Victory for Government Transparency: Citizen wins Open Records Case against TE School District

Neal Colligan wins in Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case!

Between November 2014 and February 2015, School Board president Kris Graham called five special Executive Sessions to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators. These meetings were held out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation. The meetings were not a harmless error but rather, a deliberate attempt to be secretive.

In early 2015, the Board continued to discuss outsourcing of 73 full-times aides and paras as a budget strategy. Then in a surprise move at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting, the Board approved a resolution to change their employment status.

Citing on-going transparency concerns in School Board deliberations, a small group of citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Peggy Layden, Barbara Jackson, Jerry Henige and myself) sent a certified letter to the Board, appealing to them to reopen the outsourcing discussion and allow public commentary.

In a response on behalf of the School Board, the District Solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine claimed that no Sunshine Act violation had occurred and that the Board was in full compliance with public discussion. Beyond Roos’ dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear to many, that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act.

Advocating for government transparency, Neal Colligan filed a Right to Know request with the District for TESD records related to the secret Executive Sessions.  The RTK request was denied, with the District Solicitor stating that the records pertained to “labor relations strategy and predecisional deliberations” of the District.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No.: AP 2015-0442. News came yesterday from Harrisburg that Roos had lost the case for the District.  PA Office of Open Records (OOR) attorney Jill Wolfe notified Neal (and Roos, Supt. Dan Waters and TESD Open Records officer Art McDonnell) of the Final Determination. In the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case, Neal’s appeal was granted and the District is required to provide all requested Affordable Care Act records from the secret Executive Sessions within 30 days.   (Click here to read the OOR Final Determination).

In their legal analysis of the case, the OOR cited SWB Yankees LLC v Wintermantel, 45 A.3d1029, 1041 (PA 2012), “the objective of the Right to Know Law … is to empower citizens by affording them access to information concerning the activities of their government.”  The analysis further offered that in Bowling v. Office of Open Records, 990 A.d813,824 (Pa.Commw.Ct20140) the open-government law is “designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials and make public officials accountable for their actions.”

Touting the secret meetings as legal, the School Board hid behind the legal advice of the solicitor by holding secret meetings on the Affordable Care Act and deliberations regarding the future of the aides and paraeducators.  Believing that that they were within their rights to hold such meetings, Board member and attorney Kevin Buraks responded to residents at TESD meeting that although this [secret meetings] wasn’t normally how the Board operated, they did so because it was a “strategic decision”. According to the Final Determination of the OOR, the information discussed at the “secret” meetings was not “secret” after all.

I have learned that subsequent to the Board’s February vote to change the employment status of the aides and paras, that School Board president Kris Graham barred her fellow school board member Liz Mercogliano from attending any of the five secret ACA meetings. This information is very troubling; Liz is an elected official and has the same rights as the other eight members. How could the District solicitor and other Board members sanction this behavior and not speak out?

It just is enormously frustrating that citizens can’t access records that are open and have to fight for records that the School Board should have provided. How much taxpayer money has been spent on fighting public records requests? The School Board should encourage public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  Addressing public questions shows us that you have nothing to hide and that as elected officials, that you support transparency and open government.

Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan asked for transparency and easily accessible information that should be public information.  He was not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.  After receiving the Final Determination from the Office of Open Records, Neal emailed the Board, which read in part:

The real question is what will happen now … You could elect to finally provide the public with the information used in your Executive Meeting discussions regarding the fate of the Para’s and Aides in the District.  This would be the right thing to do in your continuing efforts to be a transparent government organization.  You had your Solicitor argue the matter to the Open Records Committee and they decided you/he did not meet the burden of proof that these records should continue to be shielded from the public.  I encourage you to direct the appropriate parties to take action and release these records immediately …. and not after another 30 days.

If you do not make the choice above, you can continue to fight this citizen of the community by appealing the OOR decision to the Court of Common Pleas.  By choosing this path, you will continue to spend the taxpayer’s money in a continued effort to keep your Executive Session meetings regarding the paras and sides secret from the very community you were elected to serve.

How much taxpayer money has already been expended on legal maneuverings?  Do you want to continue this fight against the engaged citizens of your community by entering into the next level of legal action?  Who is in charge here/who is calling the shots?  We all await your reply.

As Neal says, we do await the Board’s response.  The outsourcing threat for the District’s aides and paraeducators has been omnipresent since 2013. Aides and paraeducators are the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status). Unfortunately, they have become the pawns of the School Board, the administration and the District solicitor causing some of us to question decisions of the Board’s leadership.  The Board voted in February to outsource full-time aides and paras yet no vendor selection as been made.  A decision is expected on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM TE School Board meeting at Conestoga High School.

Will the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District outcome have an effect on the Board’s decisions regarding the District’s aides and paras? Was the School Board’s avoidance of ACA compliance and outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators worth the price of an Open Records Law violation? Residents may never know the actual cost of the Board’s secret meetings or the District’s legal costs to keep public information from the public.

Contrary to what you may have heard … No compromise reached on planned Valley Forge Middle School fencing!

As we learned at Monday night Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisor meeting there seems to be some cfencing 2onfusion and/or misunderstanding surrounding TE School District’s planned fencing project at Valley Forge Middle School.  Some members of the school board have suggested that the issue was settled with the Green Hills homeowners and Chesterbrook Civic Association and compromise reached.  We learned at the supervisors meeting, that the township solicitor Vince Donohue (and apparently the supervisors), had heard the same inaccurate rumor.

Other than a statement by TESD President Kris Graham read to a handful of people at the Facilities Meeting on Friday, April 10, 2 PM, there has been no communication whatsoever between the school district and the Valley Forge Middle School neighbors regarding the fencing.  But somehow, the school board president’s statement was translated by the school board as an agreement and circulated to the public. Negotiation is a discussion between both parties trying to work on a solution.  It doesn’t work when you only have one party at the table.

During the public comment period at the supervisors meeting, Green Hills resident and president of the Chesterbrook Civic Association David Miller, read the following prepared statement which offers historical background.  I think its important for people to understand that the VFMS fencing issue is unique and differs from the other TESD fencing projects.

Although the fencing project will probably not be listed on the agenda for the TESD school board meeting, on Monday, April 27 (7:30 PM at Conestoga High School), I strongly urge the Green Hills residents to attend and voice their concerns and opposition.

Good evening my name is David Miller, I am President of the Chesterbrook Civic Association and a resident of Green Hills in Chesterbrook; I’ve lived in the township for over 20 years.

We are here because:

  • The Chesterbrook Civic Association has a legal agreement with the TESD concerning development around VFMS. This agreement was reached and documented with the township’s assistance through the special exception granted by the zoning hearing board when the 4 athletic fields adjacent to VFMS were developed in 2002/3.
  • At the April 10th Facilities Committee meeting we think the TESD presented plans that will violate this agreement. I say we “think” because nothing is in writing and the fact that the VFMS fence was going to be discussed was only added to the agenda 2 hours before the Facilities Committee Meeting which was held at 2:00 on a Friday.  So, as you would expect, it was difficult to getting people there at the last minute.
  • We think their plan is to build a fence along the northern border of the original Middle School lot and along Valley forge Road to the border with Green Hills and then along the border with Green Hills to the first residents property line.
  • So why should you care – This is not just a dispute between neighbors. This is issue impacts the entire community.  If the TESD builds the fence as we think they are planning, it will negatively impact all of Chesterbrook, cost the township money and is inconsistent with the Chesterbrook master plan.

Let me give you some background:

  • In 2002 the TESD presented a plan to build 5 fields and a parking lot on the RC zoned lot between VFMS and Chesterbrook. This plan had many significant issues and could not be built as presented.  But more importantly at this time the township was developing Wilson Park and there was some view that the school district should provide fields for students and the township should provide fields for the sports leagues.  From the residents perspective it’s the same kids in different uniforms.  After discussion the township formed a committee consisting of members of the township staff, planning commission, school board and residents to work out a plan.  Which we did and which was built and documented.  The legal agreement between the CCA and TESD, documented during the Zoning Hearing Board’s Public Hearing when the special exception was granted is the result of this process.
  • Let me read some highlights from 2002.
  • We do not know the school board’s view on this agreement, they will not return my calls or emails and have directed their attorney not to work with our attorney. But based on the last Facilities Committee Meeting we do know they moved the fence 600 feet away from the residents after receiving letters from our attorneys.  So maybe they are starting to take this seriously.

What are the issues?

  1. The fence will block community access to the playing fields. In 2002 the planning commission required the TESD to add parking to the VFMS lot to accommodate people who would be using the 4 new fields.  This fence will block the path from the parking to the fields.  People will either have to park on Chesterbrook Boulevard or the township will have to provide alternate sites for the sports teams.  How are you going to pay for 4 new multipurpose fields?  The TESD has made it very clear we should expect the gates to be locked except when students are going to and from school.
  2. The walking paths will be blocked so residents can’t walk to Gateway, Wilson Park and St. Isaacs. These paths are part of the original Chesterbrook Master Plan.  Again, back in 2002 the TESD was required to rebuild the walking path so residents could pass by the school … why would you let them block these paths now?  If there isn’t an alternate route for residents to get around VFMS they will walk on school property.  The school board has said they will direct the schools to call the police when unauthorized people are on school property, so are they really going to call the police when some resident is walking to Wilson Park or St. Isaacs?  Why would we create this issue? Police time is valuable and there is at least one easy fix, just build a short connector path behind the football field between the exiting sidewalk and the existing walking path.
  3. We think their plan calls for a fence to nowhere in the woods. Besides being silly since it will be parallel to an existing fence around the field closest to VF road, so that they are just fencing in the trees, it violates the provision that calls for the woods to be undisturbed.
  4. Finally, we believed the school board’s attorney when he said “the district will be legally bound” and “any material change in that plan we understand we have to come back before this board”… there has to be some integrity a process sanctioned by the Supervisors back in 2002.

So we would like you to tell the TESD to honor their commitment from 2002 and then implement the same process we used last time by creating a group consisting of residents, staff and officials to resolve this quickly and reasonably.  We are parents and are not against student safety we just want a plan that makes sense.

Tredyffrin BOS Meeting: Proposed Zoning Changes, Fee Schedule Agreement w/TESD, Wayne Glen Conditional Use Application, etc. etc.

The Board of Supervisors have a full agenda for tomorrow’s meeting at 7 PM. Following the regular supervisors meeting, the public hearing continues for the Arcadia/Wayne Glen conditional use application.

On the supervisors meeting agenda are a couple of important zoning proposals are announced for discussion at the May 21 Planning Commission meeting.  These proposed Zoning Text Amendments are substantial; and may significantly change a couple of areas of the township. Erickson Living is proposing an amendment to Tredyffrin Township’s PIP (Planned Industrial Park) district language to permit large campus-style communities of independent living, assisted living and nursing care at Atwater Corporate Park in the western Great Valley section.  A preliminary discussion of this project took place at last week’s Planning Commission meeting with township planning commissioners and Erickson Living representatives and their attorneys.

