League of Women Voters Debate: Part I, TE School Board Candidates

democrats-republicansYesterday, the League of Women Voters held the TE School Board candidate debate and the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors candidate debate.  I attended both debates.  Although the debates were not shown live, they will be available for viewing (Comcast 2 and Verizon 24 channels) sometime after Monday’s Board of Supervisors Meeting.  My guess is that there will be separate schedules for the two debates – check the township website for details.

Unfortunately, due to the lateness of scheduling, the school board debate was limited to a 1-hour format versus the 2-hour supervisor debate format.  In speaking with the League of Women Voters representative, Mary Lou Dondero, before the debate, I learned more about their scheduling process.  Ms. Dondero was none too pleased about the lateness of which the school board candidates debate was scheduled.  When asked who was responsible for debate scheduling, it was interesting to learn that it not the local political party leaders that should ask but rather the candidates themselves who should contact the LWV.  This is good information to know going forward.

Six of the eight school board candidates participated (due to prior commitments, Easttown Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim were unable to attend). After each candidate presented a 2-minute opening personal statement, the moderator read questions, which audience members had anonymously submitted.  Each question was answered by all candidates with the moderator giving each candidate the opportunity to be first to answer.  Following the questions, each candidate had an opportunity for a 2-minute closing statement.

The LWV debate is not the traditional format that many of us recall from our high school/college days, but rather a Q&A forum. The downside of the LWV debate style is it does not allow for rebuttal by candidate. Case in point, the LWV repeatedly asked the candidates (both school board and supervisors) to respond to the specific question yet several candidates answered the LWV questions with accusations against their opponents.  Due to the LWV format, it made it difficult for the candidates to defend the accusations.

Everyone that follows Community Matters knows that I fought for a school board candidate debate.  Important school district issues surfaced this year, making for a contentious situation for all involved — the Board, administration, employees and the public.  For my efforts in moving the school board debate forward, some questioned my agenda.  If I had an agenda, it was simple – voters need to ‘know’ the candidates and candidates need to have the opportunity to deliver their views on issues, before Election Day.  Hindsight being 20/20, I’m actually glad that I had nothing to do with the school board debate other than to attend.  I cannot be accused of unfairness or a bias in the organization of the debate – candidates were not coerced; they own their words.

For those of us who regularly attend and/or watch the school board meetings, there was little surprise in most of the audience questions. As a result of contentious school board meetings this year, many of the questions related to communication, trust, transparency and morale issues, — asking what would the candidates do to ‘improve’ the current situation, if elected.

Five of the six candidates spoke of the need to improve communication and several of them mentioned morale issues.  School board director Rich Brake (R), who is seeking re-election, accepted that there have been communication issues between the Board and the residents and spoke of the need to improve the dialogue, suggesting town hall meetings. Brake believes that the negativity issues need to be handled directly and wants to bring people together. It was refreshing to have a current elected official acknowledge the problems, accept responsibility and suggest ways for improvement.

With a similar response, Brake’s opponent Scott Dorsey (D) supports greater transparency and open dialogue between the public and the Board, suggesting a public advisory board. Dorsey spoke out against the Board’s use of the consent agenda and suggested its use should be reconsidered. The consent agenda is designed for routine items, such as meetings minutes. However, as Dorsey explained, the consent agenda takes away the public’s right to question an issue.  The consent agenda can bury an item that the Board does not want publically discussed.  In my opinion, in 2013 we saw the misuse of the consent agenda by the school board for the hiring of Andy Chambers and the inclusion of administrator raises and bonuses.  If the hiring of the former police chief as the District’s security expert or giving raises to the administrators was such a  good idea, why not openly discuss them in a public school board meeting, than than buried in a consent agenda. Dorsey was the only candidate to address the consent agenda issue.

Easttown Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner spoke favorably on the topic of communication, wanting to see greater resident participation and awareness of District issues.  Lastner wants the employees to feel that they can speak candidly and not risk their jobs by speaking out.  Referring to her background and prior elected positions in Connecticut, Lastner is a proponent of the “listen and learn” concept.

