Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE — Janelle Baker hands out papers while her eighth-grade U.S. history class take a quiz at Valley Junior High in West Valley City on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

Every fall, I visit several school districts throughout the state as part of the Utah School Employees Association’s Back to School Tour in order to discuss education issues with our members, Utah’s education support professionals (ESP). These men and women are teachers' aides and para-educators. We are your clerical and administrative, food service, transportation, custodial and maintenance, health and student service, trades, security services and computer professionals. We are critical members of the education workforce because we make sure each and every student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.

A recent tour included visits to schools and school buildings in Box Elder, Provo, Davis and Ogden districts. Unfortunately, I had a good idea of what they were going to say. From para-educators who work closely with our students with special needs to the IT professionals who keep school networks going — they are all receiving cuts to their hours and pay and are no longer eligible for health care benefits.

This may not come as a surprise, however, as Utah remains dead last in the country in per-pupil spending when data were last collected in 2014. Dead last. Utah continues to bleed highly qualified teachers and education support professionals to other jobs or other states.

Utah simply does not provide competitive pay, benefits and professional development to keep our educators from leaving their careers. Tim Bell, a former custodian in the Weber School District, says, “I became a custodian because I love the kids and we enjoyed great benefits. The pay was OK, but I was able to provide health care benefits for my family. Now that many districts have done away with health care benefits and the hourly wages remain so low, we are losing people right and left.”

Bell says educators hate leaving the students they serve, but know they can better provide for their families by working at McDonald's or Starbucks.

Utah ESP are also frustrated by the lack of employer-provided professional development. Our students deserve trained professionals both inside and outside the classroom, so USEA created our own professional development academy. As we continue to increase our offerings, more and more of our members are successfully able to support the students we serve every day.

Sure, education organizations like ours can try to fill in the gaps, but what kind of message are we sending to our children when we cut requirements like education, health, the arts and college and career readiness courses in our middle schools? How can we tell them education is paramount to their success and then refuse to invest in their education or their educators? Especially when the engagement provided by these courses and educators are the reasons many students graduate school to begin with?

Utah public schools have been underfunded for far too long, but there’s something we can do about it. Our Schools Now is an initiative to give Utah voters the opportunity to participate in the critical questions of how we are to invest in the continued improvement of our schools. This initiative would allow Utahns to vote on a ballot measure (Teacher and Student Success Act) to increase the state income tax and invest the increase in educational performance improvement.

To learn more and to show your support for investing in Utah students’ education and educators, please go to OurSchoolsNow.com. Investing in education can change the course of a child’s life.

Jerad Reay is president of the Utah School Employees Association (USEA).