When Full-Time School Staff Qualify for Public Assistance, it's Time to Fight for Professional Pay

Had Marianne Murray taken an entry-level job at a fast food restaurant instead of with West Aurora School District 129 in Illinois, she might be earning a living wage by now.

“At McDonald’s, I might have gone into management,” says Murray, an office assistant to the principal at West Aurora High School. “By now, who knows where I’d be.”

Murray’s 33-year marriage ended last year, leaving her with only one paycheck to cover expenses for her and her dog, Ziti. Her two adult children live on their own. Still, after 20 years with the district she is struggling to make ends meet.

“After putting in that many years, I should be able to pay my way,” says Murray, who started as a substitute office worker in 1991 before becoming a permanent office professional in 1993. “If I could start over, I might look at opportunities in the corporate world.”

But Murray is a fighter, and she’s a leader. As president of the West Aurora Office Professionals Association (WAOPA), she recently helped convince her equally passionate members to begin a grassroots campaign for a living wage – the amount that is considered the minimum hourly wage a person needs to pay for life’s basic necessities without relying on family, government, or public assistance.

“People who work full-time jobs should not live in poverty,” says Murray, a 1973 graduate of West Aurora. “We want to be paid a professional wage for professional work.”

Marianne Murray, president of the West Aurora Office Professionals Association.

The Department of Health and Human Services compiles living wage figures using an economic formula applied to an area’s costs for food, housing, transportation, utilities, childcare, health care, and taxes. Education support professionals (ESPs) across the nation have raised wages, activated members, and challenged their district’s fiscal neglect by organizing what is known as a “living wage campaign.”

In Ithaca, New York, paraeducators won a 50 percent wage increase over three years, with no increase in health care contributions or reduction in benefits; in Montpellier, Vermont, members won a 6 percent wage increase with a 25 percent reduction in health insurance co-pays. And Scituate, Rhode Island, members won a 45 percent wage increase over four years.

In March, Murray and WAOPA Vice President Eve Willmann, secretary to the high school principal, gave a presentation to members on the nuts and bolts of staging a living wage campaign.

“We needed to learn their interest level,” says Willmann.

Members voted to organize a campaign, and quickly formed committees to address strategic planning, internal organizing, and community outreach.

“You’re worth it,” UniServ Director Bonnie Booth of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) told the members. Later, at the group’s May meeting, Booth addressed members again, along with David Rathke of the IEA Living Wage Task Force.

“If we are going to make progress,” Rathke told the 50-plus attendees, “you have to build relationships.”

To reach a living wage figure, WAOPA will survey its all-female membership of 79 members. The group has also voted to accept the district’s offer of a one-year pay freeze through May 2014.

“With the district’s current deficit and 50 teachers retiring next year, the timing is favorable to our campaign,” Willmann says. “The district will be in better financial condition then.”

Willmann says WAOPA will “take the year to build momentum to reach our goal of a collaborative resolution between WAOPA, district administrators, and education board members.”

Qualifying for Food Stamps

Shinette Williams works full time in the high school athletic director’s office. A single parent with three daughters, Williams brings home $874 every two weeks. It takes almost one of those checks to cover the monthly $711 rent payment for her two-bedroom apartment.

WAOPA members learn about how to conduct a living wage campaign.

“If you work full-time for a school district, you should be able to meet your basic needs,” says Williams, a 12-month ESP earning $23,100, which qualifies her for food stamps.

“It’s a heavy responsibility to care for students,” she says. “The district needs to hire the best people they can find and pay them adequately.”

Williams has an associate degree in computer programming and a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. She once tutored adults in computer learning, but decreased her hours after she began working a second job to cover car payments.

Forced to Leave the Community Where She Works

Maritza Ramirez can’t afford to live in the district where she works. After her mortgage broker husband’s work hours were reduced, the couple sold their home and moved with their three children to a location further outside of town where rent is lower.

“We just want to provide for our family,” says Ramirez, who earns $15.35 an hour in the dean’s office at Herget Middle School. That’s $21,700 a year.

“After taxes, well, it’s difficult,” says Ramirez. “If I were earning a living wage, my husband’s situation wouldn’t have impacted my family as much as it has.”

