Ken Roos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016-17: 3.6%
2015-16: 3.81%
2014-15: 3.4%
2013-14: 1.7%
2012-13: 3.3%
2011-12: 3.77%
2010-11: 2.9%
2009-10: 2.95%
2008-09: 4.37%
2007-08: 3.37%
2006-07: 3.90%
2005-06: 1.40%
2004-05: Zero Tax Increase

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

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

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TE School Board Votes to Outsource Aides & Paraeducators and Makes Records Public from Secret Executive Sessions

After two long years of battling to save their District jobs, it is now official – the TE School Board voted to outsource the jobs of 73 full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES (Chester County Regional Educational Services).

In a School Board meeting that went until midnight, the School Board listened to a nearly endless stream of resident comments, which supported the aides and paraeducators, opposed the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project and those who called for Board transparency and public input on District matters.

There were many residents asking for the District to provide health care benefits but the Board was not moved by the appeals.  Kevin Buraks insisted that this was not a financial decision but that rather related to the District’s possible penalty of ACA compliance issues.  What is interesting is that the contract with CCRES includes the caveat that should CCRES be fined for ACA noncompliance, the penalty will be passed to the District (taxpayers).

When time finally came to vote to outsource the District’s aides and paras, School Board member Jim Bruce recused himself, for financial reasons – stating that he is on the CCRES Board of Directors, implying that this was a paid position.  (With an obvious conflict of interest, it is noted that Mr. Bruce has never recused himself from other previous CCRES-related issues and decisions).  During the outsourcing discussion, Liz Mercogliano stated her opposition on the issue but at the time of the vote, she abstained. Although she did not publically offer a reason, perhaps it is because her daughter is a part-time aide.  In a roll call vote, the other seven School Board members all voted for the CCRES as the vendor. The Republicans School Board members President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Peter Motel and Democratic School Board members Kevin Buraks, Karen Cruickshank and Scott Dorsey voted together in favor of outsourcing the full-time employees to CCRES.

At midnight last night, the District’s aides and paras received the following email notifying them of the outsourcing decision.

To All District Aides, Paraprofessionals and Paraeducators who work more than 27.5 hours per week:

This evening CCRES was approved as the vendor for aides and paras who choose to remain working more than 27.5 hours per week.  The vote occurred during the regularly scheduled meeting of the School Board of Directors. We understand that you may have many questions, so we will be setting up meetings with CCRES and District representatives in the very near future. We will notify you of those meeting dates and times later this week. The decision deadline has been extended to Friday, May 15.

Best regards,

Jeanne Pocalyko
Personnel Director

Related to the outsourcing decision, Neal Colligan was notified at 4 PM yesterday by Art McDonnell, the District’s Open Records Officer and Business Manager, that the School Board had approved the release of information from the five secret Executive Sessions regarding the discussion of the aides and paraeducator employment change and the Affordable Care Act.  Various related records from the secret meetings were made public and are now available on the District website at ACA/Support Materials .

At the School Board meeting, District Solicitor Ken Roos explained that the Board waived their attorney-client privilege by making the records public.  With this latest action of the  District, I assume that the School Board has decided against an appeal to the Chester County Court of Common Pleas in the case of Neal Colligan vs Tredyffrin-Easttown School District and that the matter goes no further.

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Victory for Government Transparency: Citizen wins Open Records Case against TE School District

Neal Colligan wins in Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case!

Between November 2014 and February 2015, School Board president Kris Graham called five special Executive Sessions to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators. These meetings were held out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation. The meetings were not a harmless error but rather, a deliberate attempt to be secretive.

In early 2015, the Board continued to discuss outsourcing of 73 full-times aides and paras as a budget strategy. Then in a surprise move at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting, the Board approved a resolution to change their employment status.

Citing on-going transparency concerns in School Board deliberations, a small group of citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Peggy Layden, Barbara Jackson, Jerry Henige and myself) sent a certified letter to the Board, appealing to them to reopen the outsourcing discussion and allow public commentary.

In a response on behalf of the School Board, the District Solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine claimed that no Sunshine Act violation had occurred and that the Board was in full compliance with public discussion. Beyond Roos’ dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear to many, that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act.

