Neal Colligan vs Tredyffrin Easttown School District in Right-to-Know Case: Follow-Up

right_to_know_squareOn April 23, 2015, Neal Colligan was notified that he won his appeal with the PA Office of Open Records (OOR) in the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case, Docket No: AP 2015-0442.  If you recall, Colligan’s appeal stemmed from the District’s denial in his right-to-know request regarding the five closed meetings of the TE School Board between November 2014 – January 2015, concerning the Affordable Care Act and the employment changes of the District’s aides and paraeducators.

As a result of the OOR findings, the District was required to provide all requested Affordable Care Act records from the secret Executive Sessions withing 30 days. To comply with OOR, the District did make public on the website, some of the background ACA materials used in the meetings.

The District was given 30 days to appeal the OOR ruling but after discussion between Colligan and School Board member Virginia Lastner, an agreement between the sides was reached. Although the Board was unwilling to make the agreement public, Neal offered the signed communication and certification by Art McDonnell for Community Matters along with his thoughts on the Right-to-Know process and agreement from the School Board.

Below is his email and the signed letter from the TE School Board. Board members Kris Graham, Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Peter Motel, Scott Dorsey, Jim Bruce, Kevin Buraks and Karen Cruickshank signed the letter. It is noted that because school board member Liz Mercogliano was not allowed to attend the Executive Sessions and participate in the Affordable Care Act discussion, she subsequently did not vote on the outsourcing of the aides and paraeducators, and therefore chose not to sign the letter.

Pattye,

Attached is a letter the members of the TESB and I signed last night ending the RTK request in relation to the aides/paras Executive Meetings and the directive from the OOR to produce documents/information.

As we’ve discussed, the issue at hand has already been decided (outsourcing) and the nature of the request made back on 2/18/15 for information used in the Nov, Dec, Jan Exec Meetings is pretty stale at this point. Having no interest in the District continuing to accumulate legals fees, we considered the matter closed.

Some notes from my side:

1) I don’t know if the District fully complied with the OOR directive. They had introduced a string of e-mails in their partial information disclosure back in March. The request for information was broadly written and these, and other, items may have been included in complying with the OOR order.

2)The “settlement” came about through the work of Virginia Lastner. She authored the attached although it’s been through several revisions. This approach was one that was presented by the Board to us.

3)The letter itself is a bit awkward….not addressed to anyone, no signature identification (I added “Members of the TESD Board” so at least they signed in that capacity) but on District letterhead.

4)The District’s side of the agreement is to leave the OOR finding intact. These also stops the legal work on this RTK request…I hope.

Finally, the District/Board would not make it public on their website but you are free to put it on yours if you choose. In this case, it was the best course of action. As the Requestor, I did not “get” much but possibly a stop to the District legal bills on this issue. Clearly, if the issue at hand were still undecided, we had the right to continue to push for all the materials granted by the OOR.

Thanks….

Neal Colligan

Neal Colligan vs TESD School Board letter

 

Neal Colligan vs TESD Art McDonnell certification

 

 

 

Sometimes Do Overs are possible …T/E School District Union Votes to Save Aides from Outsourcing!

What is the saying about no do-overs in life?  For approximately 25 non-instructional aides in the TE School District, they learned yesterday that do-overs are possible!

To the surprise of many, you may recall on April 30, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) voted against including the small group of “non-instructional” TESD aides into their union.  The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.

In the aftermath of the April 30 vote, some members of TENIG rallied behind their fellow District employees and mounted a campaign for another vote; a vote that would include absentee votes. The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast.  The election results are in and the TENIG vote count to include the 20+ District aides is 53 Yes – 13 No.  The results indicate an overwhelming majority of the TENIG union members want their fellow District employees!

With the District’s deadline of May 15 (tomorrow) to outsource the full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES, this news for the non-instructional aides could not come at a better time.  The saga of the District’s full-time aides and paraeducators and the threat of outsourcing have gone on for the last two years.

Faced with offering health care benefits to all District employees under Affordable Care Act or paying penalties for non-compliance, the School Board had made the decision earlier this year to outsource. The 73 full-time aides and paraeducators were given the option of either working for the outsourcing company to keep their full-time hours or reducing their hours to part-time (27.5 hr. and below) and remain a District employee.  The District employees had until May 15 to make their decision.

Although the outsourcing of the District’s full-time aides and paraeducators would have avoided the cost of providing health care and PSERS, the Board’s plan has a new wrinkle.  The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) provides for health care benefits for all employees working 25 hours or more per week and as District employees, they receive PSERS.  Approximately 25 of the District’s non-instructional aides destined for outsourcing now will have a new home in the TENIG and enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining group, which includes health care!

