Art McDonnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a summary of where the board members were:

2.8% – Kate Murphy, Edward Sweeney

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

4.33% – Roberta Hotinski, Kyle Boyer, Todd Kantorczyk

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

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

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

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

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

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T/E taxpayers Facing 6% Tax Increase, $1.2 million Accounting Error Remains Uncorrected & Concerned Citizens contact PA Department of Education

I attended the school board meeting on Monday night and waited until 9:30 PM for the budget discussion to begin.The majority of the meeting to that point was spent on the discussion and subsequent vote (7-2) for delayed school start times for 2019-20 school years. The approved plan moves the high school start time to 7:50 AM, middle school to 8:30 AM and elementary school to 9:10 AM. The financial cost to the District for the change in school start times is $610K (and not contained in the proposed final budget).

School start times is an important issue for many parents but with taxpayers facing the largest tax increase in decades, I was left wondering how does the District find the additional $610K in the 2019-20 budget which contains a projected operating deficit of almost $11 million.

The proposed final budget was approved (5-4) with a 6% tax increase; the public was told again that there is time to adjust that number. But the school board is running out of time – it’s the end of April and the 6% number has not moved since first announced in December.

The review and discussion of the budget was confusing to say the least. Remember folks, there is still the open issue about the $1.2 million accounting error caused by the delayed payment of a special ed invoice(s). This District’s accounting error has been discussed at two school board meetings, a finance committee meeting and a budget workshop over the course of 6 weeks yet the financial “can” continues to be kicked down the road with no resolution.

Residents and some school board members have repeatedly asked the business manager Art McDonnell for data on how correcting the accounting error impacts the budget … but he has yet to supply the corrected numbers.

The school district’s $1.2 million accounting error and lack of answers caused a group of concerned citizens (Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Mike Heaberg and myself) to send a formal complaint to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). For the record, the T/E School Board and Superintendent Gusick were copied on the letter. (Click on “formal complaint” link to read letter).

Although Art McDonnell maintains that the District’s accounting error is not a legal problem, apparently PDE does not agree with his assessment … as a result of our complaint, the matter is now under legal review at the Department of Education. The business manager also stated that the annual financial reports cannot be changed once submitted – again, not true. Art McDonnell, there is a “do-over” button! According to PDE, all you need to do is hit the revision button on their website to make the corrections!

It is absurd that citizens are now going to the Board of Education to get resolution — folks, this is not an insignificant problem. Where do we go from here?

I share with you Ray Clarke’s comments from the school board meeting:

Monday’s budget discussion and vote was a good illustration of the challenge facing even the most diligent of School Board members.  They learned more than a year after the fact that not only was there an error in the numbers submitted to the Department of Education (PDE) to authorize the allowable tax increase for next year, but also that the error could have been corrected in time for consideration of this year’s tax rate.  The arithmetic and PDE processes are a little complicated, so the most concerned of them request a full analysis from the Business Office.  After six weeks and two meetings they finally tease out that the maximum accurate increase for the coming year is 3.9%, and that the district forwent an opportunity for a 0.8% additional increase for the current year.  None of this is documented, and the Board and public have to wait until May 13th for whatever comes next.  In the meantime, the Proposed Final Budget contains the 6% tax increase and the Board has given the Administration no mandate to come up with any concrete plans to balance the budget with a lower tax increase.

Because the Board can not, for some reason, accept the fundamental argument that our School District should base its taxing decisions on calculations that are materially correct, they are left with a problem.  There are no experts in school district finances on the Board, so they tend (to a greater or lesser extent) to accept what is told them.  They are told that the auditor said the error was not material and the audit was “clean”, but we know the audit is unrelated to the Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) from which the tax increase is authorized by PDE.  They were told on Monday that the District does not complete a worksheet for the Exception, but we know that it does complete the AFRs which generate that worksheet.  They were told on Monday that the calculation is “locked down by PDE, you can’t change it, it is what it is”, when we know from PDE that there is in fact a “Start New Revision” Button on the on line AFR system!

