Month – April 2012

A Review of Radnor Twp School District’s Teachers Contract … Will the Results Help T/E Teachers?

The following Community Matters post, “Signed, Sealed and Delivered … Radnor Twp School District & Teachers Union Ink 3-year Contract with Salary Increase … Is there handwriting on the wall for T/E Teachers?”  is from March 23, 2011.

A year ago, the Radnor Township School District signed a 3-year contract with their teachers union( RTEA) that was surprising, given the economic situation of the times.  Fast forward to 2012, and T/E is in the midst of their own contract negotiations.  This post and the attached comments from a year ago, make for an interesting commentary to compare and contrast where we are in our own teacher negotiation process.  Can we learn anything from the decisions of our neighboring school district?


“Signed, Sealed and Delivered … Radnor Twp School District & Teachers Union Ink 3-year Contract with Salary Increase … Is there handwriting on the wall for T/E Teachers?”
~ Community Matters, March 23, 2011

It is now official, Radnor Township School District and the teachers union, Radnor Township Education Association (RTEA) have voted to approve three-year contract, September 1, 2010 – August 31, 2013. Below are some of the highlights of the contract.

Salary Highlights:
Salary freeze September 1, 2010 – March 3, 2011 (6 months)

Year One Salary:

  • No step movement
  • Average pay increase after freeze: 1.57%
  • Top salary step remains at current level
  • Average lump-sum payment for top salary step: $749

Year Two Salary:

  • RTEA members move to next step
  • Average pay increase: 3.26%
  • Top salary step remains at current level
  • Average lump-sum payment for top salary step: $1,206

Year Three Salary:

  • RTEA members move to next step
  • Modest increase to top salary step
  • Average pay increase: 2.66%

Health Benefits Highlights:

  • RTEA members agreed to significant increase in the cost of health insurance
  • Stating March 4, 2011, teachers move from fixed contribution to a percentage-based contribution
  • Year One – salary contribution 0.75% – 1.5%
  • Year Two – health care plan changes from Blue Cross to lesser premium-cost plan, with increase co-pays doctor and hospital visits (salary contribution 0.85% – 1.5%)
  • Year Three – salary contribution 0.95% – 1.65%

Retirement Option:

  • Eligible teachers will receive a one-time retirement payment from $25K – $50K (depending on number of retirees). The retirement option is in effect for limited time to allow district to reduce payroll.

OK, so looking at the contract inked between the Radnor Township School District and RTEA, is the handwriting on the wall for T/E School District?  So much for Gov. Corbett’s recommendation for a one-year freeze . . .  Radnor’s teacher union only agreed to a 6-month freeze.  However, after the 6-month salary freeze, the teacher union pulled off 7.5% salary increase for the following 2 ½ years of the contract.

Remember, if a teacher qualifies for a step increase, his or her salary increase would actually be higher than the average yearly salary increase. Radnor’s teachers contract is remarkable given today’s economy and budget shortfalls!

Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations

As a bit of history for those that are new readers to Community Matters. When I started this journey 2-1/2 years ago, it was without a personal agenda except to engage the community on important issues and to encourage greater transparency from our elected officials.

Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability; a metaphorical extension of the meaning a “transparent” object is one that can be seen through.  In government, transparency is vital to a healthy democracy.  Public scrutiny helps ensure that government works for the people and spends their tax dollars wisely.

As far as the teacher contract negotiations are concerned, I suggest that both sides ‘open the door’ that in the past has been closed.  We have seen how in the last few days, the ‘cloaked in secrecy’ approach to the negotiations is not working and is showing signs of cracking.  Discussion is turning to conjecture, as in the ‘he said, she said’ world; which is never good.  Letting the sunlight shine in on the negotiations, would help the parents, taxpayers (and employees) better understand the process and the District’s priorities.

My assumption is that if negotiations were public and everyone could see the negotiations, it would help us (the taxpayers) to further understand the positions of the teachers and the District.  If all that the community hears is a partial or half-truth from either side, the misinformation is perpetuated and the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred.  The teachers’ contract accounts for a significant part of the budget and strongly influences the bottom line of the District’s financial picture.  The negotiating period is the only time when informed public opinion can have any possible effect on the decisions of elected officials, but how can the public reasonably weigh in on the proposals without having all the facts.  A mandatory public comment period on the yearly budget seems a bit like an empty exercise if we do not have updated contract negotiation information.