The other proposed Zoning Text Amendment petition is by Benson Companies, LLC to create a Historic/Conservation Cluster Overlay district  – this proposed zoning change is to be discussed at the May 21 meeting.  I attended a community homeowner meeting with Benson (no relation to me!) and saw his concept development plans (one plan is by-right and the other a cluster housing plan) that the developer has in mind for a 7+ acre site in Strafford.  Neither of these plans is acceptable in their present state for the historic property wedged between Homestead and West Valley Roads.  Many of the township’s most prized historic properties are located on these two roads, adjacent to this proposed development project, including eight homes that have been featured on the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust’s annual Historic House Tour.

Without question, I support preserving the township’s historic resources. However, any type of historic preservation zoning change must be thoughtful and carefully created … not designed to meet the ‘spot-zoning’ desires of a developer! More will be written on this topic and the proposed zoning change prior to May 21 Planning Commission.

Back to the agenda for the Supervisors Meeting – I am delighted to see the “Motion to approve staff to seek bids for repair/replacement of the front steps at the Township Municipal Complex”.  It’s about time!  The disrepair of the steps and walkway in front of the township building is deplorable and the condition has deteriorated for years.  Is it because the supervisors and township staff use the ‘back entrance’ that they don’t see what the public sees – It looks awful, not to mention the safety hazard!  I hope that there’s a timeline for repair along with this motion.

Another item on the agenda is the permit fee schedule between the township and TE School District. Given the planned school district construction projects (fencing, maintenance building, school additions, etc.) any agreement between the township and the school district should have significant discussion.  Ray Clarke is particularly interested in this agenda item and provided the following comments:

The current CM discussion about planning, zoning and permits for fencing in Chesterbrook and the Maintenance and Storage facility on Old Lancaster Road touches on an important matter that all Tredyffrin residents and taxpayers should be aware of before the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday.

At its March 23rd meeting, the School Board approved a Letter of Understanding with Easttown Township for a custom permit fee schedule – “$104 plus reimbursement of all associated time and material costs” for both renovation and new construction, but at the same time “permit fees for new construction projects shall be negotiated and agreed upon by the Township Manager and Superintendent”.  So that’s confusing, but anyway, the intent seems to be to give the School District a discounted rate.  The standard Easttown permit fee structure is generally $104 plus 2% of construction costs.

So now the Tredyffrin BOS agenda for Monday April 20th has the following agenda item: “Motion to approve the permit fee settlement agreement between Tredyffrin Township and Tredyffrin/Easttown School District”   

If this “settlement agreement” has the same form as the Eastown agreement, there are a number of questions beyond the confusing language.

  1.  All the TESD facilities are in Tredyffrin except for two elementary schools.  So a give-away that is immaterial for Easttown is significant for Tredyffrin.  We have seen the huge drain on resident and township time imposed by the District facilities.
  2.  “Time and materials” is usually code for variable direct costs; any agreement that included that language would leave all the management, HR, accounting, engineering, healthcare, pensions, information systems, vehicle, debt, etc. costs completely unreimbursed.  Permit fees should be set to cover full costs over the complete range of business cycles.
  3.  These expenses would be borne by the taxpayers of Tredyffrin to the benefit of the taxpayers of Easttown.  Every $1,000 discount means a transfer of $250 from Tredyffrin taxpayers, given the relative sizes of the tax base.  Moreover, that discount is at least six times more material to Tredyffrin, with its less than $20 million budget, than it is to TESD with its $124 million budget.
  4.  One third of those Tredyffrin taxpayers are commercial enterprises.  Patch just reported that Tredyffrin has just been lauded for its “overall business friendly tax environment”.  Does the Township want to discourage commercial developers by making them pay inflated permit fees to cover School district discounts?
  5.  Since permit fees are likely paid from the TESD Capital Fund (repaid over the life of the project), this subsidy is not only from one township to another, it’s from currentresidents tofutureresidents of that township.

Of course, we won’t know until Monday what this agreement actually contains, but it seems to me to be important for anyone concerned with keeping Tredyffrin’s value for both residents and businesses should attend Monday’s meeting, find out what’s being “settled and why the Township would entertain giving the School District special treatment, and then voice their opinion before any BOS vote.

It’s worth noting here that another agenda item is:

“Motion to adopt Resolution 2015-11 to approve paying agent to call the 2020- 2023 maturities of the 2009 General Obligation Bonds”

Once more we see prudent financial management from the Township to the benefit of taxpayers, paying down debt from fund balance and only borrowing against actual needs, such a contrast to the School District.  Which makes any agreement as an enabler of the unconstrained district spending all the more inexplicable – so let’s hope I’m jumping to conclusions.

2015 Pennsylvania School District Rankings based on PSSAs: Unionville Chadds Ford retains top spot, Radnor in 2nd and TE School District drops to 7th! Anti-Standardized testing movement gaining traction locally!

There is an opt-out movement against standardized testing in public schools playing out across the country. Opponents of the exams argue that too much time in public education is spent teaching to the test, stressing out students and teachers and detracting from real learning time. Locally, the anti-standardized testing is gaining traction among parents in Lower Merion, Radnor and Tredyffrin Easttown School Districts – just as the Pennsylvania school district PSSA standings for 2015 are released.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) formula ranks the school districts based on three years of state standardized test scores, giving the most weight to the current year. The PSSA is a standards-based assessment of what a student should know and be able to do at varying levels in reading, writing, science and math.  Reading and math is assessed in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11; writing is assessed in grades 5, 8 and 11 and science assessed in grades 4, 8 and 11. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

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.   Proponents of standardized testing view PSSA scores as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provides useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and provide of measurement of how an overall class is performing. But some parents have chosen not to have their kids participate, claiming the tests cause undue stress for kids, and have no direct benefit.