Advocating for government transparency, Neal Colligan filed a Right to Know request with the District for TESD records related to the secret Executive Sessions.  The RTK request was denied, with the District Solicitor stating that the records pertained to “labor relations strategy and predecisional deliberations” of the District.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No.: AP 2015-0442. News came yesterday from Harrisburg that Roos had lost the case for the District.  PA Office of Open Records (OOR) attorney Jill Wolfe notified Neal (and Roos, Supt. Dan Waters and TESD Open Records officer Art McDonnell) of the Final Determination. In the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case, Neal’s appeal was granted and the District is required to provide all requested Affordable Care Act records from the secret Executive Sessions within 30 days.   (Click here to read the OOR Final Determination).

In their legal analysis of the case, the OOR cited SWB Yankees LLC v Wintermantel, 45 A.3d1029, 1041 (PA 2012), “the objective of the Right to Know Law … is to empower citizens by affording them access to information concerning the activities of their government.”  The analysis further offered that in Bowling v. Office of Open Records, 990 A.d813,824 (Pa.Commw.Ct20140) the open-government law is “designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials and make public officials accountable for their actions.”

Touting the secret meetings as legal, the School Board hid behind the legal advice of the solicitor by holding secret meetings on the Affordable Care Act and deliberations regarding the future of the aides and paraeducators.  Believing that that they were within their rights to hold such meetings, Board member and attorney Kevin Buraks responded to residents at TESD meeting that although this [secret meetings] wasn’t normally how the Board operated, they did so because it was a “strategic decision”. According to the Final Determination of the OOR, the information discussed at the “secret” meetings was not “secret” after all.

I have learned that subsequent to the Board’s February vote to change the employment status of the aides and paras, that School Board president Kris Graham barred her fellow school board member Liz Mercogliano from attending any of the five secret ACA meetings. This information is very troubling; Liz is an elected official and has the same rights as the other eight members. How could the District solicitor and other Board members sanction this behavior and not speak out?

It just is enormously frustrating that citizens can’t access records that are open and have to fight for records that the School Board should have provided. How much taxpayer money has been spent on fighting public records requests? The School Board should encourage public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  Addressing public questions shows us that you have nothing to hide and that as elected officials, that you support transparency and open government.

Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan asked for transparency and easily accessible information that should be public information.  He was not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.  After receiving the Final Determination from the Office of Open Records, Neal emailed the Board, which read in part:

The real question is what will happen now … You could elect to finally provide the public with the information used in your Executive Meeting discussions regarding the fate of the Para’s and Aides in the District.  This would be the right thing to do in your continuing efforts to be a transparent government organization.  You had your Solicitor argue the matter to the Open Records Committee and they decided you/he did not meet the burden of proof that these records should continue to be shielded from the public.  I encourage you to direct the appropriate parties to take action and release these records immediately …. and not after another 30 days.

If you do not make the choice above, you can continue to fight this citizen of the community by appealing the OOR decision to the Court of Common Pleas.  By choosing this path, you will continue to spend the taxpayer’s money in a continued effort to keep your Executive Session meetings regarding the paras and sides secret from the very community you were elected to serve.

How much taxpayer money has already been expended on legal maneuverings?  Do you want to continue this fight against the engaged citizens of your community by entering into the next level of legal action?  Who is in charge here/who is calling the shots?  We all await your reply.

As Neal says, we do await the Board’s response.  The outsourcing threat for the District’s aides and paraeducators has been omnipresent since 2013. Aides and paraeducators are the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status). Unfortunately, they have become the pawns of the School Board, the administration and the District solicitor causing some of us to question decisions of the Board’s leadership.  The Board voted in February to outsource full-time aides and paras yet no vendor selection as been made.  A decision is expected on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM TE School Board meeting at Conestoga High School.

Will the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District outcome have an effect on the Board’s decisions regarding the District’s aides and paras? Was the School Board’s avoidance of ACA compliance and outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators worth the price of an Open Records Law violation? Residents may never know the actual cost of the Board’s secret meetings or the District’s legal costs to keep public information from the public.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obamacare Delay — Hours Restored for TE School District Employees for 2013-14 School Year!

Exciting news today for the TE School District aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals — their hours have been fully restored for the 2013-14 school year!  This is wonderful news for the affected employees who faced major cuts to their hours — in some cases, as much as twenty-five percent. The restoration of hours of the aides and paras to their previous level is win-win news for the students, their parents and the community!

