Mt. Pleasant’s 13th Annual Community Barbecue – Saturday, July 20, 12 PM – 5 PM — All Welcome to Attend!

What a great way to spend a hot summer Saturday — the village of Mt. Pleasant in Tredyffrin Township is having its 13th Annual Community Barbecue tomorrow, July 20, 12 PM – 5 PM at Mazie B. Hall Park.  All are welcome to attend — proceeds will support the ‘free’ after school tutoring program, held at the historic Carr School in Mt. Pleasant during the school year. Plan to stop by and show your support for this wonderful community event!

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Battle to Stop Catalyst and BAN the Digital Billboard Continues — Community Has One More Opportunity to Voice Objection, Thursday, July 25, 6 PM

Eleven months in and the digital billboard saga continues …

At the May 30 special meeting of the Zoning Hearing Board, the audience learned after three hours of testimony that the legal proceeding would be continued to July 9.

Unfortunately, as soon as the July 9 date was announced, I knew that I would be on a plane that night – and with nonrefundable tickets there was nothing I could do. For those that have followed along with the BAN the Digital Billboard campaign for the past eleven months, you will appreciate how difficult it was for me not to be in attendance on Tuesday night.

However, the good news is that many people that I know were able to attend and I have received many text messages, emails, phone calls, etc post-meeting making it easier to write this post. And some more good news … the residents will have one more opportunity to make their voices heard at the final Zoning Hearing Board meeting on this matter, Thursday, July 25, 6 PM.  The regular ZHB starts at 7 PM, so that gives us an hour to continue to drive home the point why our community does NOT want a digital billboard!

One of those in attendance at the meeting on Tuesday was my good friend Ray Clark and he kindly provided few written comments from the 3-1/2 hour meeting. (In addition, Ray texted continuous updates throughout the ZHB meeting – so grateful to him!). Here are Ray’s thoughts from the meeting – to others who attended, I welcome your comments:

A few observations from a non-lawyer on Tuesday’s ZHB proceedings hearing the appeal of the denial of a permit for a digital billboard.  The applicant worked hard to focus the discussion on the legal intricacies of their challenge to the validity of the township’s zoning ordinance, while the audience was concerned about the safety and visual impact of placing a distracting, flashing device at a busy and iconic intersection.

A couple of process points.  Dan McLaughlin did a good job of managing the contentious meeting to be fair to all perspectives.  He allowed more residents to apply for standing, since many were prevented from attending round one due to the tornado warning. However, the applicant objected objectionably (!) and arbitrarily to most – at one point saying that he did not believe – with no basis! – one resident who gave a precise distance from his house to the intersection!  I imagine that the ZHB will rule on the standing of all the residents from both meetings at the wrap up meeting on July 25th (6pm).

The witnesses were two: continued testimony from the applicant and Matt Baumann for the township.  I don’t pretend to have followed this closely enough to give an opinion on the legal issues, but there was a lot of discussion about the meaning and applicability of “lighting”, “changeable copy”, “flashing”, “alteration”, “conditional use”, “vinyl wraps”, “backing blocks”, and so on.  Throughout the applicant tried to force the discussion to a word-by-word parsing of the Township denial letter – with some success since Matt acknowledged that the letter had an internal inconsistency.  I don’t recall much discussion of why the ordinance is illegal, maybe that was last time.

The audience seemed to come more prepared than the township Baumann/Verwey team.  Excellent points were made about the lack of applicant studies of intersection safety issues (they relied entirely on PennDoT regulations), the inaccuracy and limitations of the safety studies they did present, the lack of information given to the township to assess the features of the sign, the availability of studies indicating a definite safety issue, and of course the fundamental fact that the sign is DESIGNED to distract attention.

It seems a great pity that commercial interests have the potential to weasel loopholes in township ordinances written at a different time to attempt to foist upon us something that seems to be universally despised and a very real safety risk.

Far from dividing, the digital billboard issue has united the community in its opposition.  I am proud of our residents — they have put lawn signs up, shared information, done their own digital billboard research, attended and spoken out at meetings.  Folks, we have one more opportunity to drive home our message of opposition on Thursday, July 25, 6 PM!  

Always the optimist, I’m going to believe that our Zoning Hearing Board is going to come down on the side of the community on the digital billboard issue.

Your Voice Counts and the Community Matters!

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Say NO to Proposed Digital Billboard in Paoli on Tuesday, July 9, 7 PM, Zoning Hearing Board Meeting: Your Voice Counts & Our Community Matters!

