Poverty Free Zones: More Than Just Another Sign at School

A4E member Steve Piazza is a writer and poet living in Athens, Georgia with his wife and cat. He is a retired educator who advocates for education, workers’ rights and global welfare. Interested in writing for our blog? Get in touch!

During the first few years of a public school education, young students find themselves among diverse groups of adults assigned to teach and/or provide for them. It may take some students less time than others to begin to distinguish among the many different roles played by these adults. For example, young students may not initially make a distinction between the teacher and the paraprofessional (also known as a teaching assistant). From day one, students see two adults in the room, equally providing them with instruction, guidance and love. Teachers and paraprofessionals alike provide academic expectations as well as the nurturing necessary for child development. Even when students realize the difference between the two, they still recognize the value of all educators regardless of their professional status. The same can be said of other school personnel, such as custodial, food service and clerical workers, who also play a necessary role. Without all the above doing their jobs, education would not be possible.

What takes longer for students and adults to realize is regarding inequities in compensation for these workers. What happens in the schools is a reflection on the people in the community, making everyone, whether they have children in the schools or not, somewhat responsible for the quality of education and the well-being of all students. The question is why those in salary structures outside of certified teacher pay scales find themselves at or below the poverty level.

For reference, the federal government considers a household of four people as living below the poverty level if their annual income is $25,750 or lower (before taxes). According to welfareinfo.org, that’s more than 1.6 million Georgians, or 16.9 percent of the population of the state, living in poverty last year. Closer to home, the situation is worse, with 34.1 percent of Athenians living in poverty. Too many people around us are desperately attempting to feed, clothe, shelter and provide medical care for themselves and their families. By some numbers, the economy in Athens is by certain standards thriving. The unemployment rate hovers around 3.8 percent and job growth is expected to increase nearly 50 percent over the next decade. This is partly because Athens is home to a number of employers with comparatively large work forces. The University of Georgia (9,800 employees) tops the list, followed by Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital (3,500), but in third place is the Clarke County School District (CCSD). As of January 2017, CCSD employed 2,800 people.

As the school district is a separate entity from the Athens Clarke County Unified Government, it is responsible for maintaining its own budget. The state of Georgia provides a little over 50 percent of the general fund revenue, the federal government provides almost 3 percent and the rest of the budget relies on local taxes and funds (according to the CCSD FY 2020 budget). It should be noted that 86 percent of the 2020 budget is dedicated to instruction, with classroom personnel taking up the majority. Grant money is used to fund some positions. In 2019 the federal government was responsible for 72% of the grant money obtained for positions, while the state provided the rest.

The current budget lists 179 paraprofessionals, and, depending on the school, there could be more than 200 office staff, custodians and food service workers across the district in a given year. Many of these non-teaching staff members are paid wages that place them below the poverty level. Following is a sampling of positions and salary/salary ranges according to recently posted CCSD job descriptions or the district’s Classified and Administrative Pay Scale (updated last July):

Paraprofessional-Special Education $17,747.60 – $25,854.90 / Per Year

Custodian $19,210.57 – $27,986.18 / Per Year

Food Service Worker $14,179.23 – $20,670.37 / Per Year

Academic Interventionist $18,464.60 – $26,899.44 / Per Year

Behavior Interventionist Alternative Education $18,464.60 – $26,899.44 / Per Year

For those workers providing for a family of four or more, it is simply not enough. Some are forced to seek additional employment.

According to money.us news.com, the median salary for teacher assistants across the country was $26,970 in 2018, with the range being $21,942 to $34,190. Just compensation is just that: the right thing to do.

To be fair, this sensitive issue should not be construed as a lack of will or other motivation on the part of a school district that consists of many hard-working and dedicated professionals attempting to be fiscally and compassionately responsible. The CCSD FY2020 budget shows that over the last five years some healthcare and salary increases have been given to classified staff. Clearly that’s not enough to provide all that’s needed, but it’s some evidence these staff members are not being ignored.

Also, as school budgets go, there is also a balancing act that must be performed when attempting to serve the needs of children. Other items in the budget include measures to maintain smaller class sizes at the elementary school level (long a belief that classroom size affects performance), as well as safety and security upgrades (including adding additional staff in schools). These are just two of the dynamic challenges.

Do non-teachers need more pay to survive? The answer to that is obviously yes. Solutions to problems in education cannot be made in isolation any more than a teacher can teach without the help of supporting staff. Whether we like it or not, education is a labor issue. A comprehensive review and overhaul from the top down, from the federal level to the community member, must occur, or else progress is only possible in small increments that satisfy no one.

Care about this issue? You can sign this petition to show that you support a $15/hr minimum wage for CCSD staff.

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