Wage adjustment means less pay for some Wichita school district workers

Para-educator Jeanette De La Torre helps Tom Lai with an art project during an after-school program at Mead Middle School in 2014.
Para-educator Jeanette De La Torre helps Tom Lai with an art project during an after-school program at Mead Middle School in 2014. The Wichita Eagle

About 1,800 Wichita school district employees received letters last week alerting them to wage adjustments that will mean less pay for many classified workers.

As part of a cost-cutting measure, the district equalized pay rates for so-called “temporary” duties, such as lunchroom aides or latchkey program workers.

Currently, employees such as para-educators who take on additional jobs make their regular hourly wage for those duties. Starting this fall, everyone will make the same hourly wage for those jobs, regardless of pay scale or experience level.

The change will standardize pay for classified workers taking on additional duties, similar to the supplemental pay Wichita teachers earn for additional duties as part of their contract.

The new hourly rate for a lunchroom support worker, for example, will be $11. Para-educators or others who earn higher wages as part of their regular jobs would receive less next year for lunchroom duty.

The district grouped temporary jobs into four tiers, with pay rates ranging from $9.50 to about $14 an hour depending on the job.

“The rest of their pay remains the same,” said Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for the Wichita district. “So they’re not getting any kind of pay cut on their regular job, so to speak.”

Advocates for classified workers, however, said employees felt blindsided by the letters, which went out prior to the school board’s vote on the cost-cutting measure.

Many district employees will see their incomes reduced dramatically next year, union officials said.

“They’re cutting the people who need those moneys the most,” said Esau Freeman, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 513. “That’s the problem with all these things that have been happening with the district.”

The union’s bargaining unit includes more than 2,000 classified school district employees, including para-educators, custodians, clerical staff and food service employees. Those workers, like teachers, also are bracing for higher health care costs next year as the district looks to replenish its self-funded health care reserve fund.

“Essentially the district is saying, ‘You guys, you’re doing a great job. But we’re going to give you a $3,000 pay cut, and we want you to go out and try just a little harder for us,’” Esau Freeman said.

“That is wrong. But that is exactly what is happening this year to these employees.”

District officials said the wage adjustment will save about $150,000. The letters sent out to employees, which were dated May 13, said the changes were “in response to the projected budget shortfall.”

“Please know these decisions, along with their impact on those involved, have been carefully considered and are not easy to make,” the letters said.

The letters also noted that classified workers will be allowed only two total jobs – their regular position plus one additional duty – starting in August.

Asked why the letters were dated and mailed prior to the school board’s vote on the measure, Jim Freeman, the district financial director, said, “I don’t know.”

Esau Freeman said the union received numerous calls from workers last week, prompting district officials to send an e-mail clarifying that the wage adjustment would not affect employees’ regular pay.

“They did the best job of damage control they could, and they really are under the gun,” Esau Freeman said.

“I just feel like the school board is still making the easiest decision, in the sense that they’re doing it on the backs of these same employees,” he said. “They didn’t cut anything that would get the public up in arms.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias