Jim Bruce

TESD: Here Comes the Sunshine Act and It’s Alright

After researching the issue and speaking with experts, a nonpartisan group of six residents (Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Barb Jackson, Peggy Layden and myself) believed the School Board deliberations at the TESD February 3, 2015 board meeting violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. On February 13, 2105 via Certified Mail, a thoughtfully written letter was sent to the School Board members (President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Scott Dorsey, Karen Cruickshank, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano, Jim Bruce and Pete Motel) stating our specific concerns regarding their process. (Click here to read February 13 letter to School Board).

As residents, we believed that with quick action at the next TE School Board meeting on February 23, the Board could remedy the process and maintain the trust of the community in the integrity of the District’s governance.

I received the following response from the School Board (via the District Solicitor Ken Roos), in an email Friday afternoon:

Dear Ms. Benson,

As District Solicitor, I respond on behalf of the School Board to the allegations of non-compliance with the Sunshine Act by the School Board contained in the letter you forwarded below. Please forward this response to the other signers of the letter.

At all times, the Board carefully considered its obligations under the Sunshine Act prior to each executive session and Board information meeting conducted with respect to the issue of benefits for District employees in light of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). At no time was the Sunshine Act violated. Moreover, the February 3, 2015 Board vote on this fully disclosed agenda item occurred after a lengthy public presentation, public Board discussion and public comment in full compliance with the Sunshine Act.

Kenneth A. Roos
Solicitor, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District

Although the reply is not surprising, I disagree and find it inadequate and dismissive as a response to the well-researched points that were raised in our letter of February 13 to members of the TE School Board.

My observations —

  • It’s unfortunate that these five separate Affordable Care Act discussions were held in private, out of the light of the public eye and the benefit of public deliberation.
  • It’s unfortunate that deliberation regarding an employment policy change for 73 full-time District employees occurred in private and that a resolution simply appeared at the end of the meeting with no advertisement or notification.
  • It’s unfortunate that the misleading ‘ACA Update’ listing on the meeting agenda is referenced [in the above response] as a “fully disclosed agenda item”.
  • It’s unfortunate that 73 dedicated full-time District employees are notified of the School Board’s policy change and outsource decision via a 10:30 PM email following the meeting.
  • It’s unfortunate that the public’s participation is not valued in important policy decisions.

There is no doubt that members of the school board have received many emails and phone calls from residents since the February 3 School Board meeting and my guess is that virtually none of these contacts was in support of their actions.

I cannot imagine that the actions of the TE School Board were not a violation of the Sunshine Law, but I can guarantee that it is a violation of the public trust.

After forwarding the solicitor’s email to the other letter signers, they were asked if they wanted to include their reactions to the District’s response in this post. Here are those responses:

From Ray Clarke:
I am disappointed to receive this denial of a crystal-clear case of a Sunshine Law violation by the individuals on the School Board. However, I suppose it would be a rare lawyer that would advise acknowledging guilt before the proceedings have begun. I am more disappointed that there is no sign that the Board plans to do the right thing and address the community’s widespread concern, in Monday’s meeting or at any other time. Residents have been deliberately shut out of a matter of widespread concern and need to make their feelings clear to the Board.

From Barb Jackson:
Ken Roos is the solicitor in the Lower Merion School District as well as the TE School District. I understand that the Radnor School District has recently hired him. It is well documented that Lower Merion residents are frustrated and angry about transparency issues in their district. I am disappointed that when confronted with legitimate questions about transparency and open communication from community members, the board turns to the solicitor Ken Roos to write this letter, instead of making every attempt possible to be open and transparent and invite community participation and input.

From Neal Colligan:
Really surprised they sent such a short and dismissing response. Our challenge to the Sunshine Act centers on the 5 Exec Meetings concerning this topic…not covered by the list of items allowed in Exec Session. This response does not defend the reason for these meetings only that “the Board considered … at no time did they violate…”. Our challenge to the process in deciding this issue was well thought-out, supported by experts we consulted and well written. The response was a simple quickly written e-mail. The two communications say volumes in their structure.

This is a legal response saying the Board met the minimum technical standards of the Act. Until proven otherwise, it’s a plausible defense. That said, it’s hard for me to think that all members of this elected body agree with the handling of this issue. I’m hopeful at least one member objects to the process in light of the public challenge … whether it can be proved right or wrong. I’m surprised but not shocked … possibly someone elected to represent the community will address the process employed here by stepping out from behind the Solicitor. We’ll see.

