Karen Cruickshank

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

School Board Members to Join T/E Contract Negotiating Team

Last night’s School Board meeting represented a distinct shift in attitude from the School Board directors in regards to the teacher negotiations.  Since the District named their negotiating team last January (Dan Waters, Sue Tiede, Art McDonnell and professional negotiator attorney Jeffrey Sultanik), I have been very vocal in my concern that there was no school board director serving on the negotiating team.  I was of the opinion that the residents of TESD elected the school board members to serve them and at least one of them needed to sit at the negotiating table.

Without representation by a school board director, the reporting process had the appearance of a ‘whisper down the lane’.  I understand that Sultanik was hired to negotiate at the direction of the School Board, but I think that the Board’s public appearance of ‘hands-off’ to the process, may have added to the strife with the teachers.  The information and the updates that the school board receives were not by firsthand attendance at the meetings, the flow of information was from one of the four members of the negotiating team.  I am not suggesting that the District intentionally mislead the public through its updates, but I was of the opinion that without a seat at the table, it was possible that subtle nuances that occur in a meeting could be missed in the translation.

But here is some good news for anyone that shares my concerns with the negotiation process.  At the end of last night’s meeting, Board president Karen Cruickshank gave a brief update on the status of the teacher contract talks.  She explained the District has made another offer to the teachers and offered hope that a resolution could be forthcoming.  Not certain what is contained in the latest offer but there was something else … Cruickshank announced that going forward, school board directors would have a seat at the negotiating table.   Karen Cruickshank, Pete Motel, Kevin Buraks and Betsy Fadem will join the negotiating team at all future meetings with the teachers union.  I believe that this was the right decision for the District, the residents and for the teachers! The last few months have been contentious between the two sides, but I think this latest decision represents an encouraging sign.

Given Our Economic Times, How Can T/E Afford A Real Estate Purchase?

Here we are nine days and counting until school starts, in the midst of contentious teacher contract negotiations and parents in the District hoping that school starts on time.  Residents have repeatedly been told that T/E School District cannot afford the demands of the teachers … escalating health care and pension costs.  With decreasing revenues and rising costs, in June we witnessed, as tough decisions were required to balance the District budget.

During the discussion on the Fact Finder’s report at the August 20 special School Board meeting, school board members weighed in on why they could not vote in favor of the report.   Karen Cruickshank, Board president, commented in part,

“… The public knows how hard the Board has worked to balance the budget over the past 3 years.  We have explored ways to increase revenues.  We’ll be charging students an activity fee for the first time this year. We have raised taxes 2 years in a row to the Act 1 limit with allowable exceptions to referendum. We have cut $10 million from our budget, or one tenth. We have held administrators, aides and paras at zero raises over the last 3 years. The members of TENIG agreed to a 4.5% cut last year. The custodial staff has agreed to waive both the 4.5% increase for next year and has given back an additional 10% of current salary. The numbers still don’t balance. It is the responsibility of the Board to balance the budget. The Board has no control over large increases in state mandated pension obligations put in place by the legislature in 2001. The District has also suffered significant financial losses through commercial and residential real estate reassessments and tax appeals. These reassessments and appeals have resulted in the likely loss of $1.5 million this year. These factors together have wreaked havoc on what was once a stable T/E budget…”

For the most part, I think that residents are starting to recognize the economic problems facing the District and the importance of School Board members to make responsible and sound fiduciary decisions. It is because of this, that frankly I was astounded to see a specific item listed under the ‘Consent Agreement’ on the agenda for the School Board meeting, Monday, August 27. According to the agenda, a ‘Consent Agenda’ requires Board action but “… it is unnecessary to hold discussion on these items. With the consent of all members, they are therefore grouped and approval is given in one motion.”  

There are probably 15 or 20 consent agenda items listed on Monday’s agenda, ranging from approving minutes, and acceptance of gifts to ‘purchase property’.  All of these consent items are lumped together and then rather than going through them item by item, approved by the School Board in one motion.  The purchase property item caught my attention but I had to read to page 45 of the agenda’s supplement materials to find the following:

Consent VII, E, 3:Purchase of Property

“That the Board of School Directors authorizes the Superintendent to execute, and the Board Secretary to attest, and deliver to the record owner of property designated as Tax Parcel No. 43-10L-2 [which is property adjoining the District’s property], the Agreement of Sale in the form attached to the resolution…….”

The agreement of sale that follows further identifies the property as 892 Old Lancaster Avenue, the seller as the Estate of Arthur Fennimore, and the price as $265K.  The date of sale is left blank.  On Saturday morning, I stopped by the property to take a photo and spoke with the grandson of Mr. Fennimore.  He and his brothers were cleaning out the house in advance of the purchase by TESD.  Mr. Fennimore was 97 when he passed away and was the original owner of the house. According to the grandson, closing between the Estate and TESD is expected by the end of the week.

