T/E School Board Candidate Debate . . . Missing Two Republican Candidates and No EIT Question!

The T/E School Board candidate debate was held last night.  The League of Women Voters used the same format as the night before at the Tredyffrin Township supervisor candidate debate.  Each of the eight candidates gave a 2-minute self-introduction, followed by answers submitted by audience members.  Answers by the candidates were limited to 1-1/2 min. and the evening ended with 2-minute closing remarks.  Each school board candidate was asked the same question with the initial question rotating through the candidates.

There were two empty seats on the dais for the debate – the candidates names Tara LaFiura (R) and Liz Mercogliano (R) were listed but no candidates. In the moderator’s opening remarks, she explained that the League of Women Voters had found out last-minute (the day before) that these two candidates would not be participating.  LaFuira is a candidate for Region 1 and Mercogliano is hoping to represent Region 2 on the school board. Hope that they both candidates are OK, but the empty seats with their names was somewhat strange.

The school board candidates who participated last night from Tredyffrin included incumbent Jim Bruce (R) Region 1; incumbent Karen Cruickshank (D) Region 1; Scott Dorsey (D) Region 2; Kris Graham (R) Region 2; Jerry Henige (D) Region 1 and Jenny Wessels (D) Region 2.  Easttown school board candidates were incumbent Pete Motel (R) and Craig Lewis (D).

Similar to the supervisor candidate debate, many responses from the school board members contained a repetitive theme; often showing little differences between the Republican and Democratic candidates, with one glaring exception.

It was obvious that the first time candidates had done their homework and could hold their own against the incumbents.  As a current PTO president, Jenny Wessels spoke of her relationship working with parents, teachers and staff at New Eagle Elementary.  Wessels is a labor and employment attorney and believes that her legal training, talents and collaborative spirit can be an asset to the school district during the upcoming teacher negotiations.

Candidate Kris Graham recently retired from the Radnor School District after 40 years of teaching. It is Graham’s belief that her unique background working with teachers and school administrators could prove  an asset with teacher contract negotiations locally and in Harrisburg.  Incumbent Pete Motel from Easttown has served on the school board for several years.  As a small business owner (a physician with 15 employees), Motel spoke of understanding hard work and offered that he will continue to work tirelessly to make the school district, “a better place one day at a time”. Motel commented that Conestoga High School is a very successful high school, placing third in the state on a state-wide test.  He reported that CHS is one of the top math/science high schools in America and that only Masterman in Philadelphia scored above Conestoga in the math/science high school rankings.

Incumbent Jim Bruce has served as a school board director since 2002 and has a strong desire to continue to be the voice for the people that he represents.  He and his wife have lived in the district for 41 years, their children went through the TESD and now he has two grandchildren in the school district. Current school board president Karen Cruickshank is passionate about education and community service.  As an incumbent, she spoke of understanding educational trends and the depth of financial commitment of the school district.  Scott Dorsey spoke of his experience as a successful administrator; taking nonprofit organizations operating in the red and making them profitable.  He stated that he will work diligently to bring people together and will work collaboratively with the unions.  Dorsey cited his work as a Baptist minister as an example of his dedication to service.

With the serious financial challenges facing the school district and the departure of Kevin Mahoney from the school board, candidate Jerry Henige believes that he can fill that gap, citing that he will be a financial steward.  Jerry believes that his financial skills, temperament and energy will make for a good school board director.

Easttown candidate Craig Lewis claims that the T/E school district is “going the wrong way”.  From his opening remarks, responses to questions and in his closing remarks, Lewis was the only candidate who appeared on a mission . . . to discredit the current school board and their past actions.  Lewis repeatedly made personal jabs at his opponent Pete Motel.  It did not seem to matter what the question was, all roads for Lewis seemed to lead back to Motel, and what he viewed as the many mistakes of the school board in recent years.  Lewis cited statistics throughout the debate but I was not able to distinguish their accuracies.  (As an aside, I received an email from Kevin Grewell, former school board member who attended the debate . . . his comments follow this article and address some of the statistics cited by Lewis.)