I’ve made an Open Records Request asking for the details of these Exec. Sessions not previously disclosed in public communications. We’ll see what that brings. Maybe the process was a full vetting of all alternatives in a thoughtful and complete presentation over several meetings … maybe not. Maybe the decision had been made a long time ago regarding these employees and the ACA and the Exec. Sessions were based on creating a tightly scripted response and explanation to be given at the end of a long public meeting with questionable (although technically compliant) notice to the community. Likely, we may never know … I’ll share what I receive when/if I get a response to my request.

IMPORTANT: The next School Board Meeting is this Monday, February 23 at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High Schools. This is an important issue — please plan to attend the meeting and have your voice heard.

You can email your concerns/questions regarding this issue directly to the TE School Board at schoolboard@tesd.net

Decision Time – Will T/E School Board Directors Vote in Favor of an EIT Voter Referendum Question?

Monday night is a case where I would like to be in two places at once . . .

Tredyffrin’s township finances and the proposed 2012 budget is on the Board of Supervisors agenda at 7:30 PM while the T/E school directors will hold a Finance Committee meeting at 6:30 PM followed by a special school board meeting at 7:30 PM to discuss the EIT. (Both school district meetings will be held in Conestoga HS cafeteria). I will attend the Board of Supervisors meeting and I am counting on my friend Ray Clarke to attend the school district meetings.

In reviewing the agenda for the T/E Finance Committee meeting and the draft minutes from their October 17 meeting, I read the following:

Education Committee Recommendation:

At the prior Finance Committee meeting the Committee was informed that the State reinstated $1.3 million in funding that was not included in the District’s 2011-12 budget. In light of this information, the Committee authorized the Superintendent to restore education program cuts made in the 2011-12 budget. Dr. Richard Gusick presented the proposed reinstatements of budget cuts to the education program and explained that they were already reviewed by the Education The Finance Committee asked that the proposal to reinstate these budget cuts be presented at a future Board meeting.

I am confused. Although I was aware that the State had reinstated $1.3 million in funding to the T/E school district, I was not aware there was a decision as to whether (1) restore the district’s education programming cuts or (2) add the money to the fund balance.

According to these minutes, the Finance Committee (or Education Committee?) authorized the money go to restoring education program cuts. Restoring which programming cuts? Latin in the Middle School? Foreign language in the elementary school? Technology purchases? Specifically, which education program cuts did the committee authorize restored? In addition, are we to assume that the option of adding the $1.3 million to the district’s fund balance is off the table for consideration? These are questions for the school board directors at Monday’s meeting.

I also noted that the Finance Committee meeting minutes indicate that the school district will wait until 2012 to release a RFP for the outsourcing (if needed) of custodial services. It is not clear at this point if custodial outsourcing will be on the budget reduction strategy list.

Immediately following the Finance Committee meeting tomorrow night, the school board will hold a special meeting at 7:30 PM to consider notification to Tredyffrin and Easttown townships of the intent to levy an EIT. November 16 is the deadline for the School Board to provide the townships with notification so the board will be taking a vote at this special meeting. The school board will vote on whether to include EIT as a voter referendum question on the primary election ballot on April 24, 2012. For school districts to levy an EIT requires voter approval. The maximum that TESD could levy is 1%. If approved by voters, all residents, including renters, in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships would be taxed at 1% on earned income. If an EIT were to be approved, the townships have the legal option to request one-half of the 1% collected by the school district.

Leading up to Election Day, we watched as EIT become the ‘buzz’ word of the local campaign season. Early on, the local Republican Party took a stand against an earned income tax and furthered the issue by labeling the Democrat candidates as EIT supporters. Feeling the pressure, all the Democratic school board candidates responded that ‘they’ were personally opposed to an earned income tax.

The politicizing of the EIT prior to the public presentation of TESD’s tax study group troubled me. The EIT became a political football between the local political parties and in my opinion, damaged the community’s ability to completely understand the EIT as presented by the tax study group. Not to mention the confusion that occurred at the polls on Election Day! Three different precinct judge of elections have reported to me that there were some confused voters — asking where the EIT question was on the ballot. Based on the campaign mailers and political signs, many in the community came to the polls on Election Day expecting to vote on the EIT issue.

Now that we are on the other side of the election, how can newly re-elected school board members Karen Cruikshank (D) and Jim Bruce (R) now vote in favor of taking the EIT issue to the voters. I do not know whether re-elected Easttown school board member Pete Motel (R) made a public statement one way or the other re the EIT. Based on the pre-election political hype of the EIT, the vote count of the school board members will be interesting. Will we see the school board members following the lead of their political parties?