I have attended most, if not all, of the 2012 School Board meetings and have absolutely no recall on the discussion to purchase additional real estate property, …  especially given the agonizing budget decisions, the possibility of demotion and the contract negotiations with the teachers.  Therefore, I don’t think that I missed the discussion about purchasing additional real estate.

This past Friday there was a Facilities Committee meeting and although I did not attend, according to the agenda there was no discussion about the upcoming purchase of the Fennimore property. To be clear, in the past, there have been on/off discussions about the maintenance building and the need to expand the storage facility.  In fact, there are existing architectural plans —  but as far as I knew, the project was ‘on hold’ for obvious economic reasons.

The Fennimore house is the last remaining property between the current maintenance building and T/E Middle School on Old Lancaster Rd. – the District previously purchased all other properties.  So … I guess from an overall planning standpoint, the acquisition of this property makes sense.  However, given the District’s current economic climate and the unsettled teachers’ contract, it would seem that the topic to ‘purchase’ would still require some discussion, not just buried with 20 other consent items.  Unfortunately, the word that immediately comes to mind … transparency, or rather ‘lack thereof’.

Based on my conversation with Mr. Fennimore’s grandson, the estate has a deal with the school district and that closing and settlement will occur later this week. Given that there appears that there will be no discussion about the School Board’s decision to purchase the property, here are my questions …

How did they arrive at the price for the property?  The sale price is listed as $265K.  My friend Ray Clarke did the research and determined that the assessed value is $129,500.  According to Ray, if we “… multiply $129,500 by the current Chester County Common Level Ratio of 1.70, you get $220,150.”  Subtract $220,150 from $265K, and you have to ask, why is the School District paying a $45K premium for this property.  Regardless of future development plans, for the time being, the District will need to tear down the house, which means an additional expense.  Another question — is the maintenance-storage facility project still on the back burner or does the Fennimore house purchase have the timetable moved up on the construction project?

Some may suggest that a $265K real estate purchase in the T/E School District is a ‘bargain’ and a ‘smart’ move for the District in these depressed economic times.  But the bottom line for me, is $265K really such a bargain for a property assessed at $130K?  And what about the public – do we deserve an explanation about the purchase?  What is the plan for the acquisition? And if there is a plan, how much will that plan cost? 

I have the questions, but it doesn’t look like there will be much in the way of answers.

No Custodial Outsourcing for 2012/13 but looks like Sports and/or Activity Fees Could be a Reality in T/E

Based on attending the TESD Finance Committee meeting, it looks like the custodial outsourcing in the school district is ‘off the table of consideration’ for another year.  If you recall, the most significant cost-saving measure to the District remaining from last year’s budget was ‘outsourcing of custodial services’ with a savings listed as $950K.  After internal TENIG (non-instructional union of TESD) discussion, the custodial workers made an offer to the school district, which was presented to the Finance Committee by school board president Karen Cruickshank.

For the 2012-13 year, the custodial workers of TENIG have offered a 10% reduction in their salaries and they will not take the 4.5% increase contained in their existing contract. In real dollars, the cost savings to the District is $197K in salary reduction, plus the additional percentage contractual savings for a total savings of approximately $285K!

Beyond the generosity of the custodian workers offer, the Board realizes that it is difficult to measure intangibles in the in-house custodial services … many of the employees live in the T/E and their families are part o the community.  With that comes a level of safety that is difficult to measure.  Although the custodial workers offer has to be reviewed internally by the District attorneys, the it received overwhelmingly positive support from the Board.

A $285K savings to the school district plus the bonus of saving local jobs … congratulations to TENIG, custodial workers, District staff and Karen Cruickshank (on behalf of the school board) for such a positive outcome early in the 2012/13 budget discussions.

Ray Clarke also attended last night’s Finance Committee meeting and I thank him for his willingness to share his thoughts and opinions below:

Notes from Ray Clarke, TESD Finance Committee Meeting

A relatively well-attended TESD Finance committee meeting on Monday, and some important topics discussed – in varying depth and with varying data quality – the two not always correlated.

1.  A significant announcement from Mrs Cruickshank at the end of the meeting: the janitorial staff in the TENIG union have offered to take a 10% reduction in wages for the 2012/13 school year. Their contract entitles them to, and the preliminary budget assumed, a 4.5% contractual increase. By my math, starting from the $1.97 million compensation line item provided by Dr Waters, this means a total benefit versus the budget of $286,000. In return the union asked for the district to remove the outsourcing option for 2012/13. (Also, with no further actions next year, the salaries would revert in 2013/14 to the contracted level – a 20% increase that would not of course be a tenable option).

