After months of study and meetings with parent groups, administrators in the North Allegheny School District thought they had found the perfect compromise for a policy to require criminal clearances for volunteers.
They were still going to recommend contracting with the Secure Volunteer program to screen parents who volunteer in the schools, but had backed off of the original idea to have volunteers get cleared every year. The policy administrators had been poised to propose last week required clearances every three years.
With Secure Volunteer, parents could obtain both a Pennsylvania State Police criminal record clearance and a state child abuse clearance from the Department of Public Welfare online for $16.95, less expensive than the $10 each to apply separately.
However, all that is changing because of Act 153, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in late October. The law mandates updated clearances for all school employees and volunteers every 36 months.
"Act 153 is treating volunteers from a clearance standpoint the same way they are treating staff members," Robert Scherrer, assistant superintendent, told school board members Nov. 12. "This is going further down the road than we were looking to go."
The law also adds another clearance into the mix. Employees and volunteers who have lived in Pennsylvania fewer than 10 years would have to add a nationwide criminal background check from the FBI, which currently costs $28.75 and requires the applicant to be fingerprinted.
“Act 153 goes beyond the policy and procedures we were developing and creates a significant obstacle in implementing what we were considering,” Mr. Scherrer said.
The law takes effect Dec. 31, and the clearances would be required as of July 1, 2015, said Michael Brungo, district solicitor.
The problem, Mr. Brungo said, is that there are no regulations to go along with the law. The regulations will eventually come from the state Department of Education.
“In other words, everything is as clear as mud,” said board member Maureen Grosheider.
School districts have always had the choice of whether to require clearances for volunteers, or even what types of volunteers. The new law makes no distinction between active volunteers “and those who come in once or twice a year for the Halloween party,” Mr. Brungo said.
“This is going to be incredibly stifling for volunteerism,” said board member Kevin Mahler, adding that some elementary school events that require numerous volunteers, such as field day, may no longer be held.
“We need to start thinking this through. … What are our contingency plans?”
Officials said they would look for guidance from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
"This school district has 5,000 parents that volunteer. We are only one of 500 school districts. What is going to happen when all the parents apply at the same time? They are going to bring the system down," said superintendent Ray Gualtieri.
The law is also going to be a logistical nightmare for the school district with regard to teacher clearances, Mr. Gualtieri added. Under the law, the district is required to keep track of when a teacher’s clearance is up for renewal and whether that teacher needs to have the additional FBI check.
“Have they figured out how we are going to determine that? Are they going to have to bring me 10 years of tax records?” he asked.
Board President Chris Jacobs said the new law is “an excellent example of how a one-size-fits-all ... doesn't measure up with local realities. Local control, in almost all instances, is preferable.”
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: email@example.com.