Joanne Sonn

Obamacare healthcare compliance delayed a year — No need to cut the hours of TE employees!

Important Update:

Special School Board Meeting, Monday, July 9, 7 PM  Tredyffrin/Easttown School District Administration Offices at 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne.

With Obamacare requirement for businesses with 50 or more employees delayed a year, Monday’s School Board meeting presents an opportunity for the  Board to reverse its earlier decision and restore the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The Board has repeatedly said that these employees matter … now it’s up them to show us by reinstating their hours.

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The Obama administration has just announced that it will delay Obamacare requirement that businesses (school districts) with more than 50 workers provide health insurance by one year.  The Treasury Department has announced that the administration will start enforcing the mandate in 2015, rather than January 1, 2014 in order “to give business more time to prepare.” 

Here’s hoping that the Tredyffrin Easttown School District will turn the ship around and make things right for the aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department said in a statement, “During this 2014 transition period, we strongly encourage employers to maintain or expand health coverage.”  What does this mean to the TE School District? Answer:  There’s no longer any reason to decrease the hours of District employees from full-time to part-time for the 2013/14 school year!

The TE School Board is not scheduled to meet again until August, which is after the letters from the administration to the affected employees, are sent.  There needs to be an immediate brake put on this process of cutting hours of aides and paras in TE School District – the 2013-14 school year will not be affected by Obamacare healthcare requirement.  The School Board and the administration needs to do what is right for the employees and the children of this District.  They need to reverse course and reinstate the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  Plus, they do not have to offer health insurance to these employees, at this point.  Everything can remain status quo, just make the affected employees whole by giving their hours back over 27.5 hours.

This situation presents a wonderful opportunity for the District to appoint a citizens group to review Obamacare and the compliance requirements  during the 2013/14 school year.   As we have learned, the topic is confusing and needs further study.  As Mazur stated, lets all use 2014 as a transition period and learn more on the topic.  As more information becomes available from Washington, I am certain that the School Board will be better positioned to work towards compliance for the following year.  

If the employees are as important to the District as the School Board members say, there should be an easy solution to this situation.  Let’s put the cut of hours of District employees ‘on hold’ until we have more answers.  Please School Board, join the community in doing the right thing!

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Outcome of TE School Board Meeting more suited for black roses than white ribbons!

Much like the last TE School Board meeting on May 13, the audience was filled with residents and staff, including aides, paraeducators, paraprofessionals, teachers and TENIG members … the outcome of the evening more suited for black roses than white ribbons!

The same 9-0 Board vote to cut the weekly hours of aides and paras to part-time, 27.5 hours could have taken place in the first 5 minutes of the meeting, rather than dragging the vote out until 10:30 PM.  To those of us who attended, we all now know that the minds of the school board members were made up before the meeting ever started.

During the first public comment period of the night, TESD resident Neal Colligan delivered a statement that included the timeline of activity surrounding the decision on the District’s aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The ever-changing status of this group of District employees began six weeks ago with the outsourcing of their jobs to STS.  When STS pulled its proposal, the District turned to another outsourcing company CCRES.  Its unclear what happened with the CCRES outsourcing plan – that plan disappeared without explanation.  In its place, the employees were notified about 10 days ago, that their hours would be cut to part-time.

Colligan stated, “No one has seen a vote on any of these decisions.  The community, the employees who live in our community and the members of the public who have taken an interest in this issue ask for that vote tonight.”  He asked that the Board listen to the residents before taking the vote.

Often we hear residents complain about a local issue but when you suggest they speak up at a public hearing the answer most likely is this:  “Why bother, no one listens.”  Nothing truer could have been said about last night’s school board meeting! After a series of meetings, phone conversations and emails with many of the District aides and paras, it was clear they feared retribution if they spoke publically.  Believing that the Board needed to hear their testimonials, I collected personal statements to read.  With the 5 min. limit imposed for individual resident comments, I was only able to get through two letters.  I appealed for audience volunteers and residents lined up to read aloud the letters into the  meeting testimony.