There was an interesting mix of questions from audience members.  One question asked the candidates their feelings about arts, music and physical education and what would they do to preserve these ‘extras’.  Graham pointed out that these extras are often the first things that come under scrutiny and spoke of TEMPO members that came out in defense of the fine arts programs and why it is needed.  Several candidates spoke of the annual musical at Conestoga high school and how with parent and community support, the play is self-sustaining each year.

On the topic of ‘extras’, Wessels was particularly passionate and disappointed about the ‘cutting of the foreign language program’ in the elementary schools and will not see that happen to art, music and phys ed.  Henige cited the need for the district to continue to foster students imagination and creativity and these programs need to be preserved.  As a school board member for 10 years, Bruce has been committed to protecting the arts.  He mentioned that TESD is one of the few schools in the system that has a social/emotional curriculum.

On the question of outsourcing of custodial services — Appreciating that many of the custodial staff are members of the community and understanding that there are tough decisions ahead; all the candidates support finding solutions that will keep the custodial services in-house.

The question that received the most passionate responses was on the subject of school vouchers and Gov. Corbett’s public education plans.  Not one candidate was in favor of the school voucher program.  Candidates did not believe that the school voucher program would bring strength to public schools, just the contrary – that vouchers will dismantle the public school system. Cruickshank went as far as suggesting Gov. Corbett visit TESD and see for himself the great teachers, administration and services.  She proposed using TESD as a ‘model’ for other school districts . . . not a bad idea.

Pension obligations are set to increase by $9 million over the next 4 years – the question to the candidates was what cuts would you make to balance the budget?  With the exception of Lewis, I think every candidate pointed the finger to the state capital as the mea culpa for the statewide pension problems. Several of the candidates mentioned that the financial crisis facing the local school districts requires more involvement with legislators in Harrisburg and that it will require the efforts of school board members, residents and teachers for changes to occur.  Lewis did not exactly share these sentiments.  It is his viewpoint that it is not fair to say that Harrisburg will ‘fix it’ – that the problem needs to be fixed locally.

It was unbelievable but there was no debate question on the Earned Income Tax (EIT) topic. Not one question, although it was my understanding from the League of Women Voters that had time permitted, the next debate question would have been an EIT question.

Here’s the comment received from Kevin Grewell following last night’s school board candidate debate:

I just attended the League of Women Voters school board candidates forum. I was not going to weigh in on this topic, as Pete Motel is my brother-in-law and I served with him on the TE school board from 1999 -2007, but I have to correct some serious factual errors in Mr. Lewis’ comments. (The comments made by Mr. Lewis at the forum closely followed his comments on this blog). Here are my comments:

1) TE’s biggest problem is not “irresponsible budgeting” or “wasteful spending” as Mr. Lewis claims. In fact, TE is one of the best run districts in Pennsylvania. Here are the facts:

* On a list of all 501 school districts in Pennsylvania, where #1 has the highest school property taxes and #501 has the lowest, TE ranks 467. There are only 34 districts with lower taxes than TE. Great Valley ranks 436, Radnor ranks 395, and Lower Merion ranks 392.
(PA Dept. of Education Equalized mills 2009-10, the latest year available)

* In FY 2011 per student spending in TE is $15,992. Great Valley is $17,803, Radnor $21,281, and Lower Merion is $28,141.

* TE’s debt for all of that allegedly wasteful construction is approximately $58 million. Percentage of millage to service that debt is currently 6.27%. Twelve years ago it was 6.15%. The PA Dept. of Education’s latest figures for debt are for 2009-10. The total debt at the end of that fiscal year for our competitive districts was:

T/E $53,829,669
Great Valley $89,667,632
Radnor $109,349,189
Lower Merion $321,962,624
(PA Dept. of Education website)

2) There is not any “no-bid contracting” as Lewis claims. State law mandates all contracts over $10,000 must be competitively bid. For small contracts, there are vendors/services vetted through a state consortium.

