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Penn Hills School District takes look at volunteer clearances

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 10:28 p.m.

When the first set of proposed revisions to the Penn Hills School District's volunteer policy was announced, it caused a stir among PTA members, according to PTA board member Jane Marra.

The initial revisions would have required casual volunteers — defined as “any individual who comes to a school at some frequency and works in the presence of a teacher/administrator when with students,” in the district's policy handbook — to obtain three background-check clearances: Acts 114, 34, and 151.

Marra said PTA members were worried that requiring the clearances, as well as the cost to obtain them, could discourage many of the parent volunteers on which the organization relies.

“We need parental involvement, and (the initial proposed revisions) were eliminating the opportunity for a very vital resource that we have,” Marra said.

Members of the district's policy committee discussed the volunteer clearances at their Jan. 28 meeting, working to strike a balance between encouraging volunteerism and protecting students.

Committee and school board member Jennifer Burgess-Johnson and Superintendent Thomas Washington both noted that state lawmakers are in the process of developing legislation that would make some school-district clearances mandatory.

“This should have been done already,” Burgess-Johnson said. “Now we're at a point where we can do it now, or have it forced upon us by the Legislature.”

Marra told the committee she was “just looking for clarification on a few things,” and did not want to see volunteerism in the district diminished because of the cost to obtain clearances.

“We are a unique community in a lot of ways,” she said. “We have so many students who may not have the support system that others have, for whatever reason. I think that mentoring can happen in all kinds of ways. Some kids just hunger for that adult conversation.”

Marra, whose four children include two PHSD graduates, a current high-school student and a middle-school student, said all volunteers, whether they are parents of students or simply residents, perform an invaluable service.

“Some people ask me why I go to basketball games when I don't have a kid who plays. They ask why (the PTA) does “Popcorn Day” at the high school. Why do I join committee after committee?” she said.

“Kids have to know that adults care.”

Burgess-Johnson said she would like to see a reimbursement component in the volunteer policy to help with the cost of obtaining clearances.

Marra said she will obtain her clearances as soon as possible and didn't have a problem with doing so, but noted that for some parents, it might be an issue.

“In all honesty, the forms are tedious and the cost is prohibitive for many,” she said. “We need a plan in place for the ‘casual' visitor.'”

Burgess-Johnson said new policy revisions will come back before the committee before being voted on by the school board.

In other business:

• Superintendent Thomas Washington said he would like to update and adjust the current facility-use fee schedule. Discussion focused on determining what groups that use district facilities are nonprofit entities, as well as what groups are considered “feeder” programs for district athletics and organizations.

The policy itself did not need updated, only the fee schedule, which ranges from free use for 501(c)3 nonprofits to $1,500 for groups to rent large-scale facillities such as Yuhas-McGinley Stadium, Washington said.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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