Devon Petitions: Where do we go from here?

I attended the Devon Petitions town hall meeting last night.  Organized by Sean Moir and Rich Brake, 34 residents attended, including elected officials —  State Rep Warren Kampf, township supervisor Mike Heaberg and school board director Anne Crowley (in addition to school board director Rich Brake).

The basis for the Devon Petitions: Community Solutions for a Better Tredyffrin was a four question on-line survey.  Moir and Brake offered that they received 114 responses to their survey. The four questions were broad in their scope.  On the township side, the questions asked responders (1) to list recommendations for stimulating economic growth and (2) what did they consider the greatest challenges for long-term economic growth in the township.  On the school district side, the survey asked responders to (1) list recommendations for improving student achievement and (2) the greatest challenge to improving educational quality in T/E.

Moir presented the responses to the township side of the survey and Brake presented the responses for the school district questions.

For the township side of the survey, Moir presented the list of responses to the two questions.

Question: Revitalizing the local economy of Tredyffrin Township in these tough economic times is a top priority for our community. Please list your top two or three concrete recommendations that will stimulate economic growth without busting the township budget. Here are the responses based on the order of popularity:

1.  Paoli downtown

  • Paoli transportation center
  • Improved parking

2.  Taxes

  • Keep property taxes low
  • Tax breaks for business
  • Implement EIT
  • Don’t implement EIT
  • Chesterbrook
  • Better walkability/sidewalks
  • Community events
  • Reduce regulations

Question: What do you see as the greatest challenge(s) to achieving long-term economic growth in Tredyffrin Township? Here are the responses based on the level of popularity:

1. National economy

2. Maintaining property values

3. Politics get in the way

4. Taxes

  • keep taxes low
  • reluctance to raise taxes
  • reliance on corporate taxes
  • reliance on transfer taxes

5. Improve permit process

6. No downtown

7. Lack of vision

8. Competition from other townships

As reported by Moir and Brake, the majority of those that responded to the survey, considered the Paoli town center and transportation center as most important for stimulating growth in the township.  The discussion from the audience quickly turned to the empty storefronts, not just in Paoli but also throughout the township.  The general feeling from those in attendance was there needs to be greater support for the community’s small business owners and the suggestion to reducing the ‘red tape’ of regulations and permit issues.

Two of the six members of the township’s Business Development Advisory Council, Stanford Nishikawa and Eric Kleppe attended the meeting and explained their mission was to develop strategies for economic stimulus in the township and to present their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

It was apparent to me last night, that many residents share my concern and desire to support small businesses in the township.  As a small business owner in the township, I find it very troubling that there are no small business owners sitting on the advisory board.  Although  Nishikawa and Kleppe discussed meeting with Judy Huey and her brother Rob (owners of Paoli Village Shoppes), I was unclear on any further outreach plans by the advisory group to small business owners.  Kleppe explained that the group started meeting in December and the project is to take 4-6 months before the public hears their recommendations. Keeping money local and in the community by supporting local small businesses is important and Nishikawa and Kleppe were encouraged to receive genuine input from the small business owners. Here’s hoping that they heard the message and take it back to the other members.

There were suggestions that the economic advisory group should look at successful business areas within the township (Gateway Shopping Center) and communities outside the township (Media,Wayne, Phoenixville,West Chester) that have successful business models and see if it can be duplicated in downtown Paoli.

The survey results indicated the national economy as the greatest challenge for achieving long-term economic growth in Tredyffrin.  Because of the economic situation, another challenge then becomes how does the community maintain their property values? Although not intended as a political project by Moir and Brake, it was interesting to note that respondents to the Devon Petition, suggested lack of vision in the community and politics as challenges for long-term economic growth in the township.

For the school district side of the survey, Brake provided a list of the responses to the two questions.

Question: Improving the educational quality of our T/E schools in these tough economic times is a top priority for our community. Please list your top two or three concrete recommendations that will improve student achievement without busting the district budget.  Here are the responses/issues to the in order of popularity:

1. Budgetary Recommendations

  • More realistic salaries, benefits & pensions for teachers
  • No more educational program cuts/maintain spending
  • New local revenue sources
  • Greater use of budgetary reserves

2. Curricular Recommendations

  • More focus on core subjects/less on non-academics
  • Reinstate improve foreign language offerings
  • Less standardized testing
  • Better math/science education
  • Maintain small class sizes
  • Better vocational/technical education for real-world jobs

3. Public Private Partnership Recommendations

  • Solicit & secure corporate support for academic programs
  • Establish institutional advancement initiatives (Philanthropy)
  • Volunteer teaching opportunities

