ELKINS PARK — Several months after authorizing the advertisement of requests for proposals, the Cheltenham School Board is still researching options surrounding the outsourcing of a number of second shift custodians and before- and after-care workers.

“We are not looking to rush any of this. We want to have an orderly negotiation where all sides can air their positions, and hopefully come to a resolution that no one hates too much,” said Joel Fishbein, vice president of the district’s school board.

The Cheltenham School District issued a statement last week refuting claims that board members had reached a verdict on outsourcing.

“We are still in conversations about it, and we have not made a decision,” said board member Pamela Henry.

The statement stemmed from a post that surfaced on Facebook where a woman said she "had been laid off," while "on a Zoom call" with a "union," according to Kevin Kaufman, Cheltenham School District’s director of communications and development.

“That couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” Kaufman said.

The contention surrounding these inquiries originated from a March 31 Cheltenham School Board meeting when elected leaders moved to receive and entertain bids from contractors to learn more about the possibilities of outsourcing some of the aforementioned employees.

According to Kaufman, 30 second-shift custodians and 35 part-time C.L.A.S.P. workers could be impacted by outsourcing efforts. While the district is “investigating subcontracting the second-shift custodians,” the C.L.A.S.P. “operation could be entirely subcontracted, meaning a company would come in and manage the program,” Kaufman said.

Dozens of area residents submitted comments ahead of the virtual meeting, with many expressing their outrage on the timing surrounding the potential employment change surrounding and the inability to have the discussion in person.

“I think it is a travesty that this is discussed in a manner that is generally hidden and does not allow for open and transparent discussion for the physical presence of members of the community,” Cheltenham resident Elizabeth Bieryla said in a submitted statement on March 31.

When asked to respond to those steadfast in their opposition to the outsourcing option, Henry and Fishbein acknowledged their feelings and opinions.

“I hear them,” Henry said.

“I can’t say I was surprised,” Fishbein said. “This was a very difficult decision for us politically because we don’t want to do this, and ... it’s not a done deal, and a lot of the comment was suggesting that it was a done deal, but all that we approved in that meeting was the exploration seeking and receiving RFP’s so that we’d know what the magnitude of savings would look like if we were to do this.”

The school board members cited financial concerns as a reason to investigate the opportunity. The school district's budget for the 2019-20 school year was  $122,028,381, according to Cheltenham School District's Business Manager Cara Michaels. The district also has a roughly $3 million structural deficit. 

“There’s a significant lack of funding from the state for education for public education and even greater lack of funding from the federal government,” Henry said.

Fishbein agreed, stating that the state’s Department of Education “only funds 20 percent” of the school district’s operations, and the “federal government funds less than 5 percent of it.”

“... The lion's share of the money to run the district comes from taxation of our property owners who are overtaxed, and we know that,” he said. “And what we see as a high priority is to find ways to ensure that we don’t have to continue to raise taxes on our property owners.”

More than three months later, Fishbein said the board has received three bids, with one being deemed adequate, but no decision has been made as of yet.

According to the school code, once the governing body reaches a conclusion, a public hearing will be held prior to the vote.

However, Fishbein stressed that negotiations with the Business Employee’s Council, the union representing the school district’s second-shift workers, are still ongoing. He added that the “current contract expires on June 30.”

Henry agreed, and emphasized that it’s about “coming to a contract that we can all live with, which means there has to be give and take on both sides, and we recognize that.”

However, Fishbein noted that coming to a resolution has become increasingly difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Montgomery County officially moved to the green phase on Friday, restrictions were in place for months on gatherings and using school facilities as a result of Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandates to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“The truth is that not being able to meet in person does make things less efficient,” Fishbein said.

Additionally, the pandemic has put additional monetary burdens on the school district to comply with recommendations put in place at the state and federal levels.

In a June 16 town hall, Superintendent Wagner Marseille addressed these mounting costs, adding “we’re getting what I believe to be nominal dollars … for COVID-related expenses,” while it costs around an average of $1.8 million to carry out these guidelines.

“There absolutely is not enough federal dollars with the tall ask that is being placed on the shoulders of school systems,” he said during the virtual meeting earlier this month.

Fisbein also shared these concerns.

“All of the fiscal constraints ... have been made even worse by the financial pressures caused by COVID[-19] and the district’s response to it,” Fishbein said. “So there are expenses that we can’t even yet quantify associated with reopening that could make what Pam correctly called a ‘structural deficit’ even worse temporarily while we’re dealing with the blowback from the added costs of COVID reopening protocols.”

While there’s no clear timeline on when the members of the Cheltenham School Board could reach a decision one way or the other, Henry and Fishbein agreed that they’re doing their due diligence by researching all scenarios.

“I’m confident that this board along with input and support from our constituents, we’re going to make the best decision for this district because that’s what we’re here to do, and we are focused on adequately funding our student-center[ed] mission, and we’re not going to take our eye off of our students, but together we’ll come to a workable solution,” Henry said.

@rachelravina on Twitter

Rachel Ravina is a journalist covering news and lifestyle features in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Blue Bell and graduated from Penn State. She's also a news enthusiast who is passionate about covering topics people want to read.

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