The community members who have asked PDE to look into this are not experts in school district finances either, so how do we know what the Board does not?  We do know that there’s a problem with submitting incorrect numbers to the state and a problem with allowing the situation to fester, and we also know that it’s a good idea to get counsel from folks who do have the needed expertise and are not central to the problem themselves.

So I think it is past time for the Board to commission an independent review.  Completely independent unaffiliated with the Administration.  A good candidate for this would be the lawyer that has advised the Board in the past on financially complex contract matters, Jeffrey Sultanik of Fox Rothschild.  In the meantime, I guess the public has to wait for May 13th, take some comfort in the four No votes on the Budget and rely on our neighbors on the Board to eventually come to terms with the fact that a 6% tax increase based on inflated numbers is just not tenable.

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T/E Finance/Budget Workshop Results: 6% Tax Increase Continues & re District Accounting Error, the School Board Dismisses Community Financial Experts to Support Business Manager … Good Governance?

This post continues to follow the T/E School Board’s proposed 6% tax increase and what some in the community believe is a significant accounting error in the District.  I attended the Finance Committee meeting this week which was scheduled for 7 PM with the Budget Workshop to follow at 7:30 PM.

First off, let me say that this is not the post I want to write nor had hoped would be necessary!  The scheduled half-hour Finance Committee went on for two hours, with the first opportunity for the public to ask questions not coming until 9 PM. The Budget Workshop started at 9:30 PM and went until midnight.

At the end of the 5 hour meeting, the public knew no more than when the meeting started. The tax increase remains at 6% and for many school board members, there is reluctance for “doing what’s right” regarding the accounting error. Instead, there is a preference to “stand by our man” Art McDonnell, the District’s Business Manager.

I don’t claim to be a CPA or have a lengthy financial career but fortunate for us, there are many in this community that do – including residents Neal Colligan, Mike Heaberg and Ray Clarke.  Each attended the Finance Committee meeting and Mike and Ray stayed until midnight for the Budget Workshop.  In my world, you should always “play to your strengths”; it would have been extremely valuable to the public if the school board really listened to these community members, rather than choosing to negate, dismiss and at times insult them.

It was obvious from the first comment period following the Finance Committee meeting that this was not going to go well, when the chair interrupted my comments to say he didn’t like my “tone”.  Mind you, that is after the public had waited TWO HOURS to comment!

I found it incredulous that since the last school board meeting two weeks ago, the Business Manager had not found time to review the impact of the accounting error on this year’s tax increase!  But more shocking was that School Board director Heather Ward stated she had asked McDonnell several times for the information and the Board still had not received it. McDonnell’s response as to when he would have the information – by next Finance Committee meeting a month away!! It should be noted that Ray Clarke, Mike Heaberg and Neal Colligan have already done the analysis caused by this accounting error yet the business manager doesn’t have the time.

The public was told at the March 23 School Board meeting to come to the Finance Committee meeting for answers! The only answer that we now know is that the District’s accounting error occurred in Oct/Nov 2016 and that the School Board was not told about the situation until January 2019 – 14 months later. I actually told the school board that I felt sorry for them in this regard – guess the Administration didn’t think that a $1.2 million accounting error was all that important. I also stated that we elected them (the School Board) for District oversight, not Art McDonnell, the business manager.

The continuing to “kick the can” on the accounting error by the school board is not just frustrating but shows a lack of leadership and ability to govern even as some in the public make suggestions of possible legal action.

Although the Finance Committee meeting was not televised and it becomes a “he said, she said”, the public can see the video of the Budget Workshop.  You don’t have to watch the entire video but I beg you to PLEASE review the comments which starts at time stamp 1:34:45.  Click here for the video.

It is extremely important that you hear the comments of Mike Heaberg, former member and chair of Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors and a financial management executive. After waiting over four hours to make his remarks regarding the District’s serious accounting error, perceived impact on the tax increase, possible legal action, etc., Mike’s comments were thoughtful and important. After the public comments, continue to watch and hear the responses from the school board, in particular the Finance Committee chair’s response to Mr. Heaberg. Truly unbelievable and this from the man who told me hours earlier that he didn’t like my tone!

