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Carolina Galvan, a paraprofessional with Denver Public Schools, poses for a portrait on July 9, 2022, at Valdez Elementary School where she works in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Carolina Galvan nears the outer edge of her dream each time she steps into her classroom at Valdez Elementary School in Denver. She wants to be a teacher with her own classroom of students, but since she was unable to finish the schooling required to earn a teacher’s license, her role as a paraprofessional sets her inches away from it.

“Being a paraprofessional is kind of achieving my dream,” said Galvan, 34, who assists a teacher with classroom lessons and provides extra help to students.

But she’s thought about walking away from her job, which sometimes feels like more of a sacrifice than a way to fulfill her career goals. Pocketing $15.87 per hour, Galvan can’t even pay her rent for her Woodridge apartment and depends on her husband’s income to keep their family afloat. Like many educators, the students are the reason Galvan returns to school day after day.

“Touching lives and making a positive influence in some of the kids” motivates her, she said, “but sometimes it doesn’t pay the bills.” 

Galvan is part of a group of Denver Public Schools paras and other support staff members, including bus assistants, food service workers and campus safety officers, asking board leadership to raise wages to $20 per hour. She and other district employees have an option to be part of a union, the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees, but their counterparts in some metro districts don’t and are seeking union recognition from their school boards. 

Bus assistants in Cherry Creek School District are setting out to organize and potentially become part of the Cherry Creek Transportation Employees Association, which serves as a union for bus drivers in the district. Educational sign language interpreters working for Littleton Public Schools are asking their board for recognition of their own union or to change their employment status from classified to licensed so that they can join the Littleton Education Association, their local teachers union.

Their attempts to unionize follow a legislative session in which labor organizing became a marquee issue, resulting in a law that enables county employees in counties with less than 7,500 people to collectively bargain, but not strike. The measure that passed was significantly scaled back from previous versions of the legislation that would have expanded the collective bargaining rights given to state employees in recent years to all public workers — more than 250,000 workers total.

The legislative momentum behind unionizing this year helped “elevate the experiences of workers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which is assisting Cherry Creek bus assistants and Littleton interpreters in their efforts to unionize.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, leads teachers, students, parents and supporters during a rally outside the the New America School Lakewood campus, demanding union rights for NAS charter school network teachers. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Parents are realizing that … the people that do some of the most important jobs for their students don’t have adequate working conditions, don’t have adequate pay,” Baca-Oehlert said.

The pandemic also shed light on the need for employees to feel like they are being treated in a way that reflects how hard they work, she said, pointing to a national trend of workers advocating for a union.

Baca-Oehlert, whose union has 39,000 members, said she often hears from school employees that they’re leaving education to work at a retail store or fast food restaurant where they can make more money for arguably less stress — leading to high turnover among support staff in districts.

“They deserve to have a voice and a say in their working conditions,” she said, “and they deserve to be valued and respected for the work that they do.”

DPS support staff members rallied for higher wages outside the district’s central office in downtown Denver earlier this month, pleading for more money as the cost of living in Denver has soared. 

Coloradans for the Common Good, an organization composed of congregations, unions, educational institutions, nonprofits and neighborhood organizations all focused on community issues, helped build a base of support and publicize the need to boost compensation. The organization recently helped secure a $3 per hour raise over the next two years for support staff members who work for Jeffco Public Schools. 

DPS Board Vice President Tay Anderson is among the board members who have been behind a wage increase for support staff members. DPS has about 10,000 employees and, of them, 3,054 earn below $20 per hour, Anderson said. Boosting their wages so that they make $20 per hour minimum would cost DPS about $32 million, he said.

Anderson doesn’t know where funds would come from to give those staff members raises, but he’s adamant that they need more money to help keep up with inflation. He understands firsthand the struggles of trying to cover expenses on a meager salary, having made $12.87 per hour when he was employed as a para for DPS during the 2017-18 school year, before he was elected to the board. Anderson said he had to work multiple jobs “to keep the lights on.” 

“What makes this job appealing to somebody to work with our children in Denver Public Schools when they can go and work somewhere else, probably doing a less demanding job and earning more than what they would earn in Denver Public Schools?” he asked, pointing to fast food chains and grocery stores that are outpacing the district with compensation.

Galvan, the para at Valdez Elementary School, said she has colleagues who use food stamps to survive and rely on government-subsidized housing. Without her husband, who is a fabricator, she couldn’t afford necessities like food and clothing for her 7-year-old daughter.

Carolina Galvan, a paraprofessional with Denver Public Schools, poses for a portrait on July 9, 2022, at Valdez Elementary School where she works in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Money has never sold her on the work of a para, but as the price of housing, food, gas and other essentials has risen, she has found herself pulled between her dream of staying in the classroom and the reality of trying to make ends meet for her family. She and her husband don’t bring home enough money to buy a house, and she could go back to working in a child care center, where she has worked before and where she can earn more.

But Galvan remains committed to the district and her students, whom she helps one on one and in small groups with math, science, class experiments, literacy and handwriting, while her daughter learns in the same building.

“I know she’s in a safe place, and I’m close to her,” said Galvan, whose daughter will be in second grade this fall.

Bernadette Jiron, president of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees, has been advocating for DPS paras, bus assistants, food service workers and campus safety officers to earn no less than $20 per hour. 

