Bus drivers, campus monitors, janitors, secretaries and cafeteria workers are the first faces Broward County children see as they start each school day at the bus stop, parent drop-off lane or walking through the campus gates.
The school district calls these men and women non-instructional employees, but to teachers and principals they are the glue that holds the schools in place.
They usually arrive before the sun rises and go home well after it sets — serving students breakfast, answering e-mails or replacing forgotten classroom keys. Those duties often come with what's not included in their job description — combing messy hair, waiting for tardy parents or buying hungry students lunch. Sometimes, they even pay for prom tickets.
Despite the efforts of the district's 14,000 non-instructional employees, they tend to blend into the background. They are the lowest-paid employees at a school, and their jobs are the first cut when money runs low.
Most of the 160 employees the district laid off at the beginning of the school year came from the non-instructional ranks. That's because the district has tried to minimize how much it cuts from actual classroom instruction, said Keith Bromery, school district spokesman.
With district coffers continuing to shrink, more of the non-instructional jobs could be on the line.
After slashing $94 million from this school year's budget, the district expects to lose about $160 million for the 2009-10 school year. District administrators expect more cuts to come when the Legislature meets in the spring.
"We're in big trouble without them," said Krista Herrera, principal at Glades Middle School in Miramar.
"They are our first line of defense with the public. They give the Band-Aids and kiss the boo-boos, if you will."
Among those who fit that bill: Lily Stevenson, assistant manager in Glades Middle Schools' cafeteria; Jimmy Morrow, facilities supervisor at Hallandale Adult Community Center; Dottie Reid, a secretary at Palmview Elementary School in Pompano Beach; Douglas Dorsett, campus monitor at Olsen Middle School in Dania Beach, and school bus driver Carolyn Wallace.
They know no one's job is guaranteed in these murky financial times.
Stevenson, 43, of Pembroke Pines, said with each report of an additional funding cut out of Tallahassee, the members of her crew worry. Many are single mothers who work two jobs, she said. While she understands why non-instructional employees often are the first fired — to protect teachers and classroom learning — she said students would suffer if there are fewer cafeteria workers.
"They'd think you could feed the same amount of people in the same amount of time with less ladies, but we're feeding about 1,400 kids here daily," Stevenson said of Glades' two-and-half hour lunch shift.
As the principal's secretary at Palmview Elementary, Reid knows if someone is going to be fired before they do. It happened last year when the school lost several of its paraprofessionals.
Non-instructional employees, she said, "don't make a whole lot of money, so why is it that the person who makes the least amount is always the one that is cut?"
Elementary school office clerks, for example, make an average of $19,575 annually. Dorsett said he survives on about $12 an hour and his military pension, "so I can live."
Wallace said the close-knit cadre of bus drivers supports each other. If a fellow driver is struggling, particularly financially, the drivers will take up collections among themselves to help.
Hallandale Adult Community Center recently increased by 24,000-square-feet but decreased staff members, from 12 to eight, said Morrow, who makes about $50,000 a year after 23 years with the district and does side work.
"And this is all due to the economy," he said. "I don't know how they make it ... with the price of gas and everything."
Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4527.