The thoughtfully written personal statements are with an insight that only comes with years of experience in the school district.  Although personally affected by the decision to reduce their hours to part-time, the overriding concern of aides and paraprofessionals in their statements, is for the education, safety and well-being of our District’s children.

Click here to read full text of personal statements written the TE School Board.  Below are excerpted quotes:

  –  There is no substitute, when working with all children and especially kids with needs, for consistency, continuity, trust and relationship.

–  The aides and paras have been treated as puppets and the Administration and School Board are the Puppet Masters.

–  The loss of hours, I fear, will cause unnecessary turnover of staff with detrimental effects on school programs and the students of the district.

–  We go the extra mile because many of us had our own children go through TE and we are proud of the TE tradition.  You cannot pay for that.  Many of the aides were originally volunteers at their schools, putting in many hours making TE schools what they are.

–  What does affect me is seeing our school district begin a race to the bottom under the care of this school board.  The beginning of the “Walmart-ization” of our district as one speaker called it at a recent meeting.

–  There is a saying in organizational psychology, “If you want to know what is important to leaders don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do.”  What do you think your end run around the ACA says about how important the aides are to this school board?

–  The school board doesn’t care about us and they never will.

–  The relationship and bond between the aides and the children will be shattered with a revolving door of strangers in their lives. Beyond the nightmare of scheduling problems with all the part-time workers, are you prepared for the security risks that will come with brining all these new people into the schools?

–  If something bad happens as a result of your actions towards the aides and paraprofessionals of TE, it’s going to be your fault and no one else’s – you will have to live with the consequences.

In addition to the anonymous testimonials read for the record, several brave employees delivered their own written statements to the School Board, which contained similar sentiments.  Audience members who volunteered to read the personal statements, added their own messages of support for the aides, and encouragement to the Board to do the right thing.  On behalf of the TESD teachers, Laura Whittaker, president of the teachers union, delivered an impassioned plea to save the hours of the aides and paras, describing their important contribution to the District’s children and their families.

Following-up on her comments presented at last week’s Finance Committee meeting, TESD resident Joanne Sonn, sought and received guidance from the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington DC advocacy group with expertise in healthcare law.  Sonn presented a letter (click here to read) to the Board from Dania Palanker, Senior Counsel at the Women’s Law Center. The letter puts forth the assertion that under current laws a self‐insured plan  (to which TESD switched in 2011) can be in compliance with nondiscriminatory testing regulations while still offering a separate group of 30‐40 hr. /week workers a lesser valued plan.  As a result of Palanker’s information, Sonn respectfully requested the Board to reconsider its plans to avoid Affordable Care Act compliance by reducing the hours of District employees to part-time status.

The legal opinion of Palanker was dismissed by the District’s solicitor Ken Roos and the benefit expert from his firm, attorney Rhonda Grubbs.  They remained constant in their advice to the Board … claiming that the only way to avoid the ‘possible’ penalties of the ACA was to reduce employee hours to under 30 hours per week.  It was stated and re-stated by some Board members that the District could not afford the cost of healthcare for the lowest paid District employees nor could we afford the cost of possible associated penalties for ACA non-compliance.

So … in the end, the Board took a vote (9-0) to decrease the hours of aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals to 27.5 hours a week.  The vote also represented a decision not to listen to the residents, parents, aides and paras, teachers or the senior counsel of the National Women’s Law Center. Instead, all school board members chose to follow the opinion of the District solicitor.  Sadly, the takeaway from the Board’s action is that if you live in this community and feel that, you are not being listened to or acknowledged, you are probably right.

The Board’s claims that the District cannot afford healthcare for the lowest paid and/or the possible financial risks for ACA noncompliance may work for some residents.  However, these claims of fiscal responsibility ring false when we learn that the District, for another year in a row, has uncovered a multi-million budget surplus. Or that the Board can afford to give bonuses to administrators and raises to the District solicitor and his attorneys … or that the Board can stand behind a 10-year $50 million ‘dream’ facilities  plan to be paid for by taxpayers for years to come.  Beyond our yearly tax increases, we have a school board who chooses to go after revenue from nonprofit organizations and seeks to charge taxpayers for the use of tennis courts.

