MAYS LANDING _ Parents and staff packed the Atlantic County Special Services School Board meeting Monday to protest plans to privatize the services of personal aides assigned to students.
“The staff here is seasoned,” said classroom aide Kate Devaney, who would not be affected by the cuts. “They know the needs of the students. Privatization eases problems in the short term, but you lose in the long run in the service provided.”
More than 40 aides were notified at the meeting that personal aid positions will be eliminated effective June. 30. School superintendent Philip Guenther said they will continue to work with the union to see if they can work out a solution, but by law they had to notify affected staff of possible layoffs by May 15.
“This is just the beginning of the process,” he said.
He said while the cost is paid by the public school districts in the students’ hometowns, the salary and benefits cost of an aide, about $48,000 a year, is having an impact on districts’ willingness to send students to the school.
“The combined cost of aides, tuition and transportation is preventing districts from sending students to the school,” he said.
The average budgeted cost to educate a student this year at the school is almost $53,000 according to the state Taxpayer Guide to Education Spending, though the actual tuition cost varies based on individual student needs. Transportation can add another $18,000 or so to the cost.
Kathleen Huenke, chairwoman of the school Education Association’s negotiating committee said after the meeting that she is confident they can reach an alternative to privatization, but it will likely take concessions from members. She said three years ago the aides agreed to cut their hours by 15 minutes per day, and there have been no raises in three years.
She said the average aide makes about $22,000 a year, but also gets benefits, which can raise the total cost to the $48,000 mentioned by Guenther. She said aides would not be willing to stay if they had to totally give up their benefits.
“The salary is not that high,” she said. “People need the benefits.”
The district has advertised for bids for privatizing services and Huenke said they would wait for those bids to come in to see what concessions will be needed to keep the current aides.
Parent Larry Laskowski of Mays Landing said his autistic son Michael, who is in his fifth year at the school, is making significant progress there.
“I know you are faced with hard decisions, but you also have responsibilities,” he told the board. “We know what we have here is excellent. If you have to make a change, make sure you investigate the company because it will impact every student here.”
Parents were especially concerned about having consistency for their children, many of whom are autistic or multiply disabled and do not cope well with change.
Parent Kristy Bates said they fought hard to have their autistic son Toby, 7, enrolled at the school.
“He comes home happy,” she said. We know he is cared for and loved here. I want to know that you have our kids’ backs.”
Board president Philip Munafo said the proposal is strictly for budget reasons.
“This is not a question of how good you are,”he said. “But the economic picture is not good.”
Staff writer, education