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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

ESPs deserve health credit

by Bea Morris

Who sets the tone for the day as the first person many children see when they go to school? It's the bus driver. Who prepares breakfast for many children to give them a good start? It's often not a parent anymore, but a cafeteria worker. Who makes sure that sidewalks are cleared so that staff members and students don't fall on their way into the building on a cold, icy morning? It's the custodian.

These are just three of many examples of the very important work performed every day by ESPs, education support professionals. Every teacher and administrator has ESP stories to tell, such as the one a retired principal recently told me about a little boy who transferred to her school in the middle of the year and was having trouble adjusting to a new and very different school culture. By befriending him and giving him gentle guidance, the custodian taught him how to fit in with the other children. I doubt that this was in his job description. And isn't every teacher thankful when the custodian arrives for clean-up after a child has been sick?

Every day these ESPs, or Extra Special People as they are fondly known, perform vital tasks that make the school day run more smoothly. Their punctuality, dependability and attention to detail affirm to students and teachers the dignity of all work. And they do this for embarrassingly low pay and limited benefits.

We teach children that loyalty is an important virtue. They see it demonstrated every day by these ESPs, many whom have devoted 15 or more years of faithful service to school systems. But, sadly, some of these dedicated workers are denied the state health credit benefit when they retire. Although secretaries, instructional aides and maintenance supervisors are granted this benefit, others, such as bus drivers and custodians, are not. These other school personnel were eliminated from Senator Emmett Hanger's bill in the 2007 General Assembly session. Those covered by this bill are most grateful for the increase in their health credit, which granted them the same benefit enjoyed by state retirees, thereby correcting an obvious inequity. But an inequity still exists when a janitor in a jail receives this benefit, but a custodian in a school does not.

Because of the limited number who would qualify, granting the health credit to these school employees would not cost a great deal more money. Twenty-seven school divisions have attempted to grant their ESPs some relief from an already tight budget by locally funding a health credit of $1.50. However, this is a state program and should be funded by state money.

We must continue to educate our legislators about the unfairness of this situation and to speak up for those who worked side-by-side with us every day. Contrary to the apparent belief of some, a school is not a corporation for which the bottom line is how much money can be made or saved. It is a people business in which the bottom line is how many lives are adequately prepared for success in a rapidly changing world. It takes all school personnel to fulfill this mission, and all should be provided benefits fairly.

Morris, of Harrisonburg, is a member of VEA-Retired.


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