Just how the Upper Perkiomen School District will deal with cutting hours to more than 50 staffers, and maintain its educational standards, is up in the air right now, officials said Monday night.
A crowd of teachers' aides and other district employees came out to this week's school board meeting seeking answers to questions about whether the district made a final decision on cuts and how it would affect students.
The district said this fall it expects to cut the hours of 57 paraprofessionals, who serve as everything from reading to special education aides, and five food service staff members for 2014-15.
Cutting those employees' hours from 30 down to 27 ½, the latest number being kicked around by administrators, would allow the district to avoid costly healthcare mandates legislated by the Affordable Care Act. School officials said the district simply can't afford to offer costly healthcare coverage for the employees.
At this Monday's school board meeting, Upper Perkiomen High School paraprofessional Linda Roberts said she and two of her peers sent board members a letter and asked about progress on a decision.
In that letter, Roberts said she proposed cutting the paraprofessionals' hours to 29 ½ and maintaining their current salary for next year.
"The only reason I brought up these options is because they've been taken into other districts and implemented. They are feasible…My concern is with cutting the hours, how are we going to keep the special education department functioning? We need to be concerned with how it's going to affect the children and the employees of the district."
"None of us on the board wanted to vote on that reduction of hours. We did talk about all the options," said Director Raeann Hofkin, citing double-digit increases in healthcare costs and the district's inability to keep pace with that.
Substitute Superintendent Dr. Fran Leskowicz said Kim Rank, director of pupil services and special education, is currently working on what the district would need to keep services up to par with specific cuts. He said the board will continue to explore the issue at upcoming budget meetings, which begin March 4.
Board members expressed both frustration with the mandates and appreciation for the job district paraprofessionals do.
"This has been an issue that is a personal one for me. My son is in the special education department," said Director Kerry Drake. "Don't think we're not working. We are just trying to find out what our options are and the best way to move forward. I'd like to personally thank all the aides for help with kids like my son. We truly appreciate all you do."
Director Will Pike, who said he sent a disabled daughter through the district and successfully onto college, agreed. "Without paraprofessionals, aides, her experience would have been completely different…There's a lot of care and love in this situation. You have our support."
The board later accepted the resignation of three special education assistants in the district, as well as a special education teacher from Marlborough Elementary, but Leskowicz said he was unsure if those resignations were tied to the proposed cuts.
In other district business, Director John Gehman spoke during a public comment period as a resident and taxpayer on his legal action against the district over a property tax appeal for his property, Butter Valley Golf Port. That appeal has been ongoing for the last six years.
Gehman gave the board a timeline of his appeal and what he characterized as "dishonest" dealings and inaction by the board's special legal counsel for the case. He implored the board to work with his lawyer to come to a settlement on the property value using what he called "real numbers."
"I want to negotiate this. I want to settle this," he said. "But using real numbers, not numbers thrown against the wall. Your numbers are out in left field."
Gehman said the district's appraisal valued his land at $15,300 an acre, while comparable properties are selling for approximately $6,000 an acre.
"I don't see it getting resolved," he said of the appeal. "I'm not trying to blow smoke. It's time to get something done. Six years; it's been going on too long."
The board took no action on Gehman's request, but said they could discuss the issue in an executive session.
In other action the board voted unanimously to collect an additional 5 percent commission on delinquent real estate taxes through Portnoff Law Associates.
They also authorized the creation of a new position at the Western Montgomery Career and Technical Center for assistant coordinator of food services, which is overseen by the Upper Perkiomen School District.
Kim Wheeler, of Green Lane, was honored with the district's Above and Beyond Award for her many years of service at Upper Perkiomen Middle School.