The outsourcing of instructional aides is already providing a quality education to students within the structure and culture of the Carlisle Area School District.
That was the word recently from Superintendent Christina Spielbauer as she tried to reassure school board members and the public that a proposal to outsource the remaining aides would not hurt student success.
She disputed claims that aides hired through Education Staff Solutions are not of high quality or vested in the long-term achievement of students.
“We have wonderful people who are employed by ESS,” Spielbauer said. “They are committed to the school district. They are committed to the classroom teachers. They are committed to working with the building administrators and the students. I would expect that quality to continue.”
In 2017, board members approved a budget for 2017-18 that began the transition of aide positions through attrition from the district payroll to the outside contractor. As aides left the district by retirement or resignation, new aides are hired through ESS.
District administrators now recommend the board transition the remaining aides to save an estimated $700,000 in personnel costs for 2019-20. Even with this proposal, the Carlisle school district is facing a projected $3 million deficit.
The board met last week to review a proposed transition plan for the aides that would terminate their employment with the district effective May 30. Group medical insurance through the district would continue through Aug. 31.
The plan offers the aides compensation equal to one half their accumulated sick leave up to 50 days, plus accumulated personal days, multiplied by their normal per diem rate.
Aides with 10 years or more of service would be paid a longevity bonus of $75 for each full school year of employment by the district. Employees with less than 10 years would receive a bonus of $50 per year.
The package would cost the district an estimated $195,000 that would be deducted from the current year budget, district Director of Finance Shawn Farr said.
The outsourcing proposal was introduced early in the budget planning for 2019-20 so that current aides would be able to weigh their situation and decide whether to sign on with ESS, Spielbauer said. She added that Assistant Superintendent Colleen Friend has worked closely with building principals and department chairs in the selection of ESS hires.
“We are the ones who do the postings,” Spielbauer said. “We are the ones who are engaging in the interviews. All around, there are people vested in making sure that person is going to make a commitment to the students, the teachers and the building where they are being employed.
“Anytime we have a concern, we are in immediate contact with ESS,” Spielbauer said. “The goal is to try and work with the individual … to do anything we can to help them so they are able to stay with us. But if that is not the case, we are able to call ESS and ask them to be removed.”
School board president Paula Bussard sees outsourcing as one method the board can use to maintain the long-term fiscal soundness of the district. She works in the health care sector where outsourcing has been common for years. While Bussard said outsourcing aides is an emotional issue, she isn’t apprehensive about quality because of her experience working in hospitals.
In health care, outsourced staff are looked upon and valued as any other hospital employee, Bussard said. “It really comes to accountability and the culture to make it work. It is how you structure it and hold yourself accountable.”
Board member Brian Guillaume said it’s hard to predict whether the district could maintain the caliber of its instructional aides through outsourcing. “We are hopeful,” he said. “We would like to believe that everybody works equally hard. I would like to think that way, but it’s a hard projection to make.”
Deborah Sweaney told fellow board members any decision on outsourcing should be guided by equal parts student achievement, fiscal stewardship and community engagement.
“We have to balance those three,” Sweaney said. “I have never seen an issue that balances those three things like this issue. That is why it’s an incredible challenge to me personally.”
Sweaney called on the board to make a decision on the outsourcing option as early as possible and not wait until May 20 when a vote is expected on the preliminary budget.
“We owe it to the community,” she said. “We owe it to the staff.”
Board member Rick Coplen urged a slow but steady approach where an outsourcing decision is reached before May but after the administration presents other cost-cutting measures.
“It would be better if we can make this decision much sooner than later,” Coplen said. Meanwhile, the board should wait until after Gov. Tom Wolf unveils his state education budget in early February, he said.
No matter what, school board members should step up efforts to lobby state lawmakers to increase funding for public schools, Coplen said, adding that Pennsylvania is ranked 47th in terms of state support of education.
“If we were in the top 10, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Coplen said.