The most troubling aspect of the school board meeting was the Board’s total disregard for the residents and their message.  Our ‘collective’ votes elected these people to listen to us; but based on last night, it was obvious that what the community wants is not part of the Board’s agenda.  Residents need to learn to vote for representatives that will listen and serve us instead of only pandering to us during election time.

To review … Of the nine currently serving school board members, Anne Crowley and Betsy Fadem, are not seeking re-election, their terms end December 31, 2013.  Kevin Buraks and Rich Brake are seeking re-election and their names will appear on the November ballot.  Buraks and Brake’s opponents, Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey, respectfully, support the District staff and spoke out last night against the Board’s decision to cut the hours of aides and paraeducators.  In addition, Connors questioned the proposed budget expenditures and surplus and to his credit, Dorsey asked for (and received) an apology from school board member Pete Motel for his behavior toward resident Joanne Sonn at the Finance Committee meeting.

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Note:  With the 10:30 PM vote to decrease the aides and paras to 27.5 hours, over half of the audience got up and walked out, including myself.  For those that remained, it is my understanding that Rich Brake delivered a lengthy personal statement and presumably the 2013-14 budget was passed.  This was the first time I have ever left a public meeting before it ended but somehow there seemed little reason to stay.  For those that did stay, please fill us in on what we missed.

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TE Finance Committee meeting — How does the School Board regain public trust?

 I do not know anyone who attended last night’s Finance Committee meeting that left feeling good.  Although the Finance Committee is chaired by Betsy Fadem and includes other Board members Rich Brake and Jim Bruce, all members were in attendance.  Expecting a large audience, the meeting was at Conestoga.  Nearly all chairs were occupied with a significant number of aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals in addition to teachers, members of TENIG, teachers and residents.

Following the budget discussion, the public comment period was troubling and disheartening.  Based on the TE School Board president Kevin Burak’s email last week, we had learned that the District would not outsource the jobs of the District’s aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals but instead decrease the hours of 80% of these employees from full-time to part-time status.  The reduced work hours will cause a decrease  in pay as great as 25% — all this to avoid providing an affordable healthcare benefit option as required under the Affordable Care Act.

The Board cited the May 21 in-service day meetings with Buraks, Dan Waters and Sue Tiede and the aides/paras as the reason for this choice – stating that the paras and aides wanted reduced hours to stay employed as District employees.  Not only was this not the case, but also as I have stated previously on Community Matters, as Waters and Tiede explained to the aides and paras at that meeting, reducing hours was not a viable solution because it would then require the hiring of 35 more part-time employees to fill the void.

TE resident Neal Colligan asked the Board why no other alternatives were considered, including the one that he had offered.  For the record, Neal’s outsourcing alternative document was sent to the school board on June 4 with a request to notify that it was received.  Hearing no response, I re-sent the document to each individual school board member and we receiving nothing.  Neither Neal nor I received any notification from the Board that they received the document. Yet last night, school board member Karen Cruickshank not only tells the audience that the Board notified him that the document was received but that additionally, that the Board had thanked him for his efforts.  This simply did not happen.

Neal attempted to reason with the school board and asked they consider other alternatives rather than cut the hours of employees to avoid compliance with Federal law.  Seriously, what kind of message is this sending to our children — if you don’t like a law, look for ways around it?

There was no reasoning with the Board members in regards to their decision to reduce employee hours.  The Board stated that the District’s solicitor and the health care provider had researched the Affordable Care Act and provided the opinion that lowering the employee hours was the only way to avoid penalties for non-compliance. I will say that other than Liz Mercogliano  and Anne Crowley who did not speak, the school board presented a unified team on this issue.

