October 05, 2006

Is school running smoothly? Thank an SRP!

Source: New York Teacher

PHOTOS: The hard work of School-Related Professionals makes all the difference.

When a West Valley High football player breaks free for a touchdown and doesn't tear up his knee on the 20-yard line, he can thank Barry Mahnk, one of the school's maintenance workers. On a morning in August, Mahnk, a member of the West Valley Service Employees in western New York, is busy rolling out potentially dangerous dips in the football field in preparation for the upcoming season.

Mahnk treats every inch of the school's grounds like it's his own lawn because, in a way, it is.

"I went to school here; my father went to school here," Mahnk said. "I'm a legacy."

Mahnk is one of thousands of School-Related Professionals throughout New York who work feverishly over the summer and during the early weeks of the school year to make sure school starts without a hitch.

Nothing happens by accident. "When children arrive at school safe and on time, it is due to hours of work by bus drivers learning new routes and safety procedures," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "When food is ready to be served each day, it is because of hours of loading, unloading and preparation performed by food service workers."

To the students, a school's operation may appear seamless, but there's plenty of effort behind the scenes.

Getting a new school year started is "quite a bit of work," said Madeline Latarski, president of the Clarkstown Secretaries Association in Rockland County. "After a while, you get it down to a system."

Secretaries manage transition

What Latarski calls a "system" really amounts to a mountain of work for her 100 members, with things really heating up over the summer. Bus schedules and academic information, such as course schedules, need to be sent to Clarkstown's 9,600 students, a task that is managed by Latarski and her members.

Of course, the start of a new school year also means thousands of new textbooks. The secretaries from accounts payable must make sure vendors are paid and deliveries are made on time. The last-minute rush to hire teachers and SRPs puts a great deal of work in front of the secretaries in human resources.

Latarski said the start of the school year can be particularly hectic for members who handle transition years for students, such as the first year of middle school or high school.

"They have to change over hundreds of records and admit the new students," Latarski said. "Once school starts, you have kids who want schedule changes or there are busing conflicts and all of those changes need to be made right away. It's hard to outline everything we have to do in a day."

In the end, staff get hired, vendors get paid, students get courses they need and the school year proceeds efficiently thanks to the labors of Latarski and thousands of other secretaries across the state.

SRPs from a wide variety of job titles gain skills and strategies through union training, including NYSUT's annual SRP Leadership Conference, scheduled this year for Oct. 27-29 in Albany. "The seminars and workshops will feature more diverse and cutting-edge topics than ever before," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue. (See more about SRP resources at www.nysut.org.)

Keeping kids safe

Providing a seamless educational experience for children also means ensuring that they have a safe learning environment. That is where Anthony Petrucci and the 75 members of the Smithtown Security Employees Association on Long Island come in.

Petrucci's members, many of whom are retired New York City police officers and firefighters, are responsible for security at K-12 facilities that educate nearly 11,000 students.

Petrucci and his members are tasked with knowing every inch of a school building and its operations. When a bus is late or a visitor is coming, they want to know about it.

A big part of the job is being an ambassador, Petrucci said. It is by getting to know the staff, students and their families that the security guards can keep schools safe.

"A lot of the job is traffic control," Petrucci said. "We're managing the safe coming and going of students and staff."

They're very good at their jobs. As trained former firefighters and police officers, Petrucci and his members have helped prevent tragedy.

In 2001, a student collapsed from a heart attack and union members, who are well trained in CPR from their previous jobs, helped save his life.

"It's just automatic for us," said Petrucci, a former firefighter. "When someone needs help we just jump in."

Sometimes the help needed is emotional. Recently Petrucci spotted a student with a serious disability crying in a car with his mother, a clear case of school jitters. Petrucci tracked down the student's teacher and had her come talk to the student and resolve the problem.

"You have to have the right personality for the job," Petrucci said. "I know for a fact our work is appreciated."

Facilities: Planning and priorities

Naturally, an important part of getting the school year off to a good start is making sure facilities are clean, well maintained and ready to be used. In a small district with a limited budget like West Valley, SRPs are called on to be jacks - and jills - of all trades.

"We all do a little bit of everything around here," said the union's president, Bill Sloand, a district maintenance worker.

Sloand is not your run-of-the-mill maintenance worker who paints, cleans and does a little landscaping. If anything, he's more like a general contractor.

When something needs to be made out of wood, like a press box at a sports field, he helps make it. When the school's heating system needs to be fixed, he'll fix it.

He's part plumber, part electrician and part carpenter. When winter comes, he's a plow operator. Like most SRPs, Sloand and his crew will tell you their professional lives are divided into two seasons - summer and the school year. Summer is busy, but rewarding.

There are fields to be readied, floors to be resurfaced, furniture to be moved and rooms to be painted, but it's a lot easier without hundreds of students running around. It's a time of furious work, but also great progress. Once the school year starts, priorities change.

"At that point, our first job is to get teachers settled in," Sloand said. "We'll start working on some routine maintenance, like checking the heating system to make sure the pumps are all working. But once the kids are here, there's really something different every day."

West Valley seems to have a handle on one of the most frustrating aspects of many SRP jobs - getting teachers and kids to appreciate all the work that goes into providing a safe, clean and comfortable learning environment.

Over the summer, Sloand oversees a crew of seven recently graduated and incoming seniors who help with general maintenance.

Teachers also are getting an appreciation of the hard work done by Sloand and his crew. Amy Butler, an elementary teacher, works on the summer maintenance crew. She is also volleyball coach and negotiator for the West Valley Teachers Association, led by Mary Lou Forster.

Butler spent this summer cleaning classrooms and floors and becoming an expert at power-washing rugs.

"It gives us a real appreciation for what the service employees union does and helps us be more considerate," she said. "I also like that it's physically exhausting. I go home each day and feel tired, like I accomplished something."

It's a feeling thousands of SRPs across New York know well.

- Kevin Hart