The “To be continued … “  digital billboard saga returns to Township Township Zoning Hearing Board meeting on Tuesday, July 9 at 7 PM at the municipal building, 1100 Duportail Road, Berwyn. (Click here for agenda).

This process has been nearly a year in the making, and the legal proceeding was last at the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) meeting on May 30. With tornado warnings and loss of power for many homeowners in the township, it was a challenge just to attend the meeting!

On May 30, we only heard from the Catalyst attorney John Snyder from Saul Ewing and his two witnesses. On Tuesday, July 9, the ZHB meeting continues with attorney Tony Verwey from Gawthrop Greenwood presents the case opposing the digital billboard on behalf of the township.

To remind you about the ZHB meeting on May 30, a number of residents (including myself) asked to be a party in the case — with Snyder objecting to all but one resident. In my opinion, the entire Tredyffrin Township community (and beyond) should have standing in the case, as we all will be impacted by a digital billboard at the busy intersection in Paoli.

To the credit of the ZHB chair Dan McLaughlin (and much to the chagrin of Snyder) the public was told that “standing” would be determined at the July 9 meeting.  And the good news is that ALL residents who wish to comment at the upcoming ZHB meeting may do so, with or without legal standing. It will be curious to see where the legal issue resolves itself for those that previously sought standing and also whether residents who were unable to attend the ZHB meeting in May will be granted standing.

Much of the widespread opposition to the proposed digital sign is focused on safety yet we learned on May 30 that no safety expert would be called by the Catalyst attorney because he didn’t think “it relevant”.   One of the two expert witnesses called by Catalyst was Jesse White, an employee of Watchfire Signs, a Danville, Illinois digital billboard company who sells billboards to Catalyst. In his testimony, White admitted his company would probably have the contract for the proposed digital billboard.  He certainly is not an unbiased witness and the township attorney Tony Verwey needs to object.

Other crazy remarks came from the second Catalyst witness, employee Tim Earle who claimed digital billboards are “almost like a TV” and compared the proposed digital billboard, with its constantly changing face, to the 7-Eleven gas price sign across the street and to the Conestoga High School sign. The so-called expert testimony of Earle should be thoroughly cross-examined by the township attorney. Here’s hoping that Tony Verwey is fully prepared for this legal proceeding against Catalyst – the residents are counting on him to bring his ‘A’ game!

On Tuesday, please show up at the township building for the Zoning Hearing Board Meeting and speak out against the proposed digital billboard – Our Voice Counts and our Community Matters!

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Chester County DA Tom Hogan Decides Not to Seek Re-Election – Thank You For Your Service, Your Dedication and for Making Chester County a Safer Place!

Today, I sadly learned that our Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan will not seek re-election for a third term.  For those that have followed Community Matters for a while, you will know that I have not kept my friendship with Tom a secret. Well over a decade ago, when he was Tredyffrin Township’s solicitor, we bonded over historic preservation issues.  The friendship and mutual support for historic preservation has continued through the years.

It’s easy for some to say that “everyone is replaceable”, but there is no doubt that many of the 500,000 Chester County residents will miss having Tom Hogan at the helm, when he leaves office at the end of the year. During his eight years as our District Attorney, Tom has contributed greatly to making Chester County a safer place for its citizens and for that we can all be grateful.

Thank you District Attorney Hogan for your service and dedication to our community and best wishes for the future. Without a doubt, you will continue to have success!

Rather than anyone speculating as to why he will not seek a third term, I think it is best to just post Tom’s very personal message directly from his Facebook page:

To My Beloved Chester County:

It has been my privilege and duty to serve as the Chester County District Attorney for the last two terms. Today I am announcing that I will not seek re-election to a third term.

There are three reasons that I have reached this decision, after careful consultation with my family and colleagues.

First, we have accomplished everything we set out to achieve and more. And when I say “we”, I mean the entire team that worked together every step of the way to deliver justice to Chester County. We made Chester County the safest county in Southeastern Pennsylvania. We created successful protocols for active shooters, homicides, child abuse, sexual assaults, elder abuse, and many other crimes. We responded early and hard to the opioid epidemic, bringing every tool available to the job, and have kept Chester County’s overdose levels down and falling. We inherited a dysfunctional office, modernized it, recruited outstanding people, then trained them to be even better. We have one of the best in-house trial advocacy programs in the nation. We created a vertical prosecution model for major cases, pairing prosecutors with investigators right from the start of a case, leading to both deeper investigations and more coordinated trials. We conducted major anti-violence and anti-drug initiatives, like Operation Silent Night in Coatesville and Operation Wildfire across Chester County. We built a new Computer Forensics Lab, a new Drug Unit work space, and a new Crime Scene Forensics Unit work area. We established a Central Booking Facility, a project that was a law enforcement dream in Chester County for decades. We doubled the resources for the Child Abuse Unit and created an Elder Abuse Task Force, creating protections for the most vulnerable populations.