3) The Pennsylvania constitution prohibits treating one class of taxpayers differently than any other. Lewis is clearly not informed on this issue. The state legislature has been working on this for many years with very limited success, beginning with Act 50 in 1998, Act 72 in 2004 and finally Act 1 of 2006. The only thing the legislature could come up with is a complex scheme of funding “Homestead Exemptions” with gambling revenue. The TE school board has no legal authority to tax seniors or retirees differently than other taxpayers.

4) Budget deficits are caused by the state created and state controlled pension system and the economic downturn, not by irresponsible spending by the TE board. In his forum comments tonight, Lewis himself admitted that school districts all across the state are in the red. Exactly . . . . .

It is fine to run for office, but there is no excuse for going negative with such blatant disregard for the facts.

12 Comments

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  1. Are you kidding? The LWV never asked the EIT question? That is a missed opportunity. Very disappointing.

    Regarding the two candidates who did not show up, if they did not have the courage to particapate they do not deserve a vote, whether a “D” or an “R.”

    [Reply]

  2. It’s a good thing that a Conservancy meeting kept me away from the debate last night – I might have interjected an EIT question myself!

    Voters and the school board deserve to know whether the townships would take the 50% of an EIT to which state law entitles them (as Pattye said yesterday). Unfortunately the question was not asked in this way on Monday. I tried to parse the BOS candidate statements to get a sense of the prospects. Although all made statements opposing an EIT, there’s nothing for TESD to take to the bank, except maybe from Heaberg and Olson who seem categorically opposed under any circumstances. (Where’s the data to support the “anti-business” claim? In fact businesses will pay lower taxes than if the same $ were raised from property taxes).

    For example:
    Mayock: “not comfortable without property tax reduction” (an EIT could avoid a few years’ property tax increases); “now is not the time” (but later may be?)
    Snyder: “not supportive generally” (but specifically?)
    Wysocki: “personally opposed” (but for the good of the schools?)
    DiBuonoventuro: “At this point not for an EIT” (but at a later point?)

    So I suppose that all we can say is that the district does have some leverage under any BOS outcome to keep more than 50% of any residential EIT that the voters approve.

    How to balance the budget, short and long term, while maintaining educational quality is obviously the issue. All may have blamed Harrisburg for the PSERS problem, but is their actual proposal to rely on increased state funding beyond the current 50%?

    (In fact, the Fund Balance gives TE an excellent opportunity to “wait and see” without raising taxes of any kind for a year or two).

    It’s disappointing to see knee jerk reactions to program changes like those in the foreign languages that eliminated the elementary school program – for which there was no proven benefit. We have to be smart about how we spend our resources.

    Kevin has some good points, but I really dislike the “equalized mills” ranking he mentions (and I suspect that this is going to come up in the TSG data, too). Equalized mills is the ratio of taxes to actual market value. Let’s assume for the moment a) that it costs the same to educate a student everywhere (TE does compare well with our neighbors here, as Kevin states), and b) that there are the same number of children per $ of market value everywhere. So, the lower the market value, the higher the ratio of taxes to market value. Surprise, surprise, TE has high market value and a low ratio. That’s why Lower Merion with nearly twice the spending per student still ranks above the median in the state. And TE’s commercial properties lower the number of students per $ of market value, also favoring the ranking. It’s complicated!

    On no-bid contracts: I think I recall that Harrisburg is working on a bill to raise the minimum to $25,000? This makes sense to me, provided that there’s a good way to validate the value being received (eg previous bids, decreasing year-on-year cost).

    Mr Lewis does seem to be firing wildly, but under the previous Board, we did get the highest teacher compensation in the area and teacher compensation is a factor in the pension liability …..

    [Reply]

    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Ray – is the no-bid contract level currently $10K?

