Art McDonnell

Lower Merion School District loses appeal … Must pay back millions to taxpayers

Yesterday was a big win for taxpayers in the Lower Merion School District.

You may recall that last year Lower Merion School District was ordered to revoke its latest tax hike, saying that the school district mislead taxpayers by projecting large budget deficits as justification for raising taxes. The class-action lawsuit was filed by Arthur Wolk, a lawyer who lives in Gladwyne. The judge in the case determined that Lower Merion School District actually had socked away millions of dollars.

According to the judge’s findings, Lower Merion School District got away with raising taxes above the Act 1 index of 2.4 percent by saying the money was needed to cover soaring special-education and employee pension costs, two of the biggest expenses for most public school districts.  It was determined that Lower Merion School District, one of the wealthiest school districts in the Philadelphia area, deliberately over-estimated deficits and failed to adequately predict surpluses; thus allowing the stashing of millions in reserves.

Taxpayers in Lower Merion School District had long complained about the yearly tax increases, as they watched the end-of-the-year surpluses continue to grow.

Lower Merion School District appealed the court decision of August 2016 and we learned yesterday that the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality – apparently the school district failed to file the motions within the 10-day deadline. Wonder who was responsible for that ‘oversight’ … their business manager, their solicitor Ken Roos? Coincidentally, Roos of Wisler Pearlstine, is also the solicitor for TE School District. In addition to refunding millions of dollars, the taxpayers have the burden of legal fees from the original lawsuit and from the appeal.  Wow.

An unprecedented ruling, the win for taxpayers in Lower Merion School District could pave the way for other school districts to follow suit. The following chart shows TESD tax increases over the last thirteen years.  And from recent budget workshops, we know the preliminary TESD 2017-18 budget proposes another tax increase. 2004-05 was the last zero tax increase year.

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

During the last several years, most tax increases have ended up as surplus in the operations of the TESD schools and now those taxpayer dollars are sitting in the District’s fund balance – which is currently $32 million!  This is not an argument about adequately funding and maintaining the high level of quality of our schools.

The ruling in Lower Merion School District should provide a wake-up call to all school districts who justify tax increases but end up with surpluses year after year.

School fencing is important school safety issue to TE School Board — Why not same level of safety concern for 5th grader?

stopped school bus

 During one of the two comment periods of the TE School Board meeting on September 21, District residents Mr. and Mrs. John Alexander asked the school board directors for assistance with a busing situation pertaining to their son Jackson. The Alexander’s, who live on Valley Forge Mountain, had previously attempted resolution through email and phone calls to the District but were unsuccessful. After their passionate appeal at the school board meeting, the District’s business manager Art McDonnell intervened to say that this was a bus schedule matter and any school bus policy changes need to go to the Policy Committee the following month. The Board concurred with no further discussion.

Although I may not have fully known the specifics of the situation, it was obvious that McDonnell understood the Alexander’s request.  A couple of days after the school board meeting, John Alexander called me.  After speaking with him, I asked that he provide me with a summary of the situation for Community Matters —

Our son, Jackson, is taking a school district shuttle bus from VFMS to VFES to ride the elementary school bus home two days a week, so that he can participate in 5th grade band and chorus as after school extracurricular activities since both my wife and I work outside of the home. The problem is that even though the elementary school bus passes right by our house twice on its route, the school district’s procedure is to only stop at the closest current elementary school stops. This means that Jackson has to get off almost a half a mile away at the nearest established elementary school stop and walk back to our house which unnecessarily increases his risk of being hurt or otherwise harmed, especially since there are no sidewalks on Valley Forge Mountain.

We had hoped that a simple phone call and/or e-mail requesting the bus to let him off at his old elementary school bus stop from last year would settle the issue and be a Win-Win situation since there would be less risk of danger to our son and the School District wins because there is less risk of an incident for which they would be liable while not impacting other students & families in any material way.

Our bottom line – It seems like the school district is more concerned with minimizing disruptions in their bureaucratic process & procedures rather than taking simple & reasonable steps to increase the safety of a child in returning to their home from school. Shouldn’t student safety be paramount and outweigh bureaucratic processes when reasonable alternatives exist? Now, we are faced with waiting for the Policy Committee to review this in the middle of next month with no guarantee of a favorable decision/ruling.