We also always have been tough on violent criminals, predators, and corrupt officials. James Hvizda, Gary Fellenbaum, Richard Como, David Desper, Sammy Smith, Duron Peoples, Jack Mayer, Barry Baker, Clayton Carter – – these are just a few of the defendants who wish they never heard of the Chester County DAO.

But we also proved that you could be both tough on crime and establish meaningful reforms. On the reform front, we required independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, scientifically valid eye-witness identifications, truth in testimony from the police, the recording of interviews of suspects, and an open-file discovery process to make sure that the defense was never denied any evidence. Our prison population is at a historically low level, because we have robust diversionary programs for non-violent criminals. We did the right thing, the hard thing, for the right reasons. And of course we made mistakes, but they were always honest mistakes that we tried to correct and never repeat.

The Chester County District Attorney’s Office now stands as that “shining city upon a hill,” an example of what a prosecutor’s office should and must be. The DAO is as strong and deep as it ever has been. I am proud to leave that as my legacy.

The second reason for my decision is that I am honoring the request of my family. This is a note that my daughter found one morning outside her door when she was in middle school: “I went to a homicide scene. Mom is in China for work. Make your little brother breakfast. I will be back to take you guys to school. Love, Dad.” As the District Attorney, I am often gone. And even when I am there, I am often someplace else in my head, thinking about a case. I left my family at a vacation in Disney World to fly home to deal with a homicide. But nobody’s family should have to put up with a life like this forever. Being the kids and wife of the District Attorney is not easy. My family never wanted me to run for another term (the vote was unanimous). Should I have listened to them at the end of last year? Of course. But I was too busy being District Attorney to even think about it. My family deserves a break.

Third and finally, it is time for a new challenge. I have been a line Assistant District Attorney, trying every case that came along. I have been a federal prosecutor, with the enormous powers that accompany that job. I have been the District Attorney, and got to re-make the DAO into my own vision, a hybrid between a federal prosecutor’s office and a local prosecutor’s office. Now is the right time in my life to take up a new challenge.

A few final thoughts. To the men and women of law enforcement, thank you for your courage, integrity, and loyalty. You are the best.

To our prosecutors, you make me proud every day. You try difficult cases, you protect victims, you never cut corners, and you uphold the integrity of the Chester County DAO. You can tell by the number of other agencies and law firms constantly trying to lure our folks away to higher-paying jobs that we produce skilled and ethical prosecutors.

To the victims of crimes and their families, you taught me lessons about grace and courage that I will never forget. It has been an honor to seek justice for you.

To the citizens of Chester County, thank you for all of your support over the years. I could go anywhere in Chester County and have people greet me with, “Hello Mr. District Attorney!” From North Coventry to Oxford, from Honey Brook to my home in Willistown, our citizens rejoiced in the victories of the DAO. Looking into the future, please realize that Chester County is still growing rapidly. We have about 800 police officers right now. Within the next ten years, we should grow to about 1,000 police officers. Invest in the safety of you, your family, and your business. And finally, respect each other. Chester County is like living in Wonderful World of Oz. We have everything: safety, education, health, wealth, and happiness. While the rest of the country and world may argue, keep working together. Chester County must remain a special place.

As my replacement to run for District Attorney, I respectfully suggest First Assistant District Attorney Michael Noone. Mike has served as First Assistant for the last seven years and knows the operations of the DAO intimately. He also is the co-chair of the Overdose Prevention Task Force, leads the Elder Abuse Task Force, and reviews all sexual assault prosecutions. In addition to his extensive trial experience, he was the lead prosecutor against Gary Fellenbaum, now serving life imprisonment for the torture and killing of three-year old Scotty McMillan. Mike is well-known to law enforcement and our judges. He will keep Chester County safe.

That’s it. No scandals. I am still happily married to my wife of 22 years and have two great kids. No back story. I am still the nerd who never even tried marijuana. Nope, I am just somebody recognizing that there is a time to leave public life. I will complete my second term, and then help my replacement take over the DAO. After that, I am off to a new adventure.