After getting the numbers sorted through, the Committee was very appreciative and broadly in favor of this offer, weighed against a potential outsourcing saving three times the offer, but with risk and the uncertainty of basing the alternative on now-expired bids.

This looks to be a good result for all concerned. Employment security is maintained and compensation continues to move towards market levels. Importantly, it can continue to do so assuming similar flexibility next year and a more equitable benefits program in the next contract.

2. Much information was shared regarding possible fees for “sports and activities”. Most neighboring school districts have either implemented some kind of fee or are considering doing so. There are as many approaches as there are school districts. Significant money can be raised: at $100 per sport/activity (with a cost to the district), the revenue would be about $150,000 for both high school students and middle school students. For context, about 1700 of the 2050 high school students participate in at least one sport/activity of any type; the middle school numbers are similar.

There seems to be a consensus that the district should charge only for those activities for which it incurs costs for either extra teacher time (EDRs) or for transportation. (An interesting issue thus raised: the process by which a club gets the status of having compensated teacher oversight). Also clear is that there should be a process to ensure that no student should be prevented from participating for financial considerations.

Decisions still to be made:

  • The same fee for any sport or activity, or some kind of tier system loosely based on cost?
  • A fee per student regardless of number of sports/activities or a fee per sport or activity up to a maximum?
  • The amount of any fees

The administration was charged with coming back with further permutations. It seems to me that it would be helpful to also tabulate other districts’ experience regarding participation levels and administrative costs. There seems to be a good argument for action here. For me, fairness would suggest some kind of tiered fee structure with a maximum, if it can be administered reasonably. The Committee is keen to give this air time at the Budget Workshop.

3.  On revenues: no immediate bad news in the Corbett budget proposal. The move to bundle four separately calculated state funding items (basic ed, social security subsidy and public and non-public transportation) looks to me like a plan to cap future funding in a way that is unrelated to the actual underlying costs of those items. The one loss is a $50,000 grant that TE uses to fund the homework club.

Less good news on the property re-assessment front: $573,000 of lost revenue more or less planned for in the budget, but in addition $550,000 at risk from nine commercial assessments being appealed to the state courts and $820,000 at risk from a Vanguard appeal.

This illustrates the district’s vulnerability from relying solely on one tax that falls disproportionately on a class or classes of taxpayer that see no direct benefit from the tax, when many of those who get the benefit see their tax dollars going to other jurisdictions. But unfortunately any discussion of diversifying the tax base was hijacked in the last election.

4.  A big mystery around the district medical benefits cost. Independence Blue Cross is apparently proposing a change in the way it gets compensated for administering our self-funded plan. Currently they get a 2.5% administrative fee (if only the overhead for the entire US healthcare system were that low!). Much perplexity about the proposal since it is being couched in terms of changing provider discounts. However, the net effect would be a $400,000 to $620,000 cost increase. I’m not sure there will be too much to be done about what is effectively a price increase, but more clarity needs to be provided.

5.  No net surprises in the current district financials so far. We are on track for a deficit of about $0.75 million, as budgeted after adding back the $1.3 million budget reversal.

TESD Preliminary Budget Approved With $2.5 Million Budget Deficit

I attended the Board of Supervisors meeting last night; Ray Clarke attended the school district meeting and has graciously provided his notes for use on Community Matters.  The preliminary 2012-13 school district budget was approved with a $2.5 million budget gap — continuing to cut expenses or dipping into the fund balance?  I know from attending the last Finance Committee meeting that the outsourcing of the custodial workers remains on the list as possible budget strategies.

In reading his notes, a couple of observations about the Facilities Committee are noteworthy.  The District’s maintenance departments needs for storage facilities has been discussed for a number of years.  There are preliminary plans for construction of a maintenance building on District-owned property on Old Lancaster Rd., down from the T/E Middle School.  But according to Ray’s notes, it would seem that the Facilities Committee is now looking at other options, including non-District owned property.  Maybe that option is for leasing facilities space rather than new construction – I hope the option is not suggesting that the District purchase additional property.

It is interesting to note that the Facilities Committee will revisit the IT plan at their next meeting – further discussion wireless in the school district.  Maybe I am remembering incorrectly, but I thought at one point there was discussion of hiring an IT consultant to review the District’s current situation and to offer recommendations.  I thought the consultant fee was in last year’s budget . . . perhaps I am not recalling this correctly.