John Alexander

Over the last couple of years, the school board has focused much attention on school safety, including trying to convince residents that ‘fencing schools’ is the answer to keeping our children safe.  Yet, here we have a 10 year old boy walking ½ mile from the school bus on Valley Forge Mountain to his home, after the bus passes his house twice on the route.

The District is endangering a child and risking liability to allow this child to walk this distance and on roads without sidewalks! This makes no ‘safety sense’ whatsoever! The Alexander’s have been told that to change the bus route for them could mean that other families may want similar changes. However, when Alexander pressed McDonnell on how many ‘other’ families have ever had a bus schedule situation which required a change, he was given no response. The bus route included a stop at the Alexander’s house for the 2014-15 school year. As Alexander states, “Shouldn’t student safety be paramount and outweigh bureaucratic processes when reasonable alternatives exist?”

Beyond the obvious safety aspects of this situation, where is the open communication between the Board and this TE School District family.  Jackson is the youngest of the Alexander’s four children, so the parents fully understand how the school district works and are not seeking preferential treatment.  According to John Alexander, he had previously inquired about the existing “bus policy” cited by Art McDonnell; however, it was not provided. Rather than showing leadership and finding a reasonable solution, the school board accepted the business manager’s approach to “kick the can” to the Policy Committee meeting next month.

The Alexander’s have to wait a month to take their reasonable request (and simple solution) to the Policy Committee. To be clear, the Policy Committee can only hear the policy request and make recommendations. At best, the Alexander’s will have to wait until the next school board meeting for full board discussion. However, most policy changes, take more than one Policy Committee for recommendations so who knows how long this “simple family request” will take for resolution?

I do not understand “why” all school district roads seem to lead to Art McDonnell, the business manager. Beyond the expected business/financial related aspects of his job description, McDonnell is the keeper of the gate for the District’s communications and the Board’s emails from residents, the Public Information officer and the Right-to-Know request recipient. We learned at the last school board meeting that McDonnell ‘hand-picked’ the school safety consultant (without issuing an RFP) and now we find that apparently he is in charge of the District’s bus schedule!

I have sat through many regular and committee meetings of the District and have witnessed an alarming trend…many of the Board’s discussions/decisions seem to defer to Art McDonnell!  In my opinion, the decision making powers of Art McDonnell seems to extend well beyond the normal and expected business manager boundaries.  As of July 1, the District hired a new Superintendent; so where’s Dr. Gusick’s voice on these issues?

As residents, we didn’t elect Art McDonnell to govern the District – we elected the School Board. Plan to support those school board candidates in the upcoming election on November 3rd who will do their homework and govern with independent thought! We need effective leadership!

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 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.

TE School Board Approves Administrator Bonuses, $22K/yr Salary Increase to Business Manager & 3.2% Tax Increase to Homeowners

Four important votes took place at last night’s TE School Board meeting and unfortunately there was little surprise in the results.

  • Approval of bonuses to TESD administrators – check
  • Approval of bonuses to TESD supervisors – check
  • Approval of $22K/yr. salary increase & 5-year contract to TESD Business Manager – check
  • Approval of 3.2 percent tax increase to TESD homeowners – check

It was encouraging to see some new faces in the audience and one resident, Tracy Gould of Wayne, came prepared with handwritten signs (see below) announcing her displeasure. Gould explained that she is a parent of three children and like many families, struggles during these economic times.  She appealed to the Board to consider the residents and not approve the salary increases and tax increase.

School Board meeting

You know how sometimes you can just forecast what the result is going to be before a vote is actually taken – well, that is exactly how last night’s school board meeting went.

To their credit, Board members Liz Mercogliano and Scott Dorsey were the lone dissenting votes on the employee bonuses, salary increase to Art McDonnell and tax increase to the homeowners. Both explained that they could not support giving bonuses and salary increases when the District does not provide basic healthcare benefits for the aides and paraeducators. Although Mercogliano and Dorsey are outnumbered 7-2 by the other Board members in their votes, I appreciate that they are concerned about the effect on residents of another year of tax increases.  Providing affordable health care to all District employees is important; I personally thank Liz and Scott for taking a stand on this issue and supporting the aides and paras.

