“School districts pay us less than a Walmart shelf-stocker”: Ed techs push for higher pay

Mon, 04/15/2024 - 10:45am

Kim Hubbard has been an education technician at elementary and middle schools in Oxford County for two decades, and year after year she has seen colleagues leave the profession because the pay is too low. Others, she said, work second or third jobs to make ends meet. 

Hubbard and other educators have spent the past year pushing for the Maine Legislature to pass L.D. 974, a bill that would increase the minimum wage for ed techs and other school support staff.

“You expect us to assist in their education as well as to keep your children safe from attacks, report suspected abuse, be kicked, bitten and spit on, cover a classroom when the teacher is absent, and continue our own education to keep our certifications, all while presenting a positive outlook,” she told the education and cultural affairs committee. “Yet your school districts pay us less than a Walmart shelf-stocker.” 

L.D. 974, which the House of Representatives passed Wednesday, would increase the minimum wage for ed techs to 150 percent of the state’s minimum wage, or $21.23 per hour, by the 2025-26 school year. There are about 8,000 ed techs in Maine schools, according to a 2023 report from the Maine Education Association, a union representing teachers and school staff.

The bill includes a requirement to increase the minimum wage for other school support staff to 125 percent of the state’s minimum wage, or $17.69 per hour.

Data compiled by MEA in March shows that as of the beginning of this school year, dozens of Maine districts offered minimum wages for ed techs and other support staff that did not meet the current state minimum wage of $14.15 per hour, which went into effect Jan. 1.

At least one district, RSU 84 in the Danforth area, has since updated its minimum wage to meet the state’s minimum, according to the MEA president, Grace Leavitt. Other districts could have done the same, she said. 

Still, the pay is quite low.

The discrepancy is most striking for those in positions classified as Ed Tech I, the lowest of three tiers the state uses to categorize education technicians. 

Twenty-two of the state’s 129 districts offered a minimum wage below $14.15 at the start of the school year. None of the state’s districts currently exceed the proposed minimum of $21.23.

Five districts offered wages below $14.15 for Ed Tech II positions, as did one district for Ed Tech III, according to the 2023-24 salary data.

Looking at wages through the new bill, 130 districts don’t meet the standard for Ed Tech II jobs, and 116 don’t meet the standard for Ed Tech III.

Overall, Maine’s salaries for education support professionals ranked 40th in the nation based on 2022-23 national wage data, Leavitt said. 

Another bill before the legislature, L.D. 1064, would see the minimum salary for teachers rise from $40,000 to $50,000 a year by the 2027-28 school year. Both L.D. 1064 and L.D. 974 have been sent to the appropriations committee.

Leavitt said she has seen many educators leave due to low wages. 

“They reach a point where it’s just not worth it for them,” she told The Maine Monitor

Schools across the state are facing staff shortages, which the MEA tied to low wages. 

The Department of Education is working with several nonprofit organizations to recruit more educators, and has seen a 13.5 percent increase in applicants for ed tech certification this year, according to a department spokesperson.

The MEA report noted that not all certified educators seek jobs at schools, again citing low wages.

Not paying support staff adequately also increases inequities in schools, Leavitt said. Districts that offer good financial incentives draw ed techs and bus drivers, leaving others with shortages. And it’s the students who suffer, she said.

For example, RSU 13 in the Rockland area had to close its middle school for a day due to the lack of substitutes and ed techs, according to the MEA report.

Kennebunk schools were forced to cancel some bus routes due to driver shortages, and one Friday last year, the school was unable to transport students to their career and technical education center in Sanford, resulting in only 7 of the 25 students from RSU 21 making it to their classes that day.

“You can’t run your school without them,” Leavitt said. “They are absolutely essential to do what our students need and deserve. And they shouldn’t be paid less than somebody who’s working in a fast-food restaurant.”

But not everyone is in favor of pay increases.

The Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association oppose both bills, citing the strain increases would put on budgets.

“Our members believe Augusta should not be dictating rates of increase for salaries and wages in schools,” said Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which represents the MSBA and MSSA. “That needs to be a local decision.”

If the salary increases fall on taxpayers, school budgets may not pass, he said in his testimony. 

“It would be helpful to have a financial analysis of what each of these bills will cost in the near and long term,” he said. “We should not commit to a plan without understanding what impact it will have on school budgets in our communities.”

The MEA is asking the state to provide additional funding to support wage increases for the first few years, Leavitt said. 

“There’s no other answer. We need help from the state,” she said. 

Janet Kuech, an ed tech in Standish, told legislators that she and other education support professionals scramble daily to keep schools running.

“Please remember that we wear many hats and shoulder tremendous responsibilities for the young people we interact with,” Kuech said. “We deserve to earn living wages.”