Easttown Republican school board members leading the TE School District

We learned last week at the TE School Board meeting that Easttown resident Doug Carlson (R) was elected board president and Tredyffrin resident Scott Dorsey (D) the vice president.  On Tuesday, the newly seated school board held their first Finance Committee meeting – Virginia Lastner (R) will continue her role as chair.  Although I was unable to attend the Finance Committee meeting, Ray Clarke attended and kindly provides his notes/comments to Community Matters (see below).

Late today, the District posted the committee assignments on their website.  After serving as Facilities Chair for many years, it was interesting who would fill the vacated seat of Pete Motel. In addition to chairing the Finance Committee, we learned that Virginia Lastner will chair Facilities in addition to Finance. The two most important school board committee meetings (at least when it comes to tax dollars) is Finance and Facilities committees … and both will be chaired by Easttown resident Virginia Lastner.

With Carlson as Board president and Lastner in charge of the District’s Finance and Facilities committees, it looks like the Easttown Republicans are taking charge of the TE School District!  How’s this possible … for the first time in the District’s history, five of the nine school board members are Tredyffrin Democrats!

Beyond the ongoing construction of the District’s maintenance building, looms the final report from the safety consultant on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project which is due by the end in the next few weeks. Looking at the makeup of the Facilities Committee, it’s unclear if consensus will be reached easily– newly elected school board members Michele Burger (D) and Ed Sweeney (R) publicly campaigned against the VFMS fencing project.  Will their opposition to the proposed fencing be sufficient to sway the other two members of Facilities, Lastner and Todd Kantorczyk (D)? The Valley Forge Middle School fencing project will likely be back on the Facilities agenda in early 2016.

It was good to see that the Public Information Committee is listed albeit as ‘Ad Hoc’; meetings held “when needed”.  In my opinion, there is always a need for public information.  Glad to see that Scott Dorsey is the committee’s chair – hopefully with Rev. Dorsey at the helm, we can look forward to increased transparency and public engagement from the Board.

With all the madness going on in the world, it was disturbing to see there the Diversity Committee was not listed.  Former school board member Liz Mercogliano previously chaired the Diversity Committee and would update the public at Board meetings on their important ongoing discussions.  Now, more than ever, we all must work together to ensure that we appropriately value the diversity within and among our schools. Promoting and encouraging respect for ethnic and cultural diversity within the school population, staff and community deserves to continue. Suggest that Diversity find a place on the calendar with the other committee assignments.

Here’s the complete list of school board committee assignments:

Facilities Committee

  • Virginia Lastner, Chair
  • Michele Burger
  • Todd Kantorczyk
  • Ed Sweeney

Education Committee

  • Scott Dorsey, Chair
  • Kevin Buraks
  • Roberta Hotinski
  • Kate Murphy

Finance Committee

  • Virginia Lastner, Chair
  • Kevin Buraks
  • Roberta Hotinski
  • Todd Kantorczyk

Legislative Committee

  • Doug Carlson, Chair
  • Michele Burger
  • Kate Murphy
  • Ed Sweeney

Policy Committee

  • Kevin Buraks, chair
  • Todd Kantorczyk
  • Kate Murphy
  • Ed Sweeney

Public Information – Ad Hoc

  • Scott Dorsey, Chair
  • Michele Burger
  • Roberta Hotinski
  • Kate Murphy

I appreciate the following comments/notes from the Finance Committee meeting as provided by Ray Clarke. Ray’s budget point #3 caught my attention – “assumptions about employee out-sourcing”. What?

In a follow-up call, Ray confirmed that there was no details or explanation offered by the Finance chair or the administration regarding this out-sourcing comment.  So, the public is left wondering which employees are they talking about — is it the few remaining aides and paras who remain as District employees? Or is the Finance committee and administration thinking ahead to other potential outsourcing opportunities  – TENIG’s contract is up in 18 months, so could it be that the District’s kitchen staff, secretaries and custodians will once again find their jobs in jeopardy?

Last night was the first meeting of the new Finance Committee (although the full Board was in attendance).  The group seems short on financial management experience, so there will need to be a steep learning curve. Exemplified by the fact that the Committee recommended that the Board vote in January to apply for all eligible Exceptions, totaling a 4.3% tax increase.  This is based on just eight numbers from the Administration, two of which are given from the mandated PSERS rate.  Two more are the same as the current year (State and Federal subsidies).  The bottom line is a scare-inducing $4.65 million deficit.

