By Kathryn Coulibaly

Eight years ago, Nancy Cogland, a special education paraprofessional in Old Bridge Township, lost family medical benefits, as did all of her paraprofessional colleagues. The previous governor had cut funding and the district was four years into a five-year capital project. They had to find the money somewhere, and they took it from the paraprofessionals.

“This is what happens with every election when a new governor comes in and decides your district has too much money,” Cogland said. “Education is always the first place they cut and it makes no sense. Why would you want to take money away from students? They are your future.”

In theory, the paraprofessionals were given a choice. With one day’s notice, they were informed that the board would be voting to privatize all the paraprofessionals unless they conceded their family benefits.

With no time at all to organize, the paraprofessionals voted to lose their family medical benefits and keep their jobs.

At the time, the board promised it would just be for one year—until they could close the budget shortfall imposed upon them by the state. This eroded morale among the paraprofessionals. They felt undervalued and sold out by their district, their community and the board.

Living without those benefits caused major economic issues. After paying for her family’s health benefits, Cogland made $300 a month. Another paraprofessional’s family medical benefits outstripped her income from the district and she had to pay the district to continue to work there.

Working as a paraprofessional with a special needs population is challenging. The physical aspects of the job are daunting.

“Our staff is devoted to the children we serve, we truly believe in their potential, “Cogland said. “We accept the low salary and withstand the job hazards in order to provide benefits for our families. While the paycheck of the heart is terrific, benefits are a necessity and it’s the benefits that keep employees in the district.”

While the paycheck of the heart is terrific, benefits are a necessity and it’s the benefits that keep employees in the district.

Union activism grows among Old Bridge paraprofessionals

Mercifully, the negotiations team was able to restore family benefits to the paraprofessionals in the next round of bargaining, but the experience had changed people. It motivated Cogland to step up and play a greater role in her union. Cogland began her journey by attending the 2011 NJEA Jack L. Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference. Her unit director encouraged her to attend by telling her, “You take a few workshops, and they feed you really well.”

Cogland, who had no real knowledge of the union at that time, attended the workshops geared toward educational support professionals (ESP). She found herself in a group of 25 ESPs led by NJEA ESP Field Representative Bob Antonelli.

“It opened my eyes to value of the union,” Cogland said. “I learned so much by the end of the workshop, my head was spinning.”

In particular, the Making Connections workshop convinced Cogland that the paraprofessionals needed to reach out to the community.

Cogland approached Antonelli and asked him to come to her district to work with her and the Old Bridge Education Association (OBEA) leadership to develop a strategy to educate the community about the value of paraprofessionals.

Old Bridge paraprofessionals at Family Fun Day at Lombardi Field in Old Bridge. Seated: Lisa Rifkin. Standing (l-r): Tania Fugaro, Laura Gula, Ascencion Reyes and Nancy Cogland.

Building relationships

All of the Old Bridge paraprofessionals work with special education students. Cogland, like many of her colleagues, had developed strong relationships with the parents of their students.

“We attend the Special Education PTA meetings and since 85% of the paraprofessionals live in the community, we constantly see the children with their families,” Cogland said.

The parents of special education students often need help navigating a confusing system to ensure that their children have the resources and support they need to succeed. Paraprofessionals are an excellent bridge between home and school for all parents.

“There is not a parent who will fight harder than the parent of a special education student,” Cogland said. “They feel that their child’s education is the first one affected by any kind of budget cut. They will fight for you once they understand the importance of your role in their child’s life.”

Cogland approached the president of the special education parents’ group and asked if they needed anything for their annual field day—a day open just to special education students and their families that allows the children to play and participate in appropriate activities while the parents network, learn about individualized education programs (IEPs), share their experiences with other parents who understand their unique issues and enjoy a day in the sunshine with their families.

Cogland offered to write an NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant to pay for inflatables for the field day, and the president of the parents’ group was overwhelmed.

“She felt like the heavens had been given to her, and we were so happy to help,” Cogland remembers.

The field day has grown over time, thanks, in part, to the NJEA PRIDE grant and the enthusiastic support of OBEA members, particularly the paraprofessionals. (See write up on last year’s event below.)

Local associations lucky enough not to be facing privatization right now need to be making connections in their community

Ready when a privatization threat looms

While it was worth it to the paraprofessionals to make these connections simply to improve communications with parents, it also meant that when board members began exploring privatization earlier this year, they were ready to confront head-on the false promises subcontractors made.

“We made two phone calls when we heard that privatization was on the board’s agenda and more than 300 people showed up and spoke out against privatization for more than 90 minutes,” Cogland said. “People shared their stories, and that really educated the board about what we do and why you will never get the same level of service from a privatized workforce.

Parents shared stories about the profound disabilities their children face, and how the close relationship they have with the paraprofessionals gives them the peace of mind they need. One parent spoke about her son, who is nonverbal and has a feeding tube. She was able to drop him off for the first day of preschool without looking back because of the trust she has in the paraprofessionals and teaching staff.

“To give that peace of mind to a parent who faces so many challenges, you simply can’t replace that with a privatized staff,” Cogland said.

In between board meetings, the paraprofessionals reached out to businesses in their community. They created a flier about the value of the work paraprofessionals do and visited business owners to talk about the impact privatization would have.

They also launched a video series. They filmed every paraprofessional who wanted to participate and had them talk about why and how they became a paraprofessional; what their role is in the classroom; and what they are most proud of in their work.

