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Education Support Professionals

Texas ESPs Get Respect

The "Compadre System" is getting the boot.


The inclination of a supervisor to hire a friend or relative for a job without regard to qualifications--known as favoritism, cronyism, nepotism, among other names-- “has been around forever,” says Lorenzo Hernandez Jr. (pictured), a custodian at Dishman Elementary School in Harlingem, Texas.

 “Anywhere and everywhere in the world, some administrators are inclined to choose their friends over better-qualified job candidates,” says Hernandez, vice president of the Harlingen Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). “In this part of South Texas, it’s known as “the compadre system.”

Whatever you call it, says Hernandez, “the friendship system does not work, especially when we’re talking about school districts. It means we’re not getting the best electricians, carpenters, and plumbers for our schools to make sure everything is working right. It means at-will school employees live in fear of losing their jobs because they don’t have a compadre. This system has to go.”

And Hernandez knows just how to make that happen.

“Due process,” he says, referring to one of the three main goals of the Rio Grande Valley “Respect” Campaign going on in Harlingen and other targeted areas here in the southernmost tip of the state.

The “Respect” Campaign in “the Valley” was started in 2012 by the TSTA and several local associations in response to complaints being filed by education support professionals (ESPs) and other at-will school employees. Some ESPs working with school districts in Harlingen, Donna, Brownsville, Los Fresnos, Point Isabel, Edinburg, McAllen, Mission, San Benito, and PSJA (Pharr/ San Juan/Alamo) were being fired for “no reason” or the “flimsiest” of reasons, according to campaign literature. In one instance, about 200 ESPs lost their jobs to what district officials called “a reorganization plan.”

“Due process will bring a chain of command decision-making process to our school districts, so everyone is treated fairly,” says Hernandez. “We want districts to create employment standards and procedures that include warnings and suspensions before termination.”

The second goal for state and local campaign leaders is a salary schedule that acknowledges work experience and seniority. Currently, districts across the Valley pay ESPs under a framework common in Texas with a minimum, midpoint, and maximum salary range. This system is flawed; say campaign organizers, because there is no accountability or procedure at the local level for hiring and placing new employees at the appropriate level that matches their work experience. District administrators are free to place new employees on the high end or low end of the pay scale with total disregard for experience, certification, and education background. This latitude can lead to blatant favoritism and other abuses. 

Linda Estrada

“Some employees are hired at a higher wage than workers who have more experience,” says Linda Estrada, a TSTA board member and a secretary at Dora Sauceda Middle School in Donna. “The salary schedule we are proposing not only rewards employees for their experience and loyalty, but it will increase retention and workplace stability while decreasing training costs (for new employees) for the district.”

 The current compensation plan is based in part on recommendations made by the Texas Association of School Boards.

“Some districts don't always follow the plan,” says Estrada, president of the Donna TSTA. “For example, we recently had a secretary come in mid-year making her whole salary in five months only because her brother-in-law is a huge supporter of the board majority. Talk about a morale buster!”

Trying to establish salary schedules across the Valley is highly possible, says Estrada. As proof, she points to ESPs working in the maintenance department of the Donna Independent School District (DISD).

“It took organizers almost two years to get workers a salary schedule there,” she says. “The effort started with over 20 employees and ended with about 12. Some of the men left the district. Others just got tired and felt nothing would change. But it did happen.”

Rita Haecker, TSTA president, says the “Respect” Campaign is gaining momentum and bringing in new ESP members every day. Since January, ESP ranks in the eight-targeted areas have increased by almost 300 new members.

“They (ESPs) want to feel that they are respected,” says Haecker, who recently visited the Valley to speak at an ESP leadership training session.

The third goal of the “Respect” Campaign—to establish programs that formally recognize the work and accomplishments of ESPs—has been a personal priority for Estrada since her first year on the job more than 25 years ago.

“Our school district celebrated American Education Week at one campus, including ESP Day and ESP of the Year,” she says. “The celebration was held in front of a school board meeting with the superintendent present. We have tried to continue that tradition.”

Estrada says that several campuses in her district acknowledge an ESP of the month and the year. But those campuses are the exceptions in the Valley, which lies along the northern bank of the Rio Grande River near the Mexican border.

“Some ESPs are timid and shy, but they work hard,” says Hernandez. “They’ve never even been recognized as an employee of the month.”

The benefit of acknowledging ESP accomplishments, says Hernandez is “when one ESP gets recognized, it boosts the morale of all ESPs.”

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