If the school board members vote in favor of an EIT voter referendum question on the April primary ballot, do many of us really think that the residents would vote in favor of this new tax. During the school board budget cut strategy meetings, there were residents asking for tax increases vs. further educational programming cuts.

Faced with the possibility of further programming cuts in the next school district budget, would there be sufficient support from voters for an EIT?

Countdown to Primary Election May 17 – T/E School Board Candidates Resumes

The Pennsylvania Primary Election is 3 weeks from tomorrow — Tuesday, May 17, 2011. As I previously announced on April 11, I will provide all the candidates resumes on Community Matters. I hope that by providing in-depth information on local candidates will encourage increased voter turnout for the Pennsylvania Primary Election. Historically, voter turnout in Tredyffrin Township has been low for the Primary Election, (particularly in a non-presidential year) — here’s hoping that trend will change on May 17. 

Currently serving School Board members Karen Cruickshank, Jim Bruce and Pete Motel are seeking re-election. Two of the current school board members, Debbie Bookstaber and Kevin Mahoney have decided not to see re-election.

The School Board candidates for the Primary Election are listed below.  (Click on candidates names to read their resumes). It is my understanding that all school board candidates have cross-filed as both Republican and Democratic candidates. Easttown candidate Craig Lewis was contacted and invited to supply his resume but he failed to respond. If Mr. Lewis would like to have his resume included with the other candidate resumes, I would be happy to add it.

Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board Candidates:

  • Easttown, Region 3: Peter Motel (R) **
  • Easttown, Region 3: Craig Lewis (D) No Response from Candidate

**  Incumbent

It’s Official . . . Announcing Candidates for Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors & Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board!

Tuesday, March 8th was the deadline to file petitions for Pennsylvania’s May 17, 2011 primary election.

Special thanks goes to Mike Broadhurst, chair of the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee and Dariel Jamieson, chair of the Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee for providing the names of candidates for the Board of Supervisors and the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board.  Mike and Dariel have agreed to supply the bios and/or resumes of each of the supervisor and school director candidates which I will provide in a future post on Community Matters.

Note on School Director candidates:  To become a school board candidate, you must file a petition signed by at least 10 qualified voters of the school district for the political party with which the petition will be filed. It is my understanding that all school board candidates are cross-filing. To cross-file in a primary election (that is, to run on both political parties), a registered Democrat or Republican must circulate a proper petition for the other party. The petition must contain signatures as previously mentioned. If elected on both party ballots in the May primary, a candidate will appear on both party ballots in the general election in November.

The candidates for the May 17, 2011 primary election are as follows:

The Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidates for the office of Tredyffrin-Easttown School Director:

  • Region 1:  James Bruce **
  • Region 1:  Tara G. LaFiura
  • Region 2:  Kristine Graham
  • Region 2:  Elizabeth Mercogliano

The Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee has endorsed the following candidates for the office of Tredyffrin-Easttown School Director:

  • Region 1:  Karen Cruickshank **
  • Region 1:  Jerry Henige
  • Region 2:  Scott Dorsey
  • Region 2:  Jenny Wessels

The Easttown Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidate for the office of Tredyffrin-Easttown School Director:

  • Easttown, Region 3: Peter Motel **

The Easttown Township Democratic Committee has endorsed the following candidate for the office of Tredyffrin-Easttown School Director:

  • Easttown, Region 3:  No Candidate

For Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors, the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidates:

  • Supervisor at Large:  Michael Heaberg **
  • Supervisor at Large:  Kristen Kirk Mayock
  • District 1 East:  Paul Olson **  
  • District 3 West:  John DiBuonaventuro **

For Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors, the Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee has endorsed the following candidates:

  • Supervisor at Large:  Molly Duffy
  • Supervisor at Large:  Ernani (Ernie) Falcone
  • District 1 East:   Victoria (Tory) Snyder
  • District 3 West:   No Candidate

For Tredyffrin Township Auditor, the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidate:

  • Bryan Humbarger

For Tredyffrin Township Auditor, the Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee has endorsed the following candidate:

  • No Candidate

For Chester County Magisterial District Judge, District Court 15-4-01, the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidate:

  • Jeremy Blackburn **

For Chester County Magisterial District Judge, District Court 15-4-01, the Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee has endorsed the following candidate:

  • Analisa Sondergaard

** Incumbent

How Will T/E School District Close the $5.3 Million 2011-12 Budget Gap?

