Even by Florida standards, Hillsborough County offers low pay to special-education aides

Published Jan. 13, 2013

TAMPA — Workers who care for Hillsborough County's most vulnerable schoolchildren earn less than their counterparts in many Florida school districts, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

In the wake of two student deaths last year, people who are studying the district's special education program have cited pay and training as weak spots.

The starting wage for exceptional student education aides and attendants in Hillsborough: $8.42 an hour — less than school bus drivers are paid and just above minimum wage. And some workers do not get benefits if their jobs are temporary.

"We've been to the bargaining table for the past two or three years, saying our paraprofessionals were working below the poverty line," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

For these wages, the workers have great responsibilities. While helping students meet academic goals, they must also feed, change diapers and tend to the medical needs of those with severe physical impairments.

Pinellas, Duval, Hernando, Citrus, Orange and Polk counties pay more, on average, than Hillsborough, which pays $14,277. Pasco County pays less at $13,414. But, according to Pasco's ESE supervisor, all the aides get benefits.

In contrast, in Miami-Dade County, the aides — who are called behavioral and therapeutic paraprofessionals — earn an average of $19,062 a year.

Of 31 districts where the payroll data identified comparable jobs, Hillsborough ranked fifth from the bottom.

"This is an eye-opener," said School Board member Susan Valdes, who has asked repeatedly for salary studies for support jobs.

Chairwoman April Griffin said, "I am ashamed. We can do better. We need to do better."

District spokesman Stephen Hegarty pointed out that the Times study did not account for variables such as length of service and health benefits, which Hillsborough employees can get without paying premiums.

"Nevertheless," he said, "these are difficult and important jobs and we would like to be able to do more to support these employees."

• • •

The issue of aide pay has gotten little attention despite recent uproar about the deaths of Isabella Herrera, who stopped breathing while riding a school bus, and Jennifer Caballero, who drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School.

Isabella's bus driver and aide did not call 911 when she went into respiratory distress.

Caballero disappeared from a crowded gym with six aides on duty. Two are about to be fired, two left their jobs voluntarily and the others were cleared of wrongdoing, as they had legitimate reasons to be away from the gym.

The case illustrated shortcomings in pay — most of the six earned under $13,000 — and training. Investigators could not find evidence that three of the six had any training. One told investigators she had none.

Ashley Harrison, a former ESE aide who appeared on local television news with a video that appeared to show a Freedom High School teacher sleeping in class, also said she had little training. "We had aggressive students, and I didn't know what to do when they attacked," she said.

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News of the Herrera and Caballero deaths, which coincided with the Harrison video and two ESE-related arrests, prompted superintendent MaryEllen Elia to appoint a work group to improve ESE safety.

The group is discussing not only pay, but also incentives, such as educational and career opportunities, to attract and keep aides longer, said co-chairman Jeff Eakins. Union leaders applauded that idea, suggesting the district improve professional development for aides as it has for teachers.

Educators and parents agree it can be hard to find someone to instruct and care for students who sometimes have multiple physical and behavioral disabilities.

When the student needs a one-on-one aide, other issues arise. The job is often temporary, as the student might move or, ideally, become more independent and no longer need an aide. And that means the aide may not get benefits.

In a district as large as Hillsborough, with an ESE population of 29,000, the system must be flexible. "When kids turn three, they're able to go to school, and they turn three throughout the year," said assistant superintendent Wynne Tye, who oversees ESE.

As a result, she authorizes several aide positions a month. "Sometimes it could be a couple a week, because our enrollment is fluid," she said.

But the wait frustrates parents and teachers.

Susan Parks said Hammond Elementary School, where her daughter is in kindergarten, went through a succession of short-term aides as the school struggled to fill the job. The situation frustrated her as her daughter, who has a genetic disorder that causes seizures, has considerable medical needs.

While Vanessa got the medical care she needed, Parks worried about instruction. "It takes longer than a week for an aide to get to know a nonverbal child and to figure out how to help that individual to learn," she said.

The aide they finally hired was "practically an angel sent from heaven," she said. "I understand it's in Odessa, and I understand it's an eight-something-an-hour job, and most people can't live on that. But it's crucial to so many of these kids.''

Joanna Johnson, an ESE teacher at Corr Elementary School, raised the issue at a recent union meeting.

"The safety concern of all ESE teachers is that there is no set number of kids," Johnson said. "In general, it's the amount of help you get and the amount of time it takes to get the help if you need it."

• • •

Covering vacancies can be done in a variety of ways. Pasco uses non-instructional substitutes — paid at the rate of a substitute teacher — to help out until an aide can be hired, said ESE director Melissa Musselwhite.

Despite the modest pay, Musselwhite said, "The majority of positions stay filled and we have, in many of those positions, people who have college degrees."

Full-time aides in Pinellas County, who are called ESE associates and earn an average of $15,506 according to the Times' research, also receive benefits and stay on the job a long time, said Cindy Bania, the district's executive director of exceptional student education.

"We have a core of support staff who have stayed with us for 25 years," Bania said.

The Times analysis suggested Pinellas has a relatively large number of aides, given the size of the district and its ESE population. Bania said she has not compared her staffing level to those of other districts.

"We base our ESE allocation on the students' needs," she said.

Tye said that, as Hillsborough works through its plan, she hopes to strengthen the process schools use to fill the jobs, to avoid long waits. "We can never assume we've done everything we can to recruit," she said.

Experts say it is important not just to fill the job, but to provide proper supervision.

"I don't think a person has to be a genius to learn this stuff, but it has to be taught," said St. Petersburg lawyer Mark Kamleiter, who represents families of special-needs children.

"If you get the wrong aide or an untrained aide, it could be worse than having no aide at all. But a good aide is worth their weight in gold, because they are going to create an independent child."

Pasco has re-examined many of its procedures in light of the Hillsborough deaths, including the training ESE teachers get in managing their aides.

"We talked about the concept of team scheduling because it's not something that, when I was in college, I learned," Musselwhite said.

"It's very easy for someone to make assumptions that the person knows what the expectations are in the classroom and they may not."

• • •

The Hillsborough work group's report contains numerous suggestions concerning aides.

One is to reclassify aides — who help with instruction — and attendants — who tend to children's personal needs — as paraprofessionals, a job title used in some other districts.

Qualifications for the jobs differ, which raises complications. Federal guidelines call for aides to be "highly qualified," with about two years of college or a passing score on a standardized paraprofessional exam.

"We have some very good attendants in our schools, but they are not highly qualified," Tye said.

Both jobs offer the same starting hourly wage, with top yearly earnings of $22,535 — a far cry from the top Miami-Dade salary of $38,832.

Some districts ask for two years of college or a willingness to undergo training.

In Hillsborough, much of the training is optional. The work group wants it to be mandatory, especially where emergency protocols are concerned.

Electronic training systems could accommodate employees who arrive at a school midyear. A verification system, standard throughout the district, would ensure workers are not put in the classroom until a supervisor has a record of their training.

"I'm very confident we're going to make a big dent in those recommendations in a very short manner," Tye said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or