With tears in his eyes, Sean Bates hugged an instructional aide.
The fifth-grader spoke in a low, broken voice, telling Ann Marie Chaney how much he disliked what had just happened to her.
The scene was emotional outside the large group instruction room of the Fowler building of Carlisle High School around 9:45 p.m. Thursday.
Carlisle Area School Board members had just voted 7-1 to approve a transition plan that terminates the district employment of over 80 instructional aides effective May 30.
The plan outsources the positions, giving current aides the opportunity to seek employment through ESS K-12 Education Staffing & Management Solution.
It outlines a severance package with longevity pay for aides who stay on with the district through the end of the day on May 30.
Cost savings and avoidance is one of the main selling points Education Solutions Services uses in its online pitch to public school districts.
“I honestly thought coming in tonight that maybe we had a little bit of a chance,” Chaney said in the hallway. “We had more support from the community. Parents coming in. Students talking. All that is greatly appreciated. We are just sad that it is coming to an end the way that it is.”
Pay scale revisited
Bates was among the local residents who made a last-ditch appeal to board members struggling to find a way to close an anticipated $3.7 million shortfall in the budget for 2019-20. District administrators had recommended the outsourcing in an effort to cap escalating health insurance and pension costs and to save the district a projected $600,000 next year.
“I have autism and ADHD,” Bates told board members. “A lot of the aides in my school make me really comfortable. They have given me the push that gets me to the edge of being where I am now.
“I think the aides shouldn’t be treated like how they are,” the boy said. “They should get more money. They do a really good job in helping us out when we are trying to do work.”
The little boy sat in the big, comfy chair reading stories about monsters.
Board members Thursday approved the transition plan with the understanding that district administrators will take another look at a proposed tiered pay scale for aides who decide to continue under ESS.
The goal would be to account for longevity. Current aides with years of experience have complained that they would be making the same hourly wage as ESS aides hired off the street with less experience.
Wage increases proposed under the tiered pay scale represented a good faith effort by the administration to minimize some of the hardship caused by the outsourcing, board member Fred Baldwin said.
By making the pay scale reflect the length of service, the board will attempt to reinforce the close working relationships the aides have with students, he said.
Of the nine board members, Gerald Eby was absent and Brian Guillaume was the only one to vote against the plan.
“I have been approached by 132 people regarding this issue since it reared its head in October,” Guillaume said. “I have spoken with students, teachers, aides, parents, community members and elected officials. To date, I had zero people say why this is a good idea.”
He said there are a lot of other areas the board and administrators could investigate to save money. It bothered him that the district is looking at the potential loss of such motivated and dedicated aides.
“I have concerns that we would be able to staff consistently with the proposed outsourcing company,” Guillaume said. “We may not have aides that understand the triggers, the mechanisms and the award systems that we need to have in place for those students who have IEPs [Individualized Education Programs].”
Board balancing act
School Board President Paula Bussard outlined the challenge board members face in trying to balance a high quality education for the district’s 5,000-plus students with the fiscal responsibility of taxing local property owners who have paid most of the bill as state funding has declined.
While local school districts continue to jettison staff over rising pension and health care costs, the real winner in the equation appears to …
“Since the recession, we have had certain costs every year increasing at rates higher than inflation,” Bussard said. “That means each year, for about 10 years, we have started the budget cycle with a gap of between $1.5 million and $4 million.”
To emphasize her point, she listed measures the district has taken to save money, including bond refinancing, energy conservation and modifications in the last two teacher contracts that have caused faculty members to spend more on co-pays and health insurance premiums.
One year the board offered an early retirement incentive program knowing the district was going to lose outstanding and highly qualified teachers, Bussard said. She said how the budget for 2019-20 includes a proposal to cut six full-time equivalent teaching positions.
Bussard cited the district strategic plan, which includes an initiative to restructure the elementary education program. That could lead the district to switch to a K-2/3-5 building model that could close one of its three aging elementary schools.
“We will hold our administration accountable,” Bussard said of the outsourcing. She urged anyone with an issue regarding ESS in the future to bring the matter to the attention of the building principals.
Two years ago, the district implemented a partial outsourcing of instructional aides by replacing those who resign or retire with ESS employees.
Bussard volunteers five hours a week at one of the Title I schools in the district. She works one-on-one with students helping them to improve their writing skills. Some of those children have special needs or behavioral issues.
In the past year, Bussard said she has seen ESS aides at work. She described them as being very dedicated and good people who care about teachers and students.
At meetings and in emails, local residents have suggested alternatives to outsourcing the aides. “All the ideas have been taken very seriously,” Bussard said, adding that school officials will continue to study their feasibility.
Hope for awareness
Board member Anne Lauritzen said she has a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach due to the emotions tied to the outsourcing controversy. She said she hopes the debate on the issue will raise public awareness of how state government under-funds education.
“Every time we raise property taxes, every time we make cuts, it’s because of that,” Lauritzen said. Board members have to consider the long-term financial viability of the district for all its students, she said.
“We have been listening very carefully,” Rick Coplen told the aides Thursday. “We do value what you do for our children. [But] this is not just a one-time $600,000 issue.”
Not outsourcing the aides would mean the $600,000 in expense would have to be carried over from year to year as a recurring cost on top of the other shortfalls the district is likely to face with each budget cycle, Coplen said. “It’s only going to get worse. What we really need is a society mind shift about the value and funding of education.”
“Since the recession, we have had certain costs every year increasing at rates higher than inflation. That means each year, for about 10 years, we have started the budget cycle with a gap of between $1.5 million and $4 million.” Paula Bussard, School Board President