School Board Vice President Kris Graham is chairing the superintendent search committee which also includes Board members Jim Bruce, Karen Cruickshank and Doug Carlson.  In her update, Graham reported that over 1,000 T/E residents responded to the Stakeholder Survey and the results are available on the District’s website, www.tesd.org

According to the survey results, the top 5 traits chosen as the most important in a new superintendent are:

  • Honest (54%)
  • Student Centered (52%)
  • Creative Problem Solver (49%)
  • Approachable (37%)
  • Collaborative (37%)

The survey results indicted the top 5 strengths that the new superintendent should be expected to maintain or enhance:

  • Highly qualified staff (54%)
  • High expectations for students (39%)
  • Strong fiscal management (38%)
  • Safe school environment (38%)
  • Culture of continuous improvement (36%)

The top 5 most important qualifications of a new superintendent as selected by respondents:

  • Leadership (74%)
  • Budget & financial expertise (58%)
  • Administrative/education leadership experience (49%)
  • Educational experience (47%)
  • Strategic planning expertise (36%) tie
  • Significant classroom teaching experience (36%) tie

The final survey question, asked respondents to name the top 3 challenges facing the new superintendent:

  • Budget/finance (83%)
  • Government mandates (44%)
  • District labor relations (36%)

My takeaway from the Stakeholder Survey is that the vast majority of respondents believe that finances is the most important issue and that it is important to have someone with leadership qualities and a business/financial background as the District’s next superintendent.

The School Board hired a consultant to help with the superintendent search and Graham explained last night that the she has conducted a couple of workshops with school board members in this regard.  According to Graham, there are currently five District employees with the educational qualifications for the position and they have received an application from one person.  The in-house superintendent candidate was unnamed by Graham but she did say that the Board would be conducting an interview in the next couple of days.

In the District’s online update of last night’s meeting the following information was provided on the superintendent search:

President Kevin Buraks and Vice President Kris Graham updated the public on the work of the Superintendent Appointment Committee and results from the Stakeholder Survey. The survey results are available on the District web site. The Board will continue to keep the public informed on the search process.

Although the message here is that the Board will “continue to keep the public informed on the search process”, there appeared to be something missing from this online information and from the Buraks and Graham update last night. There was no mention about where the District has posted the job for the superintendent position. I would be interested in know which educational resources the consultant suggested to the Board and where the job is posted.  Also, what is the timeline for the District to receive applications?

The Superintendent position is the most important job in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District and I know that the Board, parents, residents, employees and students want to make certain that the information is available to all possible candidates.

Although some in the administration disagree that a morale issue exists, too many District employees would suggest otherwise.  I will continue to maintain that the only way to fully correct the morale issues in the District is to hire someone from the outside – an individual with strong financial/budgetary experience (business experience and background) coupled with the educational component and someone that does not have an existing history with current employees is what is sorely needed.  The new Superintendent should fully understand the District’s financial needs and not simply rely on the Business Manager for answers.

Because the current Superintendent is not retiring for 12 months (June 30, 2015), the Board has the luxury to conduct a thorough superintendent search and fully vet all candidates for the job.  Once the job applications are received from outside the District, the Superintendent Search committee will be able to short list the candidates and then include the residents in their analysis prior to the final selection.

As discussed at last night’s meeting, informing the public of the Superintendent search process is important.  I look forward to the Board’s continued updates on the application process and search to find a new TE School District Superintendent.

TESD Agenda includes bonuses for administrators & 5-year contract for Business Manager; Tredyffrin Township Agenda includes new Finance Director and Police Department news

On Monday, there is a TE School Board meeting at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School. Rather than hitting the print button, I suggest that you read the agenda and accompanying materials online because it contains 450 pages.

On the fourth page of the agenda, under Section VII Other Recommended Action, these three items grabbed my attention.

A. 2014-2015 Supervisory and Confidential Employee Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments for 2-14-15 and June 2015 One Time Payment

B. 2014-2015 Administrator Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments and June 2015 One Time Payment

C. Business Manager Employee Agreement

In April, the School Board adopted a $120 million proposed final budget for the 2014-15 school year that includes a 3.2 percent tax increase. How is it that the District can increase our homeowner taxes for another year, but still manage to find available dollars for administrator and supervisor bonuses? Where is the fiscal watchdog looking out for the residents? (To find the current salaries and proposed bonuses on (A) and (B) in Section VII, you need to go to pgs. 435 and 436 of the agenda.)