Two of the Ramirez children qualify for reduced lunches at their public schools. The oldest works to help cover college costs.

“Paying us a living wage is an opportunity for the district to treat us fairly,” says Ramirez, who has an associate degree in business. “We’re worth it.”

Photos: Al Benson

Want to calculate the living wage in your area?
See the Economic Policy Institute or Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more on living wage campaigns, visit NEA.org.

  • victoria f brennan

    As a teacher of 10 + years and a highly qualified teach at that. I find this appalling. I did not invest in an education, work 55 + hours a week, take personal time to mentor students and their families, mentor fellow teachers, work summers, etc…. only to be under valued, disrespected by the common public, parents, administrators, news media, paid like a low-life, and live below poverty.
    It is a shame that no one in this county has any respect for the educators. When ONE makes a mistake we all have to pay for that ONE mistakes;some how we ARE ALL BAD.

    This is sick that teachers have to work two jobs to make end-meet and some Joe off the street that does nothing all day sit behind a desk and answers phone tell some one what to invest in males millions, or misguides someone into buying a house they can’t clearly afford and makes a commission and then 3 years later has to foreclose on it gets paid more that the teacher; who workers her tail off hour after hour, week after week!
    How sick!

  • Courtney

    While I appreciate your perspective Victoria, you as a teacher are paid much better than the office staff, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers etc. who don’t make a living wage in most school systems.

  • I live in an area that has experienced conditions worse than the dreaded 100 year drought & within the past two weeks 2 hours North two F5 tornados, the largest ever recorded by man landed a week & 20 miles away from one another. I’ve seen middle aged honest hard working men loosing family ranches & farms. Understandable overtaken with emotion & grief breaking down as their whole lives are being auctioned off in front of their very eyes. So sad. My property tax have moved way closer to $3,000 three grand a year than two grand (can’t really gripe, we getting a new high school, going up quick, I see the progress daily on my way to work) & when the motor blew on my Toyota (it was time 386,000thousand miles) I found out car dealerships out of all the going on & purchasing in America are allowed to configure credit in a differ manner than a bank or Sears card. They make it harder to qualify. THE ONE THING a lot of us need, wheels to keep ya going to work or looking for work to keep everything else rocking & rolling. Are we surprised? NO, not really. Did I qualify? Ha-Ha-Ha…..no, no, no……The HS looks like it will be pretty. Of course mine graduates day after tomorrow, so I don’t expect to ever be walking through the doors. But that is okay. It is the first one the town has built in like 60 years. The one my son is leaving is the same one my Daddy walked the halls of & graduated from.

  • I’m sorry ladies. I didn’t realize support staff was being paid like that in schools.

    Ms. Murray you are an inspiration. Good for you for staying focused & getting organized. You make me want to shape up & be a better person. What an excellent person you must be. An excellent example by leading forward in bad times. That district & the people around you are very blessed. Best of luck to you.

  • Ms. Williams I can feel your pain. I make at least Bi-weekly $200 less/sometimes even more than $200 less. My house note is $564. June 2012, I had an lawn mower injury accident. $ 7 grand ER bill & out of work 2 1/2 weeks. I have never been able to catch up, get further, further behind. I’m out. If it sells it is off my back. If not, it can be the banks problem. My credit is starting to stink anyway. My girlfriends that were subbing if called that day all became teachers recently was being paid $30 a day. I was a little shocked when she told me that. I have certificates from local Jr. College in CNA, CMA, phlebotomy,& Pharmacy Tech. I passed National boards that are given quarterly. I am Serving right now. None of those Allied Health positions pay over $ 8.50 an hour within a 50 sq. mile area of my house or where I am moving to. My son got the I’m grown I’m 18 I’m moving out disorder that I hear some of them get & honestly I don’t know how I would have fed him, had he stayed. Being a server, I made more bring home back in 1986 than I do now. People are hurting. Jobs that pay by the hour are low pay in this area. Tough on the kids, tough on everyone.

    Stay strong. You have degrees & you are blessed. I can tell by what you said about being responsible for & to the kids.

