Proposal to slash special ed stuns Cambridge-Isanti parents, staff

(SEIU Local 284 photo)

Paraprofessionals in the Cambridge-Isanti Schools are mounting a last-ditch fight for their jobs and the special education students they serve after the district unexpectedly revealed plans Friday to slash staffing by 25 percent.

“It was shocking,” Melanie Custer, in her fifth year as a special-ed paraprofessional in District 911, said of learning her job is on the chopping block. “It was basically a slap in the face to us, that we don’t mean anything.”

The proposal, outlined in the school board’s Thursday meeting agenda, would reduce special-ed staffing at seven schools next year by roughly 230 hours per day. That adds up to between 50 and 60 jobs, according to the union that represents Cambridge-Isanti paraprofessionals, SEIU Local 284.

Union members plan to speak against the proposed cuts at the board meeting tomorrow, and they anticipate strong backing from parents and community members. [View the Facebook event.]

“I’ve seen Facebook posts, and I’ve talked to a couple of (special-ed students’) parents,” Custer said. “It stresses them out, and it makes them worried about what kind of care their children are going to be getting.”

The district did not respond to a request for comment, but the agenda item cites “changes in enrollment and staffing needs” as reason for the cuts. A separate budget document estimates savings of $770,000 next year from an “adjustment to special education staffing.”

But Custer, who provides one-on-one support to students with special needs, warned that any savings would come at a steep price for students, their families and teachers in the district.

“Our students will suffer,” she said. “These are students with emotional and behavioral disorders, autistic students and students with learning disabilities. If you cut out the people who give them help, they’re going to get lost in the system.”

Already, special-ed paras and the teachers they work alongside feel shorthanded, Custer added. Any time a para calls in sick, “it generally results in the teacher having to do a lot more than anyone’s capable of doing,” she said.

Custer, whose husband works in the construction industry and struggles for hours in the winter months, would have to find another job if she’s laid off by the district. But she doubts she could find anything as rewarding as her work with students.

It’s a message she hopes will resonate with board members tomorrow.

“We give day in and day out helping these kids,” she said. “We’ll never get rich doing this job; we’re all there for the kids. It seems like the district doesn’t care about us, they don’t care about the kids.”

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