Here are Ray’s notes  – as always, I thank him for taking the time to send his commentary.

  • The preliminary budget was approved 8 -1. Liz Mercogliano changed her position with no explanation. As approved, there is a $2.5 million deficit that the Board has to close either through expense cuts or fund balance usage. Also, as approved, there is no increase in teacher salaries (but the same benefits plan and that 47% increase in the pension contribution). When asked if changes to the benefit plan are on the table, the comment from Dr Brake was that they “could be”. Of course they are! Why not say so?
  • Class room capacity was discussed in the committee reports. Computer labs are being repurposed at TEMS and Devon Elementary, but at the latter it seems that this will only buy one classroom and one year. There will be 7 or 8 sections of first graders there next year. The administration has been charged to study options for 2013/14; these could include re-districting. Devon has 550 students, Beaumont has 450. It wasn’t completely clear, but I thought I heard that the enrollment trends will require another 3.6 FTEs beyond the 444.4 budgeted for 2012/13.
  • Important topics for the next Facilities Committee on Feb 17th at 2pm. First, the never-ending discussion of facilities for the maintenance department will continue, with a presentation of non-district owned options. Second, the IT strategy discussion has been resurrected, and we’ll hear a plan to make the schools wireless. Let’s hope for something that clearly promises improvement in educational quality and reductions in cost to justify investment of – dare I say it – some of that fat Fund Balance.
  • President Karen Cruickshank thanked Mrs. Graham for a “wonderfully thorough” legislative report, which was mostly a lengthy advocacy for the community to lobby the state for increased funding in advance of the Corbett budget announcement on Feb 7th.

Underfunded Pennsylvania Pension Funds Need Real Reform

Pennsylvania is facing a multi-billion dollar public pension crisis – now is the time for pension reform in Harrisburg.  The Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) and the State Employees Retirement System (SERS), the two systems administering retirement accounts for state and public school employees, are severely underfunded and will become insolvent without an increase in taxpayer contributions.

In discussing the need for pension reform, in December 2010, I wrote . . .

“did you know that more than half the state’s municipal pension plans are less than 90 percent funded?  Calculated as the ratio of assets to liabilities, 644 municipal pension plans are labeled as “distressed” by the state’s Public Employee Retirement Commission (PERC).  Of those, 26 are less than 50 percent funded and branded as “severely distressed.”

I cannot speak for the accuracy of those numbers thirteen months later, but I have to believe that they have not improved.

One of the last bills signed into law as Gov. Rendell was leaving office was HB 2497, which became Act 120.  But instead of reforming the defined-benefit pension system, this legislation ‘kicked the pension can’ further down the road, by deferring pension payments and increasing the unfunded liability by billions of dollars in lost investments and interest – in essence, leaving the problem on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.

In the old days, the nature of traditional pension coverage in the private and public sector was quite similar; the majority of all employees were covered by a defined benefit plan where the liability of the pension lies with the employer. However, there is a reason why in the last decade that the vast majority of private sector employees have turned away from defined benefit plans to some form of a 401(k) type plan – the challenge of keeping a defined-benefit plan, particularly in our unstable economic climate, has proven too great for most companies to bear.

Defined-benefit plans may provide the best financial safety net for employees, but most private sectors can no longer afford to maintain them – the strain on the company balance sheets has proved too large for firms to withstand.  And even in the case where a company struggled to keep a traditional defined-benefit plan in place, the economic downturn has prompted plan changes whether they were preferred or not.

Teachers and state workers should not be targeted as public enemies because of their benefit packages. However, I just do not see how their defined-benefit plan (in its present form) is sustainable for the future.  Clearly, pension reform should not affect any vested state employees or pensioners already in the system – changes should only affect future employees.

From the taxpayer side, we are angry because we have to make up the state’s pension fund losses as we watch our own 401(k) accounts depleting. The teachers argue they never took a vacation from paying into the system and that a pension is necessary to attract and keep good teachers.  Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) the state’s largest teachers union is on record that will oppose any proposed changes to Act 120, such as a 401(k) type of defined contribution plan. This is a catch-22 situation; we want to maintain a high quality of teachers and state workers in Pennsylvania, but we cannot afford the current pension price tag.

During the last election cycle, there was much discussion from school board candidates about the District’s financial situation and possible solutions, including imposing an earned income tax.  Some candidates believed that because the financial problems were caused by Harrisburg, that it should be up to the state to find the solution, not the school districts (taxpayers).  Candidate and now re-elected school board president Karen Cruickshank called on the state to “fix your mess” and suggested that residents contact their legislators and the governor to push for pension reform.

