Support staff are the backbone of Florida’s schools, but they’re ignored in the debate about teacher pay

November 19, 2019 7:00 am

Sarasota District Schools, transportation. Photo from Facebook page, Sarasota District Schools, transportation.

Most Floridians know all too well the needs of their public schools. More than 300,000 students started this school year without a certified teacher in their classroom.

To make matters worse, all four school superintendents who testified at the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Oct. 24 said they have more instructional vacancies now than at the start of the school year.

For the students in those classrooms, no further evidence is needed that Florida is facing an educational crisis.

However, the crisis extends beyond the exodus of classroom teachers.

There are almost 100,000 education staff professionals who work in Florida’s public schools. These women and men are often nameless and faceless to Tallahassee bureaucrats, but they are everyday heroes to the students they serve.

Heroes like Ms. Zeh, a cafeteria worker who ensures that her students have healthy meals because she knows what they eat at school might be the only food they eat all day.

Heroes like Mr. Wilkinson, who ensures his students get a safe ride to and from school each day and also sets kiddos up for success by starting their day with a smile as they get on the bus and ending their day with a word of encouragement as they head home.

Heroes like Mrs. Wright, a bookkeeper who knows all the students at her school by name and serves as a role model and mentor for students from their first day of kindergarten to their fifth-grade graduation.

Working long before the school day starts and well after it ends, education support staff are the backbone of Florida’s schools.

That’s why the Wednesday of American Education Week — Nov. 20 — is designated as “Education Support Professionals Day.”

It’s part of American Education Week, celebrated annually since 1921, with the purpose of “informing the public of the accomplishments and needs of the public schools and to secure cooperation and support of the public in meeting those needs.”

Despite their importance to the well-being and education of Florida’s students, these education staff professionals are routinely ignored in very important conversations, including those currently happening around Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to increase teacher pay.

If this continues, Florida will soon find itself with a shortage of education staff akin to the current teacher shortage.

Some places around the state are already feeling the pain of these shortages, leading to longer bus rides home due to the shortage of drivers and less individual attention for the students who need it the most because of the lack of teachers’ aides.

Many of these employees earn an hourly rate of pay right at the state’s minimum wage — this is no way to treat those who have such an important role to play in the lives of Florida’s children.

As legislators are rightfully discussing the importance of raising teacher salaries, they must remember to invest in all those who make education possible.

A failure to invest in education support staff will not just be detrimental to those who serve students in all capacities, but a failure for the 2.8 million students they serve every single day.

So, as we celebrate Education Support Professionals Day, I hope you will join me in both thanking school support staffers for their tireless work, and in demanding that this work be valued with a level of respect and financial investment.

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Carole Gauronskas
Carole Gauronskas

Carole Gauronskas is secretary-treasurer of the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest association of professional employees. Previously, she worked as an exceptional student education (ESE) paraprofessional at Ketterlinus Elementary School in St. Augustine.