The Pennsylvania school district’s PSSA rankings for 2015 are now available and reported in Pittsburgh Business Times. This is the fifth consecutive year that I have tracked the top 15 school districts in Pennsylvania as ranked by the PSSA results. Results reveal that Unionville Chadds Ford School  District (UCFSD) in Chester County is holding on to top placement.  The yellow highlighted line in the chart below indicates that T/E School District has fallen in PSSA rankings each year during the last five years.  The District was second in 2011, third in 2012, fourth in 2013, fifth place in 2014 and for 2015 dropped to seventh place in the PSSA rankings.

2015  2014   2013   2012   2011           School District (County)
8 4 1 1 1 Upper St. Clair (Allegheny)
5 2 2 5 6 Mt. Lebanon (Allegheny)
1 1 3 2 3 Unionville-Chadds Ford (Chester)
7 5 4 3 2 Tredyffrin-Easttown(Chester)
10 8 5 6 5 North Allegheny (Allegheny)
2 3 6 4 4 Radnor (Delaware)
4 6 7 7 9 Hampton Township (Allegheny)
3 7 8 10 12 South Fayette Township(Allegheny)
6 9 9 8 7 Lower Merion (Montgomery)
12 12 10 9 8 Central Bucks (Bucks)
9 10 11 13 15 Wallingford-Swarthmore (Delaware)
13 13 12 12 11 Fox Chapel Area  (Allegheny)
16 11 13 14 13 Great Valley (Chester)
15 15 14 11 11 Peters Township  (Washington)
11 14 15 19 19 Rose Tree Media (Delaware)

After UCFSD (Chester County) in the PSSA rankings, Radnor (Delaware County) moved up to second place, followed by South Fayette (Alleghany County) in third, Hampton Township (Alleghany County) in fourth, Mt. Lebanon (Alleghany County) in fifth and Lower Merion (Montgomery County) moved up from ninth to sixth.

Interesting to note that Radnor and Lower Merion School Districts advanced on the state-wide PSSA rankings; both districts ahead of TE, which dropped to seventh. The TE School District has continued a steady downward movement in the PSSA rankings during the same period that Radnor and Lower Merion school district improved their scores. The question is why are the PSSA rankings going down in TE rather than up. The only other local Chester County school district represented at the top of the PSSA rankings chart is the Great Valley School District, which dropped from eleventh to sixteenth in the 2015 list.

We know that Pennsylvania parents that oppose standardized testing is advancing. In 2012, only 260 Pennsylvania students opted out of the math and reading PSSAs.  In 2014, more than 1,000 of the 800,000+ eligible students opted not to take the tests according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It will be interesting to see if the PSSA rankings change substantially as the students opting out of the standardized testing increases.

Parents in TE School District have arranged for the screening of the documentary, “Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education” created by a Berks County teacher is scheduled for the Saturday Club in Wayne on April 27 at 7 PM.  According to the film’s website, its purpose is to “shed light on the invalid nature of these tests, the terrible consequences of high-stakes testing, and the big money that’s involved.”

Fencing at Valley Forge Middle School is on the move: Plan now includes a “Zig Zag Fence to No Where”.

Chain_Link_FenceThe TESD Facilities Committee meeting was held on Friday, April 10 at 2 PM.  Although the agenda was available on the TESD website for a week, there was no mention of the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. With the ongoing fencing discussions with the District, township and residents, it was odd that there was to be no discussion of the matter.  When we showed up for the meeting, we were surprised to learn that the VFMS fencing project was added to the agenda. No one was notified of the last minute addition – not even the adjacent Green Hills property owners most affected, the “abutters”.

When I asked about the last minute change in the agenda and lack of notification, Facilities Chair Pete Motel referred my question to Art McDonnell for the “policy” answer.  According to McDonnell, the Board can change the agenda has much as they want and anytime they want – that’s the policy. McDonnell added that the District was not sure if they would have a statement on the fencing (and apparently only decided minutes before the start of the meeting!).

Interesting that with 7 of the 9 school board members and Supt. Dan Waters all in attendance at the Facilities Meeting that it is the Business Manager who describes the District’s policy. Why do we need to pay for a Superintendent (and we currently have two – Drs. Waters and Gusick) or elect a School Board, when we have a Business Manager making so many of the District’s decisions?

Pete Stanton, Green Hills resident and abutter to VFMS property, was in attendance at the meeting and provided the following comments. (Pete, is the one who suggested the ‘green line’ location for the fencing at VFMS – click here to see the map of the project with the green line indicated.)

The Facilities Committee met on Friday April 10 and offered a counter proposal for the VFMS fencing project. As an affected homeowner, I was pleased to see at least some concessions made, but, in reality, I think there is much left to be desired in the new proposal.

Here is the quick version of the new proposal:

-no fencing in front of abutting homes; Instead, 6 foot chain link following green line plan on upper fields.

  • 4 foot fencing all along VF Rd. by track up to Walker (fence on school side of current sidewalk)
  • 4 foot fencing running down VF Rd extending to northern border woods.
  • 4 foot fencing extending into woods at northern border, zig zagging through trees, ending at a residents outer property line, well within view of their home.
  • “enhanced signage” at locations TBD on or near the school borders. Facilities Committee will meet with Abutting households at date TBD to get input on these signs.

More importantly perhaps, there was much that wasn’t addressed by the new proposal. For example:

-nothing in writing or indication that the 2002 agreement between CCA and TESD would be amended to reflect the new TESD proposal.

-A connector path is not being planned on the upper field after the rest room kiosk that allows easy pedestrian access to the sidewalk along VF Rd. The Facilities Committee chairman has repeatedly said that they “reserve the right” to lock the gates at some point in the future during school hours. I think this locking will be done sooner than later without a new accommodation, which is what the new connector path (approx. 80 yards long by 4 foot wide) will provide.

-under the revised plan, the woods will definitely not be “Undisturbed” as expressly promised in the 2002 agreement … so this would be a violation of the agreement, unless an addendum to the Special Exception is agreed upon.