Item (C) under Section VII, ‘Business Manager Employee Agreement’ refers to the proposed contract for Art McDonnell, the District’s current business manager. McDonnell’s salary for 2014-15 year is $163,220 although he is due to receive a one-time bonus of $1,632 as mentioned above.  Under his proposed employee agreement (see pgs. 438-441), McDonnell will enjoy a significant salary increase of $22,000/yr. or approximately an 14% yearly salary increase – if approved his salary becomes $185K/yr. rising to $186,632 with the addition of his bonus.

Under the position responsibilities in the proposed employee agreement, the terms state that McDonnell is “responsible for responding to all questions relating to the District business, financial and operation matters” and that he “will interpret the financial concerns of the District to the community”. Further responsibilities refer to an ‘Appendix A’, which is not included with the agenda – the business manager duties are vague and the job description without detail.

Setting aside the salary, the pending employee agreement for Art McDonnell includes very surprising job security, especially given current economic times – a whopping 5-year contract with automatic renewals for additional five-year terms. How does someone get this kind of deal these days?

The length of the District superintendent’s contract is 3-years so why should the business manager receive a five-year contract. Who negotiated this contract with McDonnell?  With the retirement of Dan Waters in June 2015, the replacement will inherit the business manager for the entire length of his or her superintendent contract.  Having just launched the search for a new Superintendent, why would the school board agree to a five-year contract for McDonnell?  Why would the Board want to force prospective superintendent candidates into this type of situation?

According to the proposed employee agreement, the District is required to give McDonnell 6 months’ notice if they want to terminate his contract; otherwise, his five-year contract rolls over with automatic five-year renewals.  (With an unsatisfactory evaluation, termination notice is reduced to 60 days). Gratefully, McDonnell’s contract was not included in the consent agenda.  Does this mean that the residents expect a Board discussion and explanation (rationale) for the terms of the proposed contract? Again, I ask who on the school board ‘negotiated’ this contract?  It looks to me like Art McDonnell asked for “the moon, the stars and the sun” in this contract and he’s likely to get it – where’s the fiscal responsibility?

Also on Monday night is the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors meeting, 7:30 PM at Township Building.  I found a couple of items interesting on the agenda

(1)  The appointment of Finance Director

(2) Approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (2015-2018) with the Tredyffrin Township Police Association (TTPA)

If you recall, within a two-week period between February 10 and 25 of this year, the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors terminated Public Works Director Scott Cannon without public discussion or comment and agreed to accept the resignation of Finance Director Tim Klarich, also without explanation. Klarich was Tredyffrin Township Finance Director for nearly 4 years. I always found his analysis and preparation of the yearly township budget detailed and complete and his monthly financial updates to the board unfailingly thorough.  There was uneasiness with the departure of these two department heads four months ago and Klarich departure was particularly unsettling. I look forward to the announcement of the appointment of the township’s new Finance Director.

As for the other agenda item of interest — the residents are aware that the Tredyffrin Township Police Department has been working with an officer deficit during the last several years. If you recall, the supervisors approved the spending of $49K for a Police Department study that concluded hiring of additional police officers was needed.  I am interested to see if the needs of the police department will be addressed in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Affordable Care Act discussion at TE Special Board Meeting — More questions than answers!

Last night’s special school board meeting included discussion of the Affordable Care Act and how the federal mandate would affect the District and its employees. The District’s ACA experts were Rhonda Grubbs, Wisler Pearlstine attorney (who works in the office of Ken Roos, school district solicitor) and Art McDonnell, business manager for the District.

Several aspects of the ACA presentation and discussion troubled me.  Although the agenda stated that Grubbs would make the presentation, it appeared that McDonnell was in charge of the discussion and for the most part, served as respondent to Board and resident questions with Grubbs there as back up.  McDonnell went through his prepared slides on the ACA, which included the various options available to the District.  One slide, labeled ‘Health Benefits’ provided the cost of offering health care to all employees working 30 hr./wk. or 130 hr./month not already covered. According to this slide, the cost to provide benefits would be $881K for single employees and $2.2M for family coverage.  However, there is no indication as to how ‘many’ employees this dollar amount references.  Many of us in the audience were wondering where McDonnell got these dollar amounts from – what is the exact number of additional employees the District is required to cover under the ACA.  Why weren’t the number of employees indicated on the slide?  Pete Motel asked McDonnell that specific question – with a bit of hesitation, McDonnell responds that the number of additional full-time employees that the District needs to cover is 106.

