Denver and Jefferson County school districts are raising hourly wages for support staff struggling to afford food and housing
Amid mounting public pressure, two of Colorado’s largest school districts have approved 20% pay increases for school support staff, with Denver Public Schools pledging to raise pay by more than $4 from hour for many workers this year and Jeffco Public Schools agreeing to raise pay by $3 an hour by September 2023.
The wage increases were prompted, in part, by a steep rise in the cost of living that limited employees in both districts and strained the schools’ ability to fulfill essential roles in the classroom, cafeteria and across the grounds.
DPS will invest about $28.2 million over three years in raising wages for about 2,800 district employees who belong to unions, according to Miguel Perretta, executive director of employee relations and labor. These employees include paraprofessionals, who help teachers with classes and often help individual students and who will start earning $20 an hour starting August 1, up 21%. Their hourly wages will continue to increase by 50 cents each of the following two years so that they will receive $21 per hour starting in August 2024.
Paras assisting students with special needs will receive a starting salary of $21 starting August 1, up 21%. Their hourly pay will also increase by 50 cents each for the next two years. By August 2024, the starting salary for paras serving students with disabilities will be $22 per hour.
For paraprofessionals like Carolina Galvan, who works at Valdez Elementary School in Denver, the pay raise means she can save more money for her family and one day have a shot at home ownership. And with more money in their pockets, some of his colleagues will no longer have to rely on government subsidies for food and shelter.
“Now I put more money into my household,” Galvan, 34, said. “Now I’m a little less stressed.”
DPS has committed to paying all support staff, including those represented by a union and those who are not part of a union, $20 by August 2024. This includes food service employees , custodial workers and non-union employees, many of whom currently earn $15.87 per hour, Perretta says. Their pay will increase year by year – to $18 per month in August, $19 per hour in August next year and finally $20 per hour in August 2024.
Separately, the minimum starting wage for bus drivers and mechanics in the district will increase on August 1 from $20.43 to $24.40. The district is still finalizing negotiations with the Denver Association of Educational Office Professionals, which represents office workers, Perretta said.
He noted that the DPS will cover the cost of the salary increase with various sources of funding, including $4 million from a central office reorganization and approximately $13.4 million in planned public funding.
DPS wants to “stay competitive in the marketplace,” Perretta said, adding that the higher salaries will hopefully bolster recruitment and retention in support staff roles as the district — like many across the state and the country – faces shortages, especially with its bus driver workforce.
“It’s a huge investment for our workforce, which is well deserved,” Perretta said.
It also gives district staff a sense of stability for the next few years, said Bernadette Jiron, president of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Services Employees.
“It’s a step forward for all of these people…that they know they are valued and that the union is here to make sure they get what they deserve over the next three years.” , said Jiron, whose union has about 1,300 members.
She is “ecstatic” that DPS has finally listened to its employees and rewarded them with the raises they have been fighting for since the spring, especially since the district is understaffed in critical support positions, including paras, food workers and bus attendants.
“I’m tired of being a follower,” Jiron told district leaders. “I need you to be a leader for these employees.”
An essential pay rise for an essential workforce
Galvan, the Valdez Elementary School para, was on the DPS staff who currently brings home $15.87 an hour and couldn’t afford a house, instead living in an apartment in Woodridge with her husband, daughter and mother. She’s largely depended on her husband’s income to make ends meet, and the extra money added to her paycheck will make her “a bit more financially independent as a woman.”
She plans to build a savings account with her raise so her family can stay afloat in the event of another recession and eventually buy a house.
The question of whether she should stay on as a para DPS without enough pay to cover her family’s expenses seems less urgent now, and there’s a sense of respect from the district that wasn’t necessarily there before.
“I’m really happy to see how it all came together, and we’re on the same page now,” Galvan said.
Meanwhile, the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education has approved a contract in which hourly pay for support staff members will start at $18 by September 2023, according to a statement released Wednesday by the Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association.
The raise follows a board candidate forum held last fall where Coloradans for the Common Good asked six election candidates to support a $3-per-hour wage increase during of the next two years.
In a statement, paralibrary and JESPA president Lara Center called the pay rise a “historic moment” for staff.
“This is the second year that we have fought for substantial and well-deserved salary increases for our members,” she said.
JESPA, which represents approximately 3,800 support staff, including paras, guards, bus drivers, secretaries and food service workers, and the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees belong to Coloradans for the common good. The organization is made up of congregations, unions, educational institutions, nonprofits and neighborhood organizations, all focused on community issues and have helped raise awareness of the need to pay more for the support staff.
Coloradans for the Common Good also helped organize a rally outside the DPS central office in downtown Denver in July, alongside support staff members to demand higher wages with an increase in the cost of living.
Joyce Brooks, chair of the organization’s steering committee, calls them essential workers.
“They are great support staff for our teachers to help them provide the kind of education our children need in these school districts,” Brooks said, adding that these staff members also give the wider community a boost. overview of what is happening in public schools.
The salary increases will help staff and their families meet basic expenses in the face of inflation while allowing schools to operate with employees who are essential to student success, she said.
“I think we take them too much for granted,” Brooks said, “but teachers can’t teach, administrators can’t administer without these people helping them.”