In my opinion, Tredyffrin Township needs to realize that what is being proposed is far from a satisfactory outcome for the residents of Green Hills and Chesterbrook. The Township needs to actively intervene and disallow any potential violation of the 2002 Special Exception.

It’s imperative that as many residents as possible go to the Tredyffrin Townships Supervisors meeting on April 20th to express the position to them that the School District has to honor the 2002 agreement. Again, this requires the School District to get in in front of the Zoning Hearing Board to get an amendment to the 2002 Special Exception agreement that my homeowners associations can agree to. Until such agreement is reached, this is still an active issue. Please encourage anyone else in Chesterbrook that you know to attend as well … it isn’t just a Green Hills issue; it’s an issue for all the residents.

Did the School Board actually think that the concession stated to a handful of people at a Facilities Committee meeting to move the fence was somehow going to end the debate?

The Facilities Chair Pete Motel continues to state and re-state that the District does not have to go before the township’s Zoning Hearing Board – that VFMS is District property and that they can do what they want with it.

Unlike the fencing at the other District schools, the fencing at VFMS is unique – the property consists of two parcels with different zoning and a legal agreement with the adjacent community.  The 2002 Special Exception by the Zoning Hearing Board set the parameters for TESD with Chesterbrook Civic Association and Green Hills Association – it would seem that any changes to that agreement would require review and updating.

This ‘new’ plan from the District does have the fencing out of the backyards of the abutters and moves the 6-foot fencing to behind the fields. (This will be the first 6-foot fencing at any of the eight schools.) However, the fencing will run the length of Valley Forge Road in front of the VFMS and into the woods that is shared with Green Hills.  Rather than ending the fencing at the woods, the fencing goes through the woods and will turn into the Chesterbrook community.  I asked if the District intended to take trees down in the woods – the response was no, that the fence would zig zag around the trees!  To be clear, the zig-zagging of the fencing will abruptly stop at the end of the woods at an abutter’s property line.  The fence will not connect to another section of fencing … the “fence to nowhere”.

If the handful of audience members who attended the Facilities Committee meeting are to believe what was stated – no further discussion is required with the township on the VFMS fencing, no approvals are required, no amendment to the 2002 Special Exception is needed. When asked if this decision to change the plans required a full TE School Board approval, the answer again was no.  In other words, the District can do whatever it wants at VFMS because the agreement was meaningless and implies that there are no deed-restrictions on the property.

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Tonight the District has a Finance Meeting (6:30 PM) and a Budget Workshop (7:30 PM) at Conestoga High School.  Click here for the agenda. Although the outsourcing vendors for the District’s aides and paras was on the last Finance Meeting a and the last School Board Meeting agendas, it does not appear on tonight’s agenda.

How are the 73 full-time aides and paras supposed to make a decision by May 1 on whether to go part-time (to remain a District employee) or go with an outsourcing company when they don’t know who the outsourcing company is or the benefits … ? 

Paoli Transportation Center moves forward … Included in SEPTA’s 2016-17 Capital Program

The following comment and photo was posted on Facebook today by Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline  —

County Commissioner Michelle Kichline —

I was delighted to hear the news that SEPTA has announced its 2016-27 capital program proposal recently. Among its projects that have been deemed ready for the next phase of design is the Paoli Transportation Center, a project I have had the privilege of working on as a member of the Paoli Task Force. SEPTA’s 2016-27 capital program shows funding for Phase I of the project, moving us closer toward a start of construction in 2016, as well as funding for the project’s phases thereafter for the Darby Road bridge and a parking garage. Paoli is on the move!

A user's photo.
Coincidentally, last night was the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust’s Spring Lecture Series.  Our guest lecturer Greg Prichard presentation was “Pennsylvania Main Line Train Stations of Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships”.  Greg spoke about train station architecture and history, mthys vs. reality, evolution and growth of the railroad in our area and how past (and future) restoration efforts helped the stations to endure.  Discussing the train stations geographically from east to west, his presentation ended with Paoli Train Station.  During the Q & A following the presentation, I was asked for an update on the Paoli Transportation Center and I really couldn’t offer any new information.
So, after I saw Michelle’s Facebook comment,  I found SEPTA’s 2016 Capital Budget, dated April 2015 was just uploaded online. Below is a status on Paoli Intermodal Transportation Center contained in the recently released document:
SEPTA capital 2016
According to this graphic from SEPTA’s report, the $36 million Phase I design is underway with construction to begin in 2016. Phase I makes the station ADA accessible and includes a pedestrian overpass, elevators and new high level platform.
It appears that the “Paoli on the Move” website has not been updated in a year (April 2014) – perhaps with this exciting news from SEPTA, the timeline on the Tredyffrin Township website can be updated. It does look like the Paoli Transportation Center is taking steps in the right direction!

New Twist in TESD Aides & Paraeducators Outsourcing — Neal Colligan v. Tredyffrin Easttown School District in PA Open Records Case

During the last two years, the aides and paraeducators working in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District have lived with the threat of outsourcing. Given that we live in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb with an award right_to_know_squarewinning, nationally ranked school district, it is difficult to understand how the TESD leaders would seek to outsource valuable employee jobs rather than offer health care benefits as required by the Affordable Care Act. Due to the delay of ACA compliance enforcement, the aides and paras were able to continue their employment through the 2014/15 school year.

With the outsourcing threat present since 2013, residents continued to support the aides and paras, the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status).  Many in the community questioned the Board’s decision to outsource to avoid the cost of complying with ACA and … if this was the right alternative for the TE School District.

