They're the front line and the last line in most Howard County schools, working long hours for little pay - often spilling over to weekends, holidays or summer months.
To recognize the hard work of the school system's education support professionals, the county Board of Education will present a resolution of appreciation tomorrow night to the many hundreds of worker bees who keep the schools running smoothly every day.
The proclamation will declare Nov. 14 as Education Support Professionals' Day.
"We do need to recognize our support personnel," said Sandra H. French, board vice chairwoman. "The resolution is richly deserved."
Educational support professionals - or ESP employees - include health and science assistants, guidance office secretaries, principals' secretaries, teachers' secretaries, media specialists and instructional assistants.
"I think it's important that, during that week, we recognize the contributions of education support personnel," said Joseph Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents many ESP employees at the bargaining table. "It's a way of saying thanks to a very thankless community. They're certainly not being thanked when they get their paychecks on Friday."
For years, support employees have been clamoring for more attention, more respect and more money. Although their responsibilities have increased immeasurably over the years, they say, the pay scale has remained unchanged.
"When you look at the contributions these folks make, it's obvious we're not compensating them fairly," Staub said.
Several years ago, French spent a day shadowing an instructional assistant at Elkridge Elementary School and was surprised at the workload.
"It's a lot," French said, adding that she was frustrated that central office staffers had not recommended that the board increase pay for ESP employees. "We were even out doing recess duty."
In June of last year, consultants recommended that the school system upgrade job classifications for many support employees, enabling them to earn higher salaries. But since then, no changes have been made to classifications or pay.
Instructional assistants and secretaries rank sixth out of seven area county school systems in terms of starting pay, according to the Howard County Education Association. Only Baltimore County's support employees are paid less, the association said.
"We have people who start under $14,000," Staub said. "Given the cost of living in Howard County, that is not a living wage."
Sharon Jones, a guidance office secretary at Owen Brown Middle School, said she appreciates the resolution of appreciation, adding that it shows board members do recognize that support professionals' jobs are valuable.
But more is necessary, she said.
"We all want recognition, I think," said Jones, who is doing a job that three people would do in a county high school. "And some of us get it more so than others. More pay is what we really want, and that's the bottom line. If you have the pay and you have the title, then the recognition would come."