Friends, families and former coworkers gathered at the Charlotte Community Library Monday morning to support their former support staff.
Last week, the Eaton Regional Education Service Agency, formerly Eaton Intermediate School District, laid off 24 paraprofessionals and related service assistants -- people who primarily work with special needs students.
It's a move that Eaton RESA says will save it $300,000 next year, but the former employees don't understand why a small group on the low end of the pay scale has to suffer.
"It's a power struggle," said Dawn Vanneste, a paraprofessional who was laid off after nearly 20 years in the district. "People definitely don't have the students' best interests at heart."
Vanneste led the gathering, which was filled with both applause and tears.
"They're beyond great," said Penny Aseltine, whose daughter Jennifer has cerebral palsy. "I can't appreciate them more than what I do. These kids, they're just going to be pushed aside. Nobody's going to care for them like [the former employees] do. They need special care."
Missy Phillips fears the worst for her 17-year-old son, who has difficulty communicating.
"I trust them," she said. "I've known them for 17 years and because I can trust them, I know he'll be taken care of and have his needs met."
The former employees are not entirely out of a job though. They have the opportunity to reapply for positions with Grand Ledge Public Schools, which could even place them back in their old buildings. They have until the end of the month to apply, at which point the application process will be open to everyone.
But the job with GLPS pays anywhere between 20-75 percent less; there are no benefits; and it's only part time -- employees can work no more than 29 hours a week.
Eaton RESA is insourcing the jobs, said GLPS Human Resources Director Andrew George, meaning RESA will pay GLPS to pay the employees.
Under GLPS's bargaining agreement, teacher assistants can make no more than $13 an hour.
Eaton RESA Superintendent Christine Beardsley says that's a rate that's closer to average for the position. Eaton RESA employees were paid incredibly well for their service in comparison, she said.
"The local districts are not paying their staff that work in similar positions as much as we are paying wage and benefits to our employees," she said. "I care deeply for our employees. I wanted to help them as much as I could. What I could do for them in the negotiation process was not something they were willing to accept. And so this is the path based on their decisions."
Beardsley said she tried to come to an agreement with the union. She offered to keep their benefits and full-time status in exchange for pay cuts, but the union overwhelmingly turned it down, she said.
Insourcing the jobs is all about financial efficiency, she said, streamlining the district's spending and making every dollar count.
"As the dollars from the state are not increasing at the rate that our expenses are increasing, we're facing difficult decisions of which programs and services we're going to be able to continue to provide to our students," she said. "The whole decision is based completely on financial efficiency. There is no dissatisfaction of services from our support staff."
The former employees point to pay raises and increased spending in other areas of the district even as their area is cut. But Beardsley says raises are necessary to keep Eaton RESA competitive.
"If your turnover is so great because your wage scale is so low and we're competing with hospitals for speech, occupational therapists, physical therapists," she said. "We can't attract and maintain them. We cannot continue to be a revolving door of training them for a year and then they go somewhere else for more money."
Still, it's not reasoning that necessarily satisfies the 24 former employees, some of whom say, they won't be able to live off what they would be paid at GLPS.
"I cannot fiscally afford to work for Grand Ledge," said Vanneste. "I'm grateful for the opportunity, but I can't afford that."
And Beardsley said she expects the cuts to keep coming.
"We are sharpening our pencils," she said. "We are not done making reductions here at Eaton RESA in the special education realm. We have to have a healthy fund balance that is sustainable."