Community Matters Not Going Anywhere — ‘Our Collective Voices’ Matter!

Community Matters was down for about 4 hours yesterday, causing some regular readers to speculate that either I had voluntarily closed the site down or, that someone had  forced its closure.  For those prone to conspiracy theories, concerns heightened when it was discovered that the township’s website was also down.  I have no idea what caused the township website to go off-line but it is possible that the problem, was the same as for Community Matters.  Go Daddy, one of the largest Internet hosting firms, had major technical difficulties yesterday, which resulted in 5 million of their sites (including Community Matters) to go down.  An anonymous hacker is claiming responsibility for the service disruption.

So, for those who would wish otherwise, I remain stoic in my resolve … our ‘collective voices’ are important in this community.  Community ‘matters’ and our voices are part of this community.  In the last couple of days, I  have been in contact with two members of the Board of Supervisors in regards to (1) the use of the township website by a supervisor for personal messages and the policy (procedure) for such usage and (2) the communication I received from our township manager, which was posted on Community Matters.  My hope is that the Board of Supervisors will address my concerns, and those of many in the community, prior to their next meeting on Monday, September 17.  One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that what happened last week will not be forgotten.  The offensive letter may be off the township website, but its damage is not easily erased. At this point … I say, stay tuned.

Moving forward, I could not help but think about our own school district as a I watched the news yesterday and the striking teachers from Chicago’s 675 public schools.  As I understand it, Chicago teacher union leaders and district officials were not far apart in their negotiations on compensation.  But other issues – including potential changes to health care benefits and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students’ standardized test scores, remain unresolved. Chicago teachers object to their jobs and performance being tied to students’ standardized test scores.

In T/E School District, on September 5, members of the school board and Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) reached a tentative agreement on the contract.  The existing contract expired on June 30.  The public will not see the agreement until both sides ratify the tentative agreement.  I am not sure why the delay, but it will be about 6 weeks until the school board votes on the tentative agreement at their October 22 school board meeting.  Presumably, at that point, the contents of the agreement will be released to the public.

The TESD Finance Committee held their first meeting of the 2012-13 school year last night. for 2012-13 year was held on Monday night. Thank you to Ray Clarke for attending and providing his notes to Community Matters.

First, a few miscellaneous items I jotted down:

  • We got an unbudgeted $330,000 refund from Blue Cross.  This flows from mysterious BC prior year accounting which has in other years resulted in a charge.  This is a nice non-recurring bonus (especially since we are now self-insured).
  • Federal revenues from the ACCESS program were also $300,000 more than budget.
  • The risk from new commercial assessment appeals remains, and a $1.4 million reduction is included in the budget
  • Residential appeals of about 150 parcels is at about the same rate as last year and we’ve lost $56,000 from about a quarter of these settled so far.  The reduction is less than it was last year, though.
  • The district is appealing 23 commercial assessments; the historical success rate has not been high (~10%, I think).
  • At this early stage, the administration sees no need to use the $5.15 million “budgetary reserve”.
  • Over the last couple of years we have actively managed bus routes to reduce the need by 5 buses (down to 105) – a saving of $250,000 a year.  This success makes me think that it would be nice to see a short table of the results of all the budget strategies.

The Financial Report did not include any impact of the tentative TEEA contract agreement.  I was told that this could not be done, since anything would be “speculation” until the Board votes on the contract.  Dr Waters said that releasing tentative contract details would be counter to “40 years of history”.  Dr Motel said that the Board has complete authority to enter into an agreement, regardless of what their constituents think.  There was no explanation of why the secrecy is in the interests of the district or of the taxpayers.

It strikes me that if 40 years of history was always the guide, then most CM readers would never have got the right to vote.  How is it that the beneficiaries of a contract have the ability to review and approve it, but the people paying for that contract do not?  Every other budget item gets months of public discussion.  We heard tonight a report of the revenues from advertising, which was debated ad nauseam for 2 years and has just now realized its first revenues of $760 (over two years).  Every year the $10,000 or $20,000 cost of PSBA membership is discussed in multiple meetings.  The TEEA contract represents one-third of total expenses for just salaries alone (and probably influences double that), yet we have no chance to give our representatives our opinion?