Although some steps remain in the process to formally add the non-instructional aides in to TENIG, the hard work has been done.  Congratulations to John Brooks, TENIG president and to the many TENIG members, who supported their fellow District employees, appreciated their value and fought to save their District jobs!

US News releases ‘Best High Schools in America’ list but where’s Conestoga High School?

Conestoga High SchoolEach year the US News and World Report releases ‘Best High Schools in America’ list of the top 500 public high school in America.  More than 21,000 public high schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia. Schools were awarded gold, silver or bronze medals based on their performance on state assessments and how well they prepare students for college.

Anxious to see how our award-winning high school compared with others based on the 2015 US News ranking criteria, I was very disappointed.  When I searched for Conestoga High School on the US News website, instead of a ranking number, I found the following for our high school:

  • Medal Awarded: None
  • National Rank: Unranked

Why is Conestoga High School not on the Best High Schools in America list?  

For several years, I have reported on the US News rankings and Conestoga’s standing in the state and nationally.  In 2012, Conestoga was ranked #3 in Pennsylvania and #279 nationally.  For 2013, Conestoga  was ranked #5 in Pennsylvania and #313 nationally and for 2014, Conestoga was ranked #5 in Pennsylvania and #341 nationally.  Radnor, Great Valley, Lower Merion, Unionville Chadds Ford high schools are all on US News 2015 ranking list for the state and nationally – so what happened to Conestoga High School?

US News standings of the top 10 high schools nationally:

  1. School for the Talented and Gifted (Dallas, TX)
  2. BASIS Scottsdale (Scottsdale, AZ)
  3. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (Alexandria, VA)
  4. Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science & Technology (Lawrenceville, GA)
  5. School of Science & Engineering Magnet (Dallas, TX)
  6. Carnegie Vanguard High School (Houston, TX)
  7. Academic Magnet High School (North Charleston, SC)
  8. University High School (Tolleson, AZ)
  9. Lamar Academy (McAllen, TX)
  10. Gilbert Classical Academy High School (Gilbert, AZ)

US News standings of the top 10 high schools in Pennsylvania:

  1. Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School (Philadelphia)
  2. New Hope-Solebury High School (New Hope)
  3. Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy (Erie)
  4. Upper St. Clair High School (Pittsburgh)
  5. Radnor High School (Radnor)
  6. Quaker Valley High School (Leetsdale)
  7. Great Valley High School (Malvern)
  8. Unionville High School (Kennett Square)
  9. Strath Haven High School (Wallingford)
  10. Mt. Lebanon High School (Pittsburgh)

There has been much discussion, including on Community Matters, in regards to the quality of our T/E school district.  Repeatedly, people have affirmed that the quality of our school district is helping to sustain our property values.  If that is correct, why shouldn’t TESD taxpayers expect the same ‘bragging rights’ as the other school districts?

Not that this answer will be OK for some of the District’s parents, but I think I know why Conestoga High School is not on US News Best High Schools in America list.  Similar to US News rankings, Newsweek does an annual ranking of the top 500 public high schools in America.  When Newsweek released their 2011 rankings Conestoga High School was not listed. As a result of questions on this topic, the District released a statement regarding Newsweek’s 2011 rankings, which read in part:

For the T/E community members who follow Newsweek magazine’s annual America’s Best High Schools story, you are aware that Conestoga High School (CHS) has been included in the list for the past several years, yet was absent from the list this year. Since the criteria Newsweek uses to determine rankings did not significantly change, we inquired about our status. We learned that Newsweek changed the way in which they collect data about high schools. Newsweek responded that they sent an email earlier in the year to all secondary schools requesting information. According to Newsweek, the email was sent to a CHS counselor. The counselor, however, reported that the email was not received. We subsequently sent our data to Newsweek, and were informed by the Newsweek staff that CHS would have ranked competitively based upon our students’ performance and Newsweek’s calculations.

In 2011, the local community was assured that the error would be corrected and that T/E would participate in the Newsweek high school survey going forward.  T/E has award-winning schools so there’s little doubt that Conestoga High School should have been on the 2015 rankings of best high schools.  So, I’m left wondering if the same thing happened four years later – was the District’s clerical error of 2011 repeated in 2015 and that US News did not receive the required ranking materials from TE School District?

Chesterbrook Shopping Center redevelopment project is underway — Its time has finally come!