The early disclosure of each side’s proposed contract terms would reduce the incentive to open negotiations with extreme proposals made merely for bargaining purposes.  Extreme proposals from TEEA or the school board are bound to create hard feelings as we have recently seen and the potential to prolong negotiation, thereby making compromise more difficult.  Conversely, an open and public process (transparency) would lead to proposals that are more realistic from both sides and narrow the range of disagreement in the process.

In the last few days, we heard from several teachers who alluded to a less than satisfactory proposal from the school district in regards to insurance and reduced salary.  Add the possibility of demotion for economic reasons to the plate of the teachers, and it is no surprise that they are concerned.  Do we have the entire story from TEEA on the subject of benefits and salary, probably not?  On the other hand, what have the teachers proposed to the District and what was the school board’s response.  Don’t know; the public doesn’t have any of those answers.

How about the negotiating parties work to make the process transparent for the public – posting the bargaining framework, their proposals and counter-proposals on the TESD website, as they become available. This kind of transparency would help the TESD parents and community members understand how children will be taught and how the tax dollars will be invested.  The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes public schools.  There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract process.  The teachers are public employees, so why shouldn’t the union negotiations be public.

As a community, we should call on our elected school board members and teachers union to put the needs of students and families first and honor the public investment of taxpayers.  I ask for both sides to be more open about the negotiation process – talk truths to each other and to the public.  It’s time to turn on the lights, open the windows and the doors.

How to Close $1.5 Million Budget Gap is TESD’s $1.5 Million Question!

With channel 6 ABC news cameras rolling and with a standing room crowd, Tredyffrin-Eastttown School Board held its monthly school board meeting last night.

Passion, commitment, support, devotion … adjectives that describe the steady stream of District students who spoke on behalf of their teachers at last night’s school board meeting.  Waiting for hours for the opportunity to show their opposition to demotion of District staff, they ranged from the 13-yr. old young girl who read her college sister’s plea to save the arts and music programs to a current Harvard student who spoke about passionately about his Conestoga physics teacher who gave his life meaning and direction.  There was a young man who delivered an emotional appeal in German, than translated and re-delivered the words in English, on behalf of his special German teacher.  One after another, the students would explain the sacrifices of their families to move to this area, all because of the quality of the school district.  Interestingly, more than one of the students suggested that the School Board let go of the technology purchases, the Smart boards, the computers, etc. and save the teacher’s jobs instead.

Least someone suggest that the teachers union somehow orchestrated this show of solidarity by the students (and parents) for the District’s teachers; I don’t think that would be possible. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows they have to ‘believe’ in the cause, their passion cannot be supplanted and forced by someone else.  No, what was clear last night was these kids believe in this school district and believe in the teachers who are making a difference in their lives.  It was quite stunning to witness.

Of course, the looming budget deficit remains.  After $10 million worth of cuts over the last 3 years, the decreasing local revenue, increased contributions to the state pension fund and diminished state and federal revenue, the District is continues to face a financial crisis.  School boards across the state are faced with the same difficult challenges as TESD … how to balance the budget amidst these challenges.

The projected TESD 2012-13 budget deficit is $5.9 million. With the Act 1 allowable 1.7% tax increase plus exceptions, the District can reduce the deficit to approximately $1.5 million.  That includes the $50 sports and activities fee, approved last night for all middle and high school students who participate in one or more activities.  But how to close the $1.5 million budget gap is the $1.5 million question.

School board members spoke of their support for the teachers, many explaining that they have children in the District.  They suggested that their ‘hands were tied’ and that very few options remain on the table to close the budget deficit and again suggested that students and parents send letters to the state legislature demanding relief.  With few options remaining, the school board is being forced to look at the possibility of increasing class size and demotion of senior members of the staff.

Some have suggested that the school board should have pushed for a taxpayer referendum for an earned income tax on the ballot.  Although too late for November’s election, it was reiterated that these types of tax increase referendums historically have not passed in Pennsylvania.  In addition, the results from the tax study group indicated that there was no support for an EIT in TESD.  Hindsight being 20/20, I would have to ask what was the downside for the school board to take the question to the voters.  We have to remember that only 20 percent of the taxpayers in TESD also have children in the District.  So, it’s complete speculation if there would have been enough interest to get the EIT passed.

Unfortunately, for TEEA, it looks like it is going to be up to the teachers to help save the school district through their contract negotiations.  How much are they willing to sacrifice?  How much of their benefit package and salary increase are they willing to forego?  I don’t think any of us (and that includes the School Board) wants to see the quality of the education diminished through increased class size and he demotion of some of the District’s best teachers.  We know that the District cannot afford the teachers’ health care plan at its current level, but is a benefits change enough to make up the $1.5 million District deficit?  I have no answers.

Demotion & Class Size Remain as T/E Budget Strategies … Teacher Union Weighs In

Opening a door that most school districts would prefer to keep closed.

Teacher contract negotiations have traditionally been cloaked in secrecy. In my perfect world of transparency, school districts would open the teacher contract talks to the public. Letting the sunlight shine on the negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees would benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities. Open negotiations would hold the District and TEEA (Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association) accountable for how they are dealing with the contract negotiations. I know, I know, not possible . . . it will never happen.

Those involved in teacher contract negotiations would probably claim that critical issues such as teacher pay, benefits, and overall responsibilities should fall within the client-lawyer privilege of privacy. I am sure that those at the ‘negotiating table’ would say that the talks should be private in order to foster a more open and frank discussion among the participants. In the case of TESD, this seems twisted logic at best. Why do I say this? Reason … There is no representation by the T/E school board at the negotiation table. As a result, it is a bit like ‘whisper down the lane’.

The information and updates that the school board receives are not through first hand attendance at the meetings, but rather from the four members of the negotiating team. Three members of the team are employees of the District (Superintendent Dan Waters, Director of Personnel Sue Tiede and Business Manager Art McDonnell) and the fourth member of the team is professional negotiator, attorney Jeffrey Sultanik.

I don’t know how the rest of the taxpayers feel about the ‘no seat at the table’ by an elected school board member issue, but I stand by my original view. The school directors were elected by, and are responsible to, the people of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District. I do not think it is fair to the taxpayers and the teacher contract process that there is not at least one school board member participating directly on the negotiation team.

Based on the many comments received in regards to the teacher contract negotiations and budget strategies, I reached out to TEEA president Laura Whittaker. Stating in my email to Ms. Whittaker, that ‘my intention was not to in any way jeopardize or breach the teacher/school district negotiating process’, I asked her several questions. Does TEEA believe that any of the District’s budget strategies currently being discussed (class size, demotion of professional staff, $50 activities fee, etc.) could have a potential negative effect on the quality of the District’s educational program. I also asked if members of TEEA were the decision makers in regards to the TESD 2012-13 budget, what solutions would the teachers offer that could bridge the current financial crisis in the District.

Understanding the limitations posed by the teacher contract negotiations, Ms. Whittaker proved the following statement for Community Matters and I thank her. Reading Ms. Whittaker’s statement, I was reminded again that if the contract talks were held in public, the taxpayers would know what the the teachers are offering; including changes to their health care plan that would save the District money.

“Because of the ground rules established in the negotiations process, I am limited in my ability to share specific aspects of our proposal and negotiations with you.

You have asked what solutions we offer. We are willing to discuss alternative approaches to health care coverage and funding as a means for the District to save money. Additionally, although we are not able to release the details of our salary proposal, we are confident in stating that our salary requests are modest and reasonable.

We have many concerns about the District’s proposal to demote our most experienced, educated teachers. Of course, we are fundamentally concerned about the negative impact that it will have on the educational program and the well-being of our membership. However, if the School Board chooses to implement demotions and the hiring of part time staff becomes the norm, they must realize that T/E will become an undesirable place for the most qualified educators to pursue a career. Simply stated, T/E has been able to attract the best and the brightest to teach its children. How will the District be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest if we are currently choosing to replace our own best and most educated teachers with part-time employees?

With regard to class size, studies have concluded that increased class sizes have a negative impact on student performance. Individual support and attention will most certainly suffer if class sizes are larger. Regarding the proposed $50 participation fee, we have no official position. As far as other budget strategies are concerned, demotions and increases in class size, are (to our knowledge) the only two major strategies being considered by the Board.

The members of TEEA remain committed to achieving a mutually beneficial settlement with the District.”

Thank you for providing this opportunity.

Laura Whittaker
President, TEEA

If you are reading today’s post on Community Matters and have an interest in our school district, I hope that you will plan to attend the school board meeting tonight at 7:30 PM.

On the subject of demotion, other area school districts are keeping a close eye on TESD. The teachers union in Radnor School District has notified their members of tonight’s TESD meeting and suggested their members attend.  At Conestoga HS, the demotion issue has caused concern among students and they are organizing support for their teachers.

T/E Fund Balance … Panacea to District’s Budget Shortfall?

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District School Board is contending with decreased local revenue, higher health insurance costs, increased contributions to the state pension fund, and diminished state and federal revenue. These problems do not make TESD unique; school boards across Pennsylvania are facing the same issues.

To suggest that Pennsylvania school districts are challenged by the financial crisis would be an understatement. As School Boards struggle to balance their budgets amidst these challenges, there is unprecedented concern as they look for solutions.

In TESD, the teacher contract talks continue as a backdrop to the ongoing budget discussions of the school board. With the current teachers’ contract set to expire on June 30, 2012; we are starting to see the battleground lines drawn in the sand. I am beginning to fear a “us versus them” mentality is developing. Many of the comments on the last Community Matters post were focused on the health insurance benefit plans of the teachers. I have to believe that the T/E teacher’s union TEEA accepts that the district can no longer afford to sustain their members’ health care plan at its current level – simply not possible.

Teacher unions fight for their members’ financial self-interests. To be clear, I do not have a problem with that motive – after all, isn’t that the primary reason ‘why’ a teacher would join TEEA and pay dues. Some may suggest that it appears that both TEEA and the school board are more focused on the money than the education. Let’s hope for the benefit of the District’s children, that conclusion reached by some is incorrect. Many of T/E teachers are also residents and parents. TEEA may be hoping to keep their benefit package intact but I have believe that the quality of the district’s educational program is every bit as important to most of its members.

Monday’s School Board meeting should be an indicator to the community on whether the teachers and the School Board are working toward the same goals or not. A couple of important topics for discussion at the meeting will be demotion and increased class size. I have previously written that increasing class size by one or two students may not be a problem, but could this be seen as the beginnings of change to the quality of TESD education? Increased class size may mean that teachers cannot focus as easily on individual students’ needs.

Just the talk of ‘possible’ demotion in TESD for economic reasons, is sending a negative tidal wave to TEEA. It is worrisome that the professional staff may be feeling devalued based solely on this budget strategy discussion. According to a recent TEEA press release, “T/E Teachers Willing to Help Create a Financial Bridge to the Future” the teachers union fully understands the District’s financial crisis and has prepared an ‘extremely reasonable solution’ to the School Board. However, according to TEEA, there has been unwillingness on the part of the School Board representatives to discuss their offer. The article further states that if demotion in the District moves forward, it is likely that some of the teachers will be forced to seek employment elsewhere. In reading the press release, I bought into this part of their argument.

However, the following paragraph from TEEA caused me pause,

At the same time, the Board has made assumptions about our future financial condition based upon many worst-case scenarios. They assume no future revenue growth, continued real estate decline, and continued lack of state and federal funding. These assumptions ignore significant increases the district made to its reserve fund in the past year. A more reasonable projection would account for an improving employment rate in Chester County, a real estate market that is beginning to rebound, and other indications of improving economic conditions.

To be fair to the School Board, they would not be doing their job if they were not realistic in their budget projections. Governor Corbett has focused his blame for the current budget crisis in Pennsylvania schools solely on the shoulders of local school boards. With Harrisburg’s major public education funding cuts, it is precisely the school board members who are now mired with this mess as the state pushes school funding responsibility on local school districts. I believe it is a bit quixotic for TEEA to suggest that the School Board should take a more positive (unrealistic?) approach to improving economic conditions. I am all for taking the ‘half glass full’ approach to situations but its needs to be tempered with realism. Rather than ‘worst-case scenario’ as suggested by TEEA, I hope that our School Board is attempting to be realistic in their projections.

In the latest TEEA press release, ‘Teachers Hope for Open Dialogue, Ask Community to Share Voice’, they offer a list of questions for community members to ask at Monday’s School Board meeting. Much of their focus is on the District’s fund balance, and the suggestion that the reserves be used to fund the budget shortfall. According to the TEEA, our school district currently has a reserve fund that is 26% of revenue, whereas other local school districts have fund balances of 8% to 10%. TEEA states that the PA School Boards Association recommends a balance no greater than 5%.

I believe that TESD has the largest fund balance in the state – someone please correct me if this wrong. And since the fund is taxpayer’s money, do you agree with TEEA and that a buy down from the reserve is in order to help fund the 2012-13 budget?

