OLEAN — An Olean City School District part-time teacher aide comes in 15 minutes early every morning to get classroom computers ready for students, while another stays an extra 45 minutes every afternoon to assist a classroom teacher.
They are not paid for this time.
One part-time teacher aide is on food stamps and Medicaid to support herself and her children, while another has loved working for the district the last 14 years but is seeking a new job because she needs affordable health insurance.
“Some of these testimonials are from people who have been in the district for nine, 10, 14 years,” said Helen Button, president of the Olean Educational Support Personnel Association, who read aloud the part-time teacher aides’ stories at Tuesday night’s OCSD Board of Education meeting. “They want to be here, but we’ve not made it very rewarding for them to stay.”
Button and more than 30 other members of OESPA — the union that represents approximately 180 district support staff, including teacher aides — crowded into the Olean High School boardroom for what was their first public comments about the debate over having more full-time teacher aides in the district.
The OCSD currently has 105 part-time teacher aides and just 10 full-time aides.
OCSD Board of Education member Paul Hessney has advocated for more full-time teacher aides throughout this school year, and last month proposed the district hire only full-time teacher aides whenever there’s a vacancy. Hessney, a retired district teacher, argues doing so would benefit both students’ education and teacher aides’ quality of life, as well as cut down on the teacher aide turnover rate.
Noting Hessney’s fellow board members have said they want to hear directly from teachers about the issue, Button, a secretary for the district, said as union president she needed to inform board members that part-time teacher aides do in fact wish to work full time.
That will be one of OESPA’s requests as it begins negotiations with the district on a new collective bargaining agreement. The union’s current three-year contract expires at the end of next school year.
Button told the Olean Times Herald OESPA is simply seeking a “rebuilding of what we used to have,” as she said the majority of district teacher aides were full-time employees a decade ago prior to the 2008 global financial crisis that also impacted New York school districts.
OCSD Superintendent Rick Moore said district officials have reached out to OESPA to begin negotiations early so together they can “look at some creative ideas.”
“We do respect you and we do want to make sure we treat people right,” he told teacher aides at the meeting. “We just can’t do it overnight.”
District officials have said that, due to increased salaries and health insurance and retirement benefits, immediately transitioning all 105 part-time teacher aides to full-time status would cost approximately $3.5 million.
The current lack of health insurance benefits for part-time teacher aides was a large part of their statements to the board.
One part-time teacher aide, according to the statements read aloud by Button, said she would not be retiring this school year if she didn’t have to pay out of pocket for health insurance. Another said she was given a health insurance quote from a provider outside the district that represented three quarters of her bi-weekly paycheck.
The statements also said pay for part-time teacher aides is a not a “livable wage,” causing many to work another job or two as bartenders or waitstaff.
OCSD part-time teacher aides work no more than 5.75 hours per day and have a starting pay of $11.80 an hour. Button noted this is only 70 cents above the current New York state minimum wage, and will be exactly at the minimum wage come Dec. 31.
Teacher aides said the pay and lack of health insurance causes many to leave the district for better job opportunities. Fifteen OCSD teacher aides have resigned so far this school year — at least 13 of whom were on a part-time basis.
Teacher aides said this turnover has a negative impact on students’ learning.
“They get comfortable with an aide, they get in a rhythm and build trust, and then they’re told they’re getting someone new,” said a part-time teacher aide in a statement. “ … I would not want to keep explaining my educational life to new people as staff comes and goes.”
Several part-time teacher aides noted they’re only scheduled until 2 p.m. despite the school day going until about 3 p.m., so they often stay for another hour to assist their students or teacher.
“Our aides are dedicated. They love what they do. They show up early, they stay late. They offer up their own time beyond that contractual 5.75 work hours because they care about kids,” Button said. “Many, many of them do it even though they would prefer to work a job with more hours, higher pay and better benefits.”
After Button spoke, Board President John Bartimole told her the board has heard her message “very clear” and promised her they “get it.”
“All I can say to all of you is we’re trying, we appreciate your service, we know the hardships part time can cause,” he said. “I promise you this board … is looking into it and I think it will happen.”
THE BOARD ALSO approved a new business administrator, but not before one board member voiced concerns with the position’s salary given the discussion on part-time teacher aides.
Mary Hirsch-Schena ultimately voted along with the rest of the board to approve Daniele Vecchio as business administrator, but said she feels the $107,000 salary “is a lot.”
“Certainly after listening to the teacher aides earlier, I just want to say that … I can’t in good conscious agree with $107,000 a year,” she said before turning directly to Vecchio. “I think you have a big job. I’m going to expect a lot from you, but I feel in this area in light of what our economic situation is, $107,000 is a lot of money.”