Budget axe falls on School District 197’s frontline workers

Despite putting their health at risk while providing essential care during the pandemic, paraprofessionals in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools learned tonight that the district will lay off up to 12 full-time workers from their ranks and replace them with temporary hires.

Members of ISD 197’s school board signed off on the cost-cutting measure tonight over pleas from teachers, parents and paraprofessionals to reconsider.

Protesters greeted school board members as they arrived at the district’s meeting space in Thompson Park. During a public-comment session, several speakers said special-ed students and their families deserve better than the abrupt layoffs, and so do paraprofessionals.

Lauren Kress, a site supervisor with the district’s School Age Care program, called paraprofessionals the “backbone of our children’s education,” and she urged board members to do better by the workers who “have been risking their own health and the health of their families.”

Marilee Erickson, a special-ed paraprofessional who works with early learners, said the cuts couldn’t come at a worse time for students, many of whom are returning to school after distance learning.

“The timing is troublesome,” she said. “Paraprofessionals know students throughout their buildings, and they know their needs. A temporary worker will not.”

Congress authorized $54.3 billion in emergency funding for public school districts across the country in the last round of COVID-19 relief.

But some lawmakers say more federal aid is necessary to prevent widespread layoffs in school districts, municipalities and other local governments. President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion recovery plan includes $600 billion to protect public services – and jobs for people who provide them.

At the meeting in West St. Paul tonight, Alex Barba-Cook told board members she expects to be among the paraprofessionals laid off as a result of the cuts. She has been on the job for just a year, but already, she said, “my heart is in this school.”

“The foundation of my job is having a good personal relationship with the kids,” Barbra-Cook said. “It takes a lot to build that trust over time. Now, I worry a lot of things are going to fall through the cracks.”

Paraprofessionals in West St. Paul are members of Local 284 of the Service Employees International Union.

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