It then becomes clear why the number of employees does not appear on McDonnell’s slide — because the next question is what happened to the jobs of the rest of the full-time employees.  If you recall last spring, I think there were about 178 District aides, paras and substitute teachers that were not covered by District health benefits.  We know that about 40% of the aides and paras did not return for the 2013/14 school year but it is unclear how those positions were filled.  It is believed that many of these positions were outsourced but there has never been any public statement to that affect.

The next logical question to McDonnell came from Scott Dorsey – and that question was what happened to the rest of these jobs.  Dorsey wanted to know many aides and para positions are currently outsourced in the District.  McDonnell states that he does not know and asks Sue Tiede, the District’s personal director to answer Dorsey’s question. Tiede says that she doesn’t know the answer either. How is it possible that two of the highest paid administrators in the TE School District are unable to answer this simple question?

 Subsequently and to their credit, both Pete Motel and Doug Carlson tried to achieve an answer to the outsourcing question. Again stonewalling by McDonnell and Tiede – claiming they do not know how many positions have been outsourced.  With combined salaries of nearly $350K/yr, it is impossible to believe that neither McDonnell or Tiede know how many jobs are outsourced in the TE School District. McDonnell manages the check register for the District – he knows how much money is paid to Delta T and Quest.  Tiede manages the District’s personnel –  she knows who is hired and/or outsourced.

This is clearly not a case of McDonnell and Tiede  ‘not knowing’ the answer to the outsourcing question but instead their choosing not to answer the direct question of school board members.  According to Buraks, the ACA will next be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting on Monday, January 13.  The question for Art McDonnell and Sue Tiede is how many District jobs are outsourced to Delta T and how many District jobs are outsourced to Crest.

Following the ACA presentation and Board member questions to McDonnell and Grubbs, there was an opportunity for the residents to offer their comments and/or questions as stated in the agenda.  However, what the agenda did not say, was that residents were not allowed to ask their questions directly to the ACA presenters.  All residents questions must be directed to the school board president who ‘interprets’ the resident’s question and then re-asks it to Ms. Grubb.  But wait, it gets worse as one District resident, Joanne Sonn, discovered.

Sonn has done her homework on the Affordable Care Act, understands it better than most of us and previously offered her findings to the Board last year.  She has spoken to expert ACA consultants and they agree, (with the information currently available) that the District can be in ACA compliance by offering a ‘skinny plan’ to the aides and paras.  At last night’s meeting, some of the information provided in the presentation did not agree with Sonn’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act so during the resident comment/question period she questioned McDonnell and asked for legal clarification from Grubbs.  In the midst of her questions, the District solicitor Ken Roos rudely interrupted Sonn and told her that residents are not allowed to ask Grubbs questions!

Sonn was asking the Affordable Care Act ‘expert’ for legal clarification.  She was then required to re-state her questions directly to Buraks.  But rather than asking Grubbs to respond to Sonn’s ACA questions, Buraks says that all residents must ask their questions before any will be answered!  To be clear, it doesn’t matter if there are three people or 10 people in line at the microphone – residents at school board meetings must ask all their questions before anyone can receive an answer.  I guess this delay gives the Board president time to decide which questions will be answered. This policy makes no sense and is extremely unsatisfactory.  At Board of Supervisors meetings, when a resident asks a question, they receive an answer immediately – why don’t the school board meetings operate the same way.

How were the residents to know that they are not permitted to ask questions of the person making the public presentation – there was no indication in the agenda nor direction from the school board.  I found Ken Roos outburst to a resident unnecessary and disrespectful. There’s much talk about civility at these meetings; shouldn’t that civility policy extend to the District solicitor. Although it is understood that Ken Roos does not work for the residents, our taxpayer dollars pay his legal fees.

The special meeting to discuss the Affordable Care Act was eye opening, to say the least. It wasn’t so much what Rhonda Grubbs and Art McDonnell said — it was more what they didn’t say (or chose not to say).  It was obvious that Grubbs and McDonnell are working together with a shared goal.  And unless the Board and the community offers push-back, I think the endgame is to see how many reasons they can come up with not to offer insurance to the District’s aides, paras and substitute teachers. Grubbs herself volunteered that she and McDonnell would be working together on the ACA issue.  So much for unbiased third-party input and since when did the District’s business manager become an expert on the Affordable Care Act?  Again, I ask – why doesn’t the District bring in insurance consultants/experts from the outside?

