Catina Taylor at the Bureau of Mediation Services in February 2022, at a press conference announcing that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals had just filed their intent to strike. The union's central demand: higher wages for education support professionals. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal 2022

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Veronica Ramos likes her job as a cook at Hastings Middle School. She enjoys preparing food. Her work schedule allows her to be home when her kids return from school. And working in school kitchens is a family tradition.

“My grandma used to be a lunch lady, and I’m the second generation of being a lunch lady,” she said. “I like to prepare meals. But the amount of money they offer to us is a joke.”

Ramos and other food service workers in Hastings Public Schools have been on strike since February 7, hoping for a pay raise and paid e-learning days. Ramos earns $16.03 an hour and works about six hours a day during the school year. That comes out to earning about $16,000 annually to support herself and three sons. Her 18-year-old son works at an Aldi grocery store, where he earns a higher hourly wage at $16.50.

“It’s frustrating because I’m the mom,” Ramos said. “I’m the one who’s supposed to make more and give them a better life.”

In a press statement, Hastings Public Schools said it stood by what it called its “last, best, and final offer” from early February. That offer would raise Ramos’ wage to $16.67 this year and $17.34 next year—overall, an 8 percent raise—as well as a $600 retention bonus each year. According to a salary comparison analysis by Hastings Public Schools, the average starting wage for cooks in similar school districts is $18.68.

“The union began negotiations with unreasonable demands and insisted on making virtually no movement on the demands before they went on strike, while the District made significant concessions to respond to market conditions,” Hastings Public Schools said in a statement.

Traditionally, fights for higher wages at schools happen at the bargaining table. Last year, for example, Minneapolis education support professionals and teachers went on strike for three weeks, demanding a raise for the district’s lowest-paid workers. Now, Hastings food service workers are the ones on strike for a better contract.

But education advocates are also hoping to employ a new tactic this year. They are advocating for a state law to shore up pay and benefits for non-licensed school workers, including paraprofessionals and nutrition staff. In its current form, the Education Support Professional Bill of Rights would pursue numerous goals:

  • guarantee a $25 minimum wage to school workers
  • require school districts to cover more health insurance costs 
  • pay school workers for e-learning days
  • provide 16 hours of paid training. 
  • School workers are also hoping to receive unemployment insurance in the summer, which is part of a separate bill.

“We deserve a raise,” Ramos said. “We work hard. And we are very important. We serve a lot of kids.”

Districts say boosting pay would lead to other budget cuts

It’s not the first year advocates have proposed an ESP Bill of Rights. But this year, with Democrats in unified control of state government and a sense of urgency around school funding, school workers hope to codify wage and benefit increases into law.

“Statewide, we have a staffing crisis,” said Chris Stinson, political director of Service Employees International Union Local 284, which is pushing for the bill. “Since before the pandemic, staffing in schools has collapsed. And the only way that we’re going to recruit and retain caring adults that we need in our schools is to provide better wages and benefits.”

But school districts have raised concerns about the bill’s costs. Several human resources directors told the legislature that requiring higher wages and covering more health insurance costs would require their districts to make drastic cuts and raise costs elsewhere.

Mary Burroughs, executive director of human resources for Bloomington Public Schools, raised concerns about health insurance costs, while testifying at a recent Senate Education Finance Committee hearing.

“Without significant, substantial, ongoing financial support, this will be an overwhelming cost to districts as they absorb the proposed increase as well as higher than usual insurance renewals,” she said.

“We believe in a competitive wage, and providing that to our employees,” said Tim Caskey, executive director of human resources for Independent School District 728 in Elk River, at the same committee hearing. “But we believe that that competitive wage should be dictated by the market and through our collective bargaining process.”

Veronica Ramos on the picket line in Hastings, February 2023. Credit: Courtesy Veronica Ramos

‘A lot of turnover’

Overall, Minnesota’s K–12 public school employment has dropped about 6 percent since March 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. One major area of attrition: education support professionals.