Tredyffrin school board candidate Pete Connors (R) remarks on this topic included “morale starts with leadership”.  Connors believes that there exists a trust issue in the community and proposed an advisory citizens group.  He specifically cited the threat of outsourcing and the proposed demolition of the tennis courts where the Board was forced to reverse their decisions due to the public.  Concerned about the Board’s lack of transparency that has decisions being made in private, Connors promoted a greater sharing of information with the public.

The consistent theme from Brake, Dorsey, Connors, Lastner and Carlson was the need for the school board to provide greater communication opportunities for the public. Dorsey, Brake and Connors took it a step further and spoke of changing the negative tone, improving trust and respectfulness and supporting the creation of some type of citizen advisory group.

As president of the school board, Kevin Buraks (D) was center front to the confrontational monthly and committee school board meetings of 2013 yet did not agree with the other candidates on District morale or communication issues.  Unmistakably Buraks is disconnected to the important issues raised by his fellow school board director Rich Brake and by Democrat Scott Dorsey.  At times, it was hard to believe that Buraks and Brake are both on the same school board or that Buraks and Dorsey are representing the same local political party.

Responding to a question, Buraks stated clearly that there are no morale issues in the District. He further commented that if there were moral issues in the District, the employees would leave.  On the issue of communication, his stance is that the school board already provides an open forum, is transparent and that through emails, website, etc. all District information is available.  He pointed out that the Board listened to the public about the demolition of the tennis courts and the outsourcing of the aides and paras and reversed their decision. In other words, according to school board president Kevin Buraks, there is no trust, respect or communication issues in the school district. He backed these assertions by continuously pointing to T/E school district’s rankings as his proof.

So overall, was there any new ‘news’ or any surprises learned from the school board candidate debate for me?  Yes and no.  Because I regularly attend the school board meetings and understand most of the issues, some of the information was not new.  However, I did not know the background and views of Easttown residents Virginia Lastner and Doug Carlson, so appreciated the opportunity to learn more about them.  I know candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey and both have previously spoken out about the District’s communication and transparency issues, so was not surprised by their responses.

The surprise was in the school board incumbents performances. Perhaps it is because Kevin Buraks is an attorney, but his stance during the debate was not to back down or take responsibility for any of the public’s  perceived ‘miss-steps’ of the school board or of his term as the president.  I guess as an attorney, you make a calculation and then stand by your decision, using the mantra of no ‘do-overs’ allowed. Taking the approach that because the TE School District is highly ranked, Buraks wants the voters to believe it is a result of his leadership.  Other the other hand, incumbent Rich Brake took a completely different approach and surprised me with his candor. Portraying himself as somewhat of a school board outsider, Brake acknowledged that there needs to be greater dialogue with the public and more openness.  Whereas Buraks would have the public believe that everything is cohesive and agreeable among the school board directors, Brake paints a very different picture.

These are my personal observations from the school board debate, I welcome others who attended to contribute their opinion.  If you did not attend the debate, I would encourage you to watch in on online when it is available.

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  1. Listened to TESD debate. Had to laugh at Buraks comment that there is no morale problem at TE. Says he is in schools and teachers-staff are happy and have smiles on their faces. Did he ever ask them how things are going? No one I know has been asked by Board Members about morale. Teachers have no free speech. They’re afraid. Teachers had to bargain in their contract just to get the president the right to speak. Teachers have been threatened with demotion. Our teachers have gotten no credit for taking furlough days, working more hours, teaching more students, freezing their pay. We are frustrated. We put smiles on our faces because we care about kids. Would be nice if someone asked us for our professional input.

    agree with Mr. Connors. need more trust between management and employees. disagree with Mr. Brake. He says we can continue to cut money from the schools. Easy for him to vote against every budget. Maybe he should spend five minutes in the schools so he could see that we have cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut and there is nothing else to cut. Unless he wants to cut our salaries. Won’t agree to that again.