If you have driven on Chesterbrook Boulevard by the Chesterbrook Shopping Center during the last several months, you will have seen obvious signs of the long awaited redevelopment project which includes both razing and resurrection.

The Chesterbrook Shopping Center was constructed in 1981 with 122,000 plus square feet of retail, including the Genuardi’s grocery store as its anchor. Poor visibility, competition (Trader Joes, Whole Foods, etc.), shopping center design flaws and ultimately the economic downturn all contributed to the center’s demise. As stores moved out and remained empty, shoppers looked to other centers as their main shopping destination. In the last five years since Genuardi’s left the Chesterbrook location in 2010, it has been difficult to watch the center’s decline.

Purchased in 2013 by 500 Chesterbrook Boulevard LP, the owners of the shopping center complex, including Tredyffrin Township resident Bob Whalen, have successfully maneuvered their redevelopment plans through Tredyffrin Township’s Planning Commission, with final approval from the township’s Board of Supervisors. Whalen, owner of RW Partners and Brian McElwee, owner of Valley Forge Investment Corp. partnered for the purchase and redevelopment of the Chesterbrook Shopping Center site.

The center’s plan is for a mixed-use development with 123 townhomes (their location is indicated on the map below). The plan for the 13-acre site contains 30,000+ sq. ft. of commercial space (utilizing the front row of the existing building) and new residential townhouses in the newly created Town Center District.

Parkview at Chesterbrook

 

The new design for the center by Goodwin Architects razes a large portion of the current shopping center including the Genuardi’s store and the back row of stores.  A small retail strip will remain and local favorite Diane’s Sidewalk Deli will continue to operate at its present location. The Rite Aid drug store will move from its current location to a larger space in the new retail strip. I was assured that all other displaced tenants received the option of relocating to the reconfigured retail center. Wells Fargo Bank will continue in its present location but presumably will have a face-lift to match the upgrades coming to the otheParkview at Chesterbrook signr storefronts.

The residential townhouses, ‘Parkview at Chesterbrook’ have experienced builder Greg Lingo, owner of Cornell Homes by Ryland Homes at the helm. A veteran of the home building and residential development industry, Lingo has maintained a reputation for integrity and performance excellence, which will make the townhouses all the more desirable. With pre-construction pricing of $499K, there is already interest from local residents for the new luxury townhouses

The redevelopment of the Chesterbrook Shopping Center is long overdue – this project is a win-win for the neighboring residents, the corporate employees working in Chesterbrook and other township residents, who like me, drive through the area regularly. Here’s hoping that the exciting new retail and residential project marks a redevelopment renaissance in the area, as it breathes new life into the Chesterbrook community.

TENIG Union votes against includingTE School District’s non-instructional aides — Why??

To the surprise of many, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) took a vote yesterday on whether to accept approximately 20 ‘non-instructional’ TESD aides into their union.  Falling close on the heels of Monday’s TESD meeting where the School Board voted to outsource the full-time jobs of 73 aides to CCRES (Chester County Regional Education Services), TENIG offer was seen by these aides as a lifeline to save some of the District jobs.

The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.  The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast. With 44 TENIG members voting, the target number was 23 votes.  Unfortunately, for the small group of non-instructional aides, the 23 votes were against accepting them as new TENIG members.

If you recall, the TENIG collective bargaining members battled themselves against District outsourcing during the last couple of contract negotiation rounds. The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) was settled under the threat of outsource vendor bids by the School Board.  To avoid outsourcing, the current TENIG contract required the custodians to accept a 2% salary reduction and give back one week of vacation. The other TENIG members (security, kitchen, maintenance and cafeteria) all received a 4% salary reduction but their vacation benefits remained intact.  For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees received a freeze on their salary.

Ultimately, the TENIG contract saved the District $400K in healthcare, $207K with employee salary reduction and $207K with the custodian vacation giveback – a total savings of $719K to the District.

Under the current contract, the TENIG employees did not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract, which runs for another two years, until June 30, 2017.  So the question is, why did the TENIG members vote against their fellow employees yesterday?  After the Board’s vote at the Monday’s School Board meeting, the TENIG vote only added insult to injury to this small group of District employees.

Were the actions of TENIG employees just paranoia or a real fear of repercussion from the District? There is no doubt that some of the TENIG members were fearful of retaliation and either did not show up for yesterday’s vote or voted against the inclusion of the non-instructional aides into their collective bargaining unit.