The four remaining budget lines:

  1.  Local Revenues:  Is the Board OK with projected revenues just $800,000 more than this year’s budget when this year’s real estate taxes, transfer taxes and interim taxes are already running $1,000,000 better to budget than last year’s rate?
  2.  Salaries:  Do they understand why salaries are flat despite a contracted TEEA step increase worth maybe 2%, a 5.7 FTE teacher increase, 1.7% salary increases for Admin, etc.?   We discovered last night that has something to do with assumptions about employee out-sourcing, but no detail was provided.  Nor of course, any detail about the expected staffing increase.
  3.  Benefits:  Apparently the consultant advised the District to project a 5% healthcare premium cost increase, and the total budgeted benefits increase vs 2015/16 is 5.1%.  But the TEEA, for example, is contracted to pay an extra percentage of the premium and there will be fewer employees apparently.  How does the math work?
  4.  “Other”: This is up nearly $3 million over the current year projection.  Presumably the out-sourcing projections have something to do with this, but no explanation was provided.

A couple of other noteworthy points:

– The arithmetic for the Special Ed calculation leads to a $900,000 tax increase, yet this year’s expense increase is less than $400,000 and there was no data on the slides supporting an expense projection for 2016/17.

– The projection for this year is that expenses will be $1.3 million less than Budget.

The response to this will say a lot about our new Board.  We were told over and over last night that the tax increase recommendation was just to “preserve our flexibility”, but we know too well how markers like that tend to get cemented in.  Are they prepared to lay down that marker with such minimal information provided by the Administration?

16 Comments

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  1. A few comments:
    .
    Committee Chairpersons
    The committee heads and Board president don’t have any special powers. It takes 5 votes to spend money or change policy.
    .
    Easttown Running the Show
    It could be Easttown is in a leadership position because others didn’t want the job. Novice school directors aren’t qualified to run committees or be president and some of the veterans may not have wanted the position.
    .
    Proposed Preliminary Budget
    Ray reported on the PP Budget. Ignore it. For most districts (including UCF) it is a “joke” budget only rigged to provide the maximum tax flexibility when the real budgeting begins (Proposed Final Budget) in March.
    .
    Special Ed Exception
    The special ed exception is calculated based on the prior two years’ annual financial report (PDE-2057). These would show the actual special ed expenditures from 2013-14 and 2014-15. Essentially, the district can raise taxes next year (2016-17) to cover expenses incurred during the 2013-14 school year. Yes, it’s a bit zany, but using actual expenditures prevents districts massaging the budget numbers (guesses) to artificially raise taxes.

    [Reply]

    Doug Anestad Reply:

    Per Keith Krauss’s comments:

    Committee Chairpersons
    While it is technically correct to say that it take 5 votes to spend money or change policy, it is naive at best to think that the chair position on committees isn’t in a position to influence the debate and procedures to help faciltiate certain outcomes. I watched this to great effect last school year with the facilities committee.

    Easttown Running the Show
    While it could be Easttown is in a leadership position because others didn’t want the job, that is not the case here. One of the people who wanted the president’s job has been on the school board already. Another person who wanted the facilities chair position while new to the board, has been going to facilities meetings for over five years.

    Proposed Preliminary Budget
    Agreed on the “joke” aspect of the PP Budget. What is not a joke is how the budget is presented with statistics and projections that have no real meaning. They do however, have lots of propaganda pushing certain agendas.

    Special Ed Exception
    Completely agree on the Spec Ed Exception comments. Especially how it is a bit zany, but the only real solution to not allow playing games with budget numbers to get around tax increase limitations in the law.

    [Reply]

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    Some further comments:
    .
    Committee Chairpersons
    I’ve experienced no special influence exerted from committee heads that cannot be countered by another equally informed, articulate school board member. All it takes is will power to ask questions, gather data, form an opinion and express it. Here is a novice, non-committee chairman who still exerts great influence over multiple committees. http://robertcsage.com/
    .
    Proposed Preliminary Budget
    Act 1 of 2006 causes districts to do some strange things with the preliminary budget. If a district wants maximum tax flexibility by taking both the PSERS and special ed exemption, they have to 1) qualify for the exception and 2) craft a budget that spends the money generated by the exception. Number 2 causes the most heartburn for the public. If TE wants the flexibility to tax at 4.3% then they have to submit a preliminary budget that spends that extra 4.3%. Hence, you see the hiring of additional employees and other expenditures in the preliminary budget to justify the 4.3% that will never be there in the final budget.
    .
    “the only real solution to not allow playing games with budget numbers”
    That’s what Act 1 of 2006 does. If anyone has better legal language to prevent districts from “gaming the system” I’m sure the legislature would like to hear it. For all its minor flaws I’be come to like Act 1. It makes boards think twice about raising taxes and provides an outlet for taxation above the Index if necessary(a voter referendum).

    [Reply]

    Shining Light Reply:

    Thanks Keith.

    You say:

    “I’ve experienced no special influence exerted from committee heads that cannot be countered by another equally informed, articulate school board member.”

    Am I correct that you believe that committee heads should be countered by equally informed, articulate school board members only, and not citizens who attend committee meetings and want to contribute to the decision making process by also offering equally, informed articulate alternatives?

    Is this why committee meetings were abolished in the UCFSD?

    I attended the Finance Committee meeting Tuesday evening. A fellow citizen tried to offer information about the way the state of CT. was proposing to deal with problems similar to ones we are facing.

    This was the response from the Committee Chair.

    “I lived in CT. CT. makes this look like a piece of cake or walk in the park. CT. taxes are through the roof. This is nothing.”

    She then moved forward and that was the end of it.

    In your view, was that an appropriate response? How should the citizen have responded to that if you think he had the right to speak? How should a Board Member have responded? How can people respond when the pace is controlled by the Committee Chair and she quickly moves forward after giving a response like that?

    Thank-you for your comment.

    ****CT. is America’s richest state.

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    Keith:

    Many thanks for bringing your experience from a different universe. Perhaps part of new Board member orientation at TE should be to watch clips of Board proceedings in other Districts. For example: UCFSD’s Mr Sage presenting some data and analysis on class size: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tf069_AvvDg&feature=youtu.be&t=1148.

    [In the light of Mr Sage’s analysis, I wonder how the class sizes at low enrollment Beaumont compare over time with those at high enrollment Valley Forge, under the district’s common class size policy, of course).

    I wish I could share your faith that “the 4.3% will never be there in the final budget”. It will take a Board that considers the decade and a half of declining real household incomes (reported recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer) against the doubling of school property taxes in the same period, and says that enough is enough.

    I agree that Act 1 does act as a brake on tax increases, but on the other hand, the fear of permanently losing an increase “entitlement” keeps the Board’s other foot on the tax accelerator.

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    Ray,
    .
    UCF proposed a similar sized tax increase. Knowing the players and the financial situation I feel comfortable with the word “never” as applied to UCF. I’m unsure about TE.
    .
    I see your point about the possibility of the TE board actually imposing a 4.3% tax increase. Would it be appropriate to say,”the 4.3% will never be there in the final TE budget unless it is thoroughly discussed and justified because there are new board members in place that will do so”?
    .
    I went back and looked at the Inquirer article. If we’re talking about the same article it told us that the TT inflation adjusted income went up by 5% over the 5-year period from 2009-14. The ET income went down somewhere between 0% and 10%. TESD hasn’t done too badly with RE tax increases over the same period. Millage went up by 16%. The education labor inflation index (Act 1 Index) went up by 12%.
    (the UCF millage rate went up by 12%)
    .
    If one wants to control RE tax increases it will require attention to labor contracts.

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    Keith

    Let’s hope your prediction in the second para actually comes to pass. The jury is still out; as I noted in the original note, the learning curve needs to be steep.

    It looks like you found the article I saw. I was using the “Change since 1999” statistic of -4% for median real household income of both Tredyffrin and Easttown.

    I wonder if the tax equation could actually be changed for the good by today’s PA budget fiasco. I really like the CT approach to pension funding that SL notes above (and thanks to Neal for pointing it out first), which has the great benefit of reducing the burden on new hires for past pension liabilities. That’s a state matter of course, but I felt that it would behoove our School Board to have an informed conversation with our Rep Warren Kampf, who is a prime mover on pensions in Harrisburg.

    Shining Light Reply:

    Keith says:

    “”””If one wants to control RE tax increases it will require attention to labor contracts.””””””

    Please read:http://chaddsfordlive.com/2015/03/17/big-pay-raise-for-school-administrator/

    Board members voted 6-1 Monday to extend the contract of Assistant to the Superintendent Ken Batchelor through 2020. The new deal will bring his salary up from $178,199, to $193,199.

    Director Keith Knauss defended the raise for two reasons. He said Batchelor has been doing two jobs since Sharon Allen-Spann, the former director of personnel, resigned two years ago, and because Batchelor is highly sought after when other school districts are looking for a new superintendent.

    “I’m willing to pay market price to keep Ken,” Knauss said.

    ——————————————————–

    At the finance committee meeting Tuesday evening, Virginia justified creating 2 new Administrator positions at top of the pay scale salaries, saying that Retired Administrator Robin McConnell had been doing 2 jobs. Really? The same justification.

    Does anyone believe that market price for an ASSISTANT SUPT. is $193,000 per year?

    For perspective, Assistant Supt. Batchelor makes more in pay than PA Attorney General Kane at $159,000 and the highest paid governor in the country, Tom Wolf at $185,000. Again, really?

    Maybe Keith should have followed his own advice but then again, I’m just a tax paying citizen who probably shouldn’t have a say in how my tax dollars are spent.

    Thanks for not abolishing committee meetings TE.

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    Thanks, Keith, for the Inner Party perspective. I guess the joke is on the community when they elect a Board that passes even a preliminary budget from the Ministry of Truth with the minimum of inquiry. Unexplained big shifts between line items: 2+2=5? And our experience here in TE is that only through the legal system can citizen rights be protected from Big Brother in charge of one particular Committee. And thanks to a recent tutorial from the Ministry of Truth we are fully aware of how the Special Ed Exception works, even if the lesson was mostly in Newspeak and used letters instead of numbers.

    [Reply]

    Shaken and Stirred Reply:

    So, another Brit paranoid about a totalitarian regime although 1984 has come and gone. But yanking the Diversity Committee fits right into the picture.

    [Reply]

    Big Brother Reply:

    As literary political fiction and dystopian science-fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic novel in content, plot and style. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and memory hole, have entered into common use since its publication in 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four popularised the adjective Orwellian, which describes official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state.[5] In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.[6] It was awarded a place on both lists of Modern Library 100 Best Novels, reaching number 13 on the editor’s list, and 6 on the readers’ list.[7] In 2003, the novel was listed at number 8 on the BBC’s survey The Big Read.[8]

    Shining Light Reply:

    Hi Keith,

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, I remember reading in the Unionville Times on line news paper, editor, Mike McGann that UCF abolished some committee meetings. I remember Holly Manzone saying it was a reason (among others, see below) that she resigned:

    “Open discussion is frowned upon and dissent is squelched at both the public and executive meetings.

    Meetings, especially public meetings, are often orchestrated, with many “pre-meetings” and phone calls behind the scenes to prevent genuine public discussion of contentious issues and avoid any embarrassment to the administration or the Board, i.e., “no dirty laundry.”

    Executive sessions are over-used. If there is a way to characterize a topic so that it can be discussed privately in executive session, it is. Engineering topics in this way may allow the district to comply with the letter of the Sunshine Law, but it surely violates its spirit.

    Community members raising issues are often themselves considered the problem. Energy is expended complaining about these individuals rather than focusing on improvement.

    Access to underlying data and original documents is withheld, even if it is not confidential. “Confidentiality” is used as an excuse to withhold access to broad categories of data, without foundation.

    Information is shared unequally, with not all Board members receiving the same background for deliberations. Also, private “votes” are held without canvassing all members.”

    If this is true, I can understand why you believe Committee chairs have no special powers.

    In TE they have extreme power. They set the agendas (or the Administrators do and Virginia goes along) they control the narrative of the meetings where alternative suggestions are ignored, citizens are not permitted to go off topic and citizens are shut down when offering perspectives that don’t match hers.

    [Reply]

  2. Thanks Keith for your specific insight. Thanks Doug Anestad and Ray Clarke for the valuable empowering insight, as you both have been to all or at most of the meetings.

    This is the same old same old recipe. Lets think outside the box and use creativity and innovation. Give new willing members a chance. They are competent adults who can give insight to make things better or at least try to add value to the system.

    It is very easy to say experienced board members but it takes NO SPECIAL POWERS or experience on the board to chair a committee supported by administration with the infrastructure and bond agreements as well as an inside work force who maintains properties. Likewise, there is legal support on all decisions.

    Many new board members come with experience at school meetings and/or from personal work experience. It does take special power to share information and to trust the other members. Try and mentor other board members. I don’t believe putting one person in two committee chair positions is the best management style. Put a senior member with a new person who is ready, willing and able, like Ms. Burger as Facilities chair for a new, fresh approach. The practice and policy will remain the same.

    We need cost conscious board members who can share openly with one another. Give up some of the “power” and it will unleash a better board. It is not about board members; it is about reason. Balance and share the power, rotate the leadership and innovate with creativity and trust.

    [Reply]

  3. Ray,

    Let’s have a conversation about the pension problem.
    .
    I will note that there are two generic problems with government retirement plans. #1 – many plans including CT and PA are underfunded. Legislators have to figure out who pays and how much. #2 – government employee retirement programs are too generous and expensive when compared to the private sector programs.
    .
    CT’s legislation only addresses problem #1 – how to erase the unfunded liability. PA already has a solid and fair plan to erase the unfunded deficit. Our generation caused the problem with a change in the benefits multiplier from 2% to 2.5% in 2001 (in 2001 the pension plan was over funded) and deferred payments from 2003 to 2010. And under the current PA plan our generation will pay for the problem with high taxes to cover the required contribution rates.
    .
    Conversely, CT plans to pay for the deficit by making multiple future generations (their children and grandchildren) pay for neglected pension payments by the current generation. I call this another example intergenerational theft. Whether it’s pension obligation bonds that CT already issued or deferring payments via the gov’s plan it’s still intergenerational theft. Thus, I think CT’s plan stinks.
    .
    Now on to problem #2 – reducing the benefit and cost of the current plan. This is the thrust of PA’s SB1071 and SB1082. Both bills create a hybrid system with a less generous defined benefit plan and a new defined contribution plan. While I’d prefer a complete defined contribution plan, this legislation is a step forward. The CT legislation does not address problem #2.
    .
    In summary, I don’t think CT’s legislation has any benefit to PA.

    [Reply]

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    No doubt there are pluses and minuses to every approach. In my view, PA’s current plan with a 30% employer pension burden distorts decision-making. It’s possible that spreading the catch-up cost over many generations might be a better solution even if it “lets off” some of those who caused the problem. Especially in a “new normal” world of lower investment returns.

    That’s not to say that a fair market-based benefit for current employees should not be part of the solution. Contributions by employer and employee should be benchmarked to non-government rates. Personally, I’m not totally averse putting those contributions in a defined benefit plan that is politically insulated – I like the idea of risk spread among all participants in my company or country plan rather than worrying about the individualized risk/return/management cost for my 401k investments. But then, I’m a socialist.

    [Reply]

  4. Please read: http://www.unionvilletimes.com/?p=27639

    THANK-YOU MIKE MCGANN FOR THIS ARTICLE.

    The standoff looked to come to an end this past weekend, but a deal collapsed when the State House voted 149-52 Saturday against a pension bill that was seen as key to the overall structure of the proposed state budget.

    At minimum, he said, he’d like to see a cap — noting that some school superintendents and other senior public employees have retired with pensions amounting to more than $200,000 a year. He said he’d like to see that amount capped at about $100,000 with other funds going into a 401K-style account.

    ——————————————————-

    Thanks to Mike mcGann, Editor of the Unionville Times online newspaper for this update on the budget.

    With all this money going to Administrative staff, you would think help would be available anytime for students who are motivated and eager to perform well. Instead, many go outside and pay big money for services that should be available in schools who spend this much money on salaries for employees who have no contact with students.

    [Reply]

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