So that leaves us to speculate for ourselves.  My thought is that the back-end loading of the tentative deal busts the budget far beyond the maximum tax increase will allow, and leaves the post-election mess for the next school board generation to sort out

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24 Comments

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  1. Glad to hear that CM is still up and running! We thank you Pattye for all you do and for giving us a voice! We appreciate that CM provides a much-needed forum so we can exchange ideas and learn what’s going on in our township!

    On a side note, our hearts and prayers go out to all of those who lost loved ones this day 11 years ago! Never forget.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Thank you Trisha. You are absolutely right, we should all take time today to remember and honor those that were lost on September 11.

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  2. Ray
    40 years of story is not a legal reason. I would submit an RTK request. If it’s in writing, and it’s been distributed to board members etc., then I believe you have a case to see it. There is nothing confidential in it. I understand in the history that it seemed logical to not share the deal until it was ratified, but since the 2008 deal almost bankrupted the district, perhaps some public scrutiny of the costs before we commit to them would be useful. The board can ratify if they want…but as taxpayers, we can and should be able to comment before they do.

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  3. TR,
    The RTK law specifically exempts documents relating to negotiations. Here is the specific exception:
    .
    A record pertaining to strategy or negotiations relating to labor relations or collective bargaining and related arbitration proceedings. This subparagraph shall not apply to a final or executed contract or agreement between the parties in a collective bargaining procedure.
    .
    You’ll find very few districts that will allow the public to view a tentative agreement before ratification by both the Board and the union. I’ve never heard of one. That said, I think it’s a good idea for the reasons Ray articulated. I don’t see a downside. I’ll be encouraging UCF to allow pubic comment before the vote.
    .
    The tentative agreement is probably close to the Board’s August offer. What do people think of that offer?

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  4. I was aware of that clause, but think that the “final” agreement — is not exempt. This is not a record — this is a contract awaiting ratification. I know no one has done it, but I wonder whether the the language does not preclude it. It certainly makes things tougher…but it also means that what is viewed and ratified by the membership is seen and commented on by the people paying for the contract.

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  5. It seems to me that releasing the details just requires a Board that realizes that the world has changed. The days of unrestrained union power have ended.

    Here’s a nice analysis of the Chicago situation:
    http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teacher-strike-poses-test-unions-071221549.html

    I think the TEEA negotiation team is smart enough to see that even traditional union supporters are pushing for education reform and there’s little community support for intransigence. I agree with Keith that the tentative agreement is likely close to the August offer, maybe sweetened with a little more fund balance in return for grievance resolution. So, the union has an opportunity to lock in the status quo compensation/benefits system and get back on the same old tenure/certification escalation in a couple of years. Absent economic miracles, the district is left with continuing deficits and hard decisions to make about TENIG and administration compensation.

    Now that four Board members have basically signed off on the agreement by being at the negotiating table, it only takes the consistently pro-union Kris Graham to make this a done deal, whatever it is. Do they have to wait all the way to the end of October for the actual vote to allow enough time for the union to ratify the agreement, or is there another reason for the delay?

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  6. Lower Merion had a practice of voting on union contracts without citizen review.

    I took them to task on this over a police contract two years ago at a township meeting stating that since the commissioners were voting on a final contract citizens should be able to view it before the vote. Negotiations were finished so it was not exempt under the Sunshine Act.

    Township manager Cleland’s sole reponse was “this is the way it has always been done”. Board President Bruce Reed (who has since resigned in disgrace) had no other response than to “vote out commissioners if I didn’t like it”.

    Since then, LM has changed its practice and has made finalized union contracts available for public inspection before vote.

    Any contact that is still being negotiated will not be made available to the public, but don’t let them try and vote on a finalized contract without public review.

    Not sure if they would be so condescending and arrogant towards citizens, but then, Lower Merion was.

    If they try any stunts, call them on it at the meeting where they vote on it.

    [Reply]

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    The response I got parallels your experience exactly.

    Secrecy about contracts is common throughout Tredyffrin government. I didn’t follow it, but I think that our recent police contract was also approved without any citizen input.

    There is a School Board meeting on September 24th, before the October vote, so there is an opportunity to raise the visibility and put some pressure on this issue.

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  7. I would argue that the T/A is just that – “tentative”, not “final”. The only way to test whether the T/A is a public document is to file a RTK request and, if denied, appeal to the Office of Open Records. The other easier course of action is to ask the moderator at the PA Freedom of Information Coalition. She’s very knowledgeable about open records and is in constant contact with attorneys practicing in that area.
    http://www.pafoic.org/forum/YaBB.pl?board=OpenRecords

    [Reply]

  8. A record pertaining to strategy or negotiations relating to labor relations or collective bargaining and related arbitration proceedings. This subparagraph shall not apply to a final or executed contract or agreement between the parties in a collective bargaining procedure.

