During the interim session, Utah’s state legislators have considered various aspects of the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, and many Utahns are baffled by statewide teacher salaries, which are $6,000 to $10,000 lower than the national average. While teacher salaries clearly need to be increased to allow Utah to offer competitive teacher recruitment, digging a bit deeper reveals the problem is also linked to the support system offered to teachers in Utah public schools.

It may surprise most Utahns that hourly school support staff like paraprofessional educators (a position formerly known as teacher’s aide or classroom assistant), extended day staff, custodians and others are not eligible for benefits, are kept just under full-time work at a maximum of 29 hours/week and have no opportunity for overtime pay. Depending on the school district, the pay rate can be lower than $9.00 per hour, even in special-education classrooms. This means an income of less than $14,000/year pre-tax, while the average fair market rent in Salt Lake County is $12,000/year. After taxes, that leaves less than $2,000 a year for food, utilities, transportation, insurance, childcare and other basic expenses.

Many of the individuals holding paraprofessional positions are licensed educators whose value to teacher retention could be enormous, if better utilized. However, with a salary comparable to entry-level positions in retail and other service industries but with higher barriers to entry, there is high turnover among paraprofessionals and hourly staff.

Why haven’t you heard about this problem before? In part, it’s because paraprofessional educators and other hourly employees do not have basic employment protections. It’s hard to negotiate fair wages or even speak vocally about negative conditions when you don’t have protection from discrimination or retaliation, let alone an educators’ union. Sadly, some folks have been threatened by their administrators when wage issues have been raised.

Because the salary schedule is set by the district school board and superintendent, principals are unable to increase the wages for these hourly employees, even if they have the money in their budget and the desire to do so. Just as school districts pressured the Legislature to increase paraprofessional hours in recent years, they must prioritize paraprofessional and hourly employee wages.

As paraprofessionals and other school staff turn over year after year, schools and teachers must retrain their support network rather than garnering the benefits of experienced assistance in their classrooms. A lack of effective paraprofessionals is also detrimental to students in large classes and to all students, particularly in special education, ESL and integrated classrooms.

To hear a personal story that impacts your own life, talk to your child’s teachers or your friends that work in K-12 education and ask them about the importance of paraprofessional educators and other hourly employees to themselves, the other staff and students.

Gov. Gary Herbert promised that education is his top priority and that the state budget surplus will go toward funding education in the state. This spring as school boards work on their district’s budget, we hope that they take into account not just increasing teacher wages, but the wages of support staff and hourly employees that are just as vital to improving the learning experience of our students and retention of our teachers.

As community members, we also hope you’ll join us in reaching out to your school district board to express support for these important school employees.

Ashley Anderson is an arts educator who also writes about public education for Action Utah. Christy Clay is an organizer with Utahns for Fair Wages.