The journey of the District aides and paras moved forward during the 2014/15 school year, knowing that the Board continued to discuss their outsourcing future as a budget strategy. In a surprise move, the School Board approved a resolution to change the employment status of the 73 full-time aides and paras at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting. The action was taken without notice, other than listing ‘Affordable Care Act Update’ on the meeting agenda, and after five secret executive session discussions held on November 5, 2014, December 16, 2014, January 12, 2015,  January 20, 2015 and February 3, 2015.

The Board’s February 3, 2015 action to outsource disrespected our expectation of good government.  Some residents believed that a PA Sunshine Act violation had occurred by the Board’s action, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or … by intention.  Adding insult to injury, the affected group of aides and paras, learned of the Board’s decision via email at 10:30 PM following the February 3 Board meeting.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. The Act is a mechanism to increase public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  The School Board has had a longstanding practice of meeting in executive session before its regular meetings. In the case of the February 3 policy decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, the discussions were held in private during 5 Executive Sessions, out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation.

Believing that the Board’s actions of February 3 regarding the aides and paras violated the spirit and letter of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, a small group of concerned citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Barbara Jackson, Peggy Layden, Jerry Henige and I) sent a February 13, 2015 letter to the Board.  The request was simple … they asked the School Board to re-open the outsourcing discussion at the School Board meeting on February 23, to provide a thorough financial analysis of the ACA options and strategies, an explanation of suggested policy changes, and to allow for adequate resident commentary. As residents, these residents believed that with quick action at the February 23 meeting, the Board could remedy the process and maintain the trust of the community in the integrity of the District’s governance. The resident’s suggestion to re-open the outsourcing discussion was disregarded.

In an email dated February 20, the District’s solicitor Ken Roos responded (on behalf of the Board) to the residents’ letter of February 13, stating in part, “… At no time was the Sunshine Act violated. Moreover, the February 3, 2015 Board vote on this fully disclosed agenda item occurred after a lengthy public presentation, public Board discussion and public comment in full compliance with the Sunshine Act…”

Troubled by the dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act; further adding to the Sunshine Act violation case. Residents and signers of the February 13 letter appealed to the Board to step from behind the words of the solicitor, to take the situation seriously and to think independently.  Again, there was no response from the Board in this regard.

Lacking an adequate response from TESD and the School Board to the February 13 letter, Neal Colligan filed a Right-to-Know Request with the District, on February 18 with the following request:

“All records relating to the implementation and execution of the TESD Resolution of February 3, 2015 regarding the Affordable Care Act updates since November 1, 2014, including all documents used to formulate, communicate, explain or justify the ACA Resolution not disseminated in public meetings.

Of particular interest are the 5 closed (Executive Session) meetings referenced by the Board President on 2/3/15, and all written communications and meeting notices and records thereof related to the discussion on this topic.”

On March 27, Colligan received a response to his RTK request from the District’s Open Records Officer Art McDonnell with two attachments – the public power point presentation of the Affordable Care Act presented at the February 3 Board Meeting and an email exchange between School Board member Virginia Lastner and a resident. Neither of these items related to the Executive Session ‘behind closed door’ ACA discussions and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paras.  McDonnell’s response to Colligan’s RTK request:

Art McDonnell response

Colligan resplied to McDonnell and the School Board via email on March 27, 2015, noting that that both his first and last name were spelled incorrectly in the response and added that,  although his RTK request was made using his personal e-mail address, McDonnell’s response was sent to Colligan’s business email. The remainder of Colligan’s email reads as follows:

Your response and timing of response in this matter is very disappointing to me.  I’ve made a number of Open Records requests over the years and this is the second one DENIED.  Interestingly, those are the only two responses that took the maximum 30 days to receive.  While you are certainly within the boundaries of the law on these responses, I would think a Denial could be formulated much sooner in the process.  Water under the bridge….

My request was plainly written and, I assumed, easy to understand.

I was asking for the documents related to the closed Executive Sessions that occurred before the presentation on February 3, 2015 on this year; to the extent they were available and public.  What I received (attached) was the Power Point presentation from the 2/3/15 meeting and several e-mail chains between citizens and Mrs. Lastner dated after this critical meeting date.  Added to this was your denial that includes three different legal reasons for the denial of the request.  Wholly unsatisfying to this member of the community who was as puzzled as the rest of us regarding how a sensitive issue like this could have been made in a series of closed-door Executive Sessions.  I was hopeful that some light could be shed on your deliberations and decision-making thought matrix but that is not going to be the case.

It seems you have done a great deal of legal work here although the legal opinion and defenses articulated in your reply likely did not take outside research.  I’m sorry if you choose to spend valuable legal dollars just to deny this request.  If that was the intent, the response could have been forwarded last month when I made the request for Open Records.  The inclusion of post 2/3/15 items was outside of the scope of my request and it is my firm hope that you did not pay for legal review of these (and other post meeting communications) for redaction/exclusion for this Open Records response.

I’m not a lawyer and will not argue your various legal reasons for denying the request.  I know plenty of smart lawyers would tell me the counter to each of these defenses but I’m not looking to play that game.  I do know that there are many groups/organizations/people/firms dedicated to good and open government in the Commonwealth.  I’m also aware that the process for appeal of Open Records denials is a fairly simple and user friendly process…this is to insure that average citizens can shed light on the deliberations of government bodies in PA.  I’m very likely to take those steps and seek that help.  First I will confer with the other members of our community who supported me in this endeavor.  But I ask each of you: Is this the level of openness and transparency that you think appropriate for this issue?  Really, when you stood for election to your seat; is this the relationship with the community you wanted?  This is not the first time that transparency has become as issue; isn’t there one/some of you who would like to see this relationship change; the School Board become more open in process?  I know the answer is YES but we need someone brave enough to voice the opinion and insist on transparent government and it can’t come from the public.

