JeffCo’s school support professionals ask for a wage boost to confront crisis-level shortages

JeffCo Schools Bus Terminal
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
School buses parked at a Jefferson County terminal on Quail Street in Lakewood.

A couple of weeks ago, Zander Bednall, a kitchen manager at an elementary school in Jefferson County, had to pick up some food supplies at a high school. The kitchen manager who greeted him burst into tears. She sobbed the entire time he was there.

“She was so overworked and just couldn’t stop crying,” Bednall said. “I didn’t have time to stand there and help her because I had to come back to my school and work.”

Entry-level cafeteria jobs in the Jefferson County school district pay $15 dollars an hour – some say that’s left the district down about 100 food and nutrition workers out of a typical 450 employees. The severe shortage of workers is crippling school cafeterias. But shortages fueled by low wages are also plaguing other areas critical to operating schools. So cafeteria workers, classroom aides, bus drivers and other support staff in the 81,000-student district are calling for a $3 per hour wage boost to help stem the flow of workers leaving their jobs.

“People are quitting every day,” said Lara Center, a school library paraprofessional who heads the union for JeffCo’s education support professionals. “Custodians, food service workers …. They are leaving for better opportunities.”

Center said those jobs include working in retail or to moving to other school districts, like Boulder Valley School District, that pay more. Compounding the labor shortage is the fact that the remaining workers must do more. The Jefferson County school district is now serving 40,000 meals a day in 150 schools – double what it normally does — because meals are temporarily free for all children due to the pandemic.

“I'm hearing of custodians jumping in to help serve food,” Center said. “Principals are jumping in … covering for paraprofessional (classroom aide) shortages. I feel like because of the shortages, we’re not doing right by our students.”

Beth Wallace, JeffCo’s executive director of food and nutrition, said in an interview earlier this week that the district is actively seeking volunteers, and in some high schools, students are coming in on an off period to work in cafeterias.

Amie Baca Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union, said the shortages across the state are impacting students' learning. She said students are backed up in cafeteria lines waiting to eat because of the staffing shortage, leaving them less time for recess. 

“Without time to eat and plenty of time for recess, learning does suffer. We need adequate staffing, and that requires competitive and living wages.”

Oehlert said some custodians have reported they’re being asked to clean a building in four hours, a job that typically takes eight. There are also severe shortages among substitute teachers and classroom aides known as paraprofessionals. 

Darcy Hassler has been a JeffCo paraprofessional for 16 years, providing critical one-on-one support for children with learning or behavioral needs, and leading small academic intervention groups. But she also has a substitute teaching license.  Hassler has already been tapped seven times this year to substitute for teachers.

“What that does is take me out of my regular job,” she said, adding that the children she typically helps notice when she isn’t there and aren’t getting the support they need when she’s away.

Union asking district to go to the bargaining table early

Typically, the union and district in Jefferson County negotiate wages at the bargaining table in February. Because of the labor crisis, the JeffCo Education Support Professionals Association has requested a meeting with the district sooner. One option, the union says, is tapping federal stimulus funds, which it says can be used to help with staffing shortages. The union is waiting for a response from the district.

We're kind of done with the ‘Thank yous’ and the pats on the back,” JESPA’s Lara Center said. “We need real action here and our students need that action.”

Three new incoming Jefferson school board members have each committed to supporting a wage increase as well as, the union says, supporting its other requests — stopping the outsourcing of jobs and making school meals healthier.

“If a child can't get to school because there's no school bus, or if, when they get to school, there's no teacher in their classroom, or if there's no healthy lunch available for them, then they're not going to get the education that they deserve,” said Mary Parker, a new JeffCo school board member.

District officials could not be reached for comment.