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  2. TETFS

    I appreciate your comments. I agree with everything you say. And if you look back, you ill see that I have posted multiple times that I have great respect for teachers and I understand the stress you have been working under.

    I am trying to understand it when you say you won’t cut salaries again.

    Teacher, the average teacher salary in TE is $82,000 (I thought it was closer to $85,000 but Mr. Brake quoted $82,000 in the debate) The median income for a male in Tredyffrin is between $76,000 and $77,000.

    Starting salary for a teacher in TE is between $50,000 and $55,000. College graduates in the private sector don’t get anywhere near that salary and I’m referring to graduates who land jobs with major corporations. Employees in the private sector pay 20% of their less than adequate healthcare costs and pensions in just about every private sector job have been eliminated. Teachers in TE receive cadillac health care benefits, don’t pay anywhere near 20% for the benefit and look forward to a very generous pension at retirement.

    With all due respect, the people who pay for your salary, healthcare and benefits make less than you do and pay more into their healthcare than you do and have no pension. It doesn’t make sense to me that the pay and benefits of the teachers and administrators should continue to increase when the pay and benefits of the citizens who fund these salaries and benefits continue to decline. Many citizens in this community have lost their jobs and there is no job security for the ones who have held onto theirs and they are working 7 times harder for the same or less than they did 5 years ago.

    As Ms. Lastner said in the debate, your retirement costs will soon go up 4 times what we paid a few short years ago. How are we supposed to pay for that?

    I’m trying to understand your position and would appreciate your comment. Thank-you.

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    anon Reply:

    SL, do you have a source for that median income number for males? And what about Easttown?

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    Shining Light Reply:

    2010 census. I have seen other sources that say these numbers have decreased since 2010, but I don’t cite the data because I’m not sure about the source.

    Tredyffrin

    Median income for household is $82,258
    Median income for family is $105,183

    Median income for males is $76,393 vs. $46,124 for females

    Easttown
    Median income for household is $95,548
    Median income for family is $109,103

    Median income for males is $80,341 vs. $40,955 for females

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    anon Reply:

    From the most recent ACS:
    http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_11_5YR_DP03

    Median income for males is $101,552

    Tredyffrin’s Wikipedia entry has the numbers you cite, but those were from the 2000 Census.

    I actually agree with your general thought, but facts are not irrelevant as margaritaville points out below.

  3. ah shining how comfortable it must be in those ivory towers of the education estate.. I agree with what you said, so nicely really and shudder at the stridency of TETEacher. Facts must be irrelevant. to TEteacher… certainly reality is…

    teachers should just do their jobs.. they are protected by contracts.. Make their own happiness by job well done, kids learning their abc’s and growing with teachers guidance to productive young adults… They should write in to next contract must supply high morale… ba humbug.

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  4. Is Mr Buraks a litigator? His verbal skills leave much to be desired and his memory is deficient too.. Time to thank him for his service and replace him.

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    Sidelines Reply:

    Mr. Buraks has 3 children in the schools. He has a very high stake in keeping the schools at a premium level. Is that good, or not? It’s a decision voters should make!

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  5. Who cares what they do for a living….Mr. Buraks was the only person on the stage who has ever served the public, and to read TETFS comments, I hope you understand the battles that board members face. Mr. Brake will just continue to vote no, and Shining, it’s refreshing for you to lump teachers in to the complaint. You blame admins, but the reality is that admins work longer hours and a longer year than teachers, which is why they have an incremental increase over teachers. The admins did not have the Cadillac health care plan — they had a defined contribution…but as the teacher plan was consistently improved (with no cost control — asking someone to pay a percentage of their premiums controls nothing), the admins aren’t going to sit back and watch people with “easier” jobs (they all were teachers, remember) make more or get more.

    PA allows strikes. The state has the highest number of teacher strikes in the US. Taking a strike is a bit like the government shutdown. No one wins, and just look here — the acrimony of a tough negotiation has demonized the administrators — who we all remember were forced to represent the board at the table. That was, in my opinion, cowardice on the part of the board. And yes Shining, I moved away….but I sat at that table many, many times…and my kids took grief for it. It’s not easy. I have said before — beware of platitudes. The key to the board is playing well with others. It takes 5 votes to get something done….look for people who have worked in conciliatory groups. It’s like finding a jury …. people who run against someone are not running for much.

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    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Correction to your comment — Kevin Buraks was not the “only person on the stage who has ever served the public”. Rich Brake is a current school board director seeking reelection.

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    Sidelines Reply:

    Thanks. Since he distanced himself from his own experience, I guess I forgot. He is concerned about transparency, but how many times did he approve an item on the consent agenda when he could have — by board policy — asked to have it removed and discussed?

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  6. Steps 1 and 16 for the 2013-14 teacher contract: No one talks about anything but the percentage increases….but these are the base salaries.

    Bachelors $50,250 $90,000
    Masters $51,100 $95,900
    M+15 $52,100 $100,900
    M+30 $54,450 $101,900
    M+45 $56,550 $103,000
    M+60 $58,600 $106,200
    PhD $62,500 $110,900

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  7. As a T/E teacher (and Tredyffrin resident) I am looking for change. I love teaching but there IS a morale issue in the schools. I cannot remember the last time that I saw any board member in my school. Pres. Buraks needs to talk to a few teachers as they all dont have smiles on their faces!

    I will register my dissatisfation at the polls.

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  8. Looking,

    Mr. Connors says that morale starts with leadership. When tough economic times hit his company, he gathered his employees for a meeting and explained to them that if they wanted to, they should take the time to look for other employment because if business did not turn around, things could not continue the same way. Not one of his employees left the company, they all decided to go part time, and morale remained high until business turned around.

    Do you think this leadership style would work the same way if employed in the school district?

    Posters and others have said look at Lower Merion for comparison. O.K. let’s do that. Many of their teachers make $110,000+ per year, making there average per teacher salary in the $90,000s. They built a new high school around 5 years ago and are discussing adding on to it because of increased enrollment projections. Taxes are sky high and they continue to take the maximum amount every year and ask for exceptions. It has gotten to the point where empty nesters move out of there as soon as they can, only for young families with multiple kids to move in putting an even bigger burden on the school district. Thus, IMO, the reason for the projected enrollment increases.

    We have increased our taxes almost 10% in the last 3 years. I hear senior citizens grumble about it but so far I don’t think there is a mass exodus. If we keep raising taxes to pay for increases in salaries and beneits and healthcare for school employees who make more and receive more in benefits than the very citizens who pay for it, how can we possibly maintain our stability? Oh, but we’ll be just like Lower Merion.

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  9. I am at a convention in Toronto this week for the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. This entire organization is shifting it’s focus to include morale as a key component in the drive towards excellence. Heard this frightening statistic…7 of 8 people surveyed say they work for an organization that does not care about them. I wonder how many district employees feel that way? Also from a Gallup survey of 155 countries….the number one determinant of happiness….not money…….but rather the opportunity to do meaningful work in the company of people I like. Our employees have meaningful work in the education and care of our children. Now if we can increase the size of the circle of ” people I like” we might just make some progress. This is not difficult, although it requires the investment of time by leadership to get to know employees and to express a genuine care in them. A good leader also tries to remove obstacles that prevent the employee from reaching their full potential.

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  10. Pete that is so true. At a management conference I was at, we were told that money, raises, the euphoria of that lasts about 15 minutes.. it is really organizational structure and a good work environment that is the number one reason why companies retain good employees. And if there is an employee that is a bad apple, and cannot be “fixed” then that employee must be let go for the sake of the organization and the good people that make it up… Good piece!

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  11. Pete:

    Start by removing the dead wood that are the administration.
    If you can do that and listen to the staff and offer fresh ideas you may be the man this district is longing for.

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  12. Thanks. At any income level in 2000, 2010 and 2014, resident citizens cannot afford to fund the existing salaries, benefits and pensions of the employees in the school district without massive tax increases. When we can’t pay the existing liabilities, at present resident income levels, how can we possibly fund increases.

    In the private sector the labor market is driven by supply and demand. There are 400 qualified teacher applicants for 4 job openings in this area.

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  13. The Superintendant and the Director of HR have already announced their retirement. We need to be careful in selecting their replacements. We need people who have experience turning around the morale.

    It seems from the last two budgets that we are able to meet current liabilities ( we accumulated more than $7 million in surplusses) but it is clear that rapid increases in benefit costs in coming years will be challenging.
    The salary issue may be handled like TENIG by creating a lower matrix for all new hires. Existing employees, like people in the private sector will see increasing contributions to healthcare costs over time. On the salary issue for current employees we need to be as gentle as possible. The employees did not come in the middle of the night an take these generous benefit packages. Their representatives negotiated for them and our representatives, school board members over the last 15-20 years GAVE them these benefits. We need SB Directors with a little foresight who will think longer term before committing us to contracts. People who will lay the terms of any contract on the table for public review long before voting on them. On the pension issue we (taxpayers) need to unite statewide to make all state legislators who are standing for election next year promise to reform pensions as a condition of getting our support. This is one where Democrats and Republicans should unite. Pension reform is like Liquor Privatization, the public is overwhelmingly in favor of both…..yet they don’t get passed. Why?….special interest groups give campaign money to members of both parties to influence the vote. The residents of PA need to come together to form a new special interest group…people with common sense.

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  14. Pete, it seems like a huge PR undertaking is in order to defeat those special interest groups. And it seems that either the current legislators, or those running should be made aware, STRIDENTLY if necessary the the public for whom they serve is not going to stand for big money screwing with the future, nor present.

    Has there been any effort to have some of the higher paid teachers bought out, essentially paid to retire? WOuld that make economic sense in so far as re working the matirx faster and saving money for the next 10-15 years? I am not a financial guy, but was wondering if this can work. Thank you for responding to this blog.

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  15. How do you know we have any say in who is chosen for these positions. I have heard the same name for the job of supt. by people in different walks of life.

    It’s true that a lower salary matrix was put in place for TENIG for new hires but they also took a pay cut.

    I remember a previous poster stating that she heard you call for our leadership to follow suit and also take a pay cut.

    Now are you saying the issue of salary can be addressed by creating a new matrix for all new hires?

    TENIG and the aides/paras took significant cuts but a new lower salary matrix will be put in place for teachers and administrators?

    Is that right? I’m just trying to understand your position. Thanks

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  16. When legislators benefit from the same healthcare and benefit plans as the teachers, what are the chances things will change. There is going to have to be an awful lot of roar to get that done.

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  17. Margaritiville. I believe top management should set an example. How much more effective would it be if they voluntarily took a cut and demonstrated that they understand the realities of the economy. Leaders take the pain first. I believe I heard that the total effect of the wage concessions for TENIG was $200,000/yr. meanwhile we had a second straight year of $3.7 million surpluses. What did it cost in lost morale? Seems a little penny wise and dollar foolish. These are some of the lowest paid people in the organization. What would have happened if the admin group voluntarily took that $200,000 cut ……or al least a major portion of it?
    It seems that people are working in distinct groups instead of functioning as a team.
    The current board is working on the teachers contract now and it sounds like they want to get it done before the election. I can’t understand the rush but I have no say at this point in time.
    Admin salaries will probably be addressed after the election.

    Shining….we can make that roar if we understand it is no longer Dems vs. Reps but rather taxpayers vs special interests.

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  18. Pete, unfortunately there is no way an admin group will take a paycut.. Unlike military leaders who take pain first, and even give their lives so their troops can live, this ethos is sorely missing from the bloated administration operatives who have absolutely no idea from where you speak.. take a pay cut? well as a board member how would you work that? Perhaps men like you would, but these people wont.. I guarantee. In private business, sometimes the owners forgo a paycheck so that their employees get one.. tough times, fledgling business… this admin and most have no idea what that is about… pugh…

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  19. Pete,

    I agree with your points. If employees in each of the three segments would agree to truly share in the sacrifice, morale would boost and taxes could remain stable

    TENIG and the aides and paras have done their part. We need the teachers and the administrators to follow their leadership and do the same.

    There was alot of talk about TENIG being paid above market salaries and enjoying 19% increases over the 4 years. I don’t know why candidates and citizens are silent on the fact that teachers have enjoyed an over 35% increase in salaries over the last 4 years, and administrators? I don’t even know the number.

    TENIG members are monitoring contract negotiations. If the teachers don’t do their part, morale will sink even lower.

    Margaritiville, how can administrators not take a cut if they don’t have majority board support? We always speak in terms of it being their choice to take a cut or not. The natural assumption that it is “their choice” is baffling to me.

    Says alot about who is really in power.

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  20. Pete, I may be a bit confused by your double negatives but why would the administrators take a cut if they have a current contract? When their contract is up then negotiations can begin. It would be interesting to see how badly they want to stay in TE… I don’t think I said it is “their choice” to take a pay cut (except for their pregrogative to agree to a lower salary during negotiations.. )

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  21. I applaud Pete for coming on CM and airing out his ideas. Of course, that’s a lot easier for a challenger than an incumbent.

    Some thoughts are good ones, for example: the most critical Board responsibility of all – selecting the next Superintendent, advance public notice of proposed staff contracts, increasing staff contribution to healthcare benefits, and “gentle” treatment of current employees.

    However, attacking salaries for new teachers and the administration seems to me misguided. We want to attract the most promising new teachers in competition not only with other SDs but with other careers, yet those have already seen pension benefits cut and are at the bottom of the salary matrix. The administration salaries are set in reference to the marketplace (we just lost an Assistant Principal to West Chester, I think) and the top end of the teacher scale, so that might be a better place to focus.

    It’s easy to campaign for a march on Harrisburg about PSERS (all the candidates did it), but let not forget that the state already is bearing half the cost. Yes, the projected increases for the next few years are dramatic, but could be covered (in T/E) with a 1% or so tax increase and the rate soon levels out. (Given the assumptions about the fund rate of return – something to watch). The long term solution is elusive. Rep Kampf is finding out, I think, that it’s just not as simple as converting new hires to a 401k. I think perhaps there’s room to balance out “steady state” employer and employee contributions.

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    Ray Clarke Reply:

    I should clarify that’s a 1% annual increase until the rate stabilizes.

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    Shining Light Reply:

    It’s important to treat all employees gently. Not just ones in current contract negotiations. I don’t think posters on this blog understand the importance and the profound influence TENIG and support staff have in the schools. Were they treated gently?

    I can assure you, we attract promising qualified new teachers. There are 400 applications for 4 job openings and their starting pay and benefits far exceeds what a new employee would get in the private sector. A small give back would not hurt any of that.

    I’ll go to Harrisburg with you Pete.

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    Ray Clarke Reply:

    I think it’s worth noting here that the TENIG agreement sets wage rates for new hires at 75% of the rates for current employees.

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  22. I know the appearance is given that administrator salaries are set in reference to the market place.

    It’s true we just lost an administrator to West Chester. And we lost another one last year to a promotion to another school in our district. Both of these positions were immediately filled by two very qualified employees from our own school district. They are both from the music departments in their respective schools and both are young, energetic, and very well liked by the students and staff. The music departments (hmmm) in both schools took huge hits and many are not happy about it.

    These two clearly were waiting in the wings with their degrees and principal certificates in hand. They had been mentored and apprenticed and were ready to go. I am sure there are others just like them and could be many more if only asked. Please, let’s stop looking at everything through the administrator filter and think for ourselves.

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  23. If Dr Brake truly believed that there have been transparency and communication issues what did he do to solve that during his last term? Or did he only recently have this epiphany while he was campaigning? He is no outsider on that SB, and even if he were his action alone could have solved the issues with the overuse of the consent agenda.

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