However, what are the repercussions, if any, with this approach for future budgets or future emergencies?  Moving forward, you don’t know when a roof is going to need major roof repairs or a school boiler is going to need replacement. Few school districts have amassed anywhere close to the significant fund balance as TESD. Maybe we should view 2012 as an ‘emergency’ and with that approach, use the fund balance as TEEA suggests.

Demotion of Professional Staff in T/E School District Remains Budget Option

Monday night was the Board of Supervisors Meeting and TESD Budget meeting.  I attended the BOS meeting and will offer a few thoughts in a later post.  Ray Clarke attended the school district meeting and offered his opinion on the evening which I provide below.

In reviewing Ray’s notes, I was pleased that it appears the elementary and middle school music programs are safe (at least at this time) from the budget ax.  Although certainly not a perfect solution, increasing class size of students by one or two students may be something that the parents (and teachers?) can live with versus some of the alternatives presented such as elimination of music programs.

However, the ‘demotion of professional staff for economic reasons’ could have potential to go in many different directions. Apparently there was discussion at the budget meeting which suggested the idea of ‘demoting’ higher paid full-time staff to part-time. Ray wonders if they are referring to PhD employees.

It may be legally possible but is it realistic to think that the school board would demote teachers with the longest service (and presumably highest salary)?   If we assume that the teachers with the longest service are the highest paid, surely the TEEA would step in and fight to protect those full-time positions. At the last finance committee meeting, there was discussion that perhaps there were individuals (for personal reasons) who would like to work part-time rather than full-time and might take advantage of this opportunity.  It was my understanding that the teachers union had mentioned this option to its members.

Ray’s notes reference the statement from the teachers union in regards to using the school district’s fund balance towards budget shortfall.  For the full statement from TEEA, click here.  An excerpt reads as follows:

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District maintains a $32 million fund balance, which equates to 26% of revenue. Most other school districts maintain a fund balance of 8% to 10%. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association recommends a fund balance no greater than 5%. We ask the question and we believe the taxpayers and parents should ask the question, ‘Why is this fund balance not being used to save programs and preserve the great, award-winning T/E School District?’ Why are District officials insisting they do not have the resources to protect these programs?

Ray Clarke’s remarks from last night’s budget meeting:

Some notes on the TESD budget meeting from my perspective …..

The TESD meeting was notable for airing out some new projections for 2012/13 (previously discussed in committees), but we are still some way from numbers that can be trusted, and even when we have them, it seems that they’ll still show a deficit.
Some highlights I noted:
– The current enrollment figures show a 3% decrease over the current year, but the expectation seems to be that the final figures will be higher, but smaller than projected back in October 2011. The net result being 3 fewer FTEs now needed in 2012/13, reducing the expense increase by $225,000. Some more detail of the assumptions on this would have helped.

– To recap on professional staff: Average years of service continues upward – now 11.7 years – and so does average salary – by year-end approx. $86,000. TTRC member Barbara Morosse tried to get the Board to own up to the fact that the approx 30% increase in average salary (my number) over the last four years is in fact a major contributor to the current budget problem, but of course we continued to get the litany (best articulated last night by Kris Graham) that lists all the issues outside the Board’s control. There was no update on contract negotiations, but Art O’Donnell read a list of corrections to a recent TEEA commentary.

– A few expense analysis comments:
a) Next year has a $1.65 million increase in teacher salaries deferred from this year, and this makes up most of the salary line increase; presumably the cost of increased FTEs are offset by a mix change due to 17 retirements.
b) It looks like the current prescription plan can be funded with no increase, rather than the 10% previously budgeted (saving $500,000).
c) It was announced that the transportation company waived their contracted 2% increase this year, but it looks like the budget assumes next year’s increase will make that up.
d) There is a $725,000 increase in interest expense next year, and apparently no opportunity to use the Fund Balance to pay down debt and save interest expense until 2015.
e) The administration has benchmarked legal and architectural rates and found them to be competitive.

– There’s an good-sounding budget strategy to replace special education services purchased from the CCIU with our own staff and save $200,000.
– Of course, strategies to address the remaining budget gap (after a projected 3.4% tax increase, let’s not forget) are now getting contentious.
Betsy Fadem came out strongly for tabling any consideration of:
a) reducing EDRs (although new hires are already paid less) (saving forgone $220,000)
b) eliminating ES and MS music lessons (savings forgone $375,000)

She [Fadem] carried the day on those. On the other hand, the Board did vote to further consider:
a) demoting higher paid staff (PhDs??) from FT to PT (saving $640,000)
b) increasing the class size by one (or maybe two??) (saving maybe $500,000, but the numbers not at all clear on this).