Colligan shared the District’s response to the RTK request and his reply to Art McDonnell (above) with the other signers of the February 13 letter.  The District’s response did not support the claim for exemption from public access and those claims are not applicable in this specific case.  Although McDonnell states that the RTK was granted ‘in part’ —  neither of the two records provided are germane to the request. The District’s RTK denial request contained provisions for an appeal to Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, part of PA Department of Community and Economic Development, within fifteen business days.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan took the next step in the process and filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records office. He provided requested background documentation, including copies of the original RTK request, response and records from the District. The case, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No. 2015-0442 is assigned to Appeals Officer Jill Wolfe, Esq. in Harrisburg.  Colligan is required to provide all supporting information and a legal argument by Wednesday, April 8 to the Open Records Office.  A final ruling on the appeal will be made within 30 days.

Transparency in government is not a new issue. John Adams, 2nd president of the United States, wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.”  Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan is asking for transparency and easily accessible information which should be public information.  He is not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.

Stormwater Management, Why Does it Matter? Open Land Conservancy Annual Meeting, Tuesday, April 7, 8 PM

When it rains, it pours!

When it falls from the sky, we call it rain. But once those April showers hit the ground, the rain becomes something more ominous-sounding … “stormwater” … and its effects have become more complicated and expensive. We’ve seen fast-moving, drenching thunderstorms virtually paralyze parts of Tredyffrin Township, sometimes the water so damaging it causes roads to close.

The Annual Meeting of the Open Land Conservancy is tackling the complicated issue of stormwater and the public is encouraged to attend on Tuesday, April 7, at 8 PM at Great Valley Presbyterian Church, 2025 Swedesford Road, Malvern, PA 19355. Guest speaker Michele Adams, a water resource engineer and founder of Meliora Design, a civil engineering firm specializing in sustainable site design and water resources planning in Phoenixville, will discuss stormwater management, the issues in Tredyffrin and offer suggestions for homeowners.  Ms. Adams will talk about the stormwater problem in general, issues specific to Tredyffrin, and suggestions for homeowners.  Following her presentation, Ms. Adams will answer questions from the audience.

The OLC is Tredyffrin Township’s largest non-government landowner, with six preserves in the township. In total, the OLC has nearly 500 acres of open space, either owned or in conservancy.  Each year OLC provides a public meeting focusing on an environmental issue of local interest.  This year’s stormwater topic is particularly relevant, especially given some of the new development projects in Tredyffrin – the large assisted living building on Lancaster Avenue in Daylesford, Chesterbrook Shopping Center redevelopment and Wayne Glen (Richter Tract) carriage and townhouse community in Glenhardie area.

Stormwater management has been a top priority in the proposed Wayne Glen plan as the first township land development project to utilize the Trout Creek Overlay District ordinance. The proposed plan requires extensive engineering to control the storm water in the Trout Creek tributary that runs through the property.  How the Wayne Glen developers will manage the stormwater in Wayne Glen continues to be one of the major sticking points for the residents living in this development area.

The issues surrounding stormwater affects all of us; the run-off rainwater on parking lots, driveways, roads, homes and office buildings, all of which used to be absorbed by the ground but now is covered with pavement. The gutters, retention basis and storm sewers carry the water into area streams already swollen with rain. Beyond the obvious erosion to the creek banks, severe flooding and property damage, the water also sweeps pavement pollutants like motor oil, anti-freeze, brake fluid and other garbage into the streams that often feed major sources of drinking water.

Like individual homeowners, the managed preserves of OLC are  subject to erosion from stormwater run-off from neighboring properties and roads.  Stormwater management is a real problem facing this community. The growing problems with stormwater runoff are in direct proportion to the amount of impervious surfaces that are being built and the amount of soil-compacting construction activities that are taking place.

Plan to attend Ms. Adams presentation and learn how efficient stormwater management techniques can reduce the damaging impacts of stormwater runoff on water quality, on flooding, and on sensitive ecosystems impacted by all of that water

TE School Board’s proposed fencing at VF Middle School costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, Tredyffrin Township Solicitor and Board of Supervisors now involved

legal feesThe legal bills to the taxpayers continue to mount because of the TE School Board’s fencing decision at Valley Forge Middle School.

Last week, residents of Green Hills in Chesterbrook sought a compromise at a meeting with members of the District’s Facilities Committee, (Pete Motel, Liz Mercogliano, Kevin Buraks and SB President Kris Graham), Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos, regarding the planned 6-ft. chain link fencing.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting. The meeting ended with no compromise to the proposed 6-foot chain link fencing.

Agreeing that proposed fencing violates the terms of the 2002 agreement with the Chesterbrook Civic Association, attorneys Nagle and Gill filed official Complaint letters with Tredyffrin Township yesterday on behalf of their respective clients.  The letters were sent to Tredyffrin Township’s solicitor Vince Donohue with copies to the Board of Supervisors and Township Manager. (Click here to read Nagle’s letter; click here to read Gill’s letter).

After reviewing the records, attorneys Nagle and Gill each concluded that the proposed fencing would violate a condition which Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board imposed on TESD in granting the 2002 Special Exception. The Special Exception does not permit the installation of a fence in the 250’ buffer area next to the Green Hills homes.  In his letter to Donohue, Gill states that “ … TESD’s present proposal to introduce an invasive and visually offensive fence into the agreed upon 250 foot buffer is a material change to the development to which our clients agreed and requires the Zoning Hearing Board’s approval.”  Gill further states that, “…the Township must not permit or otherwise allow that proposal to succeed.”