  • Mrs. Ramirez I am sorry you had to move & loose your home. You are blessed that your home sold. This is my 2nd home to own. Selling my 1st one really improved my credit score & I was hopeful I could get it back in mid # range. My accident changed all of that. Two houses on my block have moved & sold within the past three months, so I am prayerful & hopeful. I looked into LPN in the state where I am moving, that has always been the goal every time I went back to take another course to make money & stay in the same field. At one time I wanted to be a school nurse. LVN could apply & I thought that would be perfect being a single only parent mom to my boy. The 18 month or 12 month LPN starting pay in our area, the highest I found was $12.42 an hour. as of a few months ago. I’m sorry, I can’t study like that for that kind of pay, full time classes all day 5 days a week. I have an opportunity to do a week refresher in CNA & give the State a year at $10 an hr. working for them & they will consider my training paid for. I’ll still serve a few nights a week as well & that is the best short term option for now while I get my finances back in order. Then maybe one day I can be the best school nurse I can be.

    Hold your kids tight, they grow so fast. I have empty nest syndrome going on right now. When they grow up & move out you barely have any laundry to do !! Whew-Whew !!….LOL.

  • Here is the bad news ladies. Here is where a lot of the money is going that more than some should be put back into our schools & our kids when they are in school, not in some swindlers pocket. Notice the amounts of the fines alone !!! Notice the amount spent on lobbying alone !! The profit & the CEO’s salary. I’m lucky I found this & what an excellent reporter to gather the information for us. BECAUSE unlike we & most other individuals & businesses in the Americas. From the beginning in 1980 when they started this callous attack on our youth & citizens, an agreement was attached & signed & they are exempt BY LAW from having to or being ordered to answer to the freedom of information act. From the very beginning. What is up WITH THAT? To me that speaks VOLUMES, among other abuses. Vey upsetting to me this subject. I feel as though it MUST be STOPPED !!


  • Richard Miller

    I was a teacher in West Bloomfield Michigan and can tell you first hand that education is getting shorted. State budget cuts to education forced my district into a deficit.
    My pay was cut 35% and the cut was made retroactive for a full school year. My district issued me a paycheck of $10.48…yes that is correct ten dollars. Even after that paycheck I still owed the district significantly as the retroactive was for a full school year. They took the balance out of my paychecks the next year and only charged 6% interest. I lost my home. But, that was not the worst blow…the district added 5 years for me to get to top step even though I was only one year away. I took a position overseas teaching at a private school in Jakarta Indonesia. I love it…better pay….free housing…no taxes…and the best part? Respect as a professional.

  • Cynthia

    For 13 years, I was a senior school secretary with the school district and a single parent of two boys. At age 43, worked full time, raised my children, went back to school and finished my last 2 years to receive my bachelor’s degree. Then went on to get my master’s. After 17 yrs. of teaching my salary has gone down $10, 000 dollars and I have 3 jobs. Yes.. until our society and gov. put education as a top priority and start value people who work in schools,.we are going to suffer financially. But most of all our children and our nation is going to suffer! The thing is…..I love teaching my students with special needs!

  • Education pay in general is backwards. The administrators who have the least contact with students make the most. Support staff who actually run the school have to fight for every thing they get. If the principal doesn’t come in for a day, no one notices; if the office secretary doesn’t come in, things don’t happen. Good luck in your fight.

  • Pingback: Park Ridge schools don’t pay a living wage. | Fred Klonsky()

  • Kayla

    This is on the college level as well. It’s disgraceful.

  • Linda sharpe

    As a substitute (day and long term) the pay is $100.00 to $130.00 per day . For long term subs, that includes planning, preparing the room and often report cards. That makes many hours before & after school and week ends. It works out to less than $10.00 per hour. For long term subs, at least a Bachelors degree in th field your teaching is required. My daughter’s friend got an entry level job in business with a brand new Bachelors at 90K. Another new grad got a job In technology for 70K. Teachers get 30K when they start. There are fewer student teachers coming through. As has been demonstrated in previous comments, people are realizing that professions in the field of education does not pay a living wage

  • mary

    Marianne Murray makes over 40,000 a year, how is that not a living wage? Be for real. There are some support staff that make a low wage but she is not one of them. Don’t feel sorry for her.