    [Reply]

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    Here’s a source that discusses the bill to increase the thresholds, which are stated as:

    “Under current law, the thresholds for no-bid contracts range from $4,000 to $10,000 depending on the size and type of project. The bill would raise the threshold to $25,000 for most construction projects and $7,000 for maintenance projects”

    http://statehousenewsonline.com/2011/04/05/schools-may-need-supermajority-for-property-tax-hike/

    I don’t know what became of the legislation.

    [Reply]

  3. Ray
    I appreciate your comments, but I would be very reluctant to accept your references to “the highest teacher compensation in the area” as anything close to accurate. I do not think the contract was well crafted, but the reality isn’t about average salary to any individual teacher. It’s about “what can I make with the same amount of experience elsewhere”….and TE is not ranked first.
    I have no energy to go over every number yet again, but TE’s current contract was negotiated during LM’s last contract. LM expired in 2010, so those are the numbers TE had to work with. For the year 2009-10, the final year of the LMSD contract, if you compare the LM schedule to the TE schedule,(and ignoring that LM gives horizontal raises for B+9, B+15 and B+24 — which means you get raises for coursework after a bachelor’s degree without having earned a masters — TE’s only horizontal raise at that level of education is for completing a Masters)== looking at the details:

    TE’s B entry level with a Bachelor’s degree was $46,650 — LM was $48,973, At the Masters level, the gap widened from $48,350 at TE to $51,703 at LM. Every single step but 3 on the schedule, from Bachelors through PHD on the horizontal axis to step 1 through step 16 (at TE — step 13 at LM — which means their teachers reach their maximum salary at 13 years — TE takes 16 years to reach their maximum) TE makes less then the comparably educated/experienced LMSD. Those 3 places (out of a 7 x 16 matrix — or 112 steps) are at the Bachelors Step 15 and 16, and an anomaly at Masters Plus 15, year 8. And the final 3 years of the LM schedule to pair up with TESD is keeping their step 13 the same for steps 14, 15 and 16. So as an example, the “Max” Masters degree at LMSD is reached in year 13 at LMSD — earning $101,129. TE’s 13th year Masters earned $74,400. At year 16, that TE teacher has reached 94,900, still trailing their LM counterpart by more than $6,000.

    SO — LM has done a newer contract, and TE continued for two more years under the old one. I haven’t the patience to pull any more data, but knowing that teacher compensation may NOT go down (and if TE doesn’t win the grievance against teaching 6 periods vs. 5 per day, apparently productivity cannot be enhanced), I would say that TE has pushed as high against the LM ceiling as is prudent. Perhaps they have even caught up.

    But it is disengenous to reflect the overall raises and say that we have the most generous compensation plan. Without the matrix (where the people are), and knowing who is on the Negotiating team (I can assure you they take care of their steps first), each contract simply reflects the cooperation of both sides to reach an agreement, where the total increase (all the people at their costs combined vs. previous year) is what is managed.

    NOW — does that mean that TESD’s negotiators understand the nuances of these issues across the board? I can say without hesitation that they do not. I am a pure numbers person, and I still spent hours and hours with a computer running sensitivity analysis on every contract every year. I folded health care costs into the total amount spent on compensation to produce the “publicized” increases. We offered an incentive to create retirements (which ultimately none took because the state upped the multiplier — a far more costly and long lasting expense to districts).

    SO — it’s more than easy to sit back and suggest that things are bad….but it’s only fair if you plumb the depths of other districts and read their contracts, not just their numbers. One of the reasons we paid less than LMSD was that we paid for more education, we had a much more professional approach to “personal time” and we had facilities that didn’t have buckets in classrooms catching raindrops. Working for TESD was a joy. Which is why the teachers ratified the contract regardless of the differential.

    As we peel back the layers, the numbers are growing closer to each other because the job is just not easy — and with taxpayers (who all went to school and therefore all presume to know as much about it as most board members).

