By Joshua Pechthalt, CFT President

Schools can be amazing places. Institutions that focus on the education and nurturing of young people have a special place in our society. While the interaction of students with their teacher is obviously an essential part of the educational process, it really does take a community of people to make learning possible and schools successful.

An essential part of that community is the team of classified employees who work in and around the classroom to enhance learning and make the school environment attractive. Their work often happens in the background but without these people doing their job, teachers wouldn’t be able to teach effectively and kids wouldn’t get the education they need.

Unfortunately, emerging from Great Recession-era budgets, most school districts don’t hire enough workers to be able to keep schools attractive and well maintained, in spite of the hard work these classified workers do. It makes a huge difference in the way students, teachers and parents view their educational experience.

Walk on the campus of a private school or one in an affluent community and you are immediately struck by the surroundings. The grounds and classrooms are clean, facilities are modern and inviting, lawns and plants are well maintained. Who wouldn’t want to be a student or work at a place with this level of resources?

As a high school teacher of more than 2- years working in an inner city high school, it always took me several days after coming back from summer vacation to acclimate myself to the drab conditions of the school. I would bring in a dry mop, rags and spray cleaner to make sure my classroom was well maintained.

It wasn’t that the custodians weren’t working; they were. But years of cuts meant fewer custodians and less time in classrooms, literally. In fact, I remember talking to Ray, the custodian who cleaned my floor. He showed me the chart that spelled out the number of minutes he could spend in my classroom and it wasn’t much. If Ray or another custodian were out sick, there was no replacement. It simply meant the other custodians on campus had to cover the work which meant even less time cleaning each room.

As a parent of a child in one of LAUSD’s top academic schools, every time I come on campus I’m reminded of the low priority our society gives to the women and men who attempt to keep our schools functioning and attractive. My daughter’s school replaced the real grass on the inner quad with synthetic turf because it requires less work. The bushes and field are poorly maintained because apparently in this district, gardeners are expendable. The not so subtle message absorbed by students is that education is not a priority.

This week, districts across the country will issue proclamations recognizing the work of classified workers. That’s well and good but it’s not enough. Districts need to commit real resources to hiring more classified workers, paying decent wages and providing health benefits.

In turn, that means the legislature should support two bills. AB 2122 (McCarty, D-Sacramento) would provide incentives for classified employees to obtain a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential, simultaneously creating a career ladder for school employees and helping address the teacher shortage. AB 1878 (Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles) would increase death benefits for classified employees from $2,000 to $5,000, the same amount offered to certificated employees’ survivors.

The women and men who work as classified employees play a vital role in the education of our children and they need to be valued. Making sure schools have a full complement of classified workers who are treated with respect and dignity will ultimately mean students benefit too.