Watching the virtual school board meeting for nearly three hours last night was not for the faint of heart. A few of my takeaways —
With the sole exception of school board director Scott Dorsey’s vocal opposition, it appears that the TESD 2020-21 budget is on target to include a 2.6% tax increase, the highest permitted within PA Act I Index guidelines. (The TESD school board votes on the 2020-21 budget on June 8).
Recently at a May 19 press conference Governor Wolf was asked the question, “”Do you believe school districts should be raising taxes during the pandemic?” Wolf’s response, “We’re in a pandemic and this is not a time to burden any Pennsylvanian with additional responsibility or tax…we should be looking for ways to lighten the load; not the reverse.” This response does not support the District’s proposed 2.6% tax increase!
Some PA school districts, including Unionville Chadds Ford are approving 2020-21 budgets with zero tax increases. Supt. Brian Polito of the Erie School District is appealing to its school board for zero tax increase. Polito understands that his district is facing challenges but “now is not the time” for tax increases as residents struggle. Southern York County School District approved a budget cutting savings by freezing wages for its employees for one year to avoid a tax increase in its 2020-21 budget.
One of TESD budget strategies contained in the proposed 2020-21 budget is to suspend ERB testing for one year for a savings of $85,000. A form of assessment to guide instruction in math and reading, ERB testing has been used in the District for many years to measure students’ progress. Many pro-ERB test support letters from parents were read at the end of the board meeting. **
Several times during the meeting last night, the school board suggested that residents contact the District with comments regarding the budget, proposed budget cuts (including ERBs), distance learning, etc. There is a Finance Committee meeting on Monday, June 1 — in advance, I suggest that you send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
No update on the District’s unpaid balance of $36K to GEM Mechanical Services was included in the meeting agenda but surprisingly at 10:20 PM, Colm Kelly (head of TESD facilities) offered prepared remarks regarding GEM and asbestos in school buildings.
Kelly’s comment on asbestos at Beaufort Elementary School was circular and difficult to follow – my takeaway was that asbestos mediation was done in the building. TESD is required to keep copies of asbestos abatement reports up-to-date and on file in sll of its buildings. Although I am not sure where the reports are located in the buildings – I suggest concerned parents contact the school district directly for a copy of the report for their child’s school.
Kelly’s response to the 2019 boiler project at Beaumont Elementary and Devon Elementary schools skipped right over many facts and left the biggest question about the District’s outstanding payment to GEM Mechanical Services unanswered.
Earlier in the day (a few hours prior to the school board meeting and Kelly’s remarks) there was communication between Sean Gaffney, of GEM Mechanical Services and Colm Kelly, both on the phone and through emails. Many people were copied on the following email between the two, including the District’s business manager Art McDonnell, its architects at Heckendorn Shiles (HSA), TESD School Board and myself. Here is a copy of that follow-up email from Sean Gaffney to Colm Kelly which was sent a few hours prior to the school board meeting:
As per our phone conversation this afternoon, TESD will be cutting a partial payment check in the amount of $24,895.00 that will be available from the TE business office this upcoming Friday 5/29/20.
GEM Mechanical will be on site that same day (5/29/20) to complete our FINAL punch list items at which time we will request the remaining $11,850.00 that is being withheld by TESD and a check will be released no later than the following Friday 6/5/20.
I look forward to TESD and HSA’s cooperation in closing out this project.
It was fascinating that Kelly offered none of this information in his remarks. He no mention made of the outstanding $36K balance which TESD owes GEM Mechanical Services; or that the final punch list items would be completed on Friday. Furthermore, there were NO questions from the school board to Kelly or to the business manager about the money owed GEM or when it would be paid. This is wrong on a lot of levels.
A review of the Facility Committee agenda materials from May 14, 2020 lists three vendors with outstanding final balances from the 2019 school boiler project: (1) $36,295 to GEM Mechanical Services for mechanical services, (2) $16,460 to Five Star, Inc. for plumbing services and (3) $20,075 to AJM Electric for electrical services. Based on the experience of GEM Mechanical Services, it makes me wonder if Five Star and AJM Electric are faced with similar issues.
An interesting Community Matters comment received on this topic —
… As for the districts “reputation” when it comes to paying, GEM is not the first to have payments withheld and they definitely won’t be the last. I am 100 percent sure that there is a job from 2018 that still has an outstanding balance against the district who has slipped thru the cracks by changing the punch list every time payment is questioned.
What exactly is going on with facilities in the school district regarding vendor payments. If a vendor asks the District about their final payment, are they faced with an ever-changing punch list until they finally just walk away. If this tactic is used by the District, it certainly explains the decreasing list of vendors willing to work in TE School District. Sean Gaffney has stated that GEM Mechanical Services will never work in TESD again – I wonder how many other vendors feel similarly.
Why isn’t the school board concerned? Where is the leadership for accountability and oversight of the facilities department? The school board had an opportunity to ask Colm Kelly questions about outstanding vendor balances last night but remained silent. The school board had an opportunity to ask Art McDonnell when GEM Mechanical Services would receive its long-overdue payment but again … they said nothing.
The school board is elected to be the community’s watchdog, ensuring that taxpayers get the most for their tax dollars. Where is the school board’s accountability to us?
** I have received many emails and calls from parents regarding the District’s distance learning as required by COVID-19. The next blog post will look at distance learning and the District’s proposal to suspend ERB testing for one year as cost-savings in the 2020-21 budget.