Outsourcing idea in Penn-Trafford School District in comes under fire

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 6:59 p.m.

Some parents of special-needs children are decrying what they say is a Penn-Trafford School District proposal to outsource paraprofessional staffing to a Johnstown-based education nonprofit to avoid paying health insurance.

As the district heads into its next negotiating session with the union for support staff today, Thursday, parents and paraprofessionals implored the school board on Monday to continue to employ 39 aides for special-education students.

Some of the paraprofessionals are personal-care assistants, who work one-on-one with a student.

Officials of Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents the district's paraprofessionals, custodians and secretaries, said the district is considering hiring The Learning Lamp to provide paraprofessional services.

Because many of Penn-Trafford's paraprofessionals work more than 30 hours a week, the district might be required to provide insurance benefits under the new federal health care law championed by the Obama administration. The staffers, who earn between $9.75 and $15 an hour, don't receive health care under the existing contract that expires June 30.

Cheryl McGartland, a 12-year paraprofessional who is on the union's negotiating team, said it would be an injustice to the special-needs children and their families if the district contracts with an outside agency.

“We are a student's defender, protector and advocate each and every day,” she said.

Doreen Gamble illustrated that role by describing her one-on-one work as a personal-care assistant for Kenny Williams at McCullough Elementary School.

She ran through all of the tasks she does for Kenny, who has cerebral palsy, including helping him move throughout the building, carrying his school materials, giving massages and helping him cut paper for an assignment.

“I am his legs and I am his arms from the time he gets off the bus in the morning until he gets back on the bus in the afternoon,” Gamble said.

Kenny's mother, Autumn, who also works as a paraprofessional, said her family is prepared to move into another school district or provide home-schooling for her two special-needs children if the district follows through on the proposal.

Board members didn't directly address the parents' and paraprofessionals' comments about proposed outsourcing, but Vice President Toni Ising said, “I believe we all appreciate the work you do.”

Marty Stovar and Rich Niemiec, board members who serve on the district's negotiating committee, declined to comment about contract talks.

Some of the parents' and paraprofessionals' comments derided The Learning Lamp as a “temp agency,” but the organization's executive director, Leah Spangler, said the group works in a partnership with school districts to fill specific positions.

The Learning Lamp works with 75 districts in 35 counties in a variety of ways, including staff training, implementation of before- and after-school programs, and grant-writing services, she said.

“If — and this is a big if,” Spangler said, “if we end up working with the Penn-Trafford School District … we would work with them to figure out the best staffing for the students who need assistance.”

But supporters of the existing arrangement for district-employed paraprofessionals said a change could upset the trust and stability that paraprofessionals have established with their students.

“A PCA can read her student even better even than the classroom teacher,” said Beth Miller, a fourth-grade teacher at Sunrise Estates Elementary school. “That's because of the time, the one-on-one time spent together.”

Linda Tessaro credited her daughter's personal-care assistant with helping her fully integrate into the high school environment. Her daughter now has plans to go to college.

“Why would Penn-Trafford want to lose skillful, loyal, committed community people like our PCAs?” she asked.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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