Carlisle Area School District

Pictured is the entrance to Carlisle High School.

Lisa Hartzell said she feels as though she’s being treated like crap by a proposal to outsource the remaining instructional aides employed by the Carlisle Area School District.

“I have put a lot into it,” she told school board members last week during a meeting. “I have given 20 years. I have 184 and a half sick days because I don’t feel right taking off.

“If you go to this other thing, my health insurance is going to go up,” she added. “I will lose $2 an hour pay. I already work two jobs. I don’t like being treated like crap ... I can’t help the way I feel.”

Parents, teachers and support staff filled to capacity the large group instruction room at Carlisle High School to give board members an earful on how the public regards a recommended cost-cutting measure.

A proposal to transition 87 classroom, library and personal care assistants to Education Staffing Solutions could save Carlisle school district an estimated $700,000 in personnel costs in 2019-2020, Superintendent Christina Spielbauer said.

In June 2017, school board members approved a budget for 2017-2018 that began the transition of aide positions through attribution from the district payroll to an outside contractor. As aides left the district by retirement or resignation, new aides were hired through ESS.

From June 2017 to August 2018, 23 aides have left the district, leaving 87 aides employed by the district at the start of the current school year, district director of finance Shawn Farr said. He added it is believed another 20 aides will leave the employ of the district by the end of the year.

Tough decisions

School administrators, in preparing the budget, have recommended the board transition the remaining district-employed aides by encouraging them to sign up with ESS for the start of 2019-2020. All employees that complete 2018-2019 will be eligible for a severance package based on years of service and would have health insurance coverage through Aug. 31.

“We have some really tough financial decisions to make as we move forward,” Spielbauer said. “We’re already starting off with a $3 million gap.”

She added the proposed transition of aides is just the first of what could be many cost-cutting strategies to close the projected deficit for 2019-2020. “They will all be hard to hear and to make decisions upon,” Spielbauer said.

Board member Fred Baldwin thanked the administration for putting the transition of aides early on the agenda of the budget cycle for 2019-2020 so that board members have plenty of time to mull over the issue.

“Certainly, over the next several months, I’m going to have a number of questions about this,” Baldwin said. “We are already taxing at the maximum allowable by the state both in terms of incomes and property.”

Ever since Act 1 put a cap on the ability of school boards to raise property taxes, Carlisle has either held the annual increase to the maximum allowable rate or kept it just under the maximum, Baldwin said.

During his many years on the Carlisle board, Gerald Eby has seen the state basic education subsidy shrink from about 50 percent of the district budget to about 17 percent. He added that in recent years Pennsylvania school districts have been saddled by the mandate to repay money that had been poorly invested by state authorities during their control of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System.

“This is not pocket change,” Eby said. “This is a huge amount of money.” He added revenue from any tax increase is never enough to pay for what is owed for PSERS.

“The school district has used most of its reserves,” Eby said. “This is probably the last year that we have any significant money that we can use to fill the gap between the amount we want to spend and the amount of money as income. It’s coming down to self-preservation.”

Staff and public

Dorene Akujobi, an English teacher at Lamberton Middle School, thanked board members for explaining the challenge behind balancing the budget. However, she wanted the board to take into account the impact that instructional aides have in the classroom.

Akujobi compared the relationship between teacher and aides to that of doctor and nurse. The nurse in the medical field provides an extra source of care and attention.

“That is exactly what our aides do,” Akujobi said. “As class sizes increase, we certainly count on that extra hand to come in and give that guidance. My concern is if we outsource, what is we have people who are not invested in our children. They will absolutely suffer.”

In terms of hourly pay, instructional aides could make more elsewhere, said Akujobi adding how they remain with the district because of its quality health insurance. Outsourcing the aides to the outside contractor would remove that health care benefit and take away one incentive to stay.

Ellie Park, also an English teacher at Lamberton, tried to make the case that outsourcing aides could have a significant impact on the ability of teachers to function in the classroom.

“We have aides at the elementary school that change the diapers of special needs students not able to get to the bathroom,” Park said. “We have aides clean up bathroom messes. At the high school, there are aides that work in the emotional support classroom with students who desperately need a loving and supportive extra hand. Those students often struggle with building relationships and trust so to have an aide…a familiar face…is incredibly important.”

Tori Smarr has a special needs child in the school district. Classroom aides have served as her son’s tutor and translator. She was also skeptical about the district’s chances of finding qualified replacements who would care as much or put as much time in as the present-day district-employed aides.

Smarr felt any aide employed by an outside contractor would hold the district to the bare minimum as outlined under the contract. “These people go so much above and beyond,” she said of the current staff. “We cannot take these invaluable people from our children.”

Board member Brian Guillaume drew applause from the audience after he expressed some reservations over transition of district-employed aides.

“There is no doubt that outsourcing will save the district money,” said Guillaume noting how the district was successful with outsourcing custodians, cafeteria staff and substitute teachers. “The difference for me is this affects classrooms,” he added. “This is different in my opinion as a father.”

Fellow board member Deb Sweaney tried to reassure the teachers and classroom aides who had gathered at the meeting last week. “It has nothing to do with how much we value you,” she said. “We know you all provide an important service to our children and our district. Still, we have to look at the total picture — that is why we have been elected.”

“We have some really tough financial decisions to make as we move forward. We’re already starting off with a $3 million gap.” Christina Spielbauer, Carlisle Superintendent

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.