DALTON >> Waving signs bearing the message "seniority matters," paraprofessionals formed a gauntlet roughly 40 strong outside Wahconah Regional High School on Thursday to protest a move by the district they say would undermine their hard-earned status.
The picket was a message to Central Berkshire School District Committee members who were arriving for a school district meeting.
Some of them stopped to exchange congenial words with the protesters. Most at least said "Hello."
"You want to feel secure and appreciated in your work life," said Liz Jackson, president of Central Berkshire Education Association. "That's not what we're feeling right now."
Facing declining enrollment and inflating costs, the district in 2015 cut a total of 37 paraprofessional jobs. "No one was ready" for the "considerable" cuts, which she called "demoralizing to staff."
Now, the paraprofessionals are facing a new concern.
In recent contract negotiations for the 2016-17 school year, Jackson said, district leadership has sought to remove contract language that placed seniority as the item of top importance among its stock of paraprofessionals.
Instead, the district is considering a system that favors employee evaluations, level of education and other certifications over seniority.
District Superintendent Laurie Casna acknowledged her administration has made a "priority" of de-emphasizing seniority in the current negotiations with paraprofessionals.
"It feels very cold in [workforce reductions] when you can think of nothing other than seniority," she said. "I have nothing but respect for the paraprofessionals, and don't want to disrespect either side of the ongoing negotiations. The bargaining teams are working hard and I'm optimistic about the direction things are headed in."
She said such changes to union agreements with paraprofessionals are "by no means unheard of" both in Berkshire County school districts and elsewhere in the state.
The next negotiation session is scheduled for April 28 at Craneville Elementary School in Dalton.
While Casna seeks to broaden options regarding who stays and who goes in any potential workforce reduction, Jackson said the change will only bring misery.
"This could turn very bad, very ugly in a future [workforce reduction] situation," Jackson said. "There will be a lot of grievances if things are done that way."
Teachers, too, turned out to protest the potential move.
"This approach is not fair and would result in many disagreements," said Hal Westwood, a sixth-grade teacher at Nessacus Regional Middle School. "It is with good reason that the phrase, 'Last hired; first fired,' is a hallmark of unions across the United States."
Westwood said simple rules and "clear guidance" would go out the window under the new scenario.
"Years of service will become a tie-breaker, a consideration of last resort," he said. "Convoluted certifications and subjective performance evaluations will be the foremost factors in making the tough choices."
Paraprofessionals interviewed by The Eagle expressed frustration at the unsure circumstances new developments seem to be bringing about for them in the district.
"We don't want to be split up like this," Betsy Meunier said. "We've always worked together like a team."
Added Bonnie Clark, "We want everybody treated equal."
Paraprofessional Stephanie Wilson pointed out an irony in the district's desire.
"Frankly, in those long years of service, they have provided us with countless hours of professional development," Wilson said. "Now they're saying that's not enough, that's not valuable."
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.