Gianocaro: Respect, protect and pay education workers
The Santa Clara County Office of Education cuts costs by placing 30 workers in one classroom designed for 12 students for online continuing education classes. Photo courtesy of Sarah Gianocaro.

    The Santa Clara County Office of Education laid off over 60 special education paraeducators, a position primarily held by women, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Management’s decision leaves classrooms short-staffed nearly a year and a half after we returned to in-person instruction.

    Students—deprived of employees desperately needed to conduct instruction—yell, punch, kick and bite their peers or adults when their routine is disrupted or they attempt to leave class. Avoidable incidents are pervasive and instruction is often canceled as a result of short staffing, a travesty for students with severe disabilities who are depending on specialized in-person instruction.

    The office of education claims to be a “premier employer” but refuses to offer a living wage. More than 40% of office of education employees make $2,310 a month or less, while monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara County is $2,558. Food, clothing, utilities, medical care and transportation are luxuries. As essential workers, we provide instructional services for your children with special needs, drive your children to and from school, interpret and clean and maintain schools.

    Custodians and paraeducators are the lowest paid workers within the organization, with many employees working several jobs. Yet management emerges with an unexpected $1 million property tax surplus and will receive cost-of-living adjustments unseen since 2013.

    As multi-generational employees and residents we expect our property taxes to fund student services and salaries and reduce vacancies, but that’s not the case. Our community loses when resources are drained from providing services to students to fund lavish managerial salaries and excessive management positions.

    You may be assaulted and experience a lockdown due to school violence and be supported only by your union. 

    On July 18 at Chandler Tripp, an office of education operated standalone school, a preschooler tripped on the playground and cut her lip. While she was no longer bleeding, upon seeing her child upset, the mother repeatedly punched a paraeducator in her arm, accusing her of injuring her daughter and saying she would “send her husband to take care of (us).” The father appeared onsite, attempting to gain school access while a lockdown ensued, and police were alerted to the scene.

    No counseling, medical services, time off, or follow up was conducted to check on the well-being of the assaulted paraeducator who only had union support to file a restraining order. Only after pleading with several administrators did the office of education communicate with workers about implementing safety procedures and provide mental health resources.

    You must accept the gap between our poverty wages and management’s eye-popping salaries. 

    Mary Ann Dewan, superintendent of the Santa Clara County Office of Education, earns more than all other Bay Area county superintendents, despite paying workers less than other county education offices. Her $374,321.84 salary is double the state superintendent of public instruction and 150% of what the California governor earned last year. Her anticipated raise this year is almost the entire annual salary for one paraeducator and will make her salary just shy of the U.S. presidential salary of $400,000 a year.

    SEIU workers make up 66% of personnel, but account for less than half of all salaries. 

    Essential workers may not have professional backgrounds that command high middle-class salaries, but a third of SEIU workers are skilled professionals, who somehow require supervision at a rate of one manager for two workers. The shortage of essential workers calls the office of education’s bluff. Pay more or lose workers to organizations that will, amid The Great Resignation. Increasing wages, benefits and improving working conditions satisfies the office of education’s organizational mission while giving workers a literal lifeline.

    You should expect telecommuting to end. 

    Managers say we are “Better Together,” but continue to work remotely. As directors require in-person work for classified workers, employees who moved out of state during the pandemic are forced to resign or retire.

    You should expect the unexpected.

    We know our working conditions are students’ learning conditions. In Dr. Dewan’s economy we are drowning and retain little hope she will help to lift hundreds out of poverty.

    Our pleas are met with institutional hostility and economic violence by maintaining an oppressive architecture of employment. Our students, our children and our community deserve better.

    Sarah Gianocaro is SEIU 521 Santa Clara County Office of Education chapter president and an occupational therapist of more than 16 years.

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