools, this year’s $2.6 million budget for K-12 ed assistants shows a surplus of $617,000, due to positions going unfilled.

That should be more than enough to cover four paid days devoted to professional development.

The union that represents the support staff didn’t raise any objections to the district’s work plan. However, an unnamed ed assistant filed a grievance that reached Badams’ desk last week.

It could take a while to play out — unless Badams or the Dresden board decides sooner rather than later to drop the matter.

That would truly be a gift.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@
vnews.com.