The Finance Committee meeting is Monday, February 14, 7:30 PM at the T/E Administration Office, West Valley Business Center, 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne.  Click here for the meeting agenda and 2011-12 Budget Development Plan.  

At the onset of this 2011-12 budget discussion, I want to give tremendous credit to the school board members who serve on the Finance Committee – Chair Kevin Mahoney, Debbie Bookstaber, Jim Bruce and Kevin Buraks.  Their task is overwhelming and the 148-page 2011-12 budget document attests to their hard work, especially given the challenging economic situation of school districts.  As a taxpayer, I am grateful and thank them for their diligence on our behalf.

Increased pension costs are the biggest hurdle in the coming years to school districts across the state. The challenge is how to balance the defined benefit plan of the teachers with the rising costs to maintain.  How will school districts fund the pension plans, provide the same quality of education and not place the burden on the taxpayer . . . ?

Although I took time to review the budget documents provided for Monday’s meeting, I admit that my eyes glazed over on some of the details.  If any of my assumptions are incorrect or if I have misinterpreted the information, here is hoping that someone will provide clarification.

As presented, the 2011-12 budget has projected revenue of $107M, which includes $1.2M revenue from Act 1 tax increase (1.4%) and $2.4M revenue from Act 1 exceptions (2.8%).  Projected expenses are $112M, which leaves an imbalance of (-$5.3M). Without the $1.2M revenue from Act 1 tax increase and the $2.4M in revenue from Act 1 exceptions, the imbalance would be (-$8.9M) versus the (-$5.3M).

Although the 2011-12 budget gap is narrowed with the Act 1 tax increase and the Act 1 exception; there remains a deficit in the 2011-12 budget of (-$5.3M).  If all strategies of Level 1 are instituted (as outlined on pg. 107 of the budget development plan), the deficit is reduced by $1M and the imbalance drops to (-$4.3).  Under this plan, the remaining $4.3M of the budget deficit is to come from the district’s fund balance.  The school district has a Moody’s AAA bond rating . . . is that rating jeopardized by using $4.3M in fund balance dollars for the 2011-12 budget? Understanding that the fund balance is taxpayers money; how much reserve is required to maintain the district’s bond rating? 

All Level 1 strategies suggested under this budget development plan appear straightforward and practical ways to cut expenses.  I did note two secretarial positions to be eliminated at a combined cost savings of $135K are included on the Level 1 list. 

The more interesting and/or surprising strategy suggestions are included in Level 2 and Level 3.  Level 3 requires attrition for implementation.  It is interesting to note that the Level 2 strategies, should they all be implemented, would provide a cost savings to the district of $6.7M +.  I would expect the dollar amount savings from Level 2 strategies would be substantially greater than $6.7M, probably closer to $10M, maybe more.  Why?  Because Level 2 includes the selling of TESD property including (1) the 16 acres on Jefferson Lane in Chesterbrook (earlier discussion on Community Matters questioned the feasibility of selling that property);  (2) 738 First Ave, Berwyn; this is a 10 acre parcel where the ECS building sits. (As an aside, it was my understanding that the ESC building was contracted for demolition but it is still standing) and (3) 945 Conestoga Road, 0.33 acre of residential property next to Teamer Field. 

In further review of Level 2 strategies, a few suggestions caught my attention; such as outsourcing of custodial services . . . could result in a savings of $950K.   I believe that the custodians (along with the bus drivers, lunchroom staff and possibly some secretarial employees) are unionized which could make the change to outsourcing more difficult.  However, with nearly a million dollar savings involved in custodial outsourcing, it could be worth further exploration.

On the Level 2 list, is a suggested $2M savings to the school district with the elimination of all non-mandated student transportation.  The remaining transportation would be what is required by the state. Combining the outsourcing of custodial services and the elimination of the non-mandated bus transport, would provide almost $3M in savings. 

Another Level 2 strategy that has an associated savings tag of $1.5M, (but a suggestion that probably is not practical and should be removed from consideration) is to require athletic and extra-curricular activities to become completely self-supporting.  Families would be required to underwrite the cost of student participation or if unable financially, seek help from FLITE. 

Contained in the Level 3 list are several staff reductions, many of which would affect the elementary grades.  Here are those specific strategies and associated savings:

  • Eliminate Literacy Intervention Program $111,000
  • Eliminate Elementary Math Support Positions $350,000
  • Eliminate Four Elementary Reading Specialist Positions $300,000
  • Eliminate Elementary Strings Specialist Position $75,000
  • Eliminate Middle School Reading Specialists $300,000
  • Eliminate Middle School Math Support Positions $125,000
  • Reduce each High School Department by One Teacher $375,000
  • Eliminate Elementary Applied Tech Program $300,000 

 If my math is correct, the above listed eight cost-savings equate to approximately $2M. However, I have to believe that some of these staff reductions could directly influence the quality of TESD education.  Remember, these are Level 3 strategies not Level 1.  However, just the fact that they appear on any list, makes them a possibility. 