These workers, whose duties range from classroom support to family engagement and bilingual services, tend to be paid much less than teachers. They’re also much more diverse. And educators say they are critical to making schools function.

“We are the first ones that see the students in the morning. We are the last ones they see before they go home,” said Catina Taylor, the ESP chapter president for the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals. “We are with the students more than any person in public education and they trust us.”

Last fall, Sahan Journal asked the 10 largest school districts in Minnesota about their staffing vacancies. Many districts reported that their greatest area of need was support staff, rather than teachers. For example, Anoka–Hennepin Schools, the state’s largest school district, reported high levels of vacancies among paraeducators and student nutrition workers, as well as special education teachers.

As Minneapolis educators prepared to strike last year, they said that the low staffing levels were stretching teachers and support staff thin. Educators reported strains around returning to school in-person, with students demonstrating the need for extra support with their academics and mental health. At the time, Minneapolis Public Schools had a 22 percent vacancy rate for education support professionals, according to district data. Teachers said they had to spend time providing support services to students, rather than teaching.

Meanwhile, a tight labor market has led to higher wages in the private sector. Data from the Federal Reserve show that average private-sector wages increased by 16 percent between January 2020 and January 2023. Minneapolis educators told Sahan Journal they knew colleagues who had left for other school districts or charter schools, to drive for FedEx, and to work at McDonald’s.

When Minneapolis educators went on strike last March, their biggest demand was higher pay for education support professionals. They hoped higher wages would attract and retain more staff. Ultimately, the settled contract raised wages by more than $4 an hour for the lowest-paid support staff, though the union fell short of its goal of a $35,000 minimum annual salary for education support professionals. And the union was unsuccessful in making changes to health insurance for these workers, too.

This year, Minneapolis’ vacancy numbers have improved somewhat. About 16 percent of full-time equivalent ESP positions were open in February, down from 20 percent at the same time last year, according to district data.

“It’s a little better,” Taylor said. “But we’ve had a lot of turnover.”

For her first 15 years on the job, Taylor could not afford to pay the district’s health insurance. Instead, she and her kids received medical assistance through the state. She rented her home for 15 years, weathering many rent increases, before she was able to purchase it.

Taylor said the ESP Bill of Rights will help people lead more stable lives, show up to school focused, and work just one job. “Folks will be able to do things like have money left over to buy groceries, be able to pay a few more bills,” she said.

Who would pay for it?

Kirk Schneidawind, the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, represents all 331 school districts throughout the state, and has carried their concerns about the bill to the legislature.

He stressed that his members value the role staff play in creating educational opportunities for students. But they also face budget constraints.

“When a bill like this comes through that artificially moves the hourly rate and the health insurance benefits, that will impact every school district’s budget,” he said. “Without any commensurate funding in the bill, that piece on the budget side of it was a concern of ours.”

As currently written, the bill has space for appropriations—that is, legislative funding—for its different components. But for now, the dollar amounts are blank.

“All we can operate is on what we saw on the bill,” he said. “And we did not see any allocations in the bill that we heard in committee.”

Stinson, the political director of SEIU Local 284, said the bill is currently awaiting its fiscal note, which will determine its cost. “The authors of the bill are committed to fully funding it,” he said.

Even so, Schneidawind said, the costs of the legislation could be difficult to calculate, as pay scales and health insurance offerings vary from one district to the next. “Gathering that information and knowing what will pay for all of that is hard to know,” he said. 

Schneidawind said his members are also concerned about how this would affect contract negotiations. A minimum wage of $25 could push up wages for workers with more experience further up the pay scale.

The Minnesota School Board Association has focused its advocacy on increased funding for schools, by increasing the general funding formula and reducing or eliminating the special education cross-subsidy. They are also hoping for a law change that would allow school districts to more easily renew their property-tax operating levies.

About 80 percent of school-district budgets generally go to personnel, Schneidawind said. With more money—and more funding stability—school districts have more room to consider increases to pay and benefits.

Stinson counters that increased school funding hasn’t translated to increased worker pay.

“This is a statewide problem, and it really needs a statewide solution,” he said.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...