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Carlisle Area School District

Pictured is the entrance to Carlisle High School.

Bruce Clash heard about it from his own daughter, a kindergarten teacher.

She told him how difficult it can be to manage a classroom without an aide.

The combination of student behavioral issues and special needs can draw away her focus on providing instruction and blunt the overall daily impact she has on children.

“You address all that with loving hearts,” Clash told an audience Thursday of instructional aides employed by the Carlisle Area School District.

“There is no way I or anyone else at this table would question the dedication and loyalty of all of you,” the school board member said. “Education cannot pay any one of you what you are worth. Our whole society is structured so that many people with value are grossly underpaid.”

As chairman of the policy and personnel committee, Clash convened a special joint meeting with the budget and finance committee. The consensus among board members was to advance a proposed transition plan that would terminate the employment of all remaining district aides effective May 30.

A final vote on outsourcing the aides is expected on April 18 during a regular monthly board meeting scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the large group instruction room of the Fowler building of Carlisle High School.

“We are incredibly disappointed,” instructional aide Ann Marie Chaney said after the committee meeting Thursday. “It’s difficult to even put it into words. If they really care about the children, they would come up with other ways of saving the money.”

Chaney and others have pushed the board to seek alternatives to focusing on employees who provide direct hands-on care to students. District administrators recommend the outsourcing as one way to cap escalating health insurance and pension costs and to save the district a projected $600,000 in budget year 2019-20.

Under the transition plan, district-employed aides would have the opportunity to apply for continued placement at district schools through ESS, the outside contractor. The transition plan includes details on a severance package for those who opt out and a three-tiered pay scale for those aides who decide to continue under ESS.

Board members spoke Thursday about how they are leaning on this issue. Empathy for the workers was a common theme along with collective anger, frustration and disappointment over the continued lack of state support for public education and the bad investments that are driving up pension costs and squeezing districts.

If their comments are any indication, seven of the nine board members favor outsourcing the aides. Only five votes are needed April 18 outsourcing to be implemented. Only Brian Guillaume has spoken out against the transition plan out of concern for students with special needs.

“I’m not sure if we are taking an accurate snapshot about how this is going to be handled,” said Guillaume, referring to how ESS would be able to supply enough qualified workers.

“I understand how we would like it to be handled but we cannot absolutely promise what’s going to be given to those children who have IEPs [Individualized Education Programs],” he said. “I understand outsourcing. I’m a consulting engineer. We will save money by doing this, but at what cost is it going to be to the children with special needs. I understand the budget constraints. I just have concern about how we are getting there.”

To Clash, the success of outsourcing hinges on the amount of control the district has over the hiring and selection of workers. Two years ago, the district implemented a partial outsourcing of instructional aides by replacing those who resign or retire with ESS employees. In recent months, Clash has had conversations with building principals who spoke very highly of ESS aides.

“I would never question the administration’s dedication to our children and our educational programs,” Clash said.

Board member and school volunteer Deborah Sweaney said she was moved by the stories district-employed aides have shared about their interactions with students. “I know you are dedicated to the job,” she said. “I see it in the classroom and the building I am in that you love those children.”

However, as an elected representative, Sweaney said she can’t make a decision based on emotion nor should board members only weigh the bottom-line. “We have to try to figure out how we balance everything. We are trying to look at the common good and the good for all of our school district.”

She said every year the district budget expands by at least $2 million but none of that growth goes toward improving the quality of education. “Almost all went to alleviate the mushrooming financial burden placed on us by the state Legislature and, in some cases, the federal Department of Education,” Sweaney said.

Like the rest of America, Carlisle school district is grappling with rising health care costs, she said. “We must change how we handle our operations. We must begin to cap its growth. I don’t think we have any choice. There is no doubt moving our aides from our payroll would reduce our benefit costs, and it is our benefits costs that are driving much of our operating budget right now.

“I face this reality with a heavy heart,” Sweaney said. “I am not just considering the savings that would appear in the budget next year, but the budget after that, and the budgets of the foreseeable future. Even with this decision, the district will face significant challenges.”

“I know the situation you are going through,” said board vice-president Linda Manning, a former state employee familiar with the uncertainty that goes with government furloughs and other personnel policy changes. “You don’t know how you are going to make it but hang in there. I appreciate your dedication. You are valued. But we are between a rock and a hard place and we have to make a decision.”

Fred Baldwin said the annual budget squeeze will get worse before it gets better with even more difficult decisions looming. While some of the cost-cutting measures suggested by the aides have merit, all of them involve trade-offs that carry consequences to what the district can offer students, he said.

Rick Coplen said he did not come to the meeting Thursday with a prepared statement or leaning on how he may vote on April 18. “I am thinking. I am listening. I am considering.”

“The commonwealth has to do a much better job of dealing with public education,” Coplen said. “If they had done the right thing for years and years, we would not be in this position where we have to make these kinds of decisions.”

A retired Army officer, Coplen has accused lawmakers in the past of dereliction of duty. For him, the critical question on the issue would be how to compensate for the loss of the $600,000 in savings should a board majority vote against outsourcing aides.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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Education/History Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.