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LETTER: Foothills school support staff have been underpaid for years

Many educational assistants have left to change career paths due to burnout, not to move to neighbouring school districts.

Dear Editor, 

Re: Provincial mandate poses EA challenges for Foothills School Division, March 10 

We feel compelled to respond to statements made by the Foothills School Division relating to the shortage of educational assistants. The article is both misleading and inaccurate. 

Board chair Theresa Letendre states, “Other school jurisdictions across Alberta aren't hampered by the same constraints and can secure staff a lot easier and incentivize them to come, where we don't have the opportunity to do that.” Her implication is that it would be easier to raise wages if support staff of FSD were not unionized. 

Whilst this is true for some school divisions, there are, in fact, a further 41 school divisions across Alberta whose support staff are unionized. Local 5040 staff do not get top-of-the-range wages. The last wage increase for FSD staff was five years ago. 

During this time period, support staff training days have almost all been cut. The additional non-student contact days, such as the extended spring break, are a further pay cut to FSD support staff. CUPE support staff are not salaried. 

In some non-union school divisions, support staff, specifically educational assistants, do earn more money per hour, but it is also important to accurately report and inform the community that in many of these cases the high needs of the students is not equal to those challenging needs of FSD schools. 

Local 5040 members have health benefits, sick pay, paid breaks and at least some job security, which have all been implemented by the union. 

Foothills School Division is using the PBCO's mandate as the reason for the inability to attract and compensate the staff adequately. The truth is that all FSD school support staff — secretaries, educational assistants, office admins, learning commons staff, CTS instructors, data facilitators, youth development coaches, accounting administrators and technology facilitators — have been underpaid for years, but the roles and responsibilities of all the above support staff has increased massively since the last negotiations occurred. 

Letendre seems to address only the educational assistants, blaming the union for their departure, but in truth it is due to the incredibly demanding roles they are expected to perform. The wage does not reflect the role. 

Most people would be shocked to know what the job role entails. Many EAs have left to change career paths due to burnout, not to move to neighbouring school districts. Why do the rest remain? It's certainly not for the pay or, as many believe, for the paid summer break. 

Educational assistants work for 10 months of the year, the pay is spread over the year to help with the cost of living during the summer. They remain because they care for the students they see everyday. They are superheroes of the modern-day school system.  

We are asking for a living wage so that the many staff who have two, three and sometimes four jobs can pay the bills and feed their families. Sadly, we are not surprised to see our employer not supporting us. Their public statements do nothing to support our cause, but they do fuel our fire. 

Lesley Cole 

President, CUPE 5040 

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