    Longwinded answer. Bottom line for me — student activity fee — which is a surcharge on the folks that use the system. If we have FLITE and T+E Care out there raising money to help kids, let’s tell them what it takes to help.

    This strategy this time around to scare people who don’t bother to understand the issues into thinking an EIT is the next solution is unscrupulous. Remember taxpayers and parents and businesses — all the school board can do is put the question on the ballot for referendum. They cannot capture a dime any way besides property and transfer tax. As to the township taking their half — one word — DUH. Maybe it wouldn’t happen, but over the past 10 years, incomes have risen more quickly than property values….so while we would all be paying more, it would never be called a tax increase. Tredyffrin gets 1% transfer tax on new homes and the schools get 1/2% …. whose services are under more pressure when a new house adds 3 kids to your streeet.

    Thank you for your time.

    [Reply]

  4. It’s ironic that a district as SAT-conscious as T/E would cut foreign language study, given evidence such as this (from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/10/24/smarter-kids-and-how-they-got-that-way.html)

    “15 Signs You’ll Raise a Genius”…

    13. Kids who have studied a foreign language for two years have SAT scores 14 percent higher than those of kids who never studied foreign languages.

    One year of foreign-language study was linked with slightly higher SAT scores, but two years yielded increases of 14 and 13 percent on the test’s verbal and math portions, respectively, over the scores of students who had never studied foreign languages. Each additional year of foreign-language study yielded further increases. “The verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of foreign language were higher than the verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of any other subject,” write the scholars whose research yielded this stat. Vive les conjugaisons.

    Thomas C. Cooper. “Foreign-Language Study and SAT-Verbal Scores.” Modern Language Journal, 71 (4), 381-387.

    Also, with regard to language study at the elementary level,
    “Most of the brain’s language connections are well-established by about age 10. After age 10, learning a new language is harder because your brain is “wired” for the language you learned first.” (See more of the science at http://www.fcs.uga.edu/pubs/current/FACS01-6.html)

    [Reply]

    School Observer Reply:

    Beverly — this analysis is what I believe Ray Clarke is referring to when he says it is a shame that there is knee jerk reaction to program changes.
    The state has increased the curricular obligations of elementary schools — they actually test for science in 4th grade — and the first generation of kids were through the system with Kindergarten on up Spanish….and there were no notable gains. The data you need to look at is TE data — where the program we had crafted fell short of what is required to make a difference. The research for the most part is about immersion programs — and our students do take foreign language — just not until middle school. Cannot have everything — without unlimted resources — so the decisions are made to offer what is needed and proves to produce results.

    [Reply]

    Beverly Michaels Reply:

    School Observer,

    You make some excellent points here, especially “The data you need to look at is TE data — where the program we had crafted fell short of what is required to make a difference.” And honestly I would have to agree that the exposure to other languages provided by the TE elementary program (and for that matter, most middle and high school programs) probably wasn’t adequate to do much good.

    We were fortunate to be living in Vancouver (Canada) when my son started school, and he went to kindergarten and first grade in a French immersion program. Before reading the “15 Signs You’ll Raise a Genius” yesterday I had never connected the French immersion with his near-perfect SAT score, but now I wonder! (yeah, I know, the plural of anecdote is not data…)

    I guess in my ideal world the solution would be to provide an option for immersion in a second language in elementary school–let them learn those science facts for the 4th grade test in Spanish or Chinese.

    [Reply]

  5. I had based my conclusion on TE teacher compensation on direct comparison to our neighbors in Radnor and Great Valley. If you apply TE’s 2010 distribution of teachers to the 2011/12 matrices for Radnor and Great Valley you get total compensation that is $1.3 -1.5 million, or 4%, lower than applying the same distribution to the actual TE salary matrix.

    If we venture further afield, the UCFSD salary cost would be about $4 million lower than TE’s. However, Andrea is right, using the one case of Lower Merion would give a $4 million higher cost (dealing with their very different matrix as Andrea suggests). 50% of that difference is driven by compensation for the Masters level certification that is 10-25% higher in LMSD. (For no proven educational quality benefit, of course).

