Had Marianne Murray taken an entry-level job at a fast
food restaurant instead of with West Aurora School
District 129 in Illinois, she might be earning a living wage
“At McDonald’s, I might have gone into management,”
says Murray, an office assistant to the principal at West
Aurora High School. “By now, who knows where I’d be.”
Murray’s 33-year marriage ended last year, leaving her
with only one paycheck to cover expenses for her and
her dog, Ziti. Her two adult children live on their own. Still,
after 20 years with the district she is struggling to make
“After putting in that many years, I should be able to pay
my way,” says Murray, who started as a substitute office
worker in 1991 before becoming a permanent office
professional in 1993. “If I could start over, I might look at
opportunities in the corporate world.”
But Murray is a fighter, and she’s a leader. As president
of the West Aurora Office Professionals Association
(WAOPA), she recently helped convince her equally
passionate members to begin a grassroots campaign
for a living wage – the amount that is considered the
minimum hourly wage a person needs to pay for life’s
basic necessities without relying on family, government,
or public assistance.
“People who work full-time jobs should not live in
poverty,” says Murray, a 1973 graduate of West Aurora.
“We want to be paid a professional wage for professional
Marianne Murray, president of the West Aurora Office
The Department of Health and Human Services compiles
living wage figures using an economic formula applied
to an area’s costs for food, housing, transportation,
utilities, childcare, health care, and taxes. Education
support professionals (ESPs) across the nation have
raised wages, activated members, and challenged their
district’s fiscal neglect by organizing what is known as a
“living wage campaign.”
In Ithaca, New York, paraeducators won a 50 percent
wage increase over three years, with no increase in
health care contributions or reduction in benefits; in
Montpellier, Vermont, members won a 6 percent wage
increase with a 25 percent reduction in health insurance
co-pays. And Scituate, Rhode Island, members won a 45
percent wage increase over four years.
In March, Murray and WAOPA Vice President Eve
Willmann, secretary to the high school principal, gave a
presentation to members on the nuts and bolts of staging
a living wage campaign.
“We needed to learn their interest level,” says Willmann.
Members voted to organize a campaign, and quickly
formed committees to address strategic planning,
internal organizing, and community outreach.
“You’re worth it,” UniServ Director Bonnie Booth of the
Illinois Education Association (IEA) told the members.
Later, at the group’s May meeting, Booth addressed
members again, along with David Rathke of the IEA Living
Wage Task Force.
“If we are going to make progress,” Rathke told the 50-
plus attendees, “you have to build relationships.”
To reach a living wage figure, WAOPA will survey its
all-female membership of 79 members. The group has
also voted to accept the district’s offer of a one-year pay
freeze through May 2014.
“With the district’s current deficit and 50 teachers retiring
next year, the timing is favorable to our campaign,”
Willmann says. “The district will be in better financial
Willmann says WAOPA will “take the year to build
momentum to reach our goal of a collaborative resolution
between WAOPA, district administrators, and education
Qualifying for Food Stamps
Shinette Williams works full time in the high school
athletic director’s office. A single parent with three
daughters, Williams brings home $874 every two weeks.
It takes almost one of those checks to cover the monthly
$711 rent payment for her two-bedroom apartment.
WAOPA members learn about how to conduct a living
“If you work full-time for a school district, you should
be able to meet your basic needs,” says Williams, a
12-month ESP earning $23,100, which qualifies her for
“It’s a heavy responsibility to care for students,” she says.
“The district needs to hire the best people they can find
and pay them adequately.”
Williams has an associate degree in computer
programming and a bachelor’s degree in behavioral
science. She once tutored adults in computer learning,
but decreased her hours after she began working a
second job to cover car payments.
Forced to Leave the Community Where She
Maritza Ramirez can’t afford to live in the district where
she works. After her mortgage broker husband’s work
hours were reduced, the couple sold their home and
moved with their three children to a location further
outside of town where rent is lower.
“We just want to provide for our family,” says Ramirez,
who earns $15.35 an hour in the dean’s office at Herget
Middle School. That’s $21,700 a year.
“After taxes, well, it’s difficult,” says Ramirez. “If I were
earning a living wage, my husband’s situation wouldn’t
have impacted my family as much as it has.”
Two of the Ramirez children qualify for reduced lunches
at their public schools. The oldest works to help cover
“Paying us a living wage is an opportunity for the district
to treat us fairly,” says Ramirez, who has an associate
degree in business. “We’re worth it.”
WHEN FULL-TIME SCHOOL STAFF
QUALIFY FOR PUBLIC ASSISTANCE,
IT’S TIME TO FIGHT FOR
BY JOHN ROSALES
10 | KNOW • Volume 16 Issue 1