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Western Pennsylvania districts now hiring school psychologists

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By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Prompted by the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit's decision to stop providing mental-health services, officials of local school districts are hiring their own school psychologists.

Starting next school year, the intermediate unit no longer will offer the services of school psychologists to districts across the county, executive director Luanne Matta said.

“Over the past several years, we were seeing districts hire their own psychologists to utilize them in other capacities, as well as testing,” Matta said. “The decision was made this year to eliminate psychological services to school districts and just provide these services for (intermediate unit) run programs.”

In the Franklin Regional School District, that decision won't result in any new faces.

Officials on Monday offered Michael Cowen a three-year contract to serve as psychologist for the district. Cowen worked with the district through the intermediate unit for several years, Assistant Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac said.

He will earn an annual salary of $85,000.

The cost is similar to what the district paid the intermediate unit for the services, Reljac said.

School psychologists commonly work to identify students with special needs or students who are gifted. They also address behavior problems that interfere with student success.

In recent years, officials in local districts began looking elsewhere for psychological services, Matta said. The intermediate unit's program began to increase in cost because of state-mandated retirement contributions and health care costs, she said.

Now, school districts will pay all of those costs, Matta said.

The move was a tough decision spurred by finances, said Roberta Cook, assistant secretary of the intermediate unit's board and a member of the Franklin Regional School Board.

“It's excruciating to furlough employees,” Cook said.

But intermediate units have to change how they operate, she said. Despite being a state agency, the organization receives no state funding. That has caused it to function like a business, rather than an education provider, Cook said.

“As a citizen, I feel it's really unfortunate that we can no longer focus on the mission of supporting the needs of the student alone,” Cook said. “Instead, we have to support the needs of our students and be financially viable. They're treating a vital educational function as a business.”

In the Penn-Trafford School District, officials made the decision to cut ties with the intermediate unit's program last year, Superintendent Matt Harris said.

The district hired an in-house school psychologist who works with students of all abilities and works closely with school support staff, Harris said.

The move saved the district money but also had other benefits, he said.

“We gained more service time for our students, which is really most important,” Harris said.

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