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Schools budget cuts back on parapro increases, raises pay for lowest-paid workers

Nicole Jordan

Elementary schools in Clarke County will only be getting one new paraprofessional next year, but district staff like custodians, bus drivers, and current paraprofessionals will see a substantial pay increase.

Those are among the major takeaways from the Board of Education’s budget for next year, which passed unanimously at a meeting on Thursday.

Key points:

  • The district will hire one new paraprofessional for each elementary school, rather than the two positions per elementary school initially proposed.
  • CCSD will add mental health counselors at the district's middle and high schools.
  • Classified staff, like bus drivers, custodians, and nutrition assistants will see $2,500 raises, as will teachers.
  • The $242 million budget will require about $6.6 million from the district's cash reserves to meet the district's needs.

New parapro positions cut by 50%

School district officials and board members had been discussing for weeks a plan to put two new paraprofessionals in each of the district’s 14 elementary schools. Those parapros work closely with teachers and students. Many parapros work with special needs students, providing one-on-one services.

But, in the final version of the district’s budget, the number of new parapro positions was dramatically scaled back from 28 to 14. Clarke County School District Chief Financial Officer Chris Griner told board members at a Wednesday budget hearing that most elementary school principals were supportive of the cutback.

“We polled our elementary school principals,” Griner said. “They really feel like they would be fine with the one additional para pro over the two, so we've proposed reducing that amount, just based on their feedback today, so that would be a reduction of what's been added in the budget of about $588,000.”

It's the number one comment I get from parents and teachers saying, ‘more parapros please.'
Patricia Yager, Clarke County Board of Education, District 4

Board Member Patricia Yager was skeptical of the reduction in positions, however.

“It's the number one comment I get from parents and teachers saying, ‘more parapros please,’” she said.

School Superintendent Dr. Robbie Hooker replied that some schools in the district are having trouble filling their current openings for paraprofessionals.

Board President Mumbi Anderson supported the rollback to just one new position per elementary school.

“The schools or the leadership in the schools seem to be OK with, and I think it's important when you're doing this sort of back and forth to listen to leaders in the buildings while we are also deliberating as a governance team,” she said.

District invests more in mental health counselors

In addition to the 14 new paraprofessionals being added into the budget, the district is also staffing up to address growing mental health needs among students. A proposal to add two mental health counselors at the high school level showed up in the first version of the tentative budget. At Wednesday’s budget hearing, district officials added four more mental health positions to serve the county’s middle schools.

District staff told board members that the number of students seeking mental health services has been rising since the COVID-19 pandemic.

District staff will see pay hikes

Another major item in the budget is salary increases for school district staff. Teachers and other certified personnel will see a $2,500 increase in their pay under a proposal passed earlier this year by state lawmakers and funded by state dollars, but the state plan doesn’t address the 850 or so classified personnel like bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and custodians.

The initial proposed budget suggested a $1,250 raise for those workers, but board members pushed for more. A second proposal would have given classified staff a $1,750 raise. A third measure kept the $1,750 raise and added a one-time bonus of $750. Ultimately, board members voted for a $2,500 raise for classified personnel.

Board President Mumbi Anderson, speaking at the Wednesday budget hearing, was in favor of the raise instead of a smaller raise and a one-time stipend:

We have a vested interest in permanently keeping [employees] at that higher salary rather than playing around with their wallets every year.
Mumbi Anderson, Clarke County Board of Education President

“It shows that we have a vested interest in permanently keeping them at that higher salary rather than playing around with their wallets every year,” she said. “It just kind of seems a little dirty to do that.”

Board Vice-President Mark Evans agreed.

“Those classified personnel are the ones that make the school the school,” Evans said. “And so for us to keep them, we need to pay them. They need to be able to earn a living wage.”

In addition to the $2,500 raise passed by Board of Education members, custodians will see a $1,000 raise paid for by state funding.

This year’s raises are the latest in a series of pay hikes from local and state officials in recent years, according Superintendent Robbie Hooker, speaking before Thursday’s budget vote.

“The starting salaries for paraprofessionals have increased 49% since the year 2022 up to this date,” Hooker said. “For bus drivers, it has increased 29%. For nutrition assistants, it has increased 69%, and for our custodial staff over the past two years it has increased 58%.”

Hooker added that when compared to metro Atlanta school districts like Cobb and Dekalb Counties, only Atlanta Public Schools pays its paraprofessionals more than Clarke County.

The superintendent also noted that a first-year teacher in the district makes more today than a veteran teacher with over ten years’ experience made in 2021.

Spending tops income in new budget, but officials aren’t worried

Overall, the district’s budget spends almost $242 million, about $6.6 million more than the district expects to bring in in property tax revenue and state funding. To compensate, the district will have to dip into its surplus for that amount.

District officials didn’t seem to be concerned, however. The district’s cash reserves are healthy, and even though next year’s budget will take some of that reserve fund away, the balance is still projected to be almost $49 million. District CFO Chris Griner told board members that that would be enough to cover more than 20% of the district’s yearly expenses, or several months of salary and benefits for its employees.

There may be cause for future concern however, as the county’s red-hot housing market shows signs of cooling off. Last year, the total value of taxable property in the county grew by nearly 17%. This year school district projections show a more modest growth of less than 10%. Some 57% of the district’s revenue comes from property taxes, meaning that future boards may need to be more protective of the currently thriving surplus.

Budget passes with little argument on decision day

After a month of budget hearings, negotiations, and public comment, the budget itself passed on Thursday night with little fanfare and some amount of satisfaction.

Board member Linda Davis:

“I just want to thank the district for listening to the needs of the community and actually meeting those needs,” Davis said. “I'm very excited about this. I didn't have any hope that it would actually happen, but you have proven me wrong, so thank you very much for making this really a community and our employees’ budget.”

We did a lot of hard work outside of here to make sure that we got community input. We went and talked to our stakeholders. We listened to our building leaders.
Mark Evans, Clarke County Board of Education Vice-President

Board Vice-President Mark Evans congratulated his colleagues on their work.

“We did a lot of hard work outside of here to make sure that we got community input,” he said. “We went and talked to our stakeholders. We listened to our building leaders and I just want to commend you all for a job well done.”

The budget passed the Board of Education 7-0. Two members, Claudia Butts and Nicole Hull, were not present for the vote.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.