With this official Complaint letter, the School Board, under the leadership of Kris Graham, has caused additional costs to the taxpayers to defend their proposed Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. In addition to paying legal fees to the District’s attorney Ken Roos and to Saul Ewing attorney David Falcone, taxpayers can now add the legal fees of Tredyffrin Township solicitor Vince Donohue to the cost of fencing at VFMS. Plus, the TESD taxpayers of Green Hills in Chesterbrook must pay the legal costs of Nagle and Gill.

Here’s my question to the members of the TE School Board – when is this going to end? This isn’t YOUR money that you are using to defend your decisions, it’s OUR money – it’s the taxpayer’s money.  School Board, how many thousands more taxpayer dollars are you going to spend on legal defense of your decision?

Kris Graham, as President of the School Board, we challenge you to lead!

TE School Board’s idea of ‘compromise’ at Valley Forge Middle School … Green Hills homeowners to get 6-foot high chain link fences in their backyards instead of previously announced 4-foot fences

Green Hills residents met with TE School District representatives regarding the proposed Chesterbrook fencing project last night and learned that compromise isn’t in the school board’s vocabulary.

Representing the TE School District at the meeting were school board members Pete Motel, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano and Kris Graham in addition to Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos. Motel, Buraks and Mercogliano are all on the Facilities Committee and School Board President Kris Graham attended in the absence of Virginia Lastner, the fourth member of the Facilities Committee.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting.

With the proposed chain link fencing planned extraordinarily close to the abutting properties, residents appealed to the school board for a reasonable discussion of the project. However, rather than finding common ground and understanding, the affected property owners learned that their backyard fencing would not be 4 feet high as previously stated at the District’s Facilities Meeting. No, in a surprise announcement, the Green Hills residents learned the District has changed the height of the chain link fencing in their backyards to six feet!

It seems to me that these homeowners are being targeted – the Valley Forge Middle School fence project calls for the two sections of fencing along Chesterbrook Boulevard and Valley Forge Road to have four foot high fencing whereas the Green Hills residents are facing 6 foot chain link fences in their backyards. I don’t’ think any of the other school fencing projects have 6-ft. high fences, do they? You have to wonder what the District uses as their criteria for 4 ft, 5 ft. or 6 ft. fencing.

I thought that you needed a variance for 6 foot fencing in Tredyffrin Twp and we know that that the District previously withdrew their variance request. However, the District sidesteps the ZHB application process by putting a 4-ft fence along Valley Forge Road, which is technically the front of the school. According to Tredyffrin Township Zoning Ordinance 208-119, the back and rear yards at Valley Forge Middle School (which includes the Green Hills-TESD property line) only requires a permit for the 6-ft. fence not a variance. (Note – as of late today, the township had not received a fence permit request from TESD).

Green Hills resident and abutting property owner Pete Stanton attended the meeting and provides his summary below.

Summary of meeting 3/25/15 with representatives of the TE School Board and concerned citizens of Green Hills and Chesterbrook regarding proposed VFMS Fencing project.

– No agreement was reached over fencing. The status is that the School Board is still determined to place the fence at or near their property line. They plan to notify residents in the near future exactly where the line of the fencing will go.

– In a surprise turnaround, the Facilities Committee Chair Peter Motel announced the fence facing Green Hills homes would be 6 feet high. Previous Facilities Committee discussions that I attended had indicated the fence near our properties to be a four foot fence. No explanation for this change was offered. The Contractor is making an application for a fencing permit to Tredyffrin Township.

– The fencing architect from Daley and Jalboot reinforced the idea that the primary goal of the fencing on their property line was border identification. The School Board had evidently not considered any other option to fencing to “mark” their borders, such as signage.

– Attorneys for Green Hills, Chesterbrook Civic Assn and the School Board’s attorney as well as their outside Counsel were all present. There was some back and forth questioning, but nothing substantive at this time.

– The invited guests presented a wide variety of commentary … the excess expense of the fence in time of fiscal crunch for the school District, the security flaws inherent in their planned fence placement and deployment, and the general disruption to all residents in cutting off the continuous access to the Rural Conservation (RC) zoned areas and paths to the fields, St Isaac’s etc.

– An alternative fencing line was proposed by a citizen (non-Green Hills resident) as a “compromise” which places the fencing well out from the homes but still cuts off access to the paths. This proposed alternative is certainly an improvement to the District’s plan, but may wind up costing the District more (due to needed new path construction) and in my opinion does not go far enough in allowing unfettered access to the 20.7 acre RC zoned open area. I have color coded the 2 alternative proposals for consideration. Please see the attached map showing my desired fencing line, (the green line plan), the Citizen’s “compromise” fencing route (red line plan) along with the pathway needed for that plan (new path is blue line). Click here for map of VF Middle School Fencing Plan.

– Green Hills and local Chesterbrook residents and the 5 “abutter” families seem clear that they want unfettered access to the 20.7 acre open area behind their homes as they have for decades. By placing the fence as a continuation of the four foot fence already in place on the upper fields closest to the school, the School District will enhance student safety. By being able to visually monitor the entire fenced area directly from the School plant, continue to allow resident path access that they have utilized forever, and save the District thousands of dollars in fencing costs… All these arguments taken together are compelling for the District to alter their current plans and strongly consider the one that I am offering here. With the “green line plan”, everyone wins.

It would seem that supporting the District’s proposed chain link fencing project is not a particularly smart political move for anyone seeking reelection to the school board. Board President Kris Graham (the only incumbent seeking reelection) and her unfavorable position on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing plan could pose a political hurdle for her in November.

It is my understanding that some members of the school board have agreed to a walkabout at the Green Hills fencing location with the five affected homeowners. I still contend that if all the board members would take the time to walk the abutting neighbor’s property, they would agree to a compromise discussion.

Here’s hoping that there is still time for reasonable people to make reasonable decisions on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project.

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