Until then, I will sign off with our usual salute: #chescojustice. Forever.

Thomas P. Hogan

Chester County District Attorney

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Combatting anti-gay bullying and celebrating diversity and acceptance — Will a drag queen story hour at Tredyffrin Library help?

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month and Friday, June 28th marks the fiftieth anniversary of what many believe was the major turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement.

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, which led to spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay (LGBT) community that lasted for days. The Stonewall riots sparked an entire civil rights movement, and the reason to celebrate Pride Month in June.

Fifty years later, anti-gay bullying is still prevalent in schools and workplaces, and anti-LGBT sentiment continues to be combated across the world. With the celebration of Pride Month, many organizations continue to search for ways to teach tolerance, including our public libraries.  Libraries strive to promote openness, acceptance and the opportunity to educate children about people who are different from them.

In celebration of Pride Month, and as a way to encourage diversity and inclusion, a new twist on the traditional story hour is coming to Tredyffrin Library on Friday at 10:30 AM when it hosts a ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ (DQSH).

Libraries are not only about books. They are continually transforming to meet community needs and provide new platforms, programs, and services. A drag queen story time event at a public library might not be for everyone however the program is staunchly supported by the American Library Association.

The nonprofit group DQSH is described online as “drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores” with a stated mission to “capture the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and give kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queen role models.” The nonprofit has 35 chapters in the United States and five overseas.  The Washington Post reports that Drag Queen Story Hour “aims to teach children gender diversity and acceptance.”

The guest drag queen storyteller at Tredyffrin Library on Friday is Matthew Maisano (aka Balena Canto, right) whose Facebook page describes as an “operatic/classical baritone, singing-actor, entertainer, & drag queen!” Further research indicates Maisano has a BA in Music from Temple and a Masters degree in Musical, Vocal Performance from Cleveland Institute of Music. With many musical and acting performances to his credit, Maisano performed over the weekend as part of the Rose Tree Park Summer Concert series. (Click here for an excerpt).

Whether or not you support a drag queen reading to toddlers at our local library is a personal choice.  However, I think we can all agree that the world needs to be more accepting and open to new and different ideas – and that diversity, self-expression and inclusion is to be applauded.

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T/E School District News: 3.91% Tax Increase, District to Correct $1.2M Accounting Error & School Board Member Resigns

The five-hour marathon school board meeting last night lasted until 12:30 AM, albeit the audience was kept waiting with a 30-minute late start.  For those community members who stayed the course until the end of the school board meeting, thank you!

Although I was unable to attend the meeting, I received multiple updates throughout the evening followed up with several phone calls today. The significant takeaways from the evening included the (1) 2019-20 tax increase decision of 3.91%, (2) the Board vote for the District to take responsibility for the accounting error and to correct the Annual Financial Reports (AFR) with PA Department of Education (although sadly all Board members were not in favor of “doing what’s right”) and (3) the announcement of the resignation of a school board member.

Luckily, we have Ray Clarke providing comments on the school board meeting until he left at 11 PM (following the 3.91% tax increase vote). At that point, Mike Heaberg picks up the commentary until the meeting finally ended at 12:35 AM.  See their remarks below — thank you both!

From Ray Clarke:

– Dramatically larger attendance than a typical meeting, which multiplied the persistent disregard for the community’s time when the meeting started half an hour late

– A long plea from the rugby club for Varsity status, but notably none stayed for the Budget discussion which might have suggested funding limitations

– The Board based its discussion around just the 3.91% tax increase, not all the other options (2.8% or 4.33%)

– The Board agreed to amend the 3.91% budget motion with an investment in the new elementary reading program as a $300,000 one-time “below-the-line” expense, contingent on a number of conditions. This did not satisfy parents who are advocating for parent involvement in selection of any new program

– The amended motion passed 7-2, with Kate Murphy and Ed Sweeney allied for a lower number. Todd Kantorczyk and Roberta Hotinski reluctantly went along with a lower number than they would prefer, the former (correctly) noting that budget and actual deficits cannot continue, while the latter continues (inexplicably) to want to move the following year’s – potential – exception forward into the coming Budget year.

All Board members seemed to agree that the Budget process is broken.  Board President Scott Dorsey wants to separate the budget from the routine Finance process. He spoke forcefully about his outrage at this and the $700,000 expense surprise revealed at the last meeting.  He warned of “someone paying the price” for any similar issues in the future.