The public needs to wake up (although one School Board member would have you believe that those in the audience don’t represent the community!) Let me repeat, Mike Heaberg, Ray Clarke and Neal Colligan are financial experts and have done the accounting analysis (even though the District business manager has not found time!) All three come out at the same place with regards to the impact of the accounting error on the proposed 6% tax increase. Who on this School Board comes close to their financial backgrounds and depth of understanding?  However, for many on the school board, the choice is to dismiss the comments/suggestions of the community financial experts in favor of the business manager – even as the trust in their ability to govern is questioned.

The end result of five hours of Finance Committee/Budget Workshop meetings and where the public expected answers – there were none. The tax increase remains at 6% and with suggestions of legal action afloat regarding the District’s accounting error, many on the school board remain committed to Art McDonnell. Not my brand of governance or leadership!

Because I left following the Finance Committee meeting (I did however watch the Budget Workshop), Ray Clarke provides his remarks and commentary for us – and we thank him!

The combined Finance Committee/Budget Workshop on Monday was a five hour marathon, ending past midnight.  Unfortunately the audience, and possibly a few of the Board, came away as perplexed as before.

We heard a high level outline of the source and timeline of the error, pinned to a clerical mistake in the Department of Specialized Student Services that resulted in the CCIU invoices being recognized after the 2016-17 audit was complete in November 2017.  The auditor signed off on the incorrect financials for 2016-17 which then were submitted to the state.  A year later the auditor also signed off on the 2017-18 financials, and the two incorrect state reports then became the basis for the district-authorized Exception request to the state for next year’s Budget.  It appears that the Board learned of this sometime in 2019.

The Chair of the Finance Committee relied almost exclusively on the auditor approval to support his conclusion that the issue is not material.  Others felt that even though the numbers are incorrect, that’s OK because in their view moving the expense from one year to another just changes when the Exception can be taken.  (Partially but not totally true: packing expenses into one year increases the amount that is above the Index; and even if an Exception were allowed last year, the Board might not have taken it – as they claim they so often do not!).  There were no numbers presented in support of this, although Ms Ward said that she had requested the information two weeks ago.  She obtained a commitment from Mr. McDonnell that the analysis (which in essence has already been seen here on Community Matters) would be presented at the next meeting in four weeks’ time.

In the Workshop, the Board spent a lot of useful time debating the merits of individual programs that could be used to balance the budget in the event of a lower than 6% tax increase, which seems to be the universal desire.  There are strongly diverging views on the merits of selective fee increases that increase the cost to families (who choose to move to T/E “for the school district”, remember) versus elimination of headcount additions for, say, security.  There are certainly opportunities not yet baked into the Budget – areas like staff retirements and use of up-to-date assessment information (here, as Ms. Ward said of the tax issue: “show your work“).  However the Board did not come close to meeting President Dorsey’s goal, and the Admin request, to set parameters for the tax increase and deficit.  The best we got was his own preference for a 3.8% tax increase (which would be roughly the rate with the right Exception), and general discussion that implied that a $1 to 1.5 million deficit would be livable.  On the latter, it’s important to note that District Policy does not allow Fund Balance to be used for operations, so it will be important to identify programs like the $300,000 cost of setting up a new reading program that are legitimately one-time expenses – IF the expense is taken out of future year’s budgets.

Those of us in the audience were chastised by Mr. Boyer for not actually representing the community. My own sense from the people in my orbit about this is very simple:

– Regardless of the impact, the Board should not endorse incorrect state reporting

– If the district is to be managed effectively going forward, correct numbers must be used to analyze trends and cost drivers

– The District should limit the 2019/20 tax increase to the allowable maximum

– There’s a real trust problem when:

    — A Board does not learn of an issue that impacts taxation for over a year

    — A Board member has to ask the Business Manager to “show your work”

     — That request for information is not complied with

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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