State Rep Warren Kampf (R-157) has an editorial, “Change the pension system to help taxpayers” in today’s Phoenixville Patch. In the article, Kampf states that his pension reform legislation,

“will require all new state employees and those hired by school districts to participate in a defined contribution plan (like the 401k-style plan that is prevalent in the private sector) where the taxpayer would  be required only to match the employee’s contribution. This would be in lieu of the traditional defined benefit pension plan”. 

Under Kampf’s plan, state employees would have a system similar to the private sector where an employee owns their 401(k) plan and takes it with them if they leave the job.  In a Community Matters article from December 2010 (cited earlier) I wrote,

“. . . As another form of fiscal responsibility, Kampf announced that he would not be taking the state’s defined-benefit pension plan and will work on the creation of a defined 401K-type plan for legislators and state employees.” 

I have not agreed with all of Kampf’s votes since he took office, but to give credit where due . . .  Kampf’s promise to work on pension reform were made prior to his taking office in 2011, and today we learn that he plans to introduce his proposed reform legislation this spring.  (Click here to read the Phoenixville Patch editorial).

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?

Election Day 2011 is over . . . Looks like much will remain the same!

Election Day 2011 has now passed and the ‘unofficial’ results are in. The full results for all races can be found at the Chester County website, www.chesco.org. In reviewing the results, all incumbents prevailed in the supervisor and school board races. Other than Karen Cruickshank’s re-election as school board director, it was a clean sweep for the Republicans for the T/E School Board and Board of Supervisors.

SCHOOL DIRECTOR TREDYFFRIN EASTTOWN REGION I
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 2
JAMES D BRUCE (REP) . . . . . . . 1,443     25.33
TARA G LA FIURA (REP) . . . . . . 1,336     23.46
KAREN CRUICKSHANK (DEM) 1,635    28.70
JERRY HENIGE (DEM) . . . . . . . 1,280      22.47
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 2 .04

SCHOOL DIRECTOR TREDYFFRIN EASTTOWN REGION II
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 2
ELIZABETH A MERCOGLIANO (REP). . 2,416      25.71
KRIS GRAHAM (REP). . . . . . . .                2,428     25.84
JENNIFER LIGHTMAN WESSELS (DEM) . . .   2,322        24.71
SCOTT DORSEY (DEM) . . . . . . .                 2,229         23.72
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 1 .01

SCHOOL DIRECTOR TREDYFFRIN EASTTOWN REGION III
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 1
PETER MOTEL (REP). . . . . . . . 1,256     61.51
CRAIG A LEWIS (DEM) . . . . . . 785       38.44
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 1 .05

Karen Cruickshank (D, Jim Bruce (R) and Pete Motel (R) were re-elected for TESD Region 1 and Liz Mercogliano (R) and Kris Graham (R) were elected for TESD Region II. In Region III, incumbent Pete Motel won by a significant margin against his opponent. If you recall from the school board debate, the candidate who made personal attacks was Craig Lewis against Pete Motel. Maybe this win indicates that voters from Easttown did not appreciate Mr. Lewis tactics. Cruickshank is currently serving as president of the school board and her win reflects a vote of confidence from the voters on her performance.

Looking at Mercogliano’s win, I am reminded that neither she nor Tara LaFiura participated in the League of Women Voters debate. If I had been a betting person, I would have thought that would have harmed her chances of winning. But she was only 12 votes behind the winner Kris Graham who did participate in the debate.

Here are the unofficial results from the Tredyffrin supervisor races:

TOWNSHIP SUPERVISOR AT-LARGE TREDYFFRIN TOWNSHIP
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 2
MICHAEL C HEABERG (REP). . . . . . 4,020    27.09
KRISTEN KIRK MAYOCK (REP) . . . . 4,042    27.24
MOLLY DUFFY (DEM). . . . . . . .               3,636       24.50
F MICHAEL MURPH WYSOCKI (DEM). 3,137       21.14
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 4 .03

DISTRICT SUPERVISOR 1ST DISTRICT TREDYFFRIN 1ST DISTRICT
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 1
PAUL W OLSON (REP) . . . . . . . 1,331      50.21
VICTORIA SNYDER (DEM) . . . . . . 1,318      49.72
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 2 .08

DISTRICT SUPERVISOR 3RD DISTRICT TREDYFFRIN 3RD DISTRICT
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 1
JOHN JD DIBUONAVENTURO (REP) . . . . 1,616    98.54
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 24 1.46

Incumbent Mike Heaberg (R) was re-elected along with Kristen Mayock (R). Only 22 votes separated those two spots. Unopposed in the race, JD DiBuonavnturo (R) was re-elected for District 3. In District 1, Paul Olson (R) will retain his seat on the Board of Supervisors. Tory Snyder (D) gave Olson a real run and came within 13 votes of unseating him.