TE resident Joanne Sonn ‘attempted’ to offer her own Affordable Care Act research and to present information that differed from what the District had previously presented.  Joanne had done her homework on ACA and offered names of several legal and healthcare expert sources, including Dania Palanker*,  senior counsel  at National Women’s Law Center in Washington, DC, .  Unfortunately, Sonn was not far into reviewing her research (which disputed the District’s findings) when Board member Pete Motel shut down further discussion by loudly yelling, “You’re wrong” at Sonn.  Motel’s action caused an immediate reaction from the audience and defense of Sonn’s right to ask questions.  Although this resident had much ACA information to offer to the Board, they were unwilling to listen, preferring to close further discussion by referencing the opinion of the solicitor.

In an email to me following the meeting, Sonn says in part, “I felt really disrespected by the board and patronized and I was not expecting that. All we are asking from the school board is to do due diligence. As you heard tonight, they will not listen to anyone but their own advisors. I think if they at least were respectful and open we would have left feeling better about this school board.”

Since the response to Neal Colligan by the Board was similar to Joanne Sonn’s … an attempt to limit discussion on the Affordable Care Act and its requirements, I asked Neal for his thoughts on last night’s meeting.  Here are his comments:

Interesting meeting last night.  Certainly the Board did not want to discuss the fate of the Paraeducators.  Seemed their impression of the situation was that this employee group was satisfied with reduced hours to avoid the ACA.  As that will impact about 80% of these 175 workers resulting in a cut in their total wages next year, I think it was clear that the Board’s impression was wrong.  It was nice to see so many of the employee group out at the meeting.  I wish they could have shared with the Board their individual situations as it relates to the reduced hours solution but I know they are still worried about workplace reprisals.

We don’t know how much work the Board has done on trying to find a plan to comply with the ACA Act so that these employees could maintain their status quo of hours.  They say they investigated and, on the advice of their solicitor, rejected the concept as containing too much liability.  We never heard that compliance could not be done to that another solution was not possible.  The audience last night only heard that they went as far as to ask their paid expert for an opinion.

As one Board member said last night, this situation has been a train wreck.  For the last six weeks, much effort has been spent soliciting outsource venders, negotiating with two of these firms, presenting inflated ACA penalty numbers to the community and finally abandoning outsourcing all together.  The current plan is the fallback avoidance strategy…cut hours and makes all of these folks part-time.  With all that work, time, and money spent on avoidance schemes, it is hard to believe that a compliance solution was fully vetted.  But we’ll never know.

This volunteer Board works as all of our local Boards do in the Public Trust.  They extract money from the community through taxes and use it for a public purpose; our community schools.  But the Trust of the Public is exactly what is missing here.  There were ugly parts to last night’s meeting as the audience clearly disagreed with the Statements of the members of the Board.  The shouting down of community members who rose to give opinions was also ugly.  I believe that this Board has lost its most critical attribute that it needs to carry on in the Public Trust and that attribute is the Trust of the Public.

As Neal states, the aides and paras are “worried about workplace reprisals” and fearful of speaking out.  They saw what happened to a resident Joanne Sonn when she dare offer an opposing opinion (and Ms. Sonn is not an employee of the District.)  It is remarkable to me that residents are encouraged by the Board to get involved, attend school board and committee meetings.  I guess what that really means is that you are welcome to attend, just don’t dare have an opinion.  I have often wondered why more residents are not involved but after last night, I know understand why.

Besides Joanne Sonn and Neal Colligan, the other TE resident asking questions at the Finance Committee was Ray Clarke and here are his comments:

Last night’s Finance Committee meeting was most astonishing to me for the complete absence of any interest in collaboration with the community and affected employees to solve the aide/para healthcare issue.  The default approach is “how do we get around the AHA?”, not “how do we comply with the AHA most efficiently?”  Inexcusable.

We did also get for the first time an integrated picture of the expected financial results for the year, although you had to be quick with ear and pen to catch the numbers.  It’s part of a pattern of the Administration to keep all information tightly controlled.  Anyway, as best as I could figure, it looks like we are heading for revenues of $111 million ($2 million over budget) and expenses of $106 million ($3 million under budget).  The net result: a $5 million surplus.