She has been in negotiations with DPS’s human resources team and said the district has committed to paying starting wages of $20 per hour to paras, $21 per hour to paras serving students with special needs, $23 per hour to campus safety officers and $24.50 to staffers who oversee campus security. She is waiting for the district to finalize those new wages, which would go into effect Aug. 1, and is still sorting out payment for food service workers and paras who work in early childhood education.

Paras, bus assistants and food service workers make $15.87 per hour as a starting wage while paras working with students who have special needs begin at $16.50 per hour and campus safety officers’ initial hourly pay is $19.31, Jiron said.

Many support staff members stayed the course throughout the pandemic and stretched themselves to serve students, with paras teaching from home or assisting in classrooms and food service workers still showing up to schools during COVID to make sure kids were fed, said Jiron, whose union has about 1,300 members.

She wants to secure better pay for both those who are new to the district and paras who are veteran educators, describing them as “the dependable ones that have been here through thick and thin.”

Jiron, who worked as a DPS para for 25 years before becoming president of the union, worries about how the district will keep support staff members on the job without boosting their pay. The district, which is Colorado’s largest with about 89,000 students, has about 580 food service workers, down from close to 700 a few years ago, she said, while about 1,200 paras aid teachers.

They deserve the respect given to other employees throughout the district, she said, noting that they’re taken for granted and not always able to take days off they request.

“Treat them like people,” Jiron said.

Demanding respect through a voice in negotiations

Doug Adolf is pursuing that same sense of respect for bus assistants who work in Cherry Creek School District and want a seat at the negotiating table as part of a union.

The district of more than 53,500 students depends on bus assistants to help students with special needs as they ride the school bus, said Adolf, a bus driver with the district and president of the Cherry Creek Transportation Employees Association.

That often means aiding students in wheelchairs and those who have epilepsy, and also students who have emotional challenges and might be struggling through a bad day.

“So they have to be skillful in keeping them safe and in their seat and at the same time communicating with them, calming them,” Adolf said.

Cherry Creek School District has about 115 bus assistants — at least 20 shy of what it needs, according to Adolf. Those employees earn between $15 and $20 per hour, he said, and don’t have the same leverage that unionized drivers have to secure pay increases and benefit from paid holidays and vacation accrual.

“The whole drive behind them wanting to organize is that they just want to be respected,” Adolf said. “They want to be part of the team.”

The district’s board of education has not yet certified bus assistants as a bargaining unit, according to a statement district spokesperson Abbe Smith provided in an email. The board has drafted a policy that would create a process for bargaining unit certification. The policy was listed on the agenda of the board’s June 13 meeting — at which bus assistants rallied in their push to unionize — and will be reviewed for approval at a future meeting, according to the statement. 

Smith declined an interview request with board president Kelly Bates.

Bus assistants have submitted suggestions for changes to the draft policy, which Adolf hopes the board addresses in August so that bus assistants can start electing officers and organizing bylaws before they negotiate compensation and benefits, which will likely happen in February.

“I want them to go home feeling satisfied with what they’re doing,” he said.

A group of educational sign language interpreters in Littleton Public Schools is in the midst of a similar march toward unionization, chasing more autonomy over their profession. 

Summer Lapp has spent the past five years as an educational sign language interpreter for Littleton Public Schools, a district of about 13,700 students, and has wavered between wanting to stay in her job and considering an exit plan.

Her pay stands at $30 per hour, which falls short of what she needs to support her family, and she leans on her husband and his job as a computer programmer and manager. 

Her role is “mentally taxing” as she interprets 90-minute high school classes for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Some classes run bell to bell with little time for Lapp to catch her breath, and sometimes she has to carry on without a planning period or break or time to prepare materials for students.

She’s become fed up with how little educational sign language interpreters have been included in conversations about pairing students who are deaf and hard of hearing with interpreters and how often interpreters have been shuffled between schools without their input — a stressor for interpreters and students alike.

Summer Lapp, a sign language interpreter, poses for a portrait on July 10, 2022, at her home in Aurora. Lapp has worked in Littleton Public Schools for nearly six years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Interpreters want a say in negotiations so that the district can keep interpreters long term, which will benefit students, Lapp said.

“It will help them build relationships and trust and consistency for them,” she said.

The district has six educational sign language interpreters and plans to hire another for the next school year, according to Melissa Cooper, assistant superintendent for learning services. 

This spring, educational sign language interpreters approached the school board about unionizing or being recognized as part of the local teachers union, but the board denied their request and in June gave them a seat on the board of a district employee group. The board also approved two resolutions — one that directs the superintendent and his designees to continue collaborating with the interpreters and another that directs district leadership to continue to draft policies and procedures related to employees requesting union recognition.

Lapp and her colleagues are doubling down on their attempt to join the local teachers union, which would require the board and district to adjust their status to licensed. They plan to return to the board in the fall with union representatives to ask again to change their status so they can become union members.

It’s a possibility that the district is “open to considering,” Cooper said.

And it’s a possibility that Lapp is clinging to ahead of the next school year, when she will have to work more after administrators extended interpreters’ hours — from six-and-a-half hours up to eight — for a pay rate she feels needs to be more.

It’s challenging, she said, “when it feels like we don’t have a voice and everything we fight for gets turned down without negotiation.”

Erica Meltzer is Bureau Chief of Chalkbeat Colorado, where she also covers the legislature and statewide education issues. Erica was a founding editor of the local news site Denverite. Before that, she covered everything from housing and energy...