  • Sally

    In Hawaii full certification is not required, but political push Is needed to get a job. $40,000 is barely enough to live as rents, food, etc. is so high.

    Whereas, Places that have the highest scores for their students are taught by teachers making pay that is equivalent to doctors and lawyers, as the professionals they are. Finland once one of the lowest levels is now the highest for high school graduate scores. They give their students an hour for lunch and recess breaks for students at all levels, acknowledging thier need for relaxation and a healthful lifestyles.
    Even in the U.S. schools that can afford to pay teachers well in wealthy neighborhoods have better results. It is shown in many statistics, that is why teachers in Hawaii along with politicians send their children to Punahou School, its reputation is one of the top in the nation and it cost a lot of money to send a child there. Nowadays our government gives money to private schools religious or otherwise. Once not allowed by our Constitution. I have not looked up the whole thing.

  • Sally

    They want to withdraw money for our schools and make private schools like they have made private prisons, then reduce what they pay out, especially to teachers throughout the system as their are more teachers and less in the quantity of those in the administration and Board of Education even when they have no understanding of education and students needs.

  • Katrina

    I’m a para-educator, support staff or ESP, however you would like to refer to it. I have 3 children that I pretty much raise and support on my own. I am barely making ends meet. After taxes and everything else are taken out of my check I only make about 500 per check. If I stayed waitressing I would be making a lot more then what I am now. My heart is there to help children in the low income, Early Childhood campus I am at now. My wallet says otherwise. I’m tired of having to rely on public assistance to help get food on the table, it makes me feel as if I am a failure. Most para-educators where I am at make $20,000 or less a year. Something seriously needs to be done, we do the same job as teachers, just without the degree they hold. Some paras have degrees and certifications but still get paid very little.

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  • mh

    Freelance teaching may be the way to go. Setting up a contract to teach out-of-hours homeschool students and/or interested students might free teachers from the grinding tedium of the school day.

    If any teachers have tried subbing out to the homeschool/ tutoring crowd, I would be interested to hear your story.

  • Jessie Lindsay

    Rescind the Reduced Rate of Franklin Substitutes

    To anyone out here please help my petition grow!

    Thank you for signing my Rescind the Reduced Substitute Teacher rate of Franklin Twp , NJ petition. With your help, we’ve reached 36 signers. But if we are going to have an impact, it’s critical that we get 1000 signatures before we deliver the petition to Eveny Pagan, Superintendent, Dr. Julia Presley, BOE President, John Calavano, Assistant Superintendent for Business., The New Jersey State House, The New Jersey State Senate, and Governor Chris Christie.
    If you are substitute,

    If you are a substitute, could you please ask fellow peers to sign as soon as possible or share by making a few phone calls and letting them know about our renewed effort?
    Please share on Facebook

    Or share with any email list or blog you may belong to by pasting in the petition.
    With your help, we can reach out goal! Can you please share this link with five of your friends right now: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/rescind-the-reduced-substitu?mailing_id=19586&source=s.icn.em.cr&r_by=6715850.

    Thank you for taking a stand on this important issue. This restoration of our rate does not involve raising taxes. We have always had this rate ..they only gave our money to some other group. On the http://www.franklinboe.org website the final budget indicates rate reduction saves 50k. We save more than that when we work as long term leave teachers. When you reduce the rate the long term subs leave and we lose knowledge base and lose student education.

    – Jessie Lindsay

    Subscription Management:
    This message was sent through MoveOn’s public petition website. To remove yourself (Jessie Lindsay) from this list, please visit our subscription management page at:

    This message was sent to Jessie Lindsay by Jessie Lindsay through MoveOn’s public petition website. MoveOn Civic Action does not endorse the contents of this message. To unsubscribe or report this email as inappropriate, click here: http://petitions.moveon.org/unsub.html?i=19586-6715850-3Z7jRR

    Want to make a donation? MoveOn is entirely funded by our 8 million members—no corporate contributions, no big checks from CEOs. And our tiny staff ensures that small contributions go a long way. Chip in here.

