Federal Deadline Arrives for BUSD Paraprofessionals

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 30, 2006

The union representing about 370 paraprofessionals and other classified employees is accusing the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) of failing to avert layoffs in the face of newly effective No Child Left Behind mandates.  

Today (Friday), the district will let go of as many as 12 employees who have not met higher education standards spelled out in the federal education reform act, signed into law in 2002. The Berkeley Council of Classified Employees Local 6292 has filed both a grievance and an unfair labor practice charge against the district, arguing that BUSD insisted on standards more rigorous—and more draconian—than those outlined in the federal law. 

Layoffs, the union insists, are not in order. 

“Our district chose very early what we consider a very punitive model,” said union President Ann Graybeal. 

No Child Left Behind calls for all paraprofessionals at Title I-funded schools, who are involved in teaching students—including instructional assistants, technicians, specialists and interpreters for the deaf—to complete 48 units of college-level work, earn an associate’s degree or take a test that demonstrates proficiency in reading, writing and math. 

The federal mandate does not, however, spell out more specific details, leaving standards for assessment open to interpretation. BUSD, the council says, is taking a hard-line approach. 

According to Graybeal, districts like Hayward Unified allow employees to meet requirements based on in-class evaluations and years of service—a more palatable option for veteran employees rusty on test taking and schoolwork. Berkeley does not. 

Other districts accept, as core courses, art, nutrition and early childhood education, among other classes. Berkeley does not. One employee with 122 units of higher education was told she did not comply with Berkeley’s definition of acceptable coursework, Graybeal said.  

Superintendent Michele Lawrence said Wednesday that employees in Berkeley must adhere to more stringent standards than those laid out by No Child Left Behind. 

“We believe we have a higher level of expectation,” she said, pointing out that the district established clear guidelines for compliance shortly after the law went into effect; employees, she said, have had ample time to complete suitable coursework. 

The union has also called into question the reliability of the proficiency tests, which are administered and scored by district staff. 

“The test given for NCLB compliance consists, in Berkeley’s version, of two parts—one multiple choice and one essay. At one point, outside candidates were allowed to combine their scores on two portions of the test—inside candidates were not,” said Graybeal in a prepared speech to the Berkeley Board of Education Wednesday. “There were random exceptions even in that case. Some employees were allowed to use portions of tests taken elsewhere while other employees were not told of this option.” 

Paula Robinson, an instructional assistant in the district for 19 years, took the district’s test and was told, at first, that she had not passed. Later, she received word that, in fact, she had passed. Typically, Robinson works for BUSD in the summer, but because the district initially said she was not in compliance with federal law, she didn’t bother to apply for a job.  

“I feel like right now I’m just being screwed,” she said. “I have no job.” 

Lawrence concedes some testing proved inconsistent, but that the district had worked vigorously to correct errors. 

“Every effort—and a lot of effort—has been undertaken to make sure these employees meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind,” she said.  

In April, 57 paraprofessionals were at risk of losing their jobs. Since then, more than 40 employees have completed the higher education requirements or retired. 

The mandate is effective today, and applies only to employees hired before No Child Left Behind was signed into law. (Newer hires have already met those requirements.) More than 93 percent of those affected by the law have come into compliance, said district staff. 

At press time, district staff were still working on registering transcripts and test scores. The director of classified employees took leave of the district last month, and Alan Rasmussen, former superintendent for Merced Unified School District, is filling in, temporarily, three days a week. 

“My intent is that we get this resolved for everyone,” he said. 

Those who have not met the requirements by the end of the day may take the district’s proficiency exam in July and reapply for their jobs. 

The union filed a grievance against the district May 10, and charged unfair labor practices a week later. Talks with the district are ongoing, Graybeal said.