– The District’s Solicitor (reportedly with financial experience, not Ken Roos but from the same law firm, Wisler Pearlstine) advised the Board that Annual Financial Reports to the state CAN be corrected, provided that there are new audited statements and if certified by a new auditing firm or individual.  The Business Manager reported logistical, cost, PDE and outcome risk issues with this, although to the audience it seemed that those were grossly over-stated.

– A wide cross-section of community members spoke compellingly in favor of the District basing its decisions on the correct financials, about the pattern of behavior that has got us to this point, and about the need for process and personnel changes

– Unfortunately many had to leave at 11pm after the budget vote, but the AFR revision discussion continued.

Mike Heaberg picks up the commentary on the school board meeting at this point, including the Board’s acknowledgement of the administration’s accounting error and subsequent vote to correct the District audits, the Annual Financial Reports (AFR) and resubmit.  Thanks so much Mike!

From Mike Heaberg:

– After the Board acted on the consent agenda, other action items, and “final” public comments, Ed Sweeney made a motion to begin the process of correcting the District audits and Annual Financial Reports for 2016-17 and 2017-18.  Kate Murphy seconded it.

A long Board discussion ensued including input from the District’s Solicitor, Business Manager, Superintendent and the public. At one point, Todd Kantorczyk made a motion to table action until a future meeting – the next scheduled is August 26. On a roll call vote, his motion failed 5-4.  After more discussion, the vote was held via roll call. It won 6-3.  Voting in favor of correcting the audits and AFRs were Ed Sweeney, Kate Murphy, Scott Dorsey, Michele Burger, Heather Ward, and Tina Whitlow.   Todd Kantorczyk, Roberta Hotinski, and Kyle Boyer voted against correcting the audits and AFRs.

– At the very end, about 12:15 AM, Heather Ward announced she is moving out of the District and resigning from the Board effective 6/16/19.  The Board has not sorted out the replacement process. Heather made gracious comments and her colleagues offered thanks and praise for her service to the District.

The 2019-20 budget process was one for the books with final changes and decisions coming in at the eleventh hour (or in this case 12:30 AM!).  I am appreciative that in the end, school board member Ed Sweeney had the resolve and courage to push forward for correction of the District audits and Annual Financial Reports.  I thank him and the other five Board members (Kate Murphy, Scott Dorsey, Michele Burger, Heather Ward and Tina Whitlow) for “doing what’s right” and voting to correct the District audits and AFRs but simply do not understand why the other three Board members opposed the action.

Over many months, much time and energy was expended by the public in urging the Board to do “what’s right” — I’m left wondering why it took months of meetings, emails and phone calls (many by resident financial experts) plus an official letter of complaint to the PA Dept. of Education to finally achieve this goal.

In my opinion, there is an imbalance in power and control in the school district administration. All roads lead back to (or through) Art McDonnell, the Business Manager and the 2019-20 budget process debacle was a direct  result of his actions.  The Board (and the District’s taxpayers!) are ill-served by this business manager and we deserve better!  When is enough, enough?

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Clock is Ticking Down for T/E School District Final Budget — Vote on Tax Increase Monday Night!

The clock is ticking down for the school board and 2019-20 budget decisions. The school board will vote on the final budget on Monday, June 10, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School. (Click here for the agenda).

In mid-December, the District first presented the 2019/20 budget with its proposed 6.1% tax increase — much has happened in the intervening six months.

Ongoing questions from the public about the $1.2 million accounting error have remained unanswered or denied, even in the face of legal action.

The individual Board members continue to be at odds about the proposed tax increase although the “whisper down the lane” message for months was that the tax increase would not be 6.1%.

The public is now told that the District tax increase “under consideration” is one in a pick list of 2.8%, 3.91% or 4.33%. The exact tax increase number becomes dependent on which school board member that you ask, with some keen on the lowest increase – some the highest and the others in the middle! Although the specific proposed tax increase should have been firmed up months ago, the public will have to wait for the final vote from the Board tomorrow night.

In case you are interested, below is the updated T/E School District tax increase chart for the last 15 years. Although I have no say (or sway!) my vote is for a 2.8% tax increase for the 2019-20 budget year versus one of the suggested higher increases. But to be clear, I’d like to roll back to the 2004-05 school year, the last time we saw no tax increase!