A special thanks to school board members Pete Motel, Doug Carlson and Scott Dorsey – they were asking the questions that the public wanted answered.

The School District spins the roulette wheel on outsourcing vendors – What’s going on in TE?

The saga of outsourcing continues in Tredyffrin Easttown School District … Last week at the infamous TE School Board meeting, we listened as the Administration and School Board members presented the case for outsourcing of aides, paraeducators and substitute teacher positions.  The business manager Art McDonnell, personnel director Sue Tiede and superintendent Dan Waters provided the background and the reasons for choosing Substitute Teacher Services (STS) as their preferred outsourcing vendor.

At the meeting, I asked McDonnell for the names of the other four outsourcing vendors and he was unable to remember the complete list. I do recall Kelly Services was one option however; the services and fees of the other vendors were not presented to the public.  I asked McDonnell if we could assume that STS was the low bidder at a rate of 22.5%.  Although McDonnell responded that the District was not required to accept the low bidder because no RFP (Request for Proposal) was required, he did offer that STS was indeed the lowest bidder. McDonnell further stated that the 22.5% was a negotiated rate, down from 34%.

Tiede, McDonnell and Waters repeatedly told audience members that STS would provide a great opportunity for our employees, that they would make more money with the outsourcing company, have the ability to contribute to a 401K, keep their same jobs and on and on.  We heard that even though STS was the largest employer of its type in the country, that the District would retain complete control over who worked in our schools and that interviews would be conducted on site, etc.   Waters volunteered that an administrative employee of STS would actually have an office in the administration building! In other words, the public sales pitch of STS knew no bounds.

During the District in-service training for aides and paras today, Waters announced that STS is no longer involved in the proposed outsourcing, stating that the company had pulled their proposal.  Eight days since the School Board meeting and the preferred outsourcing vendor is no longer a consideration and that replacing STS is CCRES (Chester County Regional Education Services).  Why the change … this made no sense to me.  Little over a week ago, the Administration led the community to believe that STS was the best fit for the employees and that the company offered the most experience and maximum cost-savings to the District.

Absent any details from the School Board or the District to explain this outsourcing vendor change, I contacted STS and spoke for 45 min. to Jay Godwin, the president of STS.  Although Godwin would have liked to work with the TE School District, his decision to remove his outsourcing proposal was two-fold.

The first reason that Godwin offered for withdrawing his proposal was the School Board’s decision to delay the vote on the outsourcing plan until June 17.  Godwin did not believe that there is adequate time between June 17, the earliest date that the Board could approve the outsourcing agreement and July 1, the start date of the agreement to meet all the necessary State documentation requirements.

According to Godwin, Pennsylvania state law requires school district employees provide certain documentation, including Act 34 (Pennsylvania State Police Criminal Background Checks), Act 114 (PA Department of Welfare Child Abuse History Clearance) and Act 151 (Child Abuse History Clearance). Unless TESD employees had this required background checks within the last year, all necessary background checks, etc. are required.

When asked, what he thought the adequate time frame to accomplish the necessary ‘paperwork’ to move 175+ employees to an outsourcing plan, his response was 3 months. Had the School Board approved the outsourcing plan at the May 13 meeting, although less than his preferred 3 months time frame, Godwin felt he could accomplish the task.  However Godwin was of the opinion that a 2-week turnaround timeline was not possible for his company,  STS. He was unwilling to say whether another outsourcing vendor could meet that 2-week requirement.

The second reason for withdrawing the STS outsourcing proposal was based on TE School District  resident and employee sentiment.  Godwin was overwhelmed by the anti-outsourcing feelings of the public and the employees.  Typically, when a school district is considering outsourcing, there is a longer timeline for public discussion. The District plan to outsource the aides and paras took the residents, parents and employees off guard; and was met with swift and immediate opposition. If you couple the short timeline with misinformation and inaccurate budgetary numbers from the District, the reaction should have come as no surprise to the School Board and Administration.

As much as Godwin wanted to be a part of the TE School District, he said that he knew there would be unhappy employees and an unhappy community, and that was something that he did not want for his company.  Based on the sentiment of the residents (and employees, many of which are also residents) Godwin is of the opinion that this “is not the time for outsourcing in TE”.    Godwin has worked with many school districts and the  community’s anti-outsourcing response is the loudest and most significant he has seen in his career.

