Flint, MI—Talks between Flint Community Schools and the paraprofessional union regarding wages will soon begin.

The Board of Education unanimously passed a motion on Sept. 14, 2022, to reopen wage negotiations between the SEIU Local 517M Unit 150 and the school district within two weeks. 

“We’re happy about it, but we’re not going to be too overly optimistic,” said Carmella Johnson, president of SEIU Local 517M Unit 150. “We just want them to hear what we’re asking for, what we deserve and what we’ve been waiting so many years for.”

Johnson said the union is seeking, at the very least, to raise the wages of newly hired paraprofessionals, or parapros, to $15 per hour across the board. 

Under the 2021 to 2024 collective bargaining agreement, the starting salary of a parapro with a high school diploma or equivalent is $10.53 an hour. For parapros with the highest level of qualifications, the starting wage is $11.85 per hour. Overall, parapros’ wages range from $10.53 to $15.39 an hour, depending on qualifications and years on the job. 

Paraprofessionals and their families attend a Flint Community Schools Board of Education meeting on Sept. 14, 2022. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

Poor wages are one of the main reasons for the district’s shortage of parapros, Johnson explained. She added that their workload has been mounting over the last decade, given the vacancies of teachers and substitutes. 

“We’ve had to do more,” Johnson said. “We do it all. You name it, we do it.” 

Josie Lucas, a union member and a parapro at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary, works 30 hours weekly, earning $12.52 per hour.

“Paraprofessionals do so much for our students every day,” Lucas said during public comment at the Board meeting.

“I work recess, lunch, teach mindfulness,” she continued. “I teach children how to peacefully resolve conflicts. I support learning by working one-on-one with students, supporting lessons, leading lessons, substituting with little to no notice oftentimes.” 

Even after receiving a total of $22,500 in COVID stipend from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Lucas said she still qualifies for welfare.

“I can better provide for my own child if I worked at Taco Bell,” she said.

Lucas aspires to be a teacher at Flint Community Schools, and she is currently a junior at the University of Michigan-Flint, studying early childhood education.

“I have yet to meet another student there who plans to work for Flint Community Schools,” Lucas said. “But I love this community and its children.”

Paraprofessional Josie Lucas speaks at a Flint Community Schools Board of Education meeting on Sept. 14, 2022. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

Parapros’ key role involves serving as an assistant to teachers, and Johnson said in the classroom, oftentimes “you won’t be able to tell who the teacher is and who the parapro is because we are team players.” 

Most union members have more than 10 years of service, Johnson added. The union represents about 56 parapros, and on her part, she has been a parapro at Flint Community Schools for nearly three decades. 

Like Johnson, union member Elizabeth Peeples has almost 30 years of experience as a parapro in the school district. At the Board meeting, Peeples, a parapro at Brownell STEM Academy, underscored the importance of parapros at Flint Community Schools. 

“We are a valuable asset to any classroom,” she said during public comment. “We provide instruction. We understand the needs and desires of our students. We nurture their greatness and their growth, and we are interested in their future.”

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...