District leaders continue to grapple with midyear teaching resignations and the challenges of filling positions, including 65 paraeducator and 17 teacher openings, in Lawrence Public Schools.
Ten teachers have resigned midyear, up from the eight reported last week, district spokesperson Julie Boyle said via email. “These are difficult decisions that teachers are making for various personal and family reasons. Their work with students is important to them.”
The schools accounting for those resignations, Boyle said, were Hillcrest Elementary; Billy Mills, Liberty Memorial Central, Southwest and West middle schools; and Lawrence and Free State high schools. LMCMS represents the most with four. Boyle said the 65 para openings included special education, gifted education and Title I positions.
At the Sept. 27 board meeting, district staff acknowledged the challenges of filling certified and hourly positions in a tough job market during their annual human resources report. They presented some of the retention and hiring strategies the district had in place to locally address the nationwide problem.
At the time, Ron May, director of human resources and safety, told the board paraprofessional openings numbered 45. Though not all were vacant, May said, temporary workers filled some of the posts. Now with that number climbing to 65 openings, that translates to a vacancy increase of 44% in six weeks across the district.
A parent whose child receives special education services at the secondary level said they weren’t comfortable using their name because of how that attention might be received at their student’s school. For starters, the parent said, the paras and teachers that remain in the classroom work hard to deliver services to their child. They don’t want their critique of the system or district administration to unfairly reflect on the frontline educators left struggling in a broken system.
And, the parent said, the loudest, privileged parents and those who feel comfortable advocating for their child will “almost always” get the services promised. The problem, they said, is with shortages at such high levels, any support they secure for their own child will certainly take away from students who might not have an adult in their court with the same advocacy skills and resources. And that’s not equitable, they said.
New potential for change
With the election of Andrew Nussbaum to the Lawrence school board on Nov. 2, supporters see an open door for a changemaker who understands the complexities of working directly with students on a daily basis.
Nussbaum, a social justice educator, will take his seat on the Lawrence school board in January. Nussbaum earned a master of science in special education from Baker University and has previously taught 11 years in LPS. In 2012, he earned the Lawrence Schools Foundation’s Educator of the Year Golden Apple Award while working at Free State High School.
He has experience as a certified therapeutic special education teacher at the secondary level, as well as a résumé that includes direct work with incarcerated persons, refugees and middle schoolers through the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Virginia, where he earned a master’s in conflict transformation.
Board member Kelly Jones, who just won a second four-year term on the board, has publicly questioned how the district could meet special education requirements, including Individualized Education Plans, with staffing shortages at such high levels.
When asked to weigh in on the issue, Nussbaum expressed skepticism in an email.
“Let me (be) very clear — it is not possible for the district to actually meet the requirements of IEP’s and students’ needs with so many openings right now. Any statement from (the) district that states otherwise is just not true. I say this as a former general education teacher, former para and former therapeutic special education teacher.”
A district teacher who asked not to use their name said, besides academic gaps, students and teachers had been put in physical danger by the shortages. Without enough paras to support students’ needs, students with disabilities could hurt themselves or others, they said.
Members of the district’s hourly workers union Personnel Association of Lawrence – Communication Workers of America voiced similar safety concerns at the Nov. 8 school board meeting.
Carol Allen, a paraeducator at New York Elementary, told the board she felt “unsafe” in her training. “I’ve had some situations and I have a feeling that most of my colleagues over there have these situations as well.”
Allen asked union members to stand if they felt their school was not properly staffed, unsafe in their training or undertrained, and overworked or underpaid. All union members — numbering about 15 and wearing red — stood.
Boyle said student and staff safety is the district’s “first priority.” She encouraged any staff member with a safety concern to contact their supervisor and school families with safety concerns to reach out to their student’s case manager or school principal.
“The national staffing shortage is challenging school districts, and other employers, across the country. Our Human Resources staff continue to actively recruit and hire for open positions, as well as collaborate with our substitute recruitment partner and local temporary employment agencies to fill gaps,” Boyle said. “We are confident that our district and building administration, teachers, and support staff are focused on safety and meeting the needs of students.”
In addition, IEP teams meet anytime a need arises, and any staff member or parent can request meeting, Boyle said. The district also works with members of its Lawrence Special Education Advisory Committee in discussing these challenges, she added. That parent group meets monthly.
Nussbaum said part of the reason he ran for school board was that “district leadership has cared more about PR than people, compliance than community, (and) how they look compared to how students and staff actually feel.”
He said it was time for the district to listen.
“It is extremely concerning that so many teachers, so many classified staff in (the) district, let alone so many families in the community, are scared to publicly tell the truth about their experiences for fear of repercussions and backlash from the powers that be. I am here, no longer scared or employed by the district, to believe and validate what people are experiencing and to listen closely to the wisdom on the margins — students, staff and community members for so long have been answering these questions in vulnerable and creative ways.”
Ongoing pay negotiations
The Lawrence school board voted at its Oct. 25 meeting to approve the first negotiated contract for the district’s hourly workers. The PAL-CWA launched as a union for paraprofessionals and expanded in June to include all hourly employees.
At one point during the negotiations process of 16 meetings, the district offered a 2-cent per hour raise that drew the ire of union leadership and prompted a snail-mail campaign to send two pennies to Superintendent Anthony Lewis as a form of protest.
When union members voted Oct. 20 to ratify their contract, they agreed to a raise of .24% for hourly employees but to continue negotiations with the district toward a living wage, said Hannah Allison, interim president of PAL-CWA. In Douglas County, that hourly wage is estimated at $14.36.
Though the raise is small, hourly employees also will benefit from the district’s retention incentive program funded with pandemic relief money, which could reward nearly 1,700 LPS certified, hourly and administrative staff members for their continued employment. A $500 payment would be awarded three times during the 2021-2022 school year and next for a total of $1,500 in potential annual earnings. The first payment, estimated to occur in October, already has been delayed due to red tape at the state level.
Allison said PAL-CWA would not stop fighting for a living wage and fully staffed schools. The district employs about 425 employees making less than $14 an hour, they said.
A check of the Lawrence school district’s employment postings shows a para working in a specialized autism position at an elementary level listed with a starting pay of $11.44 an hour. The Olathe school district, an oft-cited alternative destination for area educators, lists a starting hourly pay of $16.25 for a para specializing in autism services at the elementary level.
“Our wages for many of our classified staff are so low that it’s affecting our students, especially our special education students. We will continue to be a voice fighting for the schools our students deserve — things don’t have to continue to be this way! We can have schools that are good workplaces for our workers and nurturing environments for our students to learn and grow,” Allison said.
Nussbaum said he disagrees with those who argue the district is not top-heavy with administrators.
“Pay can and will improve when the district prioritizes and respects the responsibilities and essential roles of certified and classified staff,” Nussbaum said, noting the ongoing efforts of the Lawrence Education Association teachers union and PAL-CWA.
“I am also acutely aware that many individual teachers and individual classified staff, for years, have worked harder and longer and more creatively to fill the growing staffing holes in our schools, knowing the impact on students and staff.”
Nussbaum said “multiple factors and complex dynamics” had created a vicious cycle that would result in more certified and classified staff leaving the district. He said that only when the district acknowledges that the problem is both a statewide budget issue and a district responsibility — present before COVID-19 and now amplified because of it — and when resources reflect an obvious priority on the working conditions of staff will the district begin to face and fix the pay and shortage problems.