We discussed the uniqueness of TE School District and the education and background qualifications of our current aides and paraeducators.  Godwin acknowledged that the high level of education and commitment of these employees was not typical and would probably not be achievable by an outsourcing company.  I do believe that Godwin intended to hire all our current TE School District employees – I think that he truly understood their value and credentials.  Personally, I think Godwin feared that he would lose many of our current TE employees if the District outsourced and, may have been concerned whether he could replace them with the same high standard.

Godwin and I discussed how helpful it would have been for the outsourcing company (in this case STS) to meet with the aides and paras before the School Board meeting.  Such a meeting would have given the employees an opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns, understand the benefits, healthcare, etc. etc.   School Board and Administration transparency was discussed, with Godwin agreeing that an issue as important as outsourcing needs all options thoroughly vetted, and discussed in public, as part of the decision-making process.  Godwin was forthcoming and extremely willing to answer all my questions — his candor much appreciated.

Based on my conversation with Godwin, I am left with many questions including:

  1.  If the School Board approves the outsourcing plan on June 17, how is it possible for any outsourcing company to meet the deadline of July 1?
  2. If STS was the preferred vendor offering the best cost-savings to the District, where was CCRES on the ranking?
  3. How does CCRES propose to complete the necessary background checks, etc. within 2 weeks, should they receive the contract?
  4. The Administration is not meeting with CCRES until tomorrow, when will the aides, paras, substitute teachers be given the proposed plan?
  5. When does the School Board intend to explain that STS, the preferred outsourcing vendor has withdrawn their proposal?
  6. Presumably the fee schedule, cost-savings, benefits change with a new vendor, when is the public given this information?

The taxpayers deserve to know what is going on in this District. Where is the leadership of the School District?

Following the last School Board meeting, I sent two emails to School Board president Kevin Buraks. The emails voiced concern on two topics – my opposition to outsourcing of aides, paras and substitute teachers and the issue of intimidation by the Administration towards the employees of this District. My first email ended with the following, “You must lead … the employees of the District deserve your support, they need your help.  It is no longer acceptable for District employees to live in fear of their jobs.”

I closed my second email to our School Board president with, “We need governance, we need leadership.   To say nothing and to do nothing is not an acceptable solution.”

For the record, there has been no response from Mr. Buraks.  Today is Primary Election Day and Kevin Buraks is on the ballot seeking re-election.

TE School District … Intimidation to silence

I am not writing today based on an isolated email from a disgruntled school district employee.  I wish that were the case.  Phone calls, text messages and emails have come to me from teachers, paraeducators, custodians, kitchen workers, support staff and aides all painting an eerily similar picture of the work environment inside our award-winning TE schools.

If you want to control someone, all you have to do is make him or her feel afraid.  It appears that the TE School District is now an environment of intimidation with administrators calling for loyalty, demanding public silence and leaving employees fearing for their jobs.

From the outside, the school district appears the image of excellence by any standard – impressive test scores,  high achieving students in all areas – academics, athletics and the arts, supportive parents and caring teachers and staff that believe in putting education and students first.

However, those working inside our schools describe an atmosphere far differently … a place of fear and intimidation … a place where our District employees, fearing retribution, do not feel like they have a voice.   One poignant email read in part, “We have signs all over about anti-bullying, yet the staff gets bullied.”  Another email contained these words, “If you speak out and they (administration) don’t like what you’re saying, and you’re not a ‘yes person,’ then you will literally … you could lose your place there. You could lose your job.”  I just read a comment posted on Community Matters that says TENIG employees were rebuked by the Administration for attending Monday’s School Board meeting.  If true, this level of harassment must stop.  School Board meetings are public meetings and all employees are welcome to attend.  There is a policy that only TESD residents may speak at Board meetings with the exception of TENIG and TEEA union presidents.

The TE School District is committed to a safe and civil education environment for all its students that is free from harassment, intimidation or bullying and the same right is extended to all District employees. TESD Policy, Regulation 4330  “Unlawful harassment by and of TESD employees” provides the procedure for an employee to report unlawful harassment to their immediate supervisor, or to the Superintendent of Schools, if the complaint involves that supervisor.  But herein lies the problem – if the District employees are scared of the Administration, and fear retaliation and possible loss of their job, how are they supposed to speak out? And where do they take their message?