According to an announcement on the District website this morning (see below), the District solicitor has confirmed that delay of the Affordable Care Act implementation for another year.  Based on this notice, it is interesting that the policy-making decision to restore the employee hours comes from the office of the District solicitor, Ken Roos to the administration. As a result, the District has suspended the June 17 school board decision to reduce the hours of aides and paras to 27.5 hours or below.  This may only be a one-year reprive for the affected employees, and they could find them in the same position a year from now, however … so much can happen in a year.   For examples, the Federal government could change implementation requirements for ACA, specifically as it relates to part-time workers.

With outsourcing of aides and paras off the table for a year and the restoration of their hours, the 2013-14 school year presents an opportunity for the District to fully understand the ACA insurance requirements for their employees.  Rather than reducing the hours of employees to avoid Federal compliance laws, perhaps alternatives can be explored to provide affordable health care to all District employees.  In an earlier post, I mentioned the idea of 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 — use the ACA transition period and learn more on the topic.  As more information becomes available from Washington,the Board will be better positioned to work towards compliance for the following year.

School Board Suspends June 17, 2013 Resolution to Limit Hours of Current Aides, Para-Educators and Paraprofessionals to 27.5 or Less

The hours for District aides and paraeducators will not be limited to 27.5 hours per week for the 2013-2014 school year as was previously announced. The District Solicitor has confirmed that the Treasury Department has delayed the implementation of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act relevant to the Board’s June 17 resolution directing the administration to schedule all District part-time employees, such as aides and paraeducators, for no more than 27.5 hours per week for the 2013-2014 school year to ensure that they meet the definition of part-time employees pursuant to the Affordable Care Act for the 2014-2015 school year. Pursuant to the Board’s subsequent July 8 resolution, the administration is now authorized to suspend the implementation of the Board’s June 17 resolution.
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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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Zoning Amendment Could be Solution to Saving the Tennis Courts

May 1 was the deadline for the School District to submit their variance application to the Township in order to be listed on the Zoning Hearing Board’s May 23 meeting agenda.  According to Township Manager Bill Martin, the application was received today. Some of the neighbors of the Valley Forge Elementary School tennis courts may think there is nothing to stop the ZHB from awarding the variance, but that may not be the case.

The combined impervious coverage of the tennis courts and the additional parking spaces exceeds the township stormwater requirement. Based on the PA Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) there appears to be no legal basis for Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board to grant a variance to the School District.

Under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) a zoning hearing board “may grant a variance, provided that all of the following findings are made where relevant in a given case:

  1. That there are unique physical circumstances or conditions, including irregularity, narrowness, or shallowness of lot size or shape, or exceptional topographical or other physical conditions peculiar to the particular property and that the unnecessary hardship is due to such conditions and not the circumstances or conditions generally created by the provisions of the zoning ordinance in the neighborhood or district in which the property is located.
  2. That because of such physical circumstances or conditions, there is no possibility that the property can be developed in strict conformity with the provisions of the zoning ordinance and that the authorization of a variance is therefore necessary to enable reasonable use of the property.
  3. That such unnecessary hardship has not been created by the appellant.
  4. That the variance, if authorized, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood or district in which the property is located nor substantially or permanently impair the appropriate use or development of adjacent property, nor be detrimental to the public welfare.
  5. That the variance, if authorized, will represent the minimum variance that will afford relief and will represent the least modification possible of the regulation in issue.”

According to the MPC, the School District needs to show an economic hardship for ZHB to grant a variance in this matter. However, the additional parking spaces at VFES are optional (not a requirement) for the School District and therefore do not constitute an economic hardship. I have been forced to accept that using the logic that the impervious coverage (of the tennis courts plus the additional parking) is only a ‘little over’ will not satisfy the MPC requirement. There is also the matter of a strict stormwater policy in Tredyffrin, and an important issue that is unlikely sidestepped.

A solution that would save the tennis courts, allow the additional parking spaces and not require a ZHB variance was presented to the School District and Township by John Petersen, a former ZHB member.  I was copied on the following email sent to Michelle Kichline, chair of the Board of Supervisors, Kevin Buraks, President of the School Board and the Township and School District solicitors, Vince Donohue and Ken Roos, respectfully.