4. School Day/Climate Recommendations (tied for 3rd)

  • Start school day later
  • More focus on average student
  • Year-round school
  • All day kindergarten
  • Redesign middle schools
  • Address drug/alcohol problem
  • More parental involvement
  • Less “busy-work” homework

5. Teacher Recommendations

  • Better support of teachers/teaching training
  • Implement merit pay programs
  • Explore alternative teacher certification programs
  • Better guidance counselors

6. IT Recommendations

  • More online courses
  •   Better IT infrastructure for e-learning
  •  Improved educational web pages

Question: What do you see as the greatest challenge(s) to improving the educational quality of our T/E schools? Here are the responses/issues to the in order of popularity:

1. Pension

2. Taxaphobia (#2 and #3 tied)

2. TEEA salaries/contract

4. Program cuts

5. Sub-par teaching methods

6. State mandates

7. Rising health costs

8. No problems with quality

9. Too much standardized testing (tied)

9. Lack of support for teachers (tied)

11. Keeping small class sizes (tied)

11. High administration costs (tied)

11. Lack of original thinking (tied)

Funding the state pension and the current teacher contract negotiations were discussed as the most important school district issues.  Although there is high regard for the T/E schoolteachers, it was the consensus that the next teachers contract needs to include a more reasonable benefit plan, particularly health care.

I have attended many school board meetings and subcommittee meetings and I don’t know of any public/private partnership discussions.  The idea of partnering with local corporations and providing volunteer teaching opportunities was innovative and could be explored ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking to help with the escalating school district cost.

I asked Moir and Brake their thoughts on last night’s meeting; were they pleased/disappointed.  Brake responded,

The results of our survey confirm that our community is fully aware of the budgetary challenges that the school district faces, as the pension crisis and a more sustainable salary and benefits package for our fine teachers were the most mentioned responses to our two education questions. These twin budgetary concerns were tied, not surprisingly, to the public’s desire to maintain our high educational standards and results. Clearly, the community is ready for problem solving in those two areas, and are eager to continue the process of educating the public in order to build community consensus and forward momentum. I walked away encouraged that we have a very smart and realistic community, and they are ready to exercise leadership in these areas.

Moir’s response,

I’ll add that I was happy with the turnout, which was 34 people including the presenters. It was nice to see a mix of state and local officials, various board and commission members, as well as residents who are not the “usual suspects” at board meetings.

Once we get our notes together, I’m hoping that the Tredyffrin Business Development Advisory Council will follow through with some of the citizen suggestions, which included meeting directly with commercial property managers, developers, and small business owners to discuss what it might take to stimulate local business development. That was something that we seemed to have consensus on that cut across party lines – just the kind of common ground we were hoping for.

Moir and Brake hope to have the meeting notes available for distribution next week.  In response to my “what’s next”, they think they will know more after they send out the notes and ask for participant feedback.  According to Brake, he is “hopeful that some audience members will take up the mantle.”

So, where does this grass roots effort really go from here?  Last night’s audience members were engaged and respectful but as contained in the meetings introduction,Tredyffrin Township has a population of 29,000 people living in 11,000 households.  Yet only 114 people responded to the Devon Petition survey and only 34 people showed up for the meeting.  Yes, it was a holiday weekend and people were away but . . .  ?

For change to occur, we need people with a vision and then the willingness and determination to make their vision a reality. The very essence of leadership is vision.  As Henry Ford said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”

So … where do we go from here?

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  1. A few of my observations from last night:

    – Pattye’s attendance report shows how hard it is to get community involvement. I wonder how much is due to the work and school pressures on the modern family in a competitive, successful place like Tredyffrin. Is everyone so relieved that services are provided with some level of quality that they are prepared to leave the worrying to a few with the time and interest. Until there’s a crisis, maybe. We’ll see how close the school district is to that.

    – There was good commentary regarding the real meaning of “stimulating economic growth”. As Pattye reports, the discussion focused on small businesses and retail space. One overall metric might in fact be “progress against the comprehensive plan”, on the assumption that document lays out a vision for all aspects of the township. If the township undertook a systematic assessment against the plan, it could perhaps zero in on specific actions to take in any area where there is little progress being made.

    – Only at the end of the township discussion did we get to township operations. The one thing we all know for sure, is that we can control how things get done. I’m a firm believer that the township should be managed to customer-oriented service level metrics, that those metrics should be improved every year, and that staff should be compensated on their performance against those metrics. That would give us a good basis for marketing the township to residents, corporations, retail, whomever.

    – I was surprised that even though last night’s attendees are clearly very engaged in community affairs, there was much misunderstanding about the forces that drive the district’s finances. The district’s information program did get across to the survey responders though! The number one issue being listed as “pensions”. As I’ve said here before, yes, the PSERS contribution is going up in the medium term, but – at current projections – a 5% tax increase over 4 years (and then maintained for another 10 or so) will fund the system. Much more of a concern is managing labor costs within the community’s remaining capacity to pay after the pension contribution. It seemed that the small group in the room would be quite behind the district standing firm against the threat of a strike if the union expects us to pay for increases in salaries and benefits as well in pension contributions.

    – The number and detail of recommendations for improving educational quality was impressive. I draw a thread through a few items related to the notion of increasing focus on the “middle” achievers, perhaps through improvement in the guidance program and counselor skills. There are likely much better career paths for many that might “automatically” go to increasingly expensive four year colleges with uncertain payback, and there may be some reduction in substance abuse.

    – A final TESD thought: we need to be sure that we get the technology strategy right – a lot of current capital and future educational richness and operating costs are at stake. The district needs to be sure that it has the very best, outcome-centered professional counsel, and of course a union contract that offers no roadblocks.

    [Reply]

  2. Ray may know this, but for all the focus on pensions are not healthcare costs rising just as fast or nearly as fast?

    I say this because while I do believe something needs to be done on the pension front, many on the school board and in the community are presenting it like a panacea for our problems when, as usual, it is only part of the problem/solution.

    [Reply]

  3. FTW is correct. Teachers’ healthcare costs are projected to increase by about $1.5 million a year. According to Rich Brake’s presentation on Monday, the average teacher’s family healthcare coverage costs the district $20,000, while his/her contribution averages $1,000, with low co-pays.

    This level of coverage and low out-of-pocket expense bears no resemblance to the cost/benefit ratio in the private sector. When I consider my family’s significantly higher annual contribution for far less coverage, I am very envious!

    Accelerating PSERS liability is projected to grow by about $2.5 million per year until 2015-16 when it increases by $1.4 million (and is projected to cost a total of $13.5 million.) The state reimburses school districts for half the cost.

    Thus in dollar terms, healthcare costs are more expensive ($16.9 million in 2012-13) and are accelerating at a faster rate . And unlike PSERS, these costs are within the control of the SD in the negotiating process.

    Despite the small and unscientific survey sample, Devon Petition respondents were evenly split :
    – accept the need to raise sufficient revenues to maintain the quality of our schools
    vs.
    – keep taxes down by balancing upcoming budgets on the backs of the teachers in contract negotiations

    A “word cloud” graphic presented by Sean Moir showed the words most frequently used in responses were TAXES, SCHOOLS, CHILDREN and COMMUNITY.

    Clearly, residents care deeply about the latter three, and are divided on the role of taxes to protect and maintain them.

    [Reply]

  4. Healthcare is rising at a projected 8% per year. The typical family policy is about $15K per year so the yearly increase is about $120 per employee per year.
    .
    The pension contributions are going up faster. The contribution rate this year is about 8.6% going to 12.4% to 16.8%, 21.2%, 25.6%. On an average salary of $75K the PSERS contribution is going up about $300 per employee per year.

    [Reply]

  5. Ray observes: “It seemed that the small group in the room would be quite behind the district standing firm against the threat of a strike if the union expects us to pay for increases in salaries and benefits as well in pension contributions.”

    Thanks — but does the group understand that a strike has no achieveable goal for either side except to escalate the noise? Kids fall behind; kids require supervision; parents need structure; teachers want more. Teachers do not lose one dime of pay if they strike. So it’s kind of moot to suggest that the communitiy would be behind one. They are only supporting something that has never happened — on theoretical grounds. It’s good for the board to hear — always useful to go into a battle with a weapon — but a strike is not a weapon — it’s just a disruption.

    [Reply]

  6. Did they release where the results of the poll came from? I say this because while I believe the Paoli situation (train/store) are important, the fact that they popped up so high.

    If the responses were decidedly from the western portion of the township, it would skew the results.

    Don’t know, just saying.

    THANKS TO ALL WHO PROVIDED HEALTHCARE COST INFO! It would seem this issue is as important in contract negotiations and for the future as is the pension issue.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Because the respondents to the survey were ‘anonymous’ they do not know the people lived. Having said that, I think for many people in the township (regardless of where they may live) Paoli has become the ‘poster child’ for redevelopment with its collection of empty storefronts and tired-looking train station. Although Chesterbrook certainly has significant problems, many in the township don’t have reason to drive by that shopping center whereas Lancaster Ave is so much more visiable — the decay is harder to miss. From the audience standpoint, it also seemed that Paoli was the targeted area of discussion (and I know several who attended the meeting do not live in that part of the township).

    [Reply]

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