The first of these seems completely insane to me, but maybe they are trying to make points to the TEEA and to the community about their willingness to undertake the limited options allowed by state law. There was a very confusing discussion about the overlap of the retirements and the demotion strategy, so maybe I’m missing something. So it looks like they are still at least $1 million short of a balanced budget, and facing a TEEA that wants to get further compensation increases paid out of the Fund Balance, while it lasts. Dr Motel called for a thorough review of all non-mandated programs: art, music, kindergarten, transportation, etc.

Not a pretty picture.

Bragging Rights: PSSA Results Rank Tredyffrin Easttown School District Third in the State

2012 School Guide logo

Last week, the Pittsburgh Business Times published their 2012 Guide of Western Pennsylvania Schools, which lists the school district rankings for the Pittsburgh area and the entire state of Pennsylvania. The newspaper analyzed all the school districts’ performance based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Exam results. According to their website, the formula for the ranking takes into account three years of PSSA test scores in math, reading, writing and science. They look at three years of scores, with the current year given the most weight.

In the Top 15 school districts category in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County was the number one county with six school districts represented followed by Chester County with three school districts (Unionville-Chadds Ford, T/E and Great Valley), Delaware County with two school districts (Radnor and Wallingford-Swarthmore) and Montgomery County with two school districts (Lower Merion and Lower Moreland).

For 2012 rankings, Upper St. Clair School Districts holds onto its first place title for the eighth year in a row, with Tredyffrin Easttown Township School District dropping to third place and Unionville-Chadds Ford School District taking second place. Radnor Township School District stays in fourth place, Lower Merion drops down a level to eighth and Great Valley School District drops from 13th to 14th place. Looking at other area school district rankings, Downingtown School District moved from 28th to 25th and Phoenixville School District dropped from 85th place to 98th on the rankings list.

To see the ranking for all 500 Pennsylvania school districts, click here.

Pennsylvania School District Rankings
Statewide       Statewide
Rank 2012       Rank 2011       School District (County)
1                      1                      Upper St. Clair School District (Allegheny)
2                      3                      Unionville-Chadds Ford School District (Chester)
3                      2                      Tredyffrin-Easttown School District (Chester)
4                      4                      Radnor Township School District (Delaware)
5                      6                      Mt. Lebanon School District (Allegheny)
6                      5                      North Allegheny School District        (Allegheny)
7                      9                      Hampton Township School District (Allegheny)
8                      7                      Lower Merion School District (Montgomery)
9                      8                      Central Bucks School District (Bucks)
10                    12                    South Fayette Township School District (Allegheny)
11                    10                    Peters Township School District       (Washington)
12                    11                    Fox Chapel Area School District        (Allegheny)
13                    15                    Wallingford-Swarthmore School District      (Delaware)
14                    13                    Great Valley School District (Chester)
15                    14                    Lower Moreland Township (Montgomery)

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which  students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud.   PSSA scores is viewed by many as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provide useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and give us the truest measure of how an overall class is performing.

In the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, the teachers union used their District’s high PSSA and SAT scores as a contract negotiating tool.  I wrote a post on January 11, 2012, Do Higher Teacher Salaries in Philadelphia Area School Districts Equate to Higher PSSA & SAT Scores?’ that included a report by Keith Knauss, a school board member from Unionville Chadds Ford School Board. Knauss looked at 61 Philadelphia area school districts for factors that might explain the wide variation in academic achievement on PSSA and SAT tests.

In his analysis of the data, Knauss concluded that “only two factors are significant – Parental Education and Poverty and those two factors alone can explain the bulk of the differences in academic achievement.”  Recognizing that “those two factors are beyond the control of the District”, Knauss notes, “all other factors, where the District does have control over are not significant, including per student spending, class size, teacher salary, teacher experience, teacher education.”

While most of us might assume that the more experienced teachers, or those with the most education and the highest salaries would be factors associated with higher test results, Knauss research data does not support that theory, at least not in the 61 school districts in the Philadelphia area that he researched.  Knauss concludes, “contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence from the 61 districts that spending or the number of teachers has a measurable effect on academic achievement.” Click here to read Keith’s Spending Trends Presentation TE research study.

