E ducation Support Professionals are badly underpaid in most Massachusetts school districts, and an increasing number are
fighting back with the support of their unions.
In Somerville and Greenfield the fight is
currently focused on demanding a living wage
for one group of ESPs: paraprofessionals, who
are sometimes called instructional aides, teaching
assistants or paraeducators. In Athol, the local is
advocating for a fair contract for all — teachers
and ESPs alike. Underlying it all is a demand for
more respect for roles that are critically important to
students but too often underappreciated.
On Jan. 13, more than 200 Somerville educators,
parents, union supporters and other community
residents rallied outside City Hall and then marched
into a School Committee meeting, chanting “20K is
not OK! We deserve a higher pay!”
They were angry that the starting salary for
paraprofessionals in the district is about $20,000 a
year, which is significantly lower than the federal
poverty level for a family of two. They are seeking
to boost that to $25,000, which is still far too little
to afford to live on in Somerville, a high-cost and
increasingly affluent city.
Margaret Whittier-Ferguson, a para in a prekindergarten classroom, is head of the Somerville
Teachers Association contract action team. She threw
herself into the effort to support her colleagues in the
short term and build the union’s strength in the long
“We’ve come to the breaking point,” she said.
“We can’t keep subsisting on what are basically
poverty wages. We are fighting for a better contract
that is fair and provides us with dignity and meets
basic needs for housing and transportation. The STA
is actively working on building our union’s power
Whittier-Ferguson’s goal is to become a teacher.
She is stuck in a vicious cycle because she can’t save
enough on her salary to enroll in a master’s degree
program, which would enhance her job prospects.
Her plight underscores the need to both advocate for
members in our public schools and attack the public
higher education affordability problem.
“We’re only going to win a strong contract if
every teacher, every para and the entire community
get involved,” she said.
Although few paraprofessionals could speak at
the School Committee meeting because testimony
was limited to Somerville residents, an exception
was made for Daphnee Balan, a para at the West
Somerville Neighborhood School.
“I pray that my daughter doesn’t get sick,
because I don’t know if I’d be able to afford [to get
help] for her,” she said, fighting back tears. “Every
day when I get up to go to work, I pray that my car
starts because I don’t know if I can afford to deal
with issues with my vehicle.
“I have heard people say that we get kicked,
we get hit and we get punched,” Balan continued,
They’re happy to see me because they value me.
“The question is,” she asked members of the
Although the School Committee has filed for
mediation, the STA is continuing to push the district
to address the para crisis head-on by agreeing to a
fair contract without delay.
I n Greenfield, the paraprofessionals have a different problem. With a starting salary of only $11.75 an hour, they are among the lowest-paid
in a state that has just increased the minimum wage
for private-sector and state employees to $12.75 an
hour and is heading toward $15 an hour in 2023. The
MTA is backing a bill that would require the same
minimum wage requirements for municipalities. That
bill will have to be approved by a two-thirds vote in
both branches of the Legislature to become law.
During negotiations, the Greenfield School
Committee offered the paras a $3 raise at each step.
The local accepted the offer and both sides ratified
the agreement. But no raises have been given
because the city says there isn’t enough money to
honor its agreement.
Susan Voss, a paraprofessional in Greenfield,
said local members have picketed and spoken out at
School Committee and City Council meetings.
Putting their students first, however, members
pushed back when the former mayor proposed
taking funds out of the school budget — including
money for special education services — to finance
Now that there is a new mayor and the
expectation of new funding under the Student
Opportunity Act, the Greenfield Education
Association will regroup and push for the raises that
the members are owed, Voss said.
The Athol Teachers Association is fighting for
all educators — including ESPs — through unified
bargaining, meaning the more powerful teachers’ unit
is standing with members in the smaller units. Mary
Grutchfield, an elementary school special education
teacher and the new president of the ATA, said that
winning comparable raises for all of the units is only
Please turn to ‘Paraprofessionals ...’/Page 21
Local actions for Education
are picking up. Above,
Balan gave impassioned
testimony at a Somerville
School Committee meeting.
Standing with her is
head of the local’s contract
action team. At left, Athol
President Mary Grutchfield
helped distribute signs at a
School Committee meeting.
ATA members called for
equitable raises for all staff,
Photos by Laura Barrett