Southmoreland contracts with agency for classroom aides working with special needs students
A decision to outsource classroom aides who work with students with special needs has stirred emotions in the Southmoreland School District.
The school board last month voted 6-3 to hire an outside agency — Education Solutions Services — in a move that will save the district approximately $489,000 over two years in salary, retirement and health care benefits, Superintendent Vincent Mascia said. The change affects the jobs of about 20 district employees.
Those paraprofessionals can apply to work for Tennessee-based ESS to continue with their current assignment in the district, if they meet job qualifications, or take a severance package.
“They have a contractual obligation to first offer employees” their current assignment, Mascia told the Tribune-Review.
Parents are not happy with the change.
“You can’t say somebody’s going to move if you don’t ask that person if they’re willing to do that,” said Michelle Williams of Scottdale.
Her 7-year-old son Daniel has had a paraprofessional at the district since he entered kindergarten last year. The pair have gotten to know each other during that time, and Williams is concerned a disruption could have negative effects.
The paraprofessional helps her son, who has autism and vision impairment, from the moment he gets off the school bus, Williams said.
“Really, she does everything for him,” she said.
Williams is frustrated with the board’s decision. She isn’t sure who will be working one-on-one with her son and whether that person will change often.
“No answers can be given to me, like how this will work,” she said. “It’s very hard for me to make decisions on what’s best for my child if I don’t have all the answers.”
Most school districts in Westmoreland County need paraprofessionals, said Jason Conway, director of the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit. Districts have three options — contract with an outside agency, hire their own or seek help through the intermediate unit.
“That is part of the educational fabric of a school,” he said. “These people are essential.”
It’s common among districts locally and across the state to seek outside help to fill those positions as costs associated with running districts rise. Conway compared hiring outside paraprofessionals to a school district contracting for cafeteria workers or bus services.
“Now, we’re hitting it squarely in the classroom and where the learning happens,” he said.
ESS works with more than 700 school districts in 24 states to provide substitute and permanent employees, according to their website.
Mascia said during the meeting that an auditor’s report indicated the district is experiencing “serious financial concerns” and officials met with ESS.
“Continuity of service for our students is a major concern,” he said during the meeting, which is available through video recording.
Under the district’s contract, ESS paraprofessionals would be paid $12.50 per hour and they will be eligible to purchase benefits through the agency, Mascia said in a statement. Paraprofessionals were projected to earn $12.44 as district employees in a preliminary 2019-20 budget, he said.
School directors James Carson, Jason Pawlikowsky and Heather Smith opposed the contract.
The Tribune-Review filed a Right-to-Know request to obtain a copy of the contract. The district asked for a 30-day extension for a legal review of the request and a second one that seeks a copy of the board agenda from the March 21 meeting, when the contract was approved.
At that meeting, the school board also voted 7-2 for a severance agreement in which paraprofessionals would receive a one-time payment of $1,349.50 plus $50 for unused sick days. Paraprofessionals must notify the district by May 9 if they intend to take the package.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .