T/E School District Board Meeting Update: 2.6% Property Tax Increase, Proposed Suspension of ERB Testing, Unpaid $36K Vendor Payment (the Saga Continues)

Watching the virtual school board meeting for nearly three hours last night was not for the faint of heart.  A few of my takeaways —

With the sole exception of school board director Scott Dorsey’s vocal opposition, it appears that the TESD 2020-21 budget is on target to include a 2.6% tax increase, the highest permitted within PA Act I Index guidelines. (The TESD school board votes on the 2020-21 budget on June 8).

Recently at a May 19 press conference Governor Wolf was asked the question, “”Do you believe school districts should be raising taxes during the pandemic?” Wolf’s response, “We’re in a pandemic and this is not a time to burden any Pennsylvanian with additional responsibility or tax…we should be looking for ways to lighten the load; not the reverse.”  This response does not support the District’s proposed 2.6% tax increase!

Some PA school districts, including Unionville Chadds Ford are approving 2020-21 budgets with zero tax increases. Supt. Brian Polito of the Erie School District is appealing to its school board for zero tax increase. Polito understands that his district is facing challenges but “now is not the time” for tax increases as residents struggle.  Southern York County School District approved a budget cutting savings by freezing wages for its employees for one year to avoid a tax increase in its 2020-21 budget.

One of TESD budget strategies contained in the proposed 2020-21 budget is to suspend ERB testing for one year for a savings of $85,000.  A form of assessment to guide instruction in math and reading, ERB testing has been used in the District for many years to measure students’ progress.  Many pro-ERB test support letters from parents were read at the end of the board meeting. **

Several times during the meeting last night, the school board suggested that residents contact the District with comments regarding the budget, proposed budget cuts (including ERBs), distance learning, etc.  There is a Finance Committee meeting on Monday, June 1 — in advance, I suggest that you send your comments to schoolboard@tesd.net.

No update on the District’s unpaid balance of $36K to GEM Mechanical Services was included in the meeting agenda but surprisingly at 10:20 PM, Colm Kelly (head of TESD facilities) offered prepared remarks regarding GEM and asbestos in school buildings.

Kelly’s comment on asbestos at Beaufort Elementary School was circular and difficult to follow – my takeaway was that asbestos mediation was done in the building. TESD is required to keep copies of asbestos abatement reports up-to-date and on file in sll of its buildings.  Although I am not sure where the reports are located in the buildings – I suggest concerned parents contact the school district directly for a copy of the report for their child’s school.

Kelly’s response to the 2019 boiler project at Beaumont Elementary and Devon Elementary schools skipped right over many facts and left the biggest question about the District’s outstanding payment to GEM Mechanical Services unanswered.

Earlier in the day (a few hours prior to the school board meeting and Kelly’s remarks) there was communication between Sean Gaffney, of GEM Mechanical Services and Colm Kelly, both on the phone and through emails.  Many people were copied on the following email between the two, including the District’s business manager Art McDonnell, its architects at Heckendorn Shiles (HSA), TESD School Board and myself. Here is a copy of that follow-up email from Sean Gaffney to Colm Kelly which was sent a few hours prior to the school board meeting:

As per our phone conversation this afternoon, TESD will be cutting a partial payment check in the amount of $24,895.00 that will be available from the TE business office this upcoming Friday 5/29/20.

GEM Mechanical will be on site that same day (5/29/20) to complete our FINAL punch list items at which time we will request the remaining $11,850.00 that is being withheld by TESD and a check will be released no later than the following Friday 6/5/20.

I look forward to TESD and HSA’s cooperation in closing out this project.

It was fascinating that Kelly offered none of this information in his remarks. He no mention made of the outstanding $36K balance which TESD owes GEM Mechanical Services; or that the final punch list items would be completed on Friday. Furthermore, there were NO questions from the school board to Kelly or to the business manager about the money owed GEM or when it would be paid.  This is wrong on a lot of levels.

A review of the Facility Committee agenda materials from May 14, 2020 lists three vendors with outstanding final balances from the 2019 school boiler project: (1) $36,295 to GEM Mechanical Services for mechanical services, (2) $16,460 to Five Star, Inc. for plumbing services and (3) $20,075 to AJM Electric for electrical services. Based on the experience of GEM Mechanical Services, it makes me wonder if Five Star and AJM Electric are faced with similar issues.

An interesting Community Matters comment received on this topic —

… As for the districts “reputation” when it comes to paying, GEM is not the first to have payments withheld and they definitely won’t be the last. I am 100 percent sure that there is a job from 2018 that still has an outstanding balance against the district who has slipped thru the cracks by changing the punch list every time payment is questioned.

What exactly is going on with facilities in the school district regarding vendor payments.  If a vendor asks the District about their final payment,  are they faced with an ever-changing punch list until they finally just walk away.  If this tactic is used by the District, it certainly explains the decreasing list of vendors willing to work in TE School District.  Sean Gaffney has stated that GEM Mechanical Services will never work in TESD again – I wonder how many other vendors feel similarly.

Why isn’t the school board concerned? Where is the leadership for accountability and oversight of the facilities department? The school board had an opportunity to ask Colm Kelly questions about outstanding vendor balances last night but remained silent. The school board had an opportunity to ask Art McDonnell when GEM Mechanical Services would receive its long-overdue payment but again … they said nothing.

The school board is elected to be the community’s watchdog, ensuring that taxpayers get the most for their tax dollars. Where is the school board’s accountability to us?