Based on these results, Tredyffrin’s Board of Supervisors will continue as an all-Republican board. Mayock’s election to the Board adds a third woman – it has been awhile since we had that dynamic. Personally I’m looking forward to that new element and what that will mean for the residents.

In an upset, Jeremy Blackburn (R) was unseated by Analisa Sondergaard (D) as District Judge. I was one of those who believed that our District Judge should be an attorney so I am very supportive of Sondergaard’s win in this election.

MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE DISTRICT 15-4-01
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 1
JEREMY M BLACKBURN (REP) . . . . .   1,847   48.36
ANALISA SONDERGAARD (DEM) . . . . . 1,971    51.61
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 1 .03

In the Chester County District Attorney race, I am pleased that Tom Hogan (R) won this race and will serve the county as our new DA.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 1
TOM HOGAN (REP) . . . . . . . .  45,036   60.07
SAMUEL C STRETTON (DEM). . . . . . 29,826   39.78
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 106 .14

In the County Commissioner race, the three incumbents, Ryan Costello (R), Terence Farrell (R) and Kathy Cozzone (D) were all re-elected to another term as Commissioners.

COUNTY COMMISSIONER
VOTE NOT MORE THAN 2
RYAN A COSTELLO (REP) . . . . . . 42,232      29.40
TERENCE FARRELL (REP) . . . . . . 40,629    28.29
KATHI COZZONE (DEM) . . . . . . .    31,933     22.23
SUSAN BAYNE (DEM). . . . . . . .  28,736      20.01
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 111 .08

To all the candidates, thank you for all the time and energy spent over these last few months with your campaigns.  To our newly elected officials, the community thanks you and remain hopeful that you will stand behind the campaign promises that you made to the residents.

Yesterday I visited several precincts and spoke to many people.  There was a constant theme in our discussions; I learned that many people in this community were deeply troubled by the campaign rhetoric of the political parties.  They spoke of the infamous yellow signs, the negative campaign mailers and of the robo-calls.  I actually had several people say that they almost stayed home in protest and knew that would not help with the message.  Regardless if you are the winning side or not, please know that the tactics during this campaign season was not what many in the community want.  I hope that in the aftermath of Election Day 2011, the local Republican and Democratic party will take the time to reflect on their campaign strategies for the future.

T/E School Board Candidates Asked What’s Most Important Issue – Responses from Tredyffrin Democratic candidates & Easttown candidates, no Tredyffrin Republican candidate responses

We know that local elections are important and that the choices that you make on Election Day, Tuesday, November 8 will help determine the future of our community.  As a way to better understand the school board candidates and what they value as the most important issues facing the district, I sent a three-part question to all Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board candidates. Previously, I had received and posted the responses from Easttown school board candidates – Republican Pete Motel and Democrat Craig Lewis.

Following the League of Women Voters debate on October 25, I received responses to the question from Tredyffrin Democratic school board candidates.  However, the Tredyffrin Republican school board candidates declined to participate.

Below is the question and the responses from Tredyffrin’s Democratic school board candidates Karen Cruickshank, Jerry Henige, Scott Dorsey and Jenny Wessels.   Following their responses, I have reposted the responses from Easttown’s school board candidates Pete Motel (R) and Craig Lewis (D)

It’s a shame that the Republican school board candidates in Tredyffrin Twp declined to respond. One of two reasons — either the Republican school board candidates in Tredyffrin didn’t see any value in my question (and their answers) or they didn’t see value in Community Matters.  But then two of the Republican school board candidates (Tara LaFiura, Region 1 and Liz Mercogliano, Region 2) decided against participating in the League of Women Voters debate so perhaps I should not take their decision as personal.

Dear School Board Candidates:

Local elections are important.  In an attempt to inform voters for Election Day, as a candidate for the TE School Board, I hope you will participate in the following Q&A on Community Matters.

In 200 words or less, please respond to the following question. Incorporate all three parts of the question into your response and please be specific.  School board candidate responses will list on Community Matters in the order that they are received.

(1) In your opinion, what is the single most important issue facing the Tredyffrin Easttown School District?
(2) If you were elected, what would you do to help solve or improve this issue?
(3) The Tredyffrin Easttown School District needs problem-solvers; what in your background or job experience qualifies you to help solve this important issue?

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Karen Cruickshank
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Region 1

The most important issue facing the T/E School District is our fiscal outlook.

The School District faces a 5.5 million dollar budget gap for 2012 and increases to 17 million in 2015.