The last Level 3 strategy listed is interesting and apparently was discussed at Friday’s Facilities Committee meeting – the redistricting of the elementary schools.  According to district enrollment patterns predicted for the next 5 years, there is a need to consider redistricting.  Devon Elementary is at 100% capacity and has become the largest elementary school.  The savings is ‘to be determined’ because it is possible that redistricting could keep eliminate the need for additional space at Devon Elementary.   However, this would impact those families living on the redistricted streets. 

Ray Clarke attended the Facilities Committee meeting on Friday and offered the following notes from the meeting.  It would seem that storage and maintenance facilities continues to be discussed but with no clear solution.  I know that the ECS building was slated for demolition but would it be possible (at a far lesser cost) that the ECS building could be retrofitted as a storage facility – not for use by staff or students which could be affected by the building’s environmental issues – but for use as storage.  It is obviously too simplistic a solution so there must be a reason that it is not possible.  

Ray Clarke’s Notes from Facilities Committee meeting, 2/11/11

Some interesting and worthwhile discussions at the TESD Facilities Committee meeting on Friday, with many financial implications that are likely to be further explored on Monday’s Finance Committee.  It’s good to report that the tone is very cost conscious – almost as if all the money that the Committee is spending is its own!

The first hour or more was consumed with a couple of items relating to use of the district sports facilities.  (Perhaps these could/should have actually been on the published Agenda?).  An adult soccer league would like to use Teamer Field; that would require a change in district policy and reversal of an understanding given to neighbors when the field was built.  The revenue being discussed is material, and I believe that this warrants thorough consideration on Monday in the context of revenue strategies.  A travel softball team has offered to redo the barely used and poor condition baseball field at the ESC site (one of four fields there) at their own expense.  They have already done this for a field at Devon Elementary, and there seems to be no downside.  The Committee was just about able to make a decision on this one! (Subject to a final check with the school athletics people).  Larger issues that arose: a) the amounts the district charges seem to be low (another revenue strategy) and b) maybe as use gets more widespread the district will need to improve the scheduling system to ensure fairness and utilization.

The Committee revisited the issue of facilities for storage and maintenance, starting with the question: what do we actually need?  The discussion was a little disjointed and difficult to follow, but it seems to boil down to: we need warm storage for snow clearing equipment (so it works on cold mornings!) that doesn’t involve sharing space with the carpentry shop, plus we need at the least to fix maintenance issues with the current building.  The architect had come back with new plans for spending $2 million, taking about $0.75 million out of the first draft from a month ago.  However, Dr Motel did not let the Committee even get to those plans.  The majority of the Committee seems very conscious of the need to rigorously question all spending, although Betsy Fadem spoke for this project being part of the original plan for the non-educational facilities (but not the budget??).  There is a good opportunity here to consider the full cost of in-house functions: for example, loading the carpentry shop with an incremental facilities cost changes the out-sourcing equation considerably.  The administration is to come back at the next meeting with a full costing out of the options, from Do Nothing (but essential maintenance), through Add Temporary Space, Build New Facilities, to Restructure (some?) Operations.  (It would be great if at least one of the Committee could have an on site review of the facilities and issues).  Another topic relating to budget strategies at the Finance Committee.

Perhaps a good time to make the point that Bond Money is still Taxpayer Money. Bondholders are just not giving their money to the district because they like to see us have nice facilities!  Although there may be no short run impact on the millage rate or the operating budget, and we can perhaps keep on borrowing, that money has to be repaid in the long run.  The latest bond has to be spent on capital within a certain period, but there seems to be no problem with that!  Again, relevant to Monday’s discussion.

Finally, interesting early data from just one week of kindergarten registration.  Four of the five elementary schools are at an average of 75% of projected kindergarten enrollment, but Devon is already at 100% of the projection – and already enrolls over 100 students more than the average of the others (522 vs 420).  The district as a whole has plenty of elementary capacity, but Devon is an exception.  There is a facilities plan if an extra class is needed there next year, but the longer term may require other solutions.

Despite the Agenda, no discussion of the IT plan – the consultant had a sudden conflict.

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