by Jonathan Weaver
A mass of purple T-shirts filled the audience of last night’s Armstrong School District school board meeting.
But, they weren’t there to represent the Ford City attendance area.
The group included about 20 district paraprofessionals who assist special needs students in the district that are seeking a new union contract.
32BJ Service Employees International Union President Deb Smith, a paraprofessional who works in a Kittanning Senior High classroom, said there was a single reason for their attendance.
“We just want to get our contract settled,” Smith said. “We’ve been without since July 1. We just want to get it done.”
The contract offered by school district officials – which included a two percent wage increase – was rejected.
Union Paraprofessional Cindy Bracken of Applewold works in a classroom at Kittanning Junior High and added that the cost is a factor, but that proposal wouldn’t be enough.
“We’re the lowest paid in the district out of all the groups,” Bracken said. “What (the school district is) offering us won’t compensate for the increase in healthcare.
“What we make – less than $20,000 per year – we’re at poverty level!”
Under the contract proposal, healthcare would cost about $1,000 each.
The aide of 21 ½ years was also concerned if substitutes would even fill in if needed based on that income rate. Bracken decided to quit going to school for drafting and become a paraprofessional after helping with her son, Damien – who has Down’s syndrome.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2015 poverty guidelines, a family of three must earn less than $20,090 to qualify for federal assistance.
“I love my job – I love working with the kids,” Bracken said.
Paraprofessional Darla Grafton has been an aide for 14 years. She said the contract disagreement has not caused a loss of student support.
“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” Grafton said. “We don’t want to see that happen.”
School Board President Joseph Close said he knew the negotiations were ongoing and would further relay the concerns to District Solicitor Lee Price.
“They provide a vital service to the district – it’s not a high-paying job,” Close said. “They deserve a lot of credit for what they do.”
Still, Close said there is a lot of lot of pressure with budget concerns and rising healthcare costs.
“Those are your big items,” Close said. “Budgets are tight.”
Real estate and personnel issues were discussed by school directors before the regular meeting began.
The nearly-20 paraprofessionals that assist students throughout the district attended the regular meeting and stayed after it adjourned to speak to board members individually.
Last night’s representation included half of the union paraprofessionals. There are 39 in the school district
There was no action on the regular agenda concerning the contract.
Before the meeting, school board directors toured the new Armstrong Junior-Senior High School in Manor Township.
Reynolds on-site construction manager Roshelle Fennell updated board members last week that ceiling and ceramic tile, painting and flooring efforts are ongoing at the school on Buffington Drive.
Auditorium seating and carpeting will also be completed in a few weeks, with whiteboards, sinks and faucets currently being installed.
She said changes are seen on a weekly basis, and contractors are on-schedule to allow staff to move in in June.
“We’re about two months away from them turning that building over to us,” Close said last week.
“They’ve made great strides since we were there last time,” Close said after last night’s tour. “Some of the rooms are pretty-well put together, with the exception of maybe a few ceiling tiles.
As was discussed last week, school directors unanimously approved the current plan for secondary summer school – which according to personnel documents released after the meeting, will be offered from June 29 through July 30 with eight teachers instructing various courses. Driver Education will be held for the first three weeks.
They also approved a year contract with Reliance Communications, LLC, for SchoolMessenger unlimited communications service.
Director of Technology and Information Services Anthony Grenda lauded SchoolMessenger’s capacity for support and said some additional features will be available for staff – including a computer-based system for teacher computers and the ability to send messages about upcoming events. He said district parents should receive reliable phone messages during a school emergency, snow delay or school cancellation.