Amherst, regional school boards seek contract mediation after pushback on paraeducator pay


  • Allison McDonald speaks in March 2018 as a candidate for School Committee during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2021

AMHERST — The Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees are seeking mediation to reach a new contract with the union representing teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff in the district.

Mediation is being pursued following the expiration of the previous contract on June 30 and after a failure to make progress toward an agreement on wages and salary increases with the Amherst Pelham Education Association, according to Allison McDonald, chairwoman of both committees. 

“Our groups have met multiple times but have not been able to make progress toward an agreement, and the Regional School Committee made the decision on Thursday, July 1, to seek mediation,” McDonald wrote in a letter published in the Gazette. 

The school budgets for fiscal year 2022 include a 1% cost of living increase for all staff, with $329,000 set aside for that, and step increases for staff in their early years of service, with about two-thirds of paraeducators eligible for this extra increase. Those educators could see a 5% overall increase in pay next year, according to McDonald.

But letters sent to the committee, and written and oral comments from parents and staff members, disagree with McDonald’s assessment, including that the district would be offering competitive pay above the average for the region.

Ellen and Andrey Guidera of Amherst wrote that the proposed 1% cost of living hike amounts to a raise of 16 cents for most paraprofessionals, a little over $6 a week, or $300 a year.

“This raise is almost negligible,” they wrote in comments shared at a School Committee meeting. “How good a job can a person be expected to perform as a paraeducator, earning under $21,000 per year, bearing the responsibility for the education and safety of children who at times may physically injure them or themselves, unintentionally or otherwise?”

Manny Wineman, a teacher in the Building Blocks program at Fort River School, also wrote comments shared with school officials. 

“While providing crucial and undervalued work for our community, paraeducators are left to struggle in a state of financial insecurity, working multiple jobs, and relying on state and federal subsidies to make ends meet,” Wineman wrote.

Efforts to reach the Amherst Pelham Education Association’s executive board were not successful, but the union made an online appeal through its Facebook page on behalf of paraeducators. 

“We want a living wage but the School Committee will not move on this unless they get community feedback, and lots of it,” the union wrote. 

McDonald’s letter notes that reallocating the $329,000 budgeted for cost-of-living adjustments to paraeducators only, but this has other consequences.

“In considering other approaches, we must recognize that our budget not only must reflect our values, it also must balance. An increase in spending in one area requires an equal cut in spending elsewhere,” McDonald wrote. “A larger increase in pay for one group of teachers or staff requires either a smaller increase for another group of staff or additional cuts beyond what already is planned in our fiscal 2022 budgets.”