Bottom line … if we accept that school district rankings, based on PSSA performance, have an importance, do we give credit to the District teachers for the results?  If you believe that the teachers play a role in the student’s performance on the PSSA exams, should the results be a factor in the current teacher contract negotiations?  Should the TEEA use the PSSA exam results as a tool in their contract negotiations?

TESD is facing tighter budgets and difficult choices are the options that remain for the school board.  In all likelihood, the 2012-13 school year will see a $50 fee charged to students to play sports, perform in the marching band and participate in clubs.  The District’s Education Committee is exploring many ways to reduce costs to help the budget.  Last year we saw the elimination of foreign language in the elementary program and German and Latin in the middle school.  Now we see that there is discussion of eliminating string lessons in the third grade or possibly eliminating elementary and middle school music lessons.

Another couple of budget strategies in discussion —  (1) the demotion of professional staff for economic reasons and (2) increasing class size to help the 2012-13 budget.   Here’s a question — wonder if there is any research to suggest that increasing class size could result in lower PSSA exam results for TESD.

Click here for details of Education Committee suggestions for 2012-13 budget strategies.


Should Charities & Nonprofits in Tredyffrin and Easttown Help Pay the Bills of the School District?

I attended this week’s Finance Committee meeting for the school district.  As we are all acutely aware, TESD is facing major budget challenges like every other school district in the state.  The challenge for School Board directors is what strategies to impose to meet the demands of the budget crisis.  Over the next few years, Tredyffrin Easttown School District will be faced with a $16 million budget shortfall.

We can accept that the pension crisis is a major contributor to the unprecedented shortfall but it is coupled with other factors.  Because school districts are so reliant on property taxes to fund their respective budgets, the last few years and the next several years will show an ever-decreasing revenue stream as property values and real estate transactions have tumbled. The unfunded and underfunded mandates serves only to exacerbate the already difficult fiscal situation faced in the school district.

With rising healthcare costs plus the required PSERS contributions, it is impossible to balance that increase when the Act 1 index plus exceptions is below 4%.  Add in decreasing real estate revenues and state and federal support … equals the unprecedented new fiscal reality of our school district.  So where does this leave the local school board … looking for new ways to decrease spending and/or increase revenue.

At the Finance Committee meeting, budget strategies, some old and some new, were discussed.   The committee recommended the implementation of a $50 sports and activity participation fee for the 2012-13 school year to be considered at the next full School Board meeting.  If approved, the fee would be collected from each high school and middle school student involved in sports or activities.  However, it should be noted that the $50 fee would only be charged once per student regardless of how many sports or activities the student participates.

An interesting suggested budget strategy that could affect nonprofits with real estate in the school district was discussed.  There are over 300 not for profit organizations in the school district with exempt status for property taxes.  The value in exempt property assessment in the school district of these nonprofits exceeds $366 million.  As a budget strategy, the Finance Committee discussed the possibility of challenging these tax-exempt property owners by requesting payment to the school district in lieu of taxes.  There was discussion that perhaps these nonprofits might voluntarily contribute to help the school district, if asked.

There’s no argument that nonprofits may provide useful services but they also impose a cost on municipalities because they consume public services, such as police protection and roads, but do not pay taxes on the property they own.  In the non-profit community in Philadelphia, a number of tax-exempt organizations make voluntary payments to the coffers of the local municipality, including University of Pennsylvania.

Charitable nonprofit organizations, which include private universities, hospitals, museums, soup kitchens, churches, etc., are exempt from property taxation in all 50 states. Many nonprofits reduce local government spending by offering services that would otherwise be provided by those governments, but at the same time, these nonprofits impose a cost on municipalities by consuming public services, such as police protection and roads.

It is clear that many nonprofits reduce local government spending by offering services that some governments might be required to provide otherwise. However, as I have said, these nonprofits impose a cost on municipalities by consuming public services, such as police protection and roads.

Neither the school district nor the local governments could force the tax-exempt organizations to pay tax on the properties they own, but why not set up some kind of voluntary contribution system?   What would be the harm in asking our local nonprofits who own real estate, if they would like to help the school district budget crisis with a financial contribution?  I would take it a step further and suggest that Tredyffrin and Easttown Township Board of Supervisors should similarly ‘ask’ for a voluntary contribution.  With the ongoing challenge of local governments to balance their budgets, maybe this revenue source could save some services (and jobs) in the townships.