State controlled pension obligations will increase from 4.7 million in 2011 to 13.3 million in 2015. In 2001 state legislators gave themselves, state employees, and public school employees a big increase in pension pay outs. These increases were never OKd by local school districts or the public.

The second budget factor is a loss of 6.5 million in revenues since 2006 from commercial and residential real estate reassessments.

In response to fiscal issues the School District has cut 10 million dollars out of its budget. Our teacher’s union gave up half of their raises for this year and our non-teaching union gave up all of their raises.

If re-elected I will work with legislators, unions, administrators, and citizens to find solutions to fiscal issues. I will look for ways the District can become more efficient without hurting the quality of our schools.

A trained higher education professional, I understand the issues facing education. I am trained in conflict negotiation and am a proven consensus builder.

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Jerry Henige
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Tredyffrin Region 1

We have great schools that contribute to the wonderful quality of our neighborhoods. However, our great schools are facing serious financial challenges. For example, we are losing almost $3M a year due to property reassessments and this amount will continue to grow. And, based on bad decisions in Harrisburg, the amount the school district is being asked to pay into the pension funds will grow from $3M last year to $13.4M over the next 4 years.

At the same time Kevin Mahoney, the financial expert on the school board, is retiring leaving a critical skills gap. The financial challenges are too great to leave this gap unfilled. I believe that with my 30+ years of management and financial experience, I am the candidate that is best suited to fill this gap.

We need a school board that can work as a team to focus on potential solutions. We need to partner with parents and taxpayers, teachers and other school districts, our townships and employers to put pressure on Harrisburg to address the pension problem.

We need a school board that is prepared to work diligently to find common ground with all these constituencies. We need to be willing to try alternative approaches to education that may be more effective than what we are doing today. And we need to consider the plight of the retiree on fixed income, the family with a member who has lost a job.

I believe that I have the financial skills, temperament and energy to manage the serious financial challenges facing the school board.

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Scott Dorsey
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Tredyffrin Region 2

Today our district is facing a financial storm that threatens the excellence that we have come to expect from our schools.   $6.5 million in lost property tax revenues because of reassessments, and other revenue shortfalls will devastate programs that are vital to many average students.  Co-curricular and extra-curricular programs are also in danger. I have proven track record as a non- profit Administrator who is fiscally responsible, and I am personally opposed to the Earned Income Tax.

My background as an educator and community leader has inspired my passion for investing in children’s success. In response to TESD’s budget challenges, I propose to:

  • Collaborate with the public and private sector for solutions that combine best educational and business practices that will benefit every child
  • Fight to hold the line in the upcoming teachers’ contract
  • Find creative solutions to keep sports and other after-school activities from being cut
  • Work with the Unions to lobby the state legislature to fix the pension system
  • Work with the Township to build grant-funded sidewalks that could reduce transportation costs

I have deep experience as an administrator who has helped lead multi-million dollar non- profit organizations from the red to sound fiscal footing.   I am a skilled consensus builder.  I am the only school board candidate who has not sought union endorsement because I believe full transparency is required in the upcoming contract negotiations. I will lead with integrity, fiscal responsibility, and a dedication to investing in our children’s success.

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Jennifer Lightman Wessels
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Tredyffrin Region 2

The most important issue facing our school board is managing our limited financial resources while minimizing the impact on our educational program.  I will be a voice on the board committed to protecting our outstanding educational program.

To lessen the financial strain on our district, I will lobby Harrisburg for legislative reform.  I will use my training as a labor attorney to achieve a successful result during contract negotiations with the teachers’ union in 2012.  I will be open to innovative ideas, such as pursuing new income streams from advertising and private funding.  I will not, however, support the implementation of new taxes such as the Earned Income Tax (EIT) and I would oppose any move to enact an EIT in Tredyffrin Township.

As a parent of two young children in our school district and having served as the President of the PTO at New Eagle Elementary School for two years, I understand and care deeply about the issues facing our school district.  As a taxpayer, I understand the importance of balancing these concerns with fiscal restraint and responsibility.

Among all the school board candidates, I am unique in that I will bring both a parent’s perspective and a lawyer’s skill to this job.  I look forward to the opportunity to serve.

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Pete Motel
Republican Candidate for School Board Director, Easttown Township

The biggest challenge facing the T/E School District is maintaining the quality of education it delivers during the current economic downturn.

District revenue is down by millions of dollars primarily due to two reasons:

  1. Property tax assessment appeals resulting in decreased real estate tax collection;
  2. Decreased home sales resulting in decreased real estate transfer tax.  This is coupled with steep increases in the state required contribution to the state pension system – now millions above the contribution required last year.