    This is indeed only a wage comparison, but I’ve seen no data to suggest that TE’s current healthcare plan is lower in cost or benefits than any other school district’s.

    Also, I haven’t factored in payment for extra-curriculars, department chairpersons, etc. (The observation that LMSD pays $4,500 per year for a squash coach and assistant suggests extra-cuurculars might be a higher cost there than for TE!).

    Bottom line, I believe that Radnor and Great Valley offer the best comparison to TE, and that if we allow ourselves to chase Lower Merion then we are indeed in trouble.

    It’s an excellent idea to hold the line on all taxes for a year or two. But, remember, in 2015/16 TESD is projected to run a $17 million operating deficit (with no increase in compensation beyond 10% annual healthcare cost increases (or equivalent). How exactly do the candidates and anyone on this forum propose to deal with that?

    To the foreign language discussion: I’m some years removed from this, but I think that the changes in the elementary program allowed better focus in middle school and above. So, no problem in getting the four or five years of foreign language – at higher quality.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Ray
    Your data is very useful, but I can openly lament that LM is the district that has “competed” for not only our teachers, but our recruits. So they are the devil that has been at the table. Two highly regarded teachers departed TESD for “greener” (pun intended) programs at LMSD. “Better benefits and better pay.” They became the anecdote that fed the comparisons.

    Here is the problem: you cannot UNDO anything. You can only move forward or stand still when doing teacher contracts. And each election brings new people with “new ideas” and ironically, new claims for solutions that are either moot or illegal. What must change — though I haven’t the first clue how or if it can — is to be able to treat teachers as individuals and not on a salary schedule. So one person can advance while another can stay behind — based on performance. That’s where “merit” pay comes in. But regardless, some of the issues are that the lack of continuity in the negotiating process from the Mgmt side is poorly controlled. When I did my last contract, it was a 6 year contract and the teachers only ratified 3 years of it, leaving the final 3 years defined by parameters. It was in those final 3 years that I was able to fix a lot of the odd jumps, and given that the matrix (where the people are on the salary schedule) advances each year, the only raise that matters to a teacher is their own raise. The cumulative increases are meaningless — so I was able to significantly control the overall costs. When I left the board, the next contract was undertaken and completed without ever asking me a single question. So things accomlpished, and positions taken were not only neglected, they were abandoned. The “next board” knew what they knew — and operated on that premise. The problem with that is that they didn’t know what they didn’t know — and failed to maintain several of the initiatives that had been “bought”.

    So yes — it’s complicated. Being a numbers person is useful in doing this, but having a strategic perspective is equally important. As Kevin G has posted here many times — the Harrisburg effect is significant. Decisions made, handcuffs put in place — all influence what happens locally. The multipler of 2.5% a year for pensions is a bill paid by taxpayers, but each raise and each tenured year adds to the account due. There is no maximum. So even a wage freeze adds to the pension calculations.

    Don’t elect someone who tells you what has been done wrong. Elect someone who has some clue about how the process works — someone who has attended countless meetings and doesn’t arrive with all the answers. Because whatever you think you know, you don’t know half. The reason people stay on the board for multiple terms is not out of pleasure I assure you. It’s a sense of protecting the seat — or ensuring some continuity in the discussion with the PSEA. That’s not to say that incumbents are the best answer, but be very sure the new voice is one with more than a passing understanding of what they claim is wrong…because you cannot fix most of what is “wrong” locally. PA’s constitution prohibits any decrease in compensation — and that’s quite a heavy obligation to carry.

    [Reply]

  6. LaFiura and Mercogliano MIA? Paging Rick Perry. . .paging Rick Perry’s approval (rating)? What is it with R’s doing poorly (I assume) that they don’t have to show up and go on the record?

    [Reply]

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