However, there is another side to this discussion that needs to be stated.  That is, that the struggling economic times have challenged nonprofits financially as demands for their services have skyrocketed while they have seen their revenues nosedive.  Sitting on the boards of two nonprofit organizations myself, I can confirm the decline of foundation grants and the downturn in corporate contributions.  In addition, according to the IRS, individual giving to nonprofits has sagged by 20 percent.

Bottom line: These are tough economic times, which require some unprecedented, thinking ‘outside the box’ solutions, such as voluntary contributions in lieu of taxes by not-for-profit organizations that own real estate.


There were other proposed budget strategies including increased class size and cuts to the district’s music program.  I will address those issues in a separate future post and ask that you hold comments directed at those proposed budget strategies for that specific Community Matters post.  Thank you.

Vine Day … Open Land Conservancy Could Use Your Help on Saturday!

Has this winter left you suffering from cabin fever and a need to get outside for some fresh air?  There’s a perfect opportunity this Saturday, April 14 to help the community and celebrate the end of winter!

The Open Land Conservancy of Chester County will be holding its last Vine Day of the season on Saturday at George Lorimer Preserve, 9 AM – 12 Noon.  Vines will be cut back so you will need to wear appropriate gloves and protective clothing.  Volunteers are asked to bring tools if they have them — prunners, saws, clippers.  But not to worry, the volunteers from Open Land Conservancy will have extra tools.  Open Land Conservancy invites you to give back to your community by helping with spring property maintenance.

Lorimer Preserve is 88 acres of meadows, woods, ponds, stream, and extensive trail system are managed to provide a variety of habitats for wildlife in a beautiful rural setting.

Volunteering for the Open Land Conservancy is a great way to make a difference for the lands and communities of this region while having fun and meeting new people!

Directions:  head north on North Valley Road across Valley Creek, to entrance and parking lot on right.  For further information on Vine Day and Open Land Conservancy, click here.  Any questions, contact Ray Clarke at 610-578-0358.

American Red Cross: 2012 Chester County Heroes Breakfast Needs Your Support!

The American Red Cross is a humanitarian organization led by volunteers and provides relief to victims of disasters and helps people prevent, prepare for, and responds to emergencies.  The Red Cross is not a government agency – all assistance is provided free of charge.  Red Cross assistance is made possible through the generosity of people in our region who donate their time, money and blood.

Steve Shapiro, attorney and regular contributor to Community Matters, is on the Board of Directors for our local Red Cross, Chester County chapter.  Each year the organization honors Chester County heroes and Steve forwarded information about the HEROES BREAKFAST EVENT to honor this year’s recipient.  On April 25, Denise Graf, Captain of the Chester County Red Cross volunteer Disaster Team will be honored for the difference she makes in our community.

Denise Graf, who lives in Downingtown and works for The Vanguard Group in Malvern, joined the Red Cross in October of 2005 and became captain of the Chester County Disaster Action Team (DAT) in 2008. In addition to responding to disasters, she has created partnerships between the Red Cross and the Chester County Department of Emergency Services and the Chester County Food Bank to coordinate services during emergencies. She is also devoted to teaching members of the Chester County community about disaster preparedness and fire safety. Denise received the Red Cross Volunteer of the Year award for Chester County in 2007, the Team Captain of the Year award in 2008, and an award for health fair support in 2010.

Denise reports that 2011 was her busiest year yet as a Red Cross volunteer.  “Our team had only opened maybe two or three shelters over the past six years, and we opened four in the span of one and a half weeks during Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee,” she explained. The busy year began in February when she responded to a fire that happened to be at the home of her neighbor. The family was very distraught by the loss of their home, and Denise did not see any of them until Christmas Day, when the daughter brought Denise a gift and card. “It took the better part of the year, but they are now back in their home and took the time to come down and let me know how much my assistance in their time of need meant to them,” Denise says.

The HEROES BREAKFAST EVENT recognizes and celebrates heroes in Chester County who have saved lives, committed selfless acts of courage  and compassion, and exemplify the mission and qualities of the Red Cross.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012, from 7:30 AM – 9:00 AM

The Desmond Hotel, One Liberty Blvd., Malvern, PA 19355

Click here for ticket and/or sponsor information.  Remember, the American Red Cross is an entirely volunteer run organization that depends on the generosity of people who donate their time and money. Thanks Steve for sharing this information about such a valuable organization.

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