Budget cuts stretch Western Pa. schools' support staff thin

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 9:20 p.m.

Meaghan Drye quickly responded when a reading teacher asked what was common about the words that she and three other first-graders in a group were practicing.

“I want to tell you two things,” said Meaghan, 7. “They all have a short E, and I just got my ears pierced.”

Meaghan attends West Mifflin Area School District's Homeville Elementary School, which provides a schoolwide reading support program to its 296 students in kindergarten through third grade.

For five years, students have met in small groups with reading specialists for a half-hour each day, but budget cuts resulted in the layoffs of two instructional aides and one reading coach two years ago, and a teachers aide who retired in 2008 wasn't replaced, said Marjorie Glaid, a Title I reading specialist at Homeville.

That led to more students in fewer groups: 15 students per group instead of six, and six groups now versus 10 before. Similar cuts have occurred in the reading support programs at the district's two other elementary schools, Clara Barton and New Emerson, Glaid said.

“What we miss is the small groups,” she said.

Cutting teaching positions has become commonplace as districts reduce budgets. The job losses that often go unnoticed, however, are those of employees who serve in supportive roles, such as teachers aides, librarians, secretaries, custodians and cafeteria workers, experts say.

Rising costs of state-mandated pension contributions, increasing health care expenses, declines in property tax revenue and cuts in government funding have forced districts to make tough personnel decisions, particularly since the average school district spends two-thirds of its budget on personnel, said Jay D. Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials in Harrisburg.

“I think, especially because of the spiraling cost of pensions, that positions that are not instructional in nature tend to be very large targets for those kinds of reductions,” he said.

Experts say the losses, especially of teachers' aides and librarians, can impact student instruction just as much as the loss of teachers.

“These are the people that can least afford to have things piled on top of them. They are the lowest paid in the school district,” said Butch Santicola, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union representing about 187,000 public school employees and education support staff members.

The union represents about 34,000 support staff members statewide, which is 2,000 fewer than in 2010. The union does not represent employees in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Scranton and some other schools, spokesman Wythe Keever said.

Seneca Valley School District last year cut 22.5 support jobs, including four secretaries, 3.5 custodians and 15 paraprofessionals (teachers aides or assistants), spokeswoman Linda Andreassi said.

This year, one paraprofessional job was cut, and daily hours were reduced for those remaining from 7.5 to six hours a day, saving about $120,000, she said.

“We're filling in the gaps where we can. We are changing some things up with scheduling so that we don't run into any difficulties with lack of coverage,” she said.

Filling the gaps is a burden that often falls upon classroom teachers because they are tasked to do more to meet state educational mandates, West Mifflin Superintendent Daniel Castagna said.

In 2009-10, West Mifflin schools had 417 full-time equivalent employees, compared to 342.5 now, district Business Manager Dennis Cmar said. It has lost 21 full-time-equivalent support staff members — mostly teachers' aides — through layoffs or unfilled positions after attrition, bringing the total to 99, he said.

The district also reduced some aides from full-time to part-time, and raised the property tax millage rate by 0.7 in 2009-10 to bring in more revenue, he said.

The 2012-13 budget totals $44.9 million, compared with $48 million in 2009-10, Cmar said.

Karen Santoro, 59, a Title I teachers aide who has been a West Mifflin paraprofessional for 30 years, said she waited nervously before support staff cuts were announced and was sad to see colleagues lose their jobs.

“I was hoping that I wasn't one of the ones to go. I'm the oldest,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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