An Open Letter to the Paterson Community
As the school year ends, students and parents naturally begin to think about what the upcoming weeks may hold and look to make the most of the summer break. For Paterson educators and school employees, however, it’s a time when their commitment to the profession and the students they serve goes to war with their feelings of exhaustion, economic insecurity, and—these days—abject fear as they contemplate whether to return in September. This summer, it’s the reality facing every public school employee who’s faced every obstacle imaginable over the last several years—with little to show for their willingness to remain. The educator shortage is real, and it’s only going to grow worse if nothing is done.
This isn’t hyperbole; in the last three years, over 1,300 employees have resigned from the Paterson School District, and the turnover has yet to abate. The District currently has 82 vacancies—29 of which impact our special education students—and it faces an anticipated 78 additional vacancies this summer, with an expected eight special education classes impacted.
Most employees who’ve either left or plan to leave have informed the Paterson Education Association (P.E.A.) that they jumped at the opportunity to escape the Paterson School District when offered a position elsewhere. This is hardly surprising, as a recent national survey of teachers and principals conducted by RAND Education and Labor,has indicated that poor well-being and adverse working conditions were associated with teachers’ and principals’ intentions to leave their jobs.
As you know, the P.E.A. has been ferociously supporting smaller student class sizes, healthier learning environments, nutritious school lunches, additional funding, and an educator in every classroom. And while many of these issues were in the spotlight these last couple of years, do not be fooled; they are not solely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, these problems have existed for decades under state control of the Paterson school district. The gubernatorial policies enacted in administrations under Chris Christie, Christine Whitman, Jon Corzine, Jim McGreevey, and others can all be identified in student classrooms where learning conditions are less than ideal, special education concerns remain unresolved, HVACs are temporarily offline and class sizes exceed 30 students.
These problems are further exacerbated by the fact that Paterson is also falling behind in the annual salaries offered to its educators, with no immediate plan to correct the disparity. In Newark City, where educators and students face many of the same dire circumstances, the Board of Education recently worked with the union to open their contract and raise the District’s starting salary to attract newer employees. To place this into context, a new hire in Paterson would need to work 11 years just to earn Newark’s new entry-level salary.
Despite increasing demands on day-to-day demands and responsibilities, educators are not paid for their expertise, expenses, or time. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that teachers earn 19 percent less than comparable professionals, while the Learning Policy Institute estimates the wage gap is widened to 30 percent by an educator’s mid-career.
It’s hardly surprising then, that our early-career employees in all job categories are leaving at a record pace. Since September, 549 employees in various roles, job categories, and career paths have resigned from the Paterson School District. These resignations place a strain on the entire school system and the long-term success of the school district. Put simply, when these employees take their years of training, job experience, and vital skills to other school districts, our students receive the short end of the stick.
Working as a school employee has never been more challenging, and there are many factors out of our control. But the Paterson School District needs to do more than just send out letters urging its staff to rest and recharge this summer in the hopes they will return in September. There is only one way to stop the employees from resigning, retiring, or choosing other municipalities over Paterson: The Paterson Board of Education must take aggressive steps to fast-track contract negotiations with the P.E.A. and severely revamp its salary packages for all employees. It’s time to close the wage gap in Paterson and put an end to the revolving door of educators. While it doesn’t address all that is needed to improve the well-being and working conditions of the District’s school employees, it does ensure that the highly qualified men and women working in our schools will likely remain.
Paterson’s students deserve nothing less.
John McEntee, Jr., President
Paterson Education Association