    If they meant to exclude TAs, then why specifically list that it doesn’t apply to “final OR executed contract OR agreement between the parties ”

    The TA is final …the step before it becomes executed. But you are right–someone can test it…probably a reporter would be best. I was only suggesting that Ray might ask and see what the formal response was…then you’d have info to use to ask the state OOR about the response.

    [Reply]

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    Hi TR,

    You asked why the exception doesn’t apply to “final or executed contract or agreement between the parties.”
    .
    This wording provides an exception that says T/As are not public records:
    A record pertaining to strategy or negotiations relating to labor relations or collective bargaining and related arbitration proceedings.
    .
    This wording reverses the exception and says that executed (voted on and approved by both parties) contracts are public records:
    This subparagraph shall not apply to a final or executed contract or agreement between the parties
    .
    Without that wording (“shall not apply to”) the District would never ever have to make the contract public even after it was voted on. Gotta think like a lawyer.
    .

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    politeia Reply:

    Either the board or the union may legally publish its own or the other party’s proposed terms or details of negotiations at any time during the negotiating process, but neither party is required to do so.

    Needless to say, since they are not required to do it, they don’t do it.

    Exceptions in the Sunshine Act are not requirements. Note, in legal terms, the exceptions for executive session use the term “may”, not “shall”.

    [Reply]

    flyersfan Reply:

    and what is the meaning of “is”… lawyers…

  9. Then I think the language should have said final COMMA, executed contract…not Final OR executed contract. The TA that goes to the membership for ratification is the FINAL agreement. It does not apply to final agreements.

    just arguing for fun. I have deluged them with RTKs over the years…it’s some else’s turn.

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  10. When someone says releasing information would be counter to 40 years of history what they’re really saying is Your question bothers me, I don’t know why we do it this way, I don’t care what you think, Just go along, this is the way we do things so just leave it alone, I will not admit that you have a good point and that you are right.

    [Reply]

  11. Pattye,

    Thank you for providing this service. This is amazingly professional for this day and age and you really do try to be objective.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Thank you for your support. I believe that tonight’s Board of Supervisors meeting will be a watershed moment for Tredyffrin Township and may determine my personal journey going forward.

    If CM supporters are unable to attend the meeting but want to make a personal statement in advance, comments can be sent to BOS@tredyffrin.org However, it should be noted that I know of at least one resident who sent an email (in regards to the use of the township website for supervisor messages) to the BOS@tredyffrin.org address where the email was not sent out to the individual supervisors. Was this a unique situation? An oversight? a mistake … simply don’t know. Although I know the private email address of each supervisor, I don’t think I should post those on CM. If you do know any of the individual supervisor emails, people may want to add those email to the BOS@tredyffrin.org email address to guarantee delivery.

    [Reply]

    politeia Reply:

    The email for every supervisor can be found at the below link from the township website.

    These are not personal email addresses. These are tax-payer funded, public email accounts for public officials and they are there for a reason – so the public can voice thoughts, opinions and concerns to supervisors directly.

    I mass email the Lower Merion commissioners (and very often take them to task) with the emails they list (some of which are personal or business email addresses) on the Lower Merion township website all the time and have been doing so for years.

    http://www.tredyffrin.org/boards/bos/

    I hope citizens will show for the meeting tonight and remind the supervisors that it is the citizens of Tredyffrin – the taxpayer-owners of the township who run Tredyffrin and that the supervisors work for them.

    [Reply]

    new post-er Reply:

    Thank-you for your leadership Politeia, and thank-you Patty for this blog. I hope no matter the outcome of the meeting tonight, your committment to bringing a voice to ordinary citizens of this township will be part of your personal journey. Your blog allows easy access to information and empowers citizens to participate in public policy.

  12. The Tredyffrin website has about 5 ways to contact supervisors. What is not clear is whether those methods are active. The website is not well maintained. As of today, it does not have the correct title for the Chief of Police. It shows Jeremy Blackburn as a DJ. There is a link to CONTACT AND FEEDBACK form that allows you to direct your comments to a number of places.

    I have no idea which method reaches the supervisors.

    [Reply]

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