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APS Out to Make Volunteering Easier, Less Costly

By Amy Miller
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    David Hadwiger needed a background check to drive his daughter and her classmates on a class field trip to an Isotopes game.
    But navigating the bureaucratic maze to get one was so frustrating, he gave up.
    In low-income neighborhoods, finding volunteers who can drive children to the PTA clothing bank is no easy task when many parents must choose between buying groceries or spending $34 on a background check, said Kim Kerschen, central region director of the New Mexico PTA.
    Everyone agrees that no parent wants their child spending time alone with a volunteer who has a shady criminal past.
    That's why for more than 10 years the state has required background checks for volunteers who have unsupervised access to students.
    At APS, the school district runs a background check at a cost of $34, Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt said.
    But for many potential APS volunteers, the bureaucratic red tape and expense involved isn't worth it. For example, APS doesn't accept cash, checks or credit cards. Only money orders or cashier's checks will do.
    "This was the most frustrating thing I've ever gone through," Hadwiger said about his experience in April. "I could not have sat down and spent a month creating a system that was as inefficient, and absolutely burdensome, as this one."
    Everitt says she is trying to make the process easier and less costly.
    She concedes the cost can be a burden for low-income families, and she has asked the APS Foundation to find businesses that can help cover it. Some PTAs already help by paying for the background checks.
    "But first off, we need to find out how many people this is affecting," Everitt said. She already has planned changes to make volunteering easier.
    The expense wasn't a problem for Hadwiger; understanding the process was.
    No information about getting a background check was posted on the APS Web site. Hadwiger arrived at APS' fingerprinting office to start the process after it closed at 4 p.m.
    Those hours proved to be inconvenient for some volunteers with the Albuquerque Reads program, as well, so the program no longer requires background checks. Instead, its volunteers tutor students where an APS employee is present, usually in the classroom with other students, program coordinator Sarah Treviso said. Before, they could tutor students one-on-one in an unused classroom, where they weren't disturbed by others.
    But the office hours were just a part of Hadwiger's frustration.
    He arrived a second time to learn that a form had to be signed by his daughter's principal. That meant a trip to his daughter's school, Bandelier Elementary, and a third trip back to APS' fingerprinting office.
    That's when he learned the office doesn't take personal checks, cash or credit cards, only cashier's checks or money orders.
    It was then that he gave up.
    "The bottom line is, we're very busy parents," Hadwiger said.
    To make things easier for parents like Hadwiger, Everitt said the Human Resources department will post background check procedures on its Web site.
    The fingerprinting office will stay open until 6 p.m. every Wednesday starting Sept. 6, Everitt said. And APS will go to schools or businesses to fingerprint volunteers, if groups request that, she said.
    APS will accept credit card payments soon, said Everitt, who is also trying to find a way to let volunteers pay in cash.
    But no matter how it's paid, many low-income parents can't afford $34 for a background check, Kerschen said.
    As a result, many children in poor neighborhoods wait too long for a volunteer who can drive them to the clothing bank. Parents are not allowed to bring their own children, she said.
    "We're having more and more difficulty bringing kids down," Kerschen said.
    The Dolores Gonzalez Elementary PTA sets aside about $300 for background checks, said principal Dora Ortiz. Ninety-nine percent of its students are low income, and a trip to the clothing bank is essential for many.
    "For those that can and really do want to help, that's our job," Ortiz said. "If you are going to help us, we can help you."