Education Support Professionals (ESPs) in Orlando, Florida, are being crushed financially, caught between state mandated salary cuts and increased health insurance costs. Yet despite their economic plight, student safety is still a major concern.
Those are the messages NEA President Dennis Van Roekel heard from some 60+ Orange County bus drivers who turned out to participate in NEA’s Standing Strong for Students Back-to-School Tour, which wrapped up on Thursday in Florida.
The discussion began with drivers sharing the horror stories of driving over-crowded buses and the lack of support many feel they receive in dealing with unruly students.
“We have buses built for 60 students,” said one Association member, “but the state says we should put elementary students three to a seat. That means a 60-passenger bus with almost 80 students. And sixth-graders aren’t the same size as first-graders. Someone’s going to get hurt.”
NEA Secretary Treasurer Becky Pringle was also visiting ESPs, in Clark County, Nevada. Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has NEA’s largest ESP local, the Education Support Employees Association (ESEA) with more than 6,000 members.
Bus driver Russell DiPasquale told Pringle support professionals often don’t get the respect they deserve. “We are a major part of the team,” he said. “We make sure students get to school and get home safe.”
Job cutbacks have led to overcrowded buses running late, and there has been talk of privatizing some ESP jobs. “We have some hard-working people out there with families to support,” said ESEA President John Carr. Carr has been fighting hard to stop privatization.
ESPs in Florida are also faced with dire economic circumstances.
Almost two decades ago, Florida was unable to fund a salary increase for public school employees. Rather than provide additional salary, the state legislature decided to reduce the amount employee’s paid into their retirement system. While the plan didn’t increase salaries, the net effect was to increase the take-home pay school employees realized from their salaries at the time.
But successive legislatures never actually paid the contribution amount into the retirement system that was no longer coming from employees, and the bill for lawmakers short-changing the system has now come due.
Newly elected Florida Governor Rick Scott convinced lawmakers to pay that bill on the backs of school employees by reinstituting the employee contribution cut those many years ago. The effect is a 3% cut in salaries for every school employee who participates in the state’s retirement program.
For ESP members, many supporting families on $10 per hour, the result has already been devastating. And for too many, the situation went from devastating to catastrophic with just instituted massive increases in premiums for health insurance.
“These employees are getting a raw deal,” says Van Roekel, “and we’re going to fight side-by-side with them to restore the social justice current political leaders have taken from them.”