Here’s a suggestion…

The BoS offers up a zoning amendment that creates an exception for what is counted as impervious coverage: tennis courts, basketball courts, etc. that are available for public use (defined as owned by either the township or school district) that exists on or before the date, the zoning amendment is ratified. A possible permutation is that the first 1K square feet is exempted.

I normally don’t endorse amending the ZO based on specific facts. Like everything, there are always exceptions. For an exception, there must be some solid criteria to support such:

1. The items covered by the exception can never increase

2. Its not de-facto spot zoning because there are any number of places where this applies

3. Not likely to have an adverse impact on storm water (TESD will still have storm water issues to deal with in the parking long construction)

4. There is a strong public policy argument in retaining recreational facilities

I don’t think you will get much, if any push back on this. Is it legal? That’s up to you guys to figure out. In my opinion, this is not objectionable, unlike the recent C-1 amendment. The school district is not just any ordinary landowner.

Baring this, there is no way to keep the courts and build the additional parking. There are no legal grounds to grant a variance.

There’s an old saying that bad facts make bad law. In this case, bad facts sometimes require us to re-visit the law. In 1,000 cases, there may be one time when we should do that. I think this is one of those times. The change is very limited and is in keeping with public policy and finally, no material adverse impacts to storm water. The school district should hot have to choose between courts that have been there for 40+ years and the need to add much needed parking.

John

Although there were follow-up emails sent, to date no one has responded to Mr. Petersen’s suggestion.  The four people receiving Petersen’s email (Kichline, Buraks, Donohue and Roos) are all attorneys and therefore presumably understand the standard required by the Municipalities Planning Code for the Zoning Hearing Board to issue a variance. In fact, if memory serves me, Michelle Kichline served on the ZHB before her election to the Board of Supervisors. Considering the legalities of the MPC, why should the School District bother to submit a variance application?  If not economic hardship, on what grounds is the School District seeking a variance?

Even if the Township reduces the fees to the School District, there are professional costs (legal, architectural) involved with the ZHB variance application.  Why not consider a zoning amendment – the tennis courts are saved and the parking lot is expanded.  Looks like a win-win for the Township, the School District and the residents who use the tennis courts!

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Note: I am sending this article to Kichline, Buraks, Donohue and Roos asking them to comment directly to me on (1) the grounds for the ZHB to issue a variance to the School District and (2) the consideration of a zoning amendment.  Their responses will be posted on Community Matters.

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VFES Tennis Courts: Looking for an explanation from TESD President Kevin Buraks

The Valley Forge Elementary School tennis courts are on tonight’s agenda of the TESD.  Every time you think that this situation has moved forward, it takes a couple of steps backwards.  As a result, it is unclear exactly what is going to come out of tonight’s meeting — will the courts stay or will they go?

At the District Facilities Meeting on Friday, April 12, the committee voted to recommend to the school board that the tennis courts be saved.  Having attended the Facilities Meeting, I took that to mean that their recommendation would be discussed at the next regular School Board meeting (tonight).  I presumed that the Facilities Committee would first make the recommendation; but then it would be up to the full School Board to ‘act’ on that recommendation.

However, at the same time that the Facilities Meeting was going on, a draft tennis court agreement was sent from the District to the Township.  We learned of that proposal at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday, April 15 from chair Michelle Kichline.  Kichline, with concurrence from Township Solicitor Vince Donohue, suggested  legal problems with the proposal … specifically, that the District was asking for stormwater relief from the Township, in exchange for the tennis courts.  After all the discussion that has taken place on this topic, it is impossible to understand why the School Board cannot accept that a stormwater-tennis court trade is not legally possible.  Why would the School District submit such a proporal to the township that included storm water relief? We were led to believe at the Facilities Committee meeting, that the school district was interested in a reasonable settlement of the tennis courts situation.  However, the proposed agreement suggests otherwise. Who wrote this draft agreement … the School District Solicitor Ken Roos?

Beyond the legalities of the proposal, I am struggling to understand how this agreement was sent to the township before the School Board reviewed it.  How could the School Board review the draft agreement before the Facilities Committee even sent them their recommendation?  Did School Board president Kevin Buraks review the tennis court proposal and authorize its release to the Township?   Doesn’t proper procedure count for anything?  Where’s the sunshine?

