More than 400 members of the Board of Education Non-Teaching Employees union and the Rochester Area Paraprofessionals union protested at last night’s city school board meeting over contract negotiations with the district.
The unions, which represent a wide range of often lower-paid non-teaching employees – bus drivers, food servers, clerical support staff, custodians, security guards, and others — are seeking a 2.9 percent salary increase. They say they want an increase similar to the increase that Rochester teachers received in their latest agreement with the district.
Board members heard from more than 20 angry and frustrated workers, several of whom said that they can’t support their families and pay their basic expenses, much less make concessions like the district is asking. Those concessions haven't been made public, but BENTE president Dan DiClemente says that the increase that the district is offering isn't anywhere near 2.9 percent.
District officials will not comment on the negotiations. And both sides passed out dueling sets of information at last night’s meeting. In a guest essay that DiClemente and Margie Brumfield, president of RAP, submitted to the Democrat and Chronicle, they said that BENTE and RAP have experienced the brunt of employee cuts over the last 15 years.
And in another written statement, they argue that while the district says it doesn’t have the money to spare, it continues to hire highly-paid administrators. Administrative positions filled since January 2014 exceed $2.8 million in salaries, they say.
But according to a prepared statement from district officials, there has been a slight increase in BENTE/RAP employee hires during the last few school years. And they provided a graphic prepared by an outside organization showing that average hourly salaries for BENTE and RAP employees in the 2013-2014 school year well exceed the average salaries of employees doing those same jobs in neighboring districts.
For example, the average salary for a food service worker in a neighboring district, according to data that the district is using, is about $10 an hour. The average salary for a food service worker in the district, however, is about $13 an hour.
Contract negotiations rarely go smoothly in the city school district. And there has historically been added sensitivity about negotiations with the BENTE/RAP employees. Their contract expired last July.
There are some higher-paid members, such as physical therapists, and there are some employees, secretaries for example, who are earning excellent salaries due to their longevity.
But that isn’t representative of most BENTE/RAP employees, DiClemente says. Unlike the generally higher paid city teachers and administrators, the majority of these employees are black and Hispanic. Most live in the city and their children attend city schools.
DiClemente says that while it’s true that the district offers good health benefits to even part-time BENTE/RAP employees, that having to contribute 15 percent of the insurance costs when an employee is making between $9.50 and $15 hour causes some to go without the benefit.
But there are two larger issues. One is stagnant US wages, and the BENTE/RAP employees are hardly alone with this problem. The other is the impact of concentrated poverty on urban schools. Ironically, the district struggles to build stability into the lives of its students, but even its own employees with children enrolled in city schools can’t count on the district for economic stability.