TE School Board Votes to Outsource Aides & Paraeducators and Makes Records Public from Secret Executive Sessions

After two long years of battling to save their District jobs, it is now official – the TE School Board voted to outsource the jobs of 73 full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES (Chester County Regional Educational Services).

In a School Board meeting that went until midnight, the School Board listened to a nearly endless stream of resident comments, which supported the aides and paraeducators, opposed the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project and those who called for Board transparency and public input on District matters.

There were many residents asking for the District to provide health care benefits but the Board was not moved by the appeals.  Kevin Buraks insisted that this was not a financial decision but that rather related to the District’s possible penalty of ACA compliance issues.  What is interesting is that the contract with CCRES includes the caveat that should CCRES be fined for ACA noncompliance, the penalty will be passed to the District (taxpayers).

When time finally came to vote to outsource the District’s aides and paras, School Board member Jim Bruce recused himself, for financial reasons – stating that he is on the CCRES Board of Directors, implying that this was a paid position.  (With an obvious conflict of interest, it is noted that Mr. Bruce has never recused himself from other previous CCRES-related issues and decisions).  During the outsourcing discussion, Liz Mercogliano stated her opposition on the issue but at the time of the vote, she abstained. Although she did not publically offer a reason, perhaps it is because her daughter is a part-time aide.  In a roll call vote, the other seven School Board members all voted for the CCRES as the vendor. The Republicans School Board members President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Peter Motel and Democratic School Board members Kevin Buraks, Karen Cruickshank and Scott Dorsey voted together in favor of outsourcing the full-time employees to CCRES.

At midnight last night, the District’s aides and paras received the following email notifying them of the outsourcing decision.

To All District Aides, Paraprofessionals and Paraeducators who work more than 27.5 hours per week:

This evening CCRES was approved as the vendor for aides and paras who choose to remain working more than 27.5 hours per week.  The vote occurred during the regularly scheduled meeting of the School Board of Directors. We understand that you may have many questions, so we will be setting up meetings with CCRES and District representatives in the very near future. We will notify you of those meeting dates and times later this week. The decision deadline has been extended to Friday, May 15.

Best regards,

Jeanne Pocalyko
Personnel Director

Related to the outsourcing decision, Neal Colligan was notified at 4 PM yesterday by Art McDonnell, the District’s Open Records Officer and Business Manager, that the School Board had approved the release of information from the five secret Executive Sessions regarding the discussion of the aides and paraeducator employment change and the Affordable Care Act.  Various related records from the secret meetings were made public and are now available on the District website at ACA/Support Materials .

At the School Board meeting, District Solicitor Ken Roos explained that the Board waived their attorney-client privilege by making the records public.  With this latest action of the  District, I assume that the School Board has decided against an appeal to the Chester County Court of Common Pleas in the case of Neal Colligan vs Tredyffrin-Easttown School District and that the matter goes no further.

TE School District Submits VFMS Fencing Permit Application … Tredyffrin Township Denies Request!

No FencingValley Forge Middle School fencing was not on the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors April 20th meeting, but many Chesterbrook residents attended the meeting and spoke against the TE School Board’s project.  The supervisors deferred all questions/comments to the township’s solicitor Vince Donohue for response who told audience members that the township would not get involved until the District made either a “permit request or there was a shovel in the ground”.  Chesterbrook residents left the meeting hoping for a more proactive approach by township officials.

The ‘wait and see’ township attitude was quickly tested when the School District submitted a permit request  for the Valley Forge Middle School fencing this past week.  The township’s Planning and Zoning Director Matt Bauman denied the permit request on the spot and in a letter to the School District, stated

“Please be advised that the permit is hereby denied.  The issuance of the permit would violate the terms of that certain Zoning Hearing Board Decision in Appeal Number 64-02 issued December 17, 2002.”

The School Board’s action attempted to violate the legal agreement between TESD and the Chesterbrook Civic Association. Without an amendment to the Special Exception granted by Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board in 2002, how does the School Board think that they can move forward with their planned fencing project at VFMS?

Unless something has changed in the last couple of days, there has been no movement on part of the School Board or the District to resolve the VFMS fencing situation directly with the Green Hills residents or with the Chesterbrook Civic Association.  As David Miller, president of CCA told us at the supervisors meeting, there has been no return of phone calls or emails to either himself or to the Green Hills and CCA attorneys from the School Board or their attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing. Yet the District went ahead and made a permit application for the fencing!

I encourage Chesterbrook residents and Valley Forge Road neighbors to bring their chain link fencing opposition message to the TE School Board meeting on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School.  At some point, the School Board has to listen to those that they were elected to serve.

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.

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