2019-20: 4.33%, 3.91% or 2.8%?
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

In advance of the meeting tomorrow night, I want to thank school board members Roberta Hotinski and Ed Sweeney for weighing in with comments on Community Matters regarding the budget.  (Their fellow Board members are always welcomed to do likewise).  And thank you to those in the community who have presented their thoughtful comments on the proposed budget, both here and privately in emails and phone calls — much appreciated!

And a special thank you to my friend Ray Clarke – faced with a 338-page agenda for the Board meeting tomorrow, I am grateful for his review and commentary on the agenda and final budget (see below).

TESD has published the Agenda for Monday’s meeting.  The Final Budget is to be approved, but three possible tax increases are still on the table, as are a number of “Budget Impact Strategies”, both quantified previously and also – alarmingly –  “Other items to Consider”, that includes “2019/20 Budget Assumptions”.  What a way to run a railroad – or a school district.

The main issue has been beaten to death here, of course, and remains: How can any tax increase greater than 3.91% be approved?  What are the implications of accepting that number?

A couple of other things caught my eye:

– The average of both Administration and Supervisor salary increases are more than the 2.3% Act 1 Index, and more than the contractual 1.7%.  Where is that extra money to come from – the Special Education Exception?

– On the other hand, the compensation for aides and paras (the few not outsourced) increases just 1.7%.  These folks earn less than a quarter of the average Admin.

– There is the proposed appointment of a School Safety Coordinator at a salary that with benefits would imply the originally budgeted $180K expense, yet the budget materials include a $50,000 saving.  Has that been explained or is it just another Consent Agenda item?

– Once more this year, the materials include a listing of service provider rates, with no context – such as: comparison with last year, total spend, total $ and % increase, issues if any

– 21 retirements celebrated and an unknown number of resignations during the year; what’s the budget impact of lower compensated replacements (“breakage”)?  No idea!

– More Special Education Agreements that boggle the mind: $452,000 for seven students for a year; $209,000 for one student for two years.  The accounting cover up has stolen two years from any possible effort to understand and manage this expense category.

So, as the Board considers next year’s Budget, do they have any idea at all of what’s going on?  Any frame of reference with current best estimate numbers: this year vs last year (and last three years), revenues and expenses by actionable category, backed by their underlying assumptions?  Any confidence?  Any trust?

Seems like it’s the proverbial rainy day for which that $30 million Fund Balance is needed.  As someone who has paid into it for 20 years. I’m happy to see it dwindle.  That’s only good for so long, though.

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T/E School District Tax Increase — Will it be 2.8%, 3.91% or 4.33%? “To Be Continued”

On the eve of June 1st and days away from the end of school year, the school board still does not have an agreed up tax increase number for the budget! How is that possible? What we do know is that the tax increase will be less than the 6% that we have heard since the middle of December and the increase was approved in the draft final budget.  However, we are left with three numbers — 2.8%, 3.91% and 4.33%.  Exactly how did the Board come up with these various numbers? What are the numbers based on? And how does the incorrect accounting of the Special Ed expenses factor into the tax increase?

Although I was unable to attend the school board meeting this week because it was the same night as the digital billboard appeal, Doug Anestad attended and offer his remarks below. Plus the video of the May 29 school board meeting is now available on the District’s website, click here to view.

After reading Doug’s comments, my first takeaway is that maybe the TESD 2019-20 budget process should be renamed, “To Be Continued …”!  

The school board met Wednesday night. The agenda was very light.

What was interesting was that no new budget discussions happened. It is very late in the game not to come to a final tax rate increase. Therefore, the 2.8%, 3.91%, and 4.33% tax increases are all still on the table.

The board proposed changes to Regulation 2110: Job Responsibilities for Superintendent of School. The proposed change says that if one or more invoices from the same vendor above $200k is accounted for in the wrong fiscal year, the Superintendent must be notified and the Superintendent must inform the school board.

Of course, this proposed change in regulation came about because the administration didn’t tell the the school board about $1.2M in special education expenditures from 2016-2017 that were wrongly recorded against 2017-2018. I spoke about the regulation and said that if you have to tell the administration when $1.2M is misstated they should notify the board, it is not a policy issue, it is a personnel issue and they should treat it as such. Kyle Boyer also had concerns about it being a personnel and not a policy issue. The vote was 8-1 on the regulation change.

