Every school employee knows that schools simply can’t function without education support professionals (ESPs)—the custodians, bus drivers and assistants, administrative and clerical staff, food service, nurses, instructional assistants, classroom assistants, IT, maintenance staff, and others who are greeting, supporting, and caring for students every day. Our communities and school systems trust ESPs with the health, safety, and nutrition of our students.
But a fair wage and respect have rarely accompanied that trust and responsibility. In the past 20 years, wages for these essential jobs haven’t kept up with the cost of living and more and more ESPs are working two or more jobs to take care of their families. Once a source of pride among ESP for their service to the community, support staff jobs are increasingly difficult to fill and hard to justify staying in when working conditions, workload, and morale are everyday issues.
“We were first called ‘essential’ during the pandemic because we kept education happening, we fed students and families, and made sure vital records were kept,” said ESP Organizing Committee member Cindy Poper. “But we’ve always been essential. We’ve always been the engine that drives a school building—from creating a clean and healthy school building that greets students and educators each day, to delivering students safely home, and everything in between. It’s support staff who create the special spaces and places for education to happen.”
Thanks to the hard work of MSEA’s ESP Organizing Committee and members who attended the 13 organizing and listening sessions held across the state this fall, the ESP Bill of Rights is now the rallying call to action for progress for ESP wages, benefits, and working conditions in ESP contracts for all job categories.
The committee kicked off the ESP Bill of Rights campaign at MSEA’s 2022 Convention and Representative Assembly on October 22 in front of the more than 500 member-delegates representing every local from Garrett County to the Eastern Shore. “We are tired of the fact that less than 50% of school support staff in Maryland make over $35,000 a year and that one in four make less than $25,000 a year,” co-chair Stacy Tayman told the delegates. “Being an educator should not mean living in poverty.”
Read the ESP Bill of Rights here.
At the convention, MSEA President Cheryl Bost interviewed special guest Maryland School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury who wowed delegates with his recognition of unsustainable ESP and teacher wages and its effect on recruitment and retention in all job categories. “The shortage conversation is also a wage conversation,” he said. “I know the Maryland minimum wage is going up to $15, but…$15 an hour in Maryland doesn’t get you very far when it comes to housing costs. [It] is not even close to getting you a two-bedroom apartment in Maryland. We should find ways to lead the country on this.
“If Annapolis is serious about this with our historic surplus, raise [the minimum wage] up to the level it should be.” Supt. Choudhury, like hundreds of delegates and visitors, enthusiastically signed the giant ESP Bill of Rights banner at the convention committing to fighting for support staff.
At press time, more than 500 ESP members have completed an information-gathering survey and more than 275 have attended listening sessions. Tayman said, “It is always the same. No matter where in the state we are, we hear over and over again, ‘Thank you for being here. Final someone is listening to us.’”
As the campaign builds, members are bringing the ESP Bill of Rights and formal proclamations to their school buildings, local boards of education, and county commissioners meetings and adding hundreds more signatures to it. “Support staff are at the tipping point. The ESP Bill of Rights is making this our time to shine,” said Cindy Porter of the Organizing Committee. “As our movement toward recognition and fairness grows, this document sets the stage for bargaining platforms and negotiations teams to improve our jobs and bring back the pride and joy of serving our communities.”