____________________

** I have received many emails and calls from parents regarding the District’s distance learning as required by COVID-19.  The next blog post will look at distance learning and the District’s proposal to suspend ERB testing for one year as cost-savings in the 2020-21 budget.

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10 Comments

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  1. By allowing these types of scenarios to play out again and again, the School Board is telling TE taxpayers that Art McDonnell’s behavior is OK.
    There are many, many examples of similar behavior by McDonnell. Pattye has documented him time after time using his position to cheat taxpayers by misrepresenting expenses and revenues year after year and his poor treatment of Involved citizens and board members who ask intelligent questions is well-known.
    The fact Is that this Board and every Board before them has turned a blind eye to his offensive, illicit illegal behavior for years. His removal is beyond overdue, and the School Boards should be ashamed to have propped up this man for so long.

    People only have as much power over you as you are willing to give them. 

 School Board, take back our power from this man. It is long overdo.

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  2. Is the unemployment rate in Chester County below 5%? Has the pandemic not had the effect on jobs in Chester County that is affecting the rest of the US? If one takes the Bureau of Labor Statistics data the unemployment rate in CC is 4.1%.(March is the latest data for CC from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) Is this a green light for school directors to raise taxes for a district that is seemingly financially unaffected by the pandemic?

    But the unemployment claims for Chester County tell a different story. The number of workers in CC collecting unemployment benefits has jumped to 25,000.
    https://www.workstats.dli.pa.gov/dashboards/Pages/Weekly-UC.aspx
    That’s out of a CC workforce of about 285,000 or 9%. It turns out that the 4.1% unemployment number is outdated and does not count those who have stopped looking for work. There are just no jobs to be had in this depressed economy.
    Many school districts are not raising taxes while finding ways to do more with less. How about TE?

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  3. Why is Art McDonnell not held responsible for maintaining the School Budget that is set each year? He received a pay raise for increasing the District’s costs? If T/E’s Finance and Operational Committee heads cannot control their costs to be either to the annual set budget or make savings then others should be hired who can save the district taxpayers from annual tax increases. Education is primarily “direct costs” and “variable costs” should be controllable.

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    Pattye Reply:

    Art McDonnell is simply NOT held accountable for anything or to anyone! To add insult to injury the public routinely listens to board members gush in their appreciation to him! I have watched this situation for years and nothing changes. Following his receiving a third DUI, the school board unanimously approved giving McDonnell a raise and a 5-year contract ($250K/yr plus annual bonus and golden benefits).

    Under the business manager’s watch there was a $1.2 million accounting error in TESD which McDonnell never satisfactorily explained. Now we learn that in the facilities department vendor money is held for months after a job is completed. But again no questions asked by the school board and the behavior is just acceptable. It is my understanding that legally the school district can only hold a certain percentage of the final payment for outstanding items (I think it’s 10%). But that’s not the way it works in TESD – at least not on the 2019 boiler project! These companies are owed interest on the money that TESD is holding! But what does McDonnell care — not his money.

    The school board and superintendent does not require accountability from Art McDonnell – if they did, questions would have been asked at the last school board meeting over the vendor payment. And why is the public supposed to do — I keep bringing these issues up and nothing ever happens.

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  4. UPDATE:
    GEM Mechanical Services received a partial payment TODAY for $24,455. All final punch list items were completed TODAY by GEM and TESD should sent the final payment of $11,850 ASAP.

    I think that this situation is a sad commentary on the TESD facilities department and business office that it took publicizing the situation to get the company its payment! It will not be surprising if I hear about other companies that are still waiting to be paid by TESD.

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  5. Another T/E Tax Payer.
    I listened to the last extended discussion of hiring Psychologists from the Intermediate Unit at the Finance Meeting. I have no idea where they got a pre-set number of saving $8000 per person by making them permanent staff. There were numerous categories of experience that they tried to comment upon without having true numbers. The Board finally postponed the decision. Running annoyed at that ridiculousness, I then had to listen to
    categories and projected cost for 2020-21. For having non-student attending schools, there numbers were stated but not well justified. In this Covid situation, the Board should insist on Zero Based Budgeting with a minimum 5% decrease. I have watched the taxes increase for about seven years and it amounts to over 20% probably closer to over 25%. It’s time for a change in attitude and for the Board to become financially savy vs. accepting McDonnell’s shopping lists. After seeing the proposed budget, I retired in frustration.

    As far as contractor bidding and lack of timely payments, what you describe is disgraceful to normal payment process and I would suggest fraud and incompetence. How much extra are we paying for lack of normal competitive bidding.

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  6. how come the tax still increase while there is no school for a couple months or maybe longer till next year? It’s been increasing every year since I moved in 8 years ago.

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    Pattye Reply:

    TESD taxes have gone up yearly for 15 years — 2020-21 will be the 16th straight year. See chart below:
    2019-20: 3.91%
    2018-19: 2.42%
    2017-18: 3.2%
    2016-17: 3.6%
    2015-16: 3.81%
    2014-15: 3.4%
    2013-14: 1.7%
    2012-13: 3.3%
    2011-12: 3.77%
    2010-11: 2.9%
    2009-10: 2.95%
    2008-09: 4.37%
    2007-08: 3.37%
    2006-07: 3.90%
    2005-06: 1.40%
    2004-05: Zero Tax Increase

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  7. The school board should keep the ERBs. The $85,000 in savings should instead be taken from the administration bonuses. The ERBs are one of the last ways that we can tell year to year growth for the students. The $85,000 is a drop in the bucket for the district. Why kill this test? My guess is because it will show that the students are not doing as well as in prior years and this will reflect badly on the administration.

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