Wisconsin schools are seeing an exodus of support staff, as custodians, food service workers, paraprofessionals, and secretaries are leaving public education in favor of positions that provide a more suitable living wage, according to school officials and education advocates.
“Over the last three years, our inflationary rates have just gone through the roof when it comes to trying to provide competitive wages with Target, Walmart, or Kwik Trip,” Dr. Amy Starzecki, superintendent of the Superior School District, said during a recent interview on UpNorthNews Radio.
Staffing issues in public schools are nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic only served to exacerbate the crisis in Wisconsin, and losing these workers has real consequences on kids and school communities.
“We know that our support staff do play a significant role in helping our students every day in the classroom, whether it’s helping them get ready for school in the morning, getting to the lunchroom, helping them at recess, or getting them on the bus every day,” Dr. Starzecki said.
Christian Phelps, a former special-ed paraprofessional at a public elementary school in Wisconsin, stressed that working with children, while fulfilling, can also be emotionally taxing, so paying these support staff liveable wages is essential.
“I’ve kind of seen education from a number of different lenses and that one—working at a public school—is probably the most revealing to me,” Phelps, now the director of digital organizing and communications with the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said. “Not only in how important and fulfilling and joyful the work can be, but also just the immense challenges that you’re under on a day-to-day basis when you’re trying to provide the services that kids and our schools really need and deserve.”
At the height of the pandemic, the federal government provided billions of dollars in COVID-relief funds to schools across the country; the goal was to help school districts cope with the specific educational challenges brought on by the pandemic.
According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin schools received more than $2.3 billion in federal COVID relief funds to help them get through the pandemic. These funds went towards health and safety, educational technology, staff retention, remote instruction, and more.
But these funds are set to expire at the end of Sept. 2024, creating a potential “funding cliff” for schools next fall.
Although some school districts, like Superior’s, have recently passed budgets to attempt to head off the “funding cliff,” Dr. Starzecki said that a lack of adequate funding is already affecting the hiring of support staff, which will only get harder with the loss of the pandemic-era funds.
“When you don’t have applicants, it starts with your starting wage,” Dr. Starzecki said. “That’s what attracts people. You need to pay, and you need to provide funding to support the needs of our students.”
There are currently several vacancies for support staff positions in the Superior School District, all looking to be filled by the new year. The starting wage for a substitute school custodian is listed at $18.26 per hour. For a school nutrition manager, the starting wage ranges from $18.20 to $20.71 per hour. For a head cook, the starting wage varies between $15.95 – $18.43 per hour.
Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have proposed a bill that aims to address the teaching shortage more broadly, but the plan would eliminate many requirements, like having four-year degrees. The plan would offer a lifetime teaching license to paraprofessionals in Wisconsin after a three-year period of classroom instruction, but says nothing about compensation.
“I think we should have a conversation about providing pathways to paraprofessionals, but we also need to be having a conversation at the same time about what we believe teachers should know and be able to do in the classroom,” Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay), a former public school teacher herself, said on UpNorthNews radio. “This bill, in my opinion, does not get to that.”
Ultimately, unless the state provides consistent and adequate funding to schools, they’ll continue to struggle to retain support staff and provide what students need, Dr. Starzecki said.
“Decades of lack of funding in education are impacting our day-to-day operations, and ultimately, our students in our classrooms every day,” she said.
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