It should be noted that $0.8 million of the revenue was paid by Vanguard under protest and is subject to the result of their assessment appeal.  Key parts of the favorable expense variance are $1.8 million of healthcare, $0.5 million of salary due to retirements and leaves and $0.2 million for transportation.

So there are a couple of important questions.  First, does this outcome have any impact on the 2013/14 budget, revenues of $112 million (up only $1 million with a proposed $1.5 million tax increase) and expenses of $114 million (up $8 million)?  Well, apparently not.  But of course there is no documented analysis of that.  Dr Brake did have a shot at getting an breakdown, but that went nowhere.  The Board should demand a clear explanation before voting next Monday to approve any tax increase for 2013/14.

Second, what to do with the surplus?  Dr Motel was quick and brusque in claiming it for his Facilities empire.  I asked for an explanation of how the $50 million Infrastructure Implementation Plan is vetted by the Board, and it is clear that there is no integrated oversight.  After the proposed approval on the Consent Agenda, the next the Board sees will be a decade-long, rolling series of one-off projects, also slotted in the Consent Agenda.  Who is making the trade-offs between employee benefits and security and new kitchens, lights and toilets?

It could indeed be that the best use of the surplus is a transfer to the Capital Fund.  The district has some $60 million of debt and interest to be repaid over the next dozen years, of which all but ~$10 million has already been spent.  Although there is a good argument that the cost of new facilities is properly shared with future generations through debt financing, the district needs to be very prudent in loading up with more and more interest-bearing debt.  The first step, though, is of course to make sure that the funds need to be spent in the first place…..

There’s an important Board Meeting next week, but last night’s evidence does little to inspire confidence in Board or Administration leadership.

Isn’t it amazing how last November 2012, the District discovered a surprise surplus of $3.9 million from the 2011-12 budget. Other than some health insurance adjustments, it was never clear how the financial forecast could have been off by nearly $4 million last year.  And if you recall, the surplus was conveniently found immediately following the signing of the teachers’ contract.

If we were to believe that last year’s budget surplus was a fluke of nature, guess what – the fluke happened again. According to Art McDonnell, it sounds like the District will have a surplus of $4-5 million from the 2012-13 budget.  Two things come to mind – if the District has a surplus of $8-9 million in the last two budget cycles, how is it that (1) we cannot afford to offer affordable health insurance to every full-time District employee  and (2) shouldn’t the taxpayers receive a check for overpaid taxes?

The questions continue but the answers do not.  Perhaps the Board will behave differently at next Monday’s School Board meeting … the cameras are on and their performance is recorded.  If you are an aide or paraeducators, a resident, TENIG employee, a teacher or a parent – I encourage you all to attend the meeting, June 17 at 7:30 PM, Conestoga HS.

Open dialogue and communication are key to the success of any organization. As TE School District residents, we have a right to comment and to ask questions of our District leaders and we cannot allow that right to be taken from us.

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*  Joanne Sonn has had extensive communication with Dania Palanka, as she sought expert legal assistance to better understand the Affordable Care Act and what its requirements would mean to the TE School District. Here is a brief background from Ms. Palanker’s resume — Dania Palanker focuses primarily on implementing health reform and expanding access to quality, affordable health care for women and their families. Prior to joining the Law Center, Dania worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Starting her work at SEIU in the research department, she became interested in expanding access to health care to low income families and spent a few years as Deputy Administrator of a health benefit program at SEIU, working to provide affordable health insurance to previously uninsured low wage workers and their families. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), she worked on implementing the law as Associate Director of Health Policy. Her background in the ACA includes insurance reforms, coverage expansions and delivery system reform, with particular expertise in employer benefits and insurance reforms. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Based on Ms. Palanker’s background, it appears that she is eminently qualified to address ACA compliance requirements in the TE School District.

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