Bonnie Saenz spends about $40 each month from her own paycheck to buy slime, bouncy balls and other trinkets for students at Marie L. Greenwood, Early-8 to praise them for progress they make in reading.

“I’m not the only one,” the paraprofessional said. “All teachers do that. All (paraprofessionals) do that.”

But Saenz, who gets paid $15.87 an hour, said it’s hard to make ends meet, which is why she’s urging the district to give support staff raises. Every month, there are one or two bills that won’t get paid until the next month, she said.

“You’re never fully paying your bills,” she said.

Roughly 200 Denver Public Schools employees, parents and other community members held a rally Monday evening at Valdez Elementary School, calling on the state’s largest school district to raise the minimum wage for its workers, including paraprofessionals, to $20 an hour. The district pays paraprofessionals, who provide support in classrooms, $15.87 per hour, which is not enough for them to buy homes or even health insurance, and leaving many of them to work multiple jobs or to look for other jobs to make ends meet, employees said during the rally.

“It’s not a livable wage,” said Carolina Galvan, a paraprofessional at Valdez Elementary. “It’s a poverty wage. We deserve better. Our families deserve better.” 

Galvan said she’s unable to afford the district’s health insurance plan, which would cost between $300 and $400 a month. She receives health care from a local clinic that offers a discount and her daughter qualifies for free lunches at school despite Galvan working for the district, she said.

“We eat or we pay (for) health care,” Galvan said.

Denver schools have faced widespread staffing shortages during the 2021-22 academic year, especially among bus drivers, substitute teachers and other support staff. The shortage became so bad in the fall that DPS briefly moved three schools online.

Many staff members, including paraprofessionals, have performed multiple roles, including covering classrooms when substitutes couldn’t be found.

Lizeth Lazos, another paraprofessional at Valdez Elementary, said that when she started working as a paraprofessional at DPS six years ago she was making about $12 an hour. Now, she makes $15.87 per hour.   

“We can’t afford to buy a house,” she said.

Denver has one of the most competitive housing markets in the nation and the median price of a home sold in Colorado was $600,000 in April. Superintendent Alex Marrero notably told Denverite earlier this year that even on his $260,000 salary it can be difficult to afford rent in Denver.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Paraprofessionals, workers, parents and others hold up signs to show their support during a rally to demand Denver Public Schools to pay paraprofessionals, food workers and other employees higher wages on May 16, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. DPS workers, parents, union leaders and community members rallied at Valdez Elementary school to demand a higher wages.

“Denver Public Schools recognizes that all of our employees are crucial to the success of our students,” the district said in a statement. “The superintendent is committed to increasing salaries for our lowest earning employees with the savings from the recently announced reorganization. We look forward to continued discussions with these groups.”

Marrero is overseeing a reorganization of the district, which is facing declining enrollment (and therefore less money), that could result in some schools closing in the coming years. He recently announced the district will cut 76 positions from the district’s central office, which will save DPS $9 million.

Tay Anderson, vice president of the school board, was at Monday’s rally and said he supports the district’s paraprofessionals being paid “a livable wage.” He was a paraprofessional himself during the 2017-18 academic year and was paid $12 an hour, Anderson said.

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“This fight is more than personal for me,” he said.

Vickie Sykes, a paraprofessional at Lena Archuleta Elementary School, doesn’t get paid by DPS during the summer or during holiday breaks, so during those times her family goes from being a two-income household to a single-income household. But her husband is also helping three of their four children pay for college tuition, so money’s still tight.

Sykes’ paycheck typically goes to the family’s food budget, but inflation means she’s spending more on gas and groceries these days.

Sykes, who used to work two jobs before the pandemic wiped out her second job as a paraprofessional with Boy Scouts of America, is also trying to get a master’s degree and become a teacher, but she can’t afford the tuition. 

“I’d love the independence of that,” she said. “I have to be able to afford it (though).”

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