By Elise Franco
AUSTINTOWN — The school board’s decision to eliminate 37 nonteaching jobs as a precautionary measure raised concerns with parents of special-needs students.
The board voted Tuesday night to remove 20 bus drivers, 16 paraprofessionals and one mechanic at the end of the 2008-09 school year, due to a projected $3 million deficit. Superintendent Doug Heuer said the union contract requires the district to notify employees of any staff potential changes by April 30.
Heuer said the combination of a failed levy in November and a state education budget that is still up in the air has made it difficult for the district to know how much money it will have for next school year.
“This is necessary for the board to maintain options,” he said.
Heuer said if the funds are secured after the final budget comes in June 30, some or all of the employees could be asked to come back.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to create any more anxiety for anyone in the district, but this can’t be avoided.”
Union President Bonnie Grantz said she has dealt with these types of job losses for eight years.
“It’s never easy letting my people know they’re going to lose their job as a precautionary measure,” she said. “I have to think positive and fight to get them all back.”
Heuer said he doesn’t think the loss of bus drivers will affect the district drastically.
“We bus 79 percent of our students, which far exceeds the state minimum,” he said. “Even if we reduce down to the state guidelines — busing out two miles for students in kindergarten through eighth grade — we’ll save approximately $1.3 million.”
For parents, the bigger concern is the loss of paraprofessionals who aid students on special-needs buses.
Jennifer Polcha, who lives on South Raccoon Road, said her 10-year-old son benefits from the help of bus aides on a daily basis.
“People are already cussing and honking because of the time it takes to get him on and off the bus,” she said. “I see an extreme problem when bus aides are eliminated.”
Polcha said it could take nearly 20 minutes to properly load her son onto the bus each morning without the help of an aide. She said it will have to be done by the bus driver.
“The driver will have to literally park the bus, go out to put the ramp down, strap my son in and go out to put the ramp back up,” she said. “They’ll be leaving the other kids on the bus unattended. It’s also a safety issue.”
Karen Fritz, who lives on Winslow Drive, said her 9-year-old daughter also uses a wheelchair. Fritz said she wishes all buses had aides.
“As a parent, I think every bus should have an aide, not just special-needs buses,” she said.
Fritz agreed with Polcha, saying leaving elementary kids on a special-needs bus alone is very risky.
“These are preschool kids and kids with Down syndrome and autism,” she said. “They could get sick or get out of the bus and run. There are a lot of runners.”
Several board members expressed their sympathy to those who will be losing their jobs after the school year is over.
David Ritchie said he’s sad to see any employees lose their job.
“To those of you who we’ve kicked to the door temporarily, we’ll be working to bring you back,” he said.