The outcome from the Board of Supervisors meeting was the suggestion for the School District and Township solicitors to prepare the tennis court agreement.  Donohue and Roos are left to ‘hash’ out the agreement between the two entities at the taxpayer’s expense.  Neither TESD nor Tredyffrin Township can afford the legal expense that has now been created by this situation.   With all the talks of cuts in the school district, threats of outsourcing, etc. where’s the fiscal responsibility?

But here we are with the tennis courts on tonight’s School Board agenda.  The saga continues …

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Andy Chambers Hired, Superintendent Waters to Retire and TESD Tax Increase not to Exceed 1.7%

Highlights of 1/28/13 TESD Meeting —

Adoption of the 2013-14 TESD preliminary budget:  By a unanimous vote the Board approved a resolution not to raise taxes above the Act 1 Index level of 1.7%.

Reconsideration of District Safety Consultant, Andy Chambers:  Former police chief Andy Chambers attended the TESD meeting last night.  Chambers offered no comment; however Superintendent Waters defended his choice in Chambers, offering a list of his qualifications, and firmly stating that the hiring was not cronyism as some in the public had suggested. TESD solicitor Ken Roos stated that he was of the opinion that the Board had not violated the Sunshine Act with the consent agenda approval of January 7 to hire Chambers.  However, Roos recommended the ‘reconsideration’ of Chambers so as to avoid possible legal costs to the District, if the Board’s January 7 action was legally pursued.

There was no mention from Waters, Roos or the Board members with regards to  the issues surrounding Chambers departure from the Tredyffrin Twp Police Department.  A few residents spoke in favor of hiring Chambers with only one resident asking about the “two sides of the story”, referring to the Finance Committee meeting and the dialogue between myself and Chambers and Kevin Buraks.

Although all members of the Board supported Chambers as qualified to serve as District Safety Consultant, two Directors voted against his hiring.  Using the lack of transparency in the process as reason, Anne Crowley and Rich Brake did not vote with their fellow board members to hire Chambers.  Crowley read a prepared statement, saying that although Chambers’ was qualified; she spoke of the need for transparency and that other candidates (besides Chambers) should have been reviewed in the process. Chambers was approved as District Safety Consultant 7-2.

Consent agreement and the inclusion of the Supervisory, Confidential and Administrator Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments for 2013-14 and One-Time Bonus:  Ray Clarke asked if these items could be separated from the consent agenda for Board and public discussion.  Board President Kevin Buraks response to Ray was that the discussion of these items could occur after the consent agenda approval.

Buraks took the vote to approve the consent agenda without discussion.  The Board voted to approve the consent agenda with the exception of two members.  Although voting with their Board members on the rest of the consent agenda, Crowley and Brake excluded their approval of the compensation plan , adjustment and bonus (#C2 and #C3), again using transparency in the process as the reason.

Following the consent agenda approval, Waters explained the compensation plan and budget impact.  Unfortunately, at this point it was 11 PM, and I did not understand his explanation of the specifics of the costs.  (If anyone has the details, please offer them as a comment.) Again on the defensive, Water defended the compensation plan, etc. listed as a consent agenda item – stating that this is the way it has been done for 10 years.  My response is – does that therefore make it right?  I have previously stated that the purpose of the consent agenda is for routine items (such as meeting minutes or financial reports) and I do not view a multi-year compensation plan and bonus as routine.

The other noteworthy item of the evening, occurred during Waters’ explanation of the compensation plan and budget impact — Waters announced his retirement at the end of the 2014/15 school year, explaining that he wanted to have the compensation plan in place for his successor.

For the record, between Waters and Roos talking about ‘blogs’ and ‘blog comments’ and the presence of Andy Chambers at the meeting, I found the meeting more than a little intimidating. Although Community Matters was never mentioned ‘by name’, the continual reference to the blogosphere was not lost on me.

It’s important that the public‘s business be done in public, so that we can be fully informed.  When the right to public discussion is removed, it becomes our responsibility to speak out … our ‘collective voices’ are important. An easy cure for lack of transparency is full visibility.

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TE School Board Changes Direction — Is Andy Chambers ‘In or Out’ as District Safety Consultant?