When the administration started discussing the launch of updating the Strategic Plan at a cost of $50k, some of the board members raised concerns. This is highly unusual as this item is not even normally voted on as a separate item. Multiple board members said that they thought that the district was not in a position to deal with a Strategic Plan. The final vote was 5-4 with Michele Burger, Kate Murphy, Ed Sweeney, and Heather Ward all voting against the motion. I believe that this close vote demonstrates that multiple board members are not happy with the current situation and the administration.

Major kudos to Ed Sweeney for bringing up the issue of revising the finance numbers for the prior years to be the actual numbers. He asked, and the board agreed, to look into the financial and legal ramifications of fixing the numbers to be the real numbers.  They seem to be most concerned about double dipping next year since they already got a higher taxing authorization from the state based on the wrong numbers.

I am not sure why so many on the school board continue to be so hesitant to figure out the truth. Why have they still not asked the auditors when Art McDonnell informed the auditors about the $1.2M account error? Why haven’t they already figured out what the process is to correct the numbers? Why haven’t they asked the state how revising the financial statements to be the real numbers will impact their taxing authority?

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Digital Billboard Appeal to be continued … until July 9

Thank you to those residents who joined me on Wednesday night for the Zoning Hearing Board meeting. With the tornado warnings and loss of power for many, it was a challenge to attend!

There was bad and good news from the meeting. The bad news is that we sat through three hours of testimony and only heard from the Catalyst attorney John Snyder from Saul Ewing and his two witnesses.  The good news is that the Zoning Hearing Board meeting continues on Tuesday, July 9 and we will hear from the township attorney Tony Verwey from Gawthrop Greenwood and all township residents who wish to comment.

Unfortunately Snyder set a bad tone early in the proceedings by objecting to all but one resident who asked for party standing in the case (including myself), claiming that we would not be personally impacted by the proposed digital sign.

My argument to receive standing was that ‘ALL’ the township residents (and beyond) would be impacted (due to safety concerns in that intersection) and therefore should have standing. Needless to say that argument went nowhere with Snyder.  To the credit of Zoning Hearing Board chair Dan McLaughlin (and much to the chagrin of Snyder) we were told that a determination of “standing” would be decided at the meeting on July 9.   All residents who wish to comment may do so at the next meeting (and you do not need standing to do so!).

Linda Stein from Main Line Media News attended the meeting and gave a review of the proposed billboard and update.  (Thank you Linda for braving the tornado warnings to attend!) To read the full article, click here.  Below are excerpts from the article:

Snyder called on Jesse White, an engineer for Watchfire Signs, a Danville, Ill. company that sells digital billboards to Catalyst, to testify. White explained how the proposed LED billboard would work. Questioned by Snyder, White said LED billboards are “almost like a TV.”

Residents who requested to be a party to the case were permitted to ask questions. Paul Drucker asked White if he thought that 10 images a minute would be a distraction for drivers. Snyder objected to the question and Daniel McLaughlin, the zoning board chairman, asked if Snyder planned to call a witness regarding drivers being distracted.

“No, I don’t think it’s relevant,” said Snyder. His response drew laughter and gasps from the audience, many of whom object to the billboard on the basis that it would distract drivers and make the busy intersection less safe.

Yes, remarkably there will be no safety expert called by Catalyst because they don’t think there is a safety issue for a digital billboard at the intersection Rt. 252 and Lancaster Ave!  In my opinion (and in the opinion of many others)  much of the widespread opposition to the digital sign is focused on safety! Also, it also did not escape many in the audience that the ‘expert’ witness Jesse White is a vendor employee of Catalyst!  Certainly does not make that expert unbiased – he even admitted that his company Watchfire Signs would probably have the contract for this digital billboard, if approved!

The other crazy remarks came from Catalyst witness and employee Tim Earle who compared the proposed digital billboard with its constantly changing face to the gas price sign across the street at the 7-Eleven and to the sign at Conestoga High School!  We can only hope that the so-called expert testimony of Earle will be thoroughly examined by the township attorney at the next meeting!

Although I was hoping that the Zoning Hearing Board meeting would resolve itself in one night – the good news is that the public will have a chance to be heard on July 9 and hopefully without the threat of a tornado keeping some home!

Susan Stein closed her article with a quote from me – it accurately sums up my feelings on this proposed digital billboard. Onward and upward to Tuesday, July 9!

After the hearing, Benson said, “The intersection of Routes 252 and 30 in Paoli is no place for a digital billboard. The bright, constantly-changing digital billboard is designed expressly to attract and hold the attention of drivers. I do not support a digital billboard at this location as it will promote distracted driving and affect public safety, especially given the extremely congested intersection.”