Great efforts have been made by the Board to balance the District’s budgets without significantly effecting educational opportunities. The Board has implemented cost containment through administrative salary freezes, implementation of self-insured health insurance and more efficient scheduling of staff time.

With the economic recovery projected to take another several years, T/E Boards need to continue to cut expenses without reducing core educational programs.  Success will require detailed knowledge of District operations and proven leadership skills.

My experience on the T/E Board as Committee Chairs and past Board president, coupled with my professional experience as a small business owner, demonstrate that I have the proven skills to help guide the District through the next few years of difficult budgets.

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Craig Lewis
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Easttown Township

TE’s biggest issue is irresponsible budgeting.

My opponent, republican Dr. Motel, has mandated 5 study halls per week in Conestoga High (12% instruction reduction) AND a 20% increase in students per teacher.  TE was the 4th best high school in Pennsylvania.  Losing this rank will result in a 10% home price decline, reduced college acceptance, scholarships and earning potential.

  • My opponent diverted education money to purchase, tear-down and build non-educational facilities wasting millions of dollars.

TE’s projection shows out-of-control budget shortfalls.  Starting with the current year they are:

-$777,000
-$3,909,000
-$7,925,241
-$11,862,000
-$15,450,000

My fiscally conservative priorities to prevent this catastrophe are:
Stop wasteful spending

  • Halt all construction and real-estate acquisitions.
  • The teacher pay was cut and workload increased 20%.  Aggressive cost reduction has to look at all other areas.
  • Halt no-bid contracting

Preserve our premier school ranking

  • Repeal the 5 study-hall mandate.
  • Respect our staff; balance their workloads.
  • Initiate summer enrichment programs for profit.

Retirees deserve school tax relief – My opponent never did this, I will.

I have twenty years of experience in setting goals, developing strategies, creating and managing budgets, both departmental and enterprise wide.  This required creative approaches, engaging individuals from different departments to drive successful outcomes.

Why Must the Campaign Season be ‘Politics as Usual’ . . . Please, Can it be the Truth?

Truth allows you to live with integrity. Everything you do and say shows the world who you really are. Let it be the Truth. ~ Oprah Winfrey

Is it ‘all in the name of politics’ these days that candidates seeking public office can simply fabricate information and then claim it as a truth? Is that OK or just what we have come to expect during campaign season?

Depending on where you live, as a Tredyffrin Township resident, you may have a received a negative political mailer today from the Tredyffrin Township Republican school board candidates. This mailer immediately took me back to two years ago, when as a supervisor candidate and new to politics, my fellow supervisor candidates, Eamon Brazunas and Sean Moir and I were the target of a similar negative mailer.

I will never forget the feeling of distress at reading misleading and false information contained in that 2009 campaign mailer about myself. And it is for that reason that I must use this forum to speak out on today’s Republican school board candidate mailer.

The words on the mailer from the Tredyffrin Republicans state . . . “Tredyffrin’s Democrat School Board team wants to implement an income tax” and  “. . . the Democrat Team for School Board has begun the process of creating a new tax – an earned income tax”. These words are not only misleading, they simply are not accurate and hurtful.

Previously I have written about my disappointment at the yellow ‘No EIT’ Republican signs.  I believed that the school district’s tax study group should present their ‘pros and cons’ of an earned income tax at next week’s public meeting without premature judging from a political party.  OK, I get the idea behind the signs – they present an effective way to make it look like the Democrat candidates are ‘for’ an EIT without having to actually say it. Although we did hear all supervisor candidates state, at Monday’s League of Women Voters debate, they were opposed to an earned income tax (and that included the Democrat candidates).

So, as I read the words on the Republican school board candidate mailer, I ask where did any of them read or ever hear a Democratic school board candidate say that he or she wants to implement an earned income tax.  It is one thing to imply something cleverly on a political sign, but stating a falsehood as the truth is something different.  It is particularly disheartening that this is a mailer for the ‘school’ board election . . . don’t we want to set the right example for our children?

I support the value of giving voice to the community but not for those who choose to further divide us.  Shouldn’t we want better for our community? Tredyffrin Township and its residents deserve the truth. I know several of the Republican school board candidates personally — and I believe that they are better than this mailer represents.

Community Matters did not exist two years ago so I did not have many options to ‘balance the scale’ after I was the targeted with misleading and false information during the campaign.  Because of my experience, I am giving the four Democratic school board candidates – Karen Cruickshank, Jerry Henige, Scott Dorsey and Jenny Wessels an opportunity to respond to the Republican mailer on Community Matters.  If they choose to respond, I will post their comments.

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Campaign Mailer side 1

Campaign Mailer side 2

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