These videos showcased the paraprofessionals in a positive light, educated the community about the work they do, reminded them that they know these essential employees—they are neighbors, family, and friends, and kept the momentum going between board meetings.

OBEA released a new video every three days using Facebook and Twitter. Each video was seen over 5,000 times.

They also shared the videos on the Old Bridge parents Facebook page, which has 15,000 members, the special education PTAs pages, and the Diverse Learners page.

“If you were a board member, wherever you looked, we were there,” Cogland said. “Whether it was a store you frequented in the neighborhood, or a social media page or even their own pages. They could not avoid us.”

At the next board meeting, one of the florists in town donated a flower to every paraprofessional so each employee marked for termination was identified. At another meeting, the parents made pretzels for each paraprofessional.  The support from the parents and the community was overwhelming.

“I don’t believe the board really wanted to privatize our paraprofessionals,” Cogland said. “They were faced with steep budget cuts from the state and privatization is the trend. Exploring the option is their prerogative, at some point they would need to defend to the community every cut and every keep.  I’m not sure they expected the backlash from parents or for the businesses to rally behind us. They were flooded with emails and videos that demonstrated the value of our paraprofessionals as part of the student’s educational team. Everywhere they turned, they were faced with the question of why they would want to privatize the paraprofessionals.

The board ultimately decided at a private meeting not to privatize the paraprofessionals. The board understood, Cogland believes, that the parents and community supported the paraprofessionals and privatizing them would not be in the best interest of our students.

“When this happened before, we were caught off-guard,” Cogland said. “We weren’t going to let that happen again. By taking the time and building these relationships over years, we demonstrated the positive impact that we have in the community and in our schools, and that has also really boosted morale among the paraprofessional staff.

Family Fun Day in Old Bridge was the result of a collaboration between the Old Bridge Education Association and the Special Education Parent Teachers Association.

A known face in the community

“Now, when we go into the pizza place, they know and recognize us as paraprofessionals in the schools. If I go into the bagel shop to get a treat for my students for getting their work done, the cashier asks me if it’s for my students or my own children. They’ve seen how much we contribute to this community, and it’s respected and appreciated.

“I am truly grateful that we came out on the right side of this,” Cogland said. “I hope it’s not something we will have to face again, but if it does happen, I know that we can rely on the bond we have with the community and the parents.”

Cogland credits her NJEA training with helping her to fight privatization
and become a stronger leader.

“Everything I could possibly need or want, I have had it supplied by NJEA,” Cogland said. “I used everything I learned over the years from NJEA to fight privatization. I relied on Bob Antonelli for his expertise and guidance on how to approach the board, the questions to ask and more.”

“This entire experience has made me a stronger leader. When I first started, I would have collapsed in fear before I could address 300 people at a board meeting. But at that meeting, I knew that I could do it.”

Cogland has advice for other ESPs and union leaders who are not facing an immediate privatization threat.

“The time to prepare is now,” Cogland said. “Local associations lucky enough not to be facing privatization right now need to be making connections in their community. When privatization is threatened, you don’t get much notice and you have to have already established these relationships. And, ultimately, these relationships make our associations and our schools stronger. So it’s win-win.”

Old Bridge paraprofessionals and special education parents: one family

The Old Bridge Education Association (OBEA) and the Special Education Parent Teachers Association (SEPTA) of Old Bridge joined together on June 9 for a Family Fun Day at Lombardi Field in Old Bridge. The day provided an afternoon of activities and entertainment for the students and families of Old Bridge’s special education community. OBEA paraprofessionals and teachers were on-site to welcome the students and to help them through many of the attractions.

Pride Chair and OBEA Unit Director for Paraprofessionals Nancy Cogland discussed the importance of this annual event for the Old Bridge special needs students and their families.

“This is an event where we can all come together to provide our children an opportunity to engage, to socialize, and to play,” Cogland said.

SEPTA is a nonprofit organization committed to bringing parents and guardians current and vital information on issues that face children with special needs and their families. SEPTA President Allison Vass noted that many parents work tirelessly for their children while balancing their work and family responsibilities.

“When parents can come to events like this, they can talk and network with one another,” Vass said. “We all share in the fun seeing our children riding the train, enjoying the inflatables, and playing games.”

SEPTA member Stefanie Babits acknowledged the impact of the paraprofessionals, in particular, on students’ educational programs.

“Our paras really are valued members of the children’s IEP teams,” Babits said. “We are in constant contact with one another, whether it’s about successes or struggles.”

Vass commented on the bond between the parents and the educators.

“We couldn’t survive without them,” she said. “Our paras and teachers are our lifeline. We have such an amazing relationship,” Vass stated. “It’s great to have an event where the parents, paras, teachers, administrators, board members, and even town council members, can come together for our children.”

Last year, OBEA applied for an NJEA PRIDE grant for the inflatables, the games and the train.

“The grant pays back ten-fold,” Cogland stated. “Beyond helping to provide a wonderful day for our children, it helps us establish a strong partnership with our parents and the community that will allow all of us to advocate for the best interest of our special education program.”

Babits discussed how the event provides a safe environment for the children to be themselves.

“These children are some of the hardest working kids,” Babits said. “Here, they get to take a break from their therapies, come outside, and have the freedom to play. They are developing confidence in their social skills. Each child is a winner here.”

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

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