This discontent between administrators and staff that has led to low morale in the schools did not just begin this week.  Although certainly exacerbated by the proposed outsourcing of aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers, there is an unsettling picture that is beginning to surface; a workplace shrouded by fear and intimidation.

The School Board Directors of Tredyffrin Easttown School District need to lead.  The taxpayers of this community pay the administrator salaries of the School District and we elected you as the overseers.  Now the community is  respectfully asking you stop deferring all your decisions to the Administration, and to  simply … govern.

Outsourcing analysis by TE School District does not stand up to public scrutiny – decision ‘on hold’

Taxpayers, teachers, PTO presidents, paraprofessionals, parents, substitute teachers, TENIG members and students brought their collective voices to the School Board meeting last night, and were heard, at least temporarily.

Standing three people deep and overflowing into the lobby, all attended the meeting for the singular purpose to oppose outsourcing of paraprofessionals in the TE School District.  For over three hours, one voice after another was echoing the same message to the School Board, “don’t outsource.”  For the record, not one person spoke in favor of the District’s proposed outsourcing plan.

With Fox News and ABC Action News filming most of the proceedings,Board members, District business manager Art McDonnell, personnel manager Sue Tiede and Superintendent Dan Waters repeatedly claimed that many of us had misunderstood and that the third-party outsourcing to STS would actually help ‘save’ the jobs of District aides and paras.  They wanted us to believe that STS would hire all the displaced TE employees and that our employees would be making more money working for STS.

According to McDonnell, the need for outsourcing is based on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the cost to provide healthcare for the aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers working 30 hours or more per week in TESD. These employees have never received healthcare coverage through the District.  McDonnell claimed the annual cost to provide healthcare coverage to these currently uninsured District employees would be in excess of $2.3M and further citing a potential fine of $1.2M annually for noncompliance.

By the time the last person had spoken out about outsourcing, it was abundantly clear that the District and the School Board had many more questions than answers.  McDonnell had predicated his evaluation of the healthcare coverage costs to the District on all 175 employees needing insurance.  As was repeatedly pointed out, most of these employees have insurance through their spouses and do not need the coverage.  The District’s cost to insure was based on all 175 employees working 30+ hours per week which had many in the audience asking why not reduce their hours (so the District would not be affected by the requirements of ACA).

Several residents spoke of personal experience with the Affordable Care Act and its requirements.  One in particular, a CFO for a local corporation, offered that the District’s analysis was incomplete and inaccurate, and suggested the Board seek healthcare benefit expertise so as to make an informed decision. Example of inadequate District analysis — The Affordable Care Act does not stipulate that the healthcare coverage must be the same as offered to the teachers and administrators.  Rather than plugging in the cost for a ‘basic’ healthcare coverage in their outsourcing analysis, the McDonnell used the cost of the Cadillac-type of healthcare coverage of the administrators.

The most striking comments of the evening were from those who had called the proposed outsourcing company, STS to learn about the company and their employment requirements.  They were told that STS employees only need graduate from high school, or a GED will suffice. (Remember all the aides, paras and substitute teachers working in TE have 4-year degrees and many have Master degrees). When asked if any additional training was needed to serve as a school district paraprofessional, the response from the company HR — was one evening of their STS Academy training (!).  One young woman in the audience spoke last night who works for TESD but is also a STS employee.  She explained STS hiring procedure and the shocking revelation that STS hired her with no interview required.

Personnel director Sue Tiede repeatedly countered the low employment standard of STS that should District use this company, they would be required to meet the TESD requirements.  We also learned that STS has no experience with this type of job outsourcing.  Although McDonnell and Tiede offered that a couple of Lancaster County school districts employ STS, we learned quickly from audience members that these contracts were only recently signed … therefore leading to the speculation that our award-winning school district would serve as the company’s outsourcing guinea pig.

Facing many unanswered questions from audience members and an outsourcing analysis that did not stand up to public scrutiny, at 11:20 PM, the School Board voted unanimously to table the discussion of outsourcing for the night.  By the Finance Committee meeting on June 10, the administration and the Board will seek a better understanding of the Affordable Care Act (and its requirements) plus work to answer the many questions and possible solutions offered by the public last night.

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