Legislators Need a Little Extra Help From Paras, Too

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Educators will be educators, even when they're out of work. That was the story June 14 when more than 50 laid-off paraprofessionals, fellow members and supporters of the Delaware Federation, Local 762, descended on the state Capitol in Dover.

Paraeducators at Delaware state capitolAfter sitting patiently through a budget hearing, AFT members who packed the room surged to the front and provided one-on-one tutoring for their state senators. The object was to teach them the devastation they will wreak in the lives of high-needs children if they go ahead with a reduction in force (RIF) of 43 teaching assistants in a unit of 125.

Patricia Campbell, a behavioral interventionist whose whole department of 14 was RIFed, has worked five years in her district. Last fall, she moved from the suburbs into Wilmington so she could live in the same community as her troubled students. She carried a June 6 copy of the Wilmington News-Journal with the headline: "Delaware students suspended at twice the U.S. average."

"My job is important," she said. "It preserves the educational process for the teachers, and the learning, safety and emotional well-being of the children" Instead of layoffs, "it really should be the opposite—more staff. But I'm afraid that the teachers will be overwhelmed. In our low-paid positions, it's not about the money. It's all about the kids."

Campbell and some colleagues received an e-mail inviting them to be rehired as contractors at less pay, $8 to $12 an hour, with no benefits and no pension. "So, obviously, the need is there," she added. "Fourteen people. It's not that much money. Oh, and by the way, I love my job."

The paraprofessionals had arrived at Legislative Hall via charter bus and by the carload, clad in T-shirts sporting huge pink hearts as part of the AFT's "Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips" campaign, determined not to let this destruction happen.

Karen Kennedy visits legislatorsHosted during their visit by state Sen. Catherine Cloutier of Wilmington, the paraprofessionals roamed the halls looking to buttonhole other lawmakers. They also caucused in a hearing room where Cloutier provided lunch, encouragement and thanks to the paras for helping educate her own children. "I respect all you've done," added another senator, Dorinda Connor of New Castle, herself a former teacher. "And I hope that within the next week, there will be some dollars to turn this all around."

Local union president Karen Kennedy (pictured at right, on the left)thanked everyone for coming out, saying, "This is our best chance."

The paras certainly made their point, quietly filling hallways lined with portraits of bespectacled forebears and turning the ornate hearing room into a standing-room-only event. Among their most visible supporters were Flavio Carlini and Ray Hovanec from the International Association of Machinists, Local 1776, in Essington, Pa.

"We have a lot of members who live in Delaware, so we figure the support helps the membership," Carlini said. They also wore T-shirts. Theirs said, "Strength in Numbers."

It was the same sentiment expressed by Sejal Babaria, who traveled to Dover to show her solidarity along with members of the Association of Charter School Employees, an affiliate of AFT Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The paraeducators had been energized by a letter from laid-off teaching assistant Beth Eckerd, rhetorically addressed to her kindergartners but actually read to her school board. The letter sparked media coverage, boosted the AFT Pink Hearts campaign and, it is hoped, will help stop the layoffs.

What's next? Delaware legislators are still tweaking the budget and expect to have final projections later in June. In the meantime, the Delaware Federation is busy making phone calls and sending e-mails. [Annette Licitra/photos by Ron Tarver]

June 15, 2010