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T/E Finance Committee Meeting w/no decision on tax increase – School Board Meeting Tonight at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School … A School Board Divided

Unfortunately for T/E taxpayers, the District’s Finance Committee meetings are not videotaped. With the open budget issues, looming June 10th deadline, in addition to unresolved $1.2 million accounting errors related to Special Ed expenses, the public really needs to know what’s going on in the process – especially in advance of the important School Board meeting tonight!

I was unable to attend the Finance Committee meeting and will miss the School Board meeting tonight as it conflicts with the special Tredyffrin Township Zoning Hearing Board.  At 7 PM at the township building, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising will present its appeal on the township’s denial of their application for the digital billboard in Paoli.  My BAN the Digital Billboard campaign has been 9 months in the making so need to attend the ZHB meeting.  However, also important is the School Board meeting tonight (7:30 PM, Conestoga High School) – the proposed tax increase, the accounting errors and how the business manager (Art McDonnell) factors into the situation.

After speaking with several residents in attendance at the Finance Committee meeting, an update would be useful. (Remember, the meetings are not videotaped and I was unable to attend). Resident Doug Anestad did attend the Finance Committee meeting and offers his personal commentary below.

Reading Doug’s remarks, it sure sounds like the Finance Committee and its Chair Todd Kantorcyzk are a ‘school board divided’. And just when you thought ALL the numbers are in for the proposed budget, the administration announces that “ … special education expenses were going to be an additional $700k this year with $500k of that as a recurring expense” as reported by Doug.  My question is WHY is this information coming in at the eleventh hour of the budget process!

Last night’s Finance Committee meeting was a late one ending after 10:30 pm.

At the beginning of the meeting, an undated letter from the auditor was distributed to the audience. The Business Manager, Art McDonnell, stated that he asked the auditor after the last finance meeting to make the letter after the community questioned the $1.2M in special education spending that was incorrectly applied to the wrong school year and in order to respond to the complaint directed to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Neal Colligan pointed out that the letter clearly stated “Management made all decisions regarding how and when these transactions were recorded.” I pointed out that the email chain for the document clearly stated that it was sent on May 10 – three days before the last finance meeting, not after it as stated by Art. The letter also mentions the question of the $1.2M being raised in April 2019. Was that when the auditors were first made aware of the misstated $1.2M? We still don’t know the answer to this or other questions because the auditor did not show up to yet another meeting even though school board members have requested that they show up repeatedly for quite some time. It seems that Art does not feel the board members are entitled to talk to their auditor.

The administration then did their presentation on the current status of the budget process. This is when the Director of Individualized Student Services, Chris Groppe, stated that special education expenses were going to be an additional $700k this year with $500k of that as a recurring expense. As this is a recurring expense, the administration then suggested that the $500k be added to next years budget.

This was followed by a long conversation on where the board members stood in regards to the budget. The school board members then went around and stated where they were in terms of tax increases. Even though the Finance Chair, Todd Kantorczyk, wanted to have the school board members express what they were comfortable with in regards to a projected deficit, most of the board members seemed to want to express where they were in regards to a percentage tax increase.

Here is a summary of where the board members were:

2.8% – Kate Murphy, Edward Sweeney

3.91% – Heather Ward, Michele Burger, Tina Whitlow, Scott Dorsey

4.33% – Roberta Hotinski, Kyle Boyer, Todd Kantorczyk

Kyle Boyer stated he was willing to go down to 3.91% and offered to do so in order to have five votes for the 3.91% to move the process along. Todd Kantorczyk did not take him up on his offer so all three options will be presented at the board meeting tonight.

Many of the school board members showed their displeasure with administration during their comments. Words like frustrated, distressed, pissed off, and trust were used by board members. They really did not like $700k in expenses being added to this year with $500k of that as recurring expenses for next year being dropped on top of them at the last minute.

It would appear that many of the school board members are starting to see the manipulation the administration uses with the school board and don’t like what they are seeing.

The committee then approved the following strategies for deficit reduction. Reducing the budgeted amount for the school safety coordinator position between $50k to $70k. Remove the elementary mental health specialist for $96,000. Delay new reading program $300,000.

The meeting ended with one last appeal for the school board by former Tredyffrin Township Supervisor Mike Heaberg. Mike made the case that by not fixing the incorrect financial numbers, the district might lose some of the trust of the community and that the school board should do so at the meeting tonight.

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