T/E School District has released their agenda for Monday, January 28. Based on the agenda, it appears there has been a direction change on the hiring of former Police Chief Andy Chambers as the security consultant for the District. The following is from Monday’s School Board agenda:

B. Reconsideration of District Safety Consultant
The Board will consider a contract with Andy Chambers as District Safety Consultant.
1. Questions from the Board
2. Comments and/or Questions from Community Members
3. Board Discussion /Deliberation/Action

If you recall, the Board added Andy Chambers as District Safety Consultant to the consent agenda at the January 7 School Board Meeting.  Neither Chambers nor any mention of District safety enhancements appeared on the January 7 agenda.  The agenda did not notify the public that the School Board would discuss anything safety-related at the January 7 meeting, let alone the hiring of a ‘security consultant’.  For most of us, we learned that the District had hired Chambers as District Safety Consultant at the January 9 public safety meeting.  The announcement of Chambers hiring also appeared in the District’s ‘Action Line’ newsletter, summarizing the safety meeting.

Following the news of Chambers hiring, there was much public discussion, including on Community Matters.  I questioned Superintendent Dan Waters and TESD President Kevin Buraks at the subsequent Finance Committee meeting and reported their responses on Community Matters.

Undoubtedly, the Board heard from many community members,including John Petersen in regards to this situation.  I was cc’d on a number of emails between Petersen and the School Board, Superintendent Waters and TESD solicitor Ken Roos. Petersen’s comments were strong and direct — claiming that the Board’s use of the consent agenda at the January 7  meeting, for the hiring of Andy Chambers, was in violation of the PA Sunshine Act.  The tagline for Community Matters states, “Your Voice Matters … Join the Conversation” and clearly in this case, voices do matter and the Board listened.

Receiving the notification that the hiring of a District Security Consultant is now on Monday’s agenda for ‘reconsideration’, Petersen offered the following comment,

I was 100% convinced that the actions taken by Superintendent Dan Waters and the T/E School Board were not proper under the Sunshine Act. The District’s decision to now consider the matter in an open meeting is absolute proof that my assertions were correct and valid in spite of the solicitor’s comments to the contrary.

Whether or not at the 1/28 meeting former TTPD Superintendent Andy Chambers’ appointment as District Safety Consultant is ratified, the public will have a fair and appropriate opportunity to be heard. The goal of my efforts was to serve that end and only that end. Superintendent Dan Waters and the T/E Board disenfranchised the very public they are supposed to serve. Further, they exercised poor judgment. Regardless of what happens on 1/28, it is my opinion that the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District would fare better under new leadership.

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings.  We know now that the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled that the “personnel exception” of the Sunshine Act does not apply when a government body meets to discuss an independent contractor or consultant.

In researching the PA Sunshine Act and how various school boards have handled possible violations, I came across an article in the Town & Country newspaper from September 2011,  that is both interesting and apropos to the discussion.

The article referenced the hiring of a $15K consultant in Upper Perkiomen School District to help in their superintendent search.  There was concern among several school board members, in addition to some members of the public, that the consultant hiring discussion had occurred during the school board’s executive session and not in front of the public – with the suggestion that this action violated the PA Sunshine Act.   According to the article, the school board was “specifically instructed by their solicitor, Ken Roos of Wiseler Pearlstine, not to hold the talks in private.”  The article further states, “According to state law, and Pennsylvania Newspaper Association general counsel Teri L. Henning, public officials are not permitted to discuss hiring independent contractors or consultants in executive session.” 

Not understanding why there should be a difference between the process to hire a consultant the Upper Perkiomen School District and TESD, I sent an email with the Upper Perkiomen School District article to Roos, who coincidentally is also solicitor to both school districts, asking for clarification.  Although Roos did not respond to my inquiry, I would suggest that based on the Upper Perkiomen School District article, it appears that  Roos would agree that consultant ‘talks’ should not occur in private.

As John Petersen suggested in his comment, regardless of the Board’s ultimate decision on whether to hire Andy Chambers as the District Safety Consultant, “ … the public will have a fair and appropriate opportunity to be heard”.  I could not agree more; although given the background of Chambers’ departure from Tredyffrin Township Police Department; I am not sure why the Board would want to invite the controversy that comes with his hiring as the District Safety Consultant.

 The TESD School Board meeting is Monday, January 28 is at 7:30 PM at 940 West Valley, Suite 1700, Wayne 19087.  I encourage all interested citizens to attend and offer your opinion.

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