  • timims

    Perhaps we need to change who qualifies for food stamps. At $23,100 she should be able to feed herself. The one with 3 kids taking home $874 a pay. Where is the Daddy. Why isn’t he paying child support. Is that include in this calculation. I am sick of these guys not taking care of the kids they put on this earth. Now we are asking to foot the bill. You work in the athletics office most likely as a clerical person. you don’t need a big skill set for that. That is not a $30,000 a year job. you are now going to take money away for the kids education. Tax me more so I can afford anything. but don’t worry the government employees will suck it from all office. so they can have the great health care and pensions that none of the private sector get. We will all be slaves to the government employees and still get a crappy education for the kids.

  • timims

    Mechelle. I look at the political contributions. They are pretty light compared to what your unions contributed to campaigns last election. Not sure what correction facilities have to do with this article. Are you suggestion that we release all prisoners and don’t put people in jail any longer?

  • I taught for 35 years, was a parent of 3 students, and was married to a teacher. The very simple adjustments for most of America’s education problems are:
    (1) Teachers should teach less hours and students;
    (2) Teachers should have more preparation time;
    (3) Teachers should be paid more; and,
    (4) (the big one) we need to end Racism in this country.
    If we use the excuse of NO MONEY, then we really don’t want to fix the problem.

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  • Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Finding
    the time and actual effort to produce a great article… but what can I
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  • Donna

    $40,000 might seem like a lot of money, but if you live outside of NYC it is not. If we lived in the Midwest we’d be able to make ends meet, but not here. I’d give anything to have property taxes at $3000. Mine are $12,000! My mortgage payment is $1500. $40,000 is not a living wage for me and I make less than that as a full-time school secretary with 10 years on the job.

  • Michelle

    I work in a district where I have worked as a substitute for less that 40 dollars a day and drove a bus for less than 50 dollars a day. Pay has increased some but I still make less that 20,000 per year. Plus there are two months where I do not recieve pay at all. It believe this is rampant and things need to change.

  • anti union

    Imagine how much more money teachers would have if teachers unions didn’t spend tens of millions of dollars on political campaigns.

  • Pingback: When full-time school staff qualify for public assistance, it’s time to fight for professional pay « Education Votes()


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  • Thoroughly Disenchanted

    WOW! I guess I have to add to the discussion. I taught Special Education of students with cognitive impairments for 3 years before being asked to become Lead Teacher in my building (with no increase in pay but more responsibilities). Then after 4 years as Lead Teacher, I was offered a position out of the classroom as a Special Education Teacher Consultant working with teachers and students across 10 schools (with no increase in pay but definitively more responsibilities). It’s been 2 years as a T.C. and I’ve just completed my Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership-Administration….of which I had to take a 5 years hiatus before returning due to lack of money to pay for prior college expenses. 9 years of career movement and no advancement in pay – – just lateral moves. Principals, evaluations, supervisors and even parents rave over my skill set, yet NO RAISE! I’m being recognized for a “JOB WELL DONE” yet, NO RAISE! I’m below $45,000, been on a step increase and pay increase FREEZE for almost 4 years now! If things were as they were 7 or 8 years ago, I’d be making $70,000 in my district RIGHT now. It’s absurd. And they wonder why the “best educators” leave. Well, I do know that I’m DUE an increase for Master’s pay within 90 days, but still I’m soon seeking other opportunities – not because I don’t simply LOVE what I do and the students, parents, administrators, coworkers and even supervisors I work for and with everyday, BUT I refuse to be devalued any longer. I WISH I could stay where I am and continue to thrive BUT I can’t! They’re losing another great educator and it’s sad! BUT, yet, they DEMAND a teacher’s GREATEST or you’ll be punished by that ridiculous evaluation system that gives NOTHING to teachers like ME!

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  • Octavia Harris

    I have to over 25+ years work 2.5 jobs to be able to just buy bread or necessity items. I have 2kids and one grown. WE need to step up the game on COLA ( cost of living as well and better wages )..Everything is going up but OUR PAY..

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