Schools juggle calendars due to Affordable Care Act; union leader questions move

Grant School District 110 in Fairview Heights and Harmony-Emge District 175 in Belleville are limiting the number of school days a month to 19 to comply with the Affordable Care Act mandate. That means September is one of the months in which students have extra days off — including a four-day Labor Day holiday.

A local union leader questions the motive behind the reduction in school days.

Grant 110 started limiting school days to 19 a month last year to comply with the maximum allowable hours for some employees under the Affordable Care Act. Harmony-Emge 175 in Belleville adjusted the calendar to do the same this year, but the superintendent says it was “not a matter of cost savings.”

Pam Leonard, superintendent of District 175, denied the district’s move had anything to do with money and everything to do with the “continuity of the day” for students to allow paraprofessionals to work with the same students every school day.

The employees driving the change are paraprofessionals, part-time employees who are not eligible for health care insurance as long as they work less than 130 hours a month.

Ray Roskos, field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, questions the motive.

“I don’t see any other reason, other than to limit offering health insurance to a class of employees,” Roskos said. Roskos has 13 area districts under his purview, including Harmony but not Grant.

A newsletter sent to District 175 parents in late August said the move was to “comply with the federal guidelines established under ‘Obamacare’” and allowed the support staff and aides to work all school hours, “which is crucial to our buildings and students.”

Paraprofessionals provide crucial institutional support, Leonard said. Without an adjustment to the school calendar, “(paraprofessionals) wouldn’t be available five days a week to students, which affected programs for students.”

“All we did was re-allocate how we had the paraprofessionals ... nothing was taken away and nothing was added,” Leonard said.

The reduction to 19 school days a month saves Grant some $270,000 a year in benefits — benefits most of those employees don’t care about anyway, the district said.

“They didn’t want to see their hours cut and lose money,” Grant Superintendent Matt Stines said. He said many of the school’s paraprofessionals had health benefits from other sources, such as spouses in the military.

Limited to two districts

So far, only Harmony-Emge 175 and Grant 110 have made the calendar changes. Superintendent Julie Brown, of similarly sized Pontiac-William Holliday District 105 in Fairview Heights, said the district had not yet considered changing the school calendar.

Paraprofessionals at Pontiac-William Holliday do “get some money to go toward benefits, but we have very few that take advantage of that,” Brown said.

The district’s business agent Pam Clark said none of the 12 paraprofessionals last year took the benefits, and they are paid $20.17 an hour. Pontiac’s paraprofessionals work between 6 and 7.5 hours a school day.

“From what I’ve been told, most of them are covered under their husband’s (insurance), or it’s just way too expensive,” Clark said.

Rosko, the field service director for the teacher’s union, says calendar changes have everything to do with money, citing the district’s own newsletter to parents in which David Deets, Ellis and Harmony Intermediate principal, used the term “Obamacare.”

“They’re concerned about cost and do have legitimate issues with cost (for paraprofessionals) ... yet all administrators, they’re health insurance costs are paid 100 percent by the district,” Roskos said.

The financial statement provided by the district confirms that Leonard and two of the three building principals have more than $20,000 a year in health insurance benefits. The same statement shows that of the 29 employees listed as “aide” — none had insurance benefits and most made between $13,000 and $14,000.

Roskos says this type of hours-worked control is atypical of districts that limit hours.

“Typically it’s under 30 (hours) a week, typically five day workweeks but under six hours a day,” he said.

He does agree with Leonard’s assessment that paraprofessionals working four days a week is “really problematic with aides and personal care aides.”

Although Millstadt District 160 starts off with 19 days of school this month, it wasn’t intentional, said Superintendent Jon Green.

“We’re not in the situation where we have people on that crux like that,” he said.

Millstadt has about 15 paraprofessionals, all of whom are certified teachers but not part of the teachers union, who work as co-teachers.

“They’re paid as paraprofessionals, but they also get full benefits,” Green said.

Millstadt pays 75 percent of the premiums for employees’ health plans.

“Our employee-only monthly medical is $382 ... we pay 75 percent of that,” Green said.

Parents have muted reaction

Both Stines and Leonard said parents initially had questions about the changes to the school calendars but soon understood.

Stines is “very conscious” when designing the school calendar so that the necessary days off are paired with existing days off, such as with Labor Day.

“Most of my parents really like that, they’re OK with that,” he said.

Harmony families are still adjusting to the days off.

“It seems unnecessary and excessive,” said Aaron Gurney, mother to Emge student Kaitlyn, 13, and Belleville West student Christina, 16.

“I know for my youngest … when there’s longer breaks in school, it takes a while for her to get back in her routine and retain what she’s learned.”

There are no mandates on when or how schools start, which breaks they take, or when school ends as long as national holidays are met and students receive 176 attendance days, says Susan Sarfaty. She is the superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education.

Random days off, like Sept. 25 for Grant or Sept. 28 for Harmony, don’t concern Sarfaty when districts submit school calendars to her office for review.

“That’s not one of the things I look at. I look to make sure they have the appropriate number of days per year and hours per day, and use parent-teacher days correctly,” she said.

Two of the student attendance days can be parent-teacher conferences without a student actually present, Sarfaty said, and in such a case “you have kids sitting in desks 174 days” as mandated.

The state mandates that students in grades third through eighth start the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, also known as PARCC, assessment when between 75 and 90 percent of classroom instruction is done, Leonard said.

This year, “it’s a single 30-day period” of testing compared to last year’s two testing durations.

Leonard said PARCC testing would not be affected by the days off during the year.

Parent Gurney thinks fewer days in class each month will add stress for students.

“Academically, it’s not going to benefit them in the long run. They have more to make up during the school year; it piles on the school work; it makes the academic part of it more stressful,” she said.

Longer weekends aren’t a picnic on that Monday or Tuesday morning either, Gurney said, who expects “some tears and a little struggle” come Tuesday morning.

Gurney expressed concern for families in which parents are not easily able to be home for the additional days off during the school year.

“Illinois law says they can’t be alone ’til age 14; that creates a lot of pressure to fill in those gaps,” she said, noting that her older daughter would not be off school at West on some days when her younger daughter is, although in her household an adult is always present after school.

Leonard said extra child care for those days off is not available this year but might be something the district considers in the future.

“It affects four of the months,” she said of the days off to keep the school calendar to 19 days a month, with holidays and winter and spring break adding additional days off. “It’s not all the months, there were only four months that had (more than) 19 days.”

Contact reporter Mary Cooley at or 618-239-2535. Follow her on Twitter: @MaryCooleyBND.

Number of school days in September at small metro-east school districts:

Grant District 110: 19

Harmony-Emge District 175: 19

Millstadt District 160: 19

Central District 104: 21

Freeburg District 70: 21

Pontiac William-Holliday 105: 21

Signal Hill District 181: 21

Smithton District 130: 21