Dozens of Boulder Valley School District paraeducators, bus drivers and other support professionals protested outside the district’s administrative building and lobbied during that evening’s school board meeting on Tuesday, May 10, to demand better pay. Credit: Henry Larson

On a typical day during the school year, you’ll find Kimberly Fratzke in a classroom at Fairview High School. She is a paraeducator: an employee of Boulder Valley School District who supports teachers and gives individual attention to students who require additional help in school, like those with developmental or learning disabilities.

Fratzke says she is underpaid for her vital work. She has been a paraeducator for four years, but she is considering resigning at the end of this year.

“It feels as though we’re not valued because our salaries are so low,” she said. “We get called heroes but [the district doesn’t] support that with the pay.”

Fratzke said she makes about $20 an hour working 32 hours a week during the school year, close to $20,000 annually. According to Fratzke, those hours are somewhat atypical as most paraeducators work closer to 20 hours a week.

According to BVSD’s existing salary schedule for 2021-22, beginning instructional paraeducators can expect to make $15 an hour, while a level-three special skills aide (educational interpreters and special education paraeducator trainers) begin at an hourly rate near $25. Those rates increase with on-the-job experience.

“The reason I’m able to do this job is because my husband makes over four times what I do, but if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be able to afford to do this work,” she said.

Fratzke isn’t alone in her frustration. Dozens of Boulder Valley School District paraeducators, bus drivers and other support professionals protested outside the district’s administrative building and lobbied during that evening’s school board meeting on Tuesday, May 10, to demand more compensation. 

Salaries of school district employees have not kept pace with the steep cost of living in Boulder County. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, $21 is the full-time hourly rate needed for an individual with no children in Boulder County to support themselves. And their call for higher wages comes as housing costs and inflation continue to rise. 

The Boulder Valley Paraeducators Association (BVPA) represents the district’s paraeducators, and the Boulder Valley Classified Employees Association (BVCEA) represents the district’s classified employees, like bus drivers and maintenance workers, whose jobs do not require professional education certificates. 

Both groups have been in talks for weeks with BVSD to negotiate higher wages for members.

On Tuesday, BVSD’s paraeducators reached a tentative agreement with the district. The agreement — which will be voted on Thursday, May 19 — includes a 1.5% general pay increase for all paraeducators, alongside a 3.5% raise to account for increases in the cost of living in Boulder, and stipends for additional training. It is expected to be presented to the BVPA for their approval next week. 

Fratzke said this deal would only increase her pay to $21.88 an hour, less than a $2 raise.

“I feel stuck at this point. If we don’t accept it, then that means all my co-workers don’t get a raise this year and we have to continue negotiations until next year,” she said. “I feel as if they still don’t care.”

While Fratzke said she doesn’t want to resign and leave her colleagues, she feels as though it’s now the best option to support herself and her family.

“This is the last decision I want to make, but ultimately I need to, because [$20,000] isn’t enough a year for me to continue with my kids to have the life they deserve,” she said.

In an interview, Randy Barber, the director of communications for BVSD, said the district understands paraeducators’ concerns.

“We certainly value our employees and we want to have those conversations in regards to the idea that they want to be able to live in the community that they work in,” Barber said. 

BVSD Director of Human Resources Russ Bennett said the district has a reputation for being one of the best employers in the state.

“I think it’s important to recognize that Boulder Valley, in addition to really seeking to provide competitive wages, also provides a comprehensive total compensation package,” Bennett said. “Paraeducators and bus drivers are critical to our operations and taking care of students. They’re essential members of our team.”

A tentative agreement reached between the district and the Boulder Valley Paraeducators Association includes a 1.5% general pay raise, a cost-of-living increase and stipends for additional training. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

‘We deserve more.’ 

Unlike the paraeducator’s association, the BVCEA did not come to an agreement with the district on Tuesday. Negotiations between classified employees and BVSD are now at an impasse. Both sides will pick a mediator to try and find common ground to make a deal.

These negotiations – both with paraeducators and classified employees – are held every spring, in a months-long process that involves both sides. The unions survey members on issues most important to them when renegotiating employment contracts. 

Peter Morris, the Colorado Education Association UniServ Director for Boulder and Westminster, oversees the BVPA. He said negotiators used a collaborative process to find a mutually beneficial agreement for paraeducators and BVSD.

“We’ll take the tentative agreement to our members, let them understand what’s going on and then they will vote on it next week, whether to ratify the tentative agreement or not,” Morris said.

If the agreement is passed by BVPA members, it will move to the school board, which will have the final authority to ratify the agreement.

However, Morris said, if BVPA members don’t pass the agreement, both sides will start negotiations again.

“If [the members] are not happy with the settlement, and they don’t want it, then we’ll have to go back to the table. But right now, we just want to give them the opportunity to hear the details and decide on their own,” he said.

Daniel Borough, a paraeducator at Centaurus High School, said he is looking for more than what’s outlined in the tentative agreement.

“I think at least a 12% increase to get us above the inflation rate for the last year would be fair,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s kind of a pay cut instead of a pay increase.”

Jen Bones is a paraeducator at Mapleton Early Childhood Center preschool and was part of the negotiations team that decided on the tentative agreement. Before Tuesday’s deal was struck, Bones said she wanted paraeducator pay to match BVSD’s reputation as a high-paying school district.

“I don’t think we can be a high-paying district for the teachers … and then leave other groups out,” Bones said. “I think we deserve more.” 

Bones said being at the negotiating table left her feeling optimistic that the union and district can work together on a solution. “It’s been really eye-opening,” she said of the process leading up to Tuesday’s deal. “It’s been a benefit to see both how our representatives and the district’s entities can work together and I think we’ve made a lot of strong headway and progress on a lot of things.”

While the deal would mean a moderate pay increase for paraeducators like Fratzke, she said she still feels undervalued by the district as she weighs her next move.

“It’s a sad situation,” Fratzke said. “The district could not put on their special education programming without the [paraeducators] but they don’t seem to want to keep us around.”

Henry Larson

Henry Larson was a summer 2022 reporting fellow at Boulder Reporting Lab. He's the editor-in-chief of the CU Independent, the University of Colorado Boulder’s digital student news outlet. His reporting has also appeared in CPR News and The Daily Camera.