Kevin Buraks

Secret School Board Meetings Considered Strategic!

What’s that saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”? Well, when it comes to outsourcing the jobs of the aides and paraeducators in the TE School District, I think the fat lady sang two years ago and was confirmed again at last night’s School Board meeting.

We know that the Board members received many phone calls and emails regarding their February 3rd Affordable Care Act decision – 73 full-time District employees received a choice, either go part-time or your job is outsourced. Many of us in the community wanted a ‘do-over’ on the Board’s policy change. And there was hope that with a significant public pushback, that the Board would reconsider. But as we learned last night, no amount of public input was going to change their minds — the TE School Board isn’t a fan of do-overs. We got the message, loud and clear, ‘they’ make the decisions and it is up to ‘us’, the residents, to abide by them, like it or not.

Oh, many of the Board members lamented how hard the decision had been and how they wished there could have been a different outcome; repeatedly stating that they ‘had’ to do it, there just was no other way. However, no matter how many times they said it and no matter who said it, I just sat there thinking, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way”. Somehow, the Board finds money for a fancy LED sign at the high school, money for administrator raises, money for district-wide fencing projects and then money to pay legal fees defending the fencing projects, yet … there’s no money for health care benefits for the aides and paras.

Look, I had resigned myself two years ago to the fact that the Board was going to outsource this group of employees; clearly, the handwriting was on the wall then and nothing really changed since. The Affordable Care Act just gave the Board ‘cover’ … a Federal law to stand behind and something to point to as the reason for outsourcing.

No, what I found the most troubling on February 3, the intervening weeks since and then at last night’s Board meeting was the lack of transparency and disregard of the public by some of our elected officials. I am careful to say ‘some on the Board’ because I believe that not all of these Board members have agreed with the way this matter was handled. One highlight of the evening was Kevin Buraks’ diatribe defending the Board actions, referencing transparency and calling the decision of February 3rd ‘strategic’.

In addition to the many residents who reached out to the School Board over the last several weeks, special thanks go to Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Peggy Layden and Barb Jackson. These folks, who regularly attend committee and regular school board meetings, stepped up to the plate regarding the School Board’s February 3 decision. Like me, they believed that the policy change was a ‘wrong’ that needed ‘righting’ and sent a letter to the School Board stating the concerns. Unfortunately, rather than joining with us and the community in seeking a solution, the Board chose to stand behind the words of the District Solicitor. As I said last night, I really do believe that the individual School Board members are better than that letter from the solicitor and that we, and the many others who contacted them since their February 3 decision, deserved better.

Although viewed as an unfavorable School Board decision by many in the community, we will all move forward.

I’m really looking ahead to Spring!

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For another take on last night’s School Board meeting, here’s Ray Clarke’s account:

I was surprised by the proceedings at last night’s Board meeting.  On the positive side, the order of business was adjusted to allow airing of the two most pressing issues, the out-sourcing and fencing projects.  The depth of resident concern has clearly got through.  On the downside, though, there is no sign of that resident concern actually making a difference.

The fencing contract was still approved based on a specification that may or may not meet Township ordinances, and the apparently illegal ACA vote was not reconsidered.  Indeed, the Board adopted the Rudy Guiliani approach: double down on the outrageousness.  To paraphrase: “It was actually our considered strategy to have the meetings in secret and the vote unadvertised”.  The reason given being a “threat of unionization”.  That looks to me like a scheme to claim a legitimate exception to the Sunshine Act, which would be hard and expensive to disprove.  Only we know full well that there have been no organization attempts for at least twelve months.  I encourage everyone to review the meeting video for the unvarnished story.

Looking for a silver lining, there is a commitment to review the out-sourcing analysis at the upcoming March 9th Finance Committee/Budget workshop.  Of course if this consists of showing us slides with the same numbers as given verbally on February 3rd, then our time will have been wasted.  On the other hand, if there is a comprehensive analysis of:

  1. a) all the options based on realistic assumptions about the specific population of long-serving full-time employees, specific figures for penalties, laid out by year, and
  2. b) evaluation of the trade-off between those realistic options and other discretionary items like new maintenance buildings, fencing, floor refinishing, new kitchens, architect fees, etc., borrowing $24 million that costs $1 million a year while our $32 million Fund Balance sits idle, and so on then perhaps the public can be convinced that the plan does in fact represent the values and best interests of our community, and it is best to ask those employees and district residents to bear the full cost of this situation.

All those who have rallied for open government have cracked the door open a little.  Thank you and please keep pushing!

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

TE School Board Approves Administrator Bonuses, $22K/yr Salary Increase to Business Manager & 3.2% Tax Increase to Homeowners

Four important votes took place at last night’s TE School Board meeting and unfortunately there was little surprise in the results.

  • Approval of bonuses to TESD administrators – check
  • Approval of bonuses to TESD supervisors – check
  • Approval of $22K/yr. salary increase & 5-year contract to TESD Business Manager – check
  • Approval of 3.2 percent tax increase to TESD homeowners – check

It was encouraging to see some new faces in the audience and one resident, Tracy Gould of Wayne, came prepared with handwritten signs (see below) announcing her displeasure. Gould explained that she is a parent of three children and like many families, struggles during these economic times.  She appealed to the Board to consider the residents and not approve the salary increases and tax increase.

School Board meeting

You know how sometimes you can just forecast what the result is going to be before a vote is actually taken – well, that is exactly how last night’s school board meeting went.

To their credit, Board members Liz Mercogliano and Scott Dorsey were the lone dissenting votes on the employee bonuses, salary increase to Art McDonnell and tax increase to the homeowners. Both explained that they could not support giving bonuses and salary increases when the District does not provide basic healthcare benefits for the aides and paraeducators. Although Mercogliano and Dorsey are outnumbered 7-2 by the other Board members in their votes, I appreciate that they are concerned about the effect on residents of another year of tax increases.  Providing affordable health care to all District employees is important; I personally thank Liz and Scott for taking a stand on this issue and supporting the aides and paras.

School Board Vice President Kris Graham is chairing the superintendent search committee which also includes Board members Jim Bruce, Karen Cruickshank and Doug Carlson.  In her update, Graham reported that over 1,000 T/E residents responded to the Stakeholder Survey and the results are available on the District’s website, www.tesd.org

According to the survey results, the top 5 traits chosen as the most important in a new superintendent are:

  • Honest (54%)
  • Student Centered (52%)
  • Creative Problem Solver (49%)
  • Approachable (37%)
  • Collaborative (37%)

The survey results indicted the top 5 strengths that the new superintendent should be expected to maintain or enhance:

  • Highly qualified staff (54%)
  • High expectations for students (39%)
  • Strong fiscal management (38%)
  • Safe school environment (38%)
  • Culture of continuous improvement (36%)

The top 5 most important qualifications of a new superintendent as selected by respondents:

  • Leadership (74%)
  • Budget & financial expertise (58%)
  • Administrative/education leadership experience (49%)
  • Educational experience (47%)
  • Strategic planning expertise (36%) tie
  • Significant classroom teaching experience (36%) tie

The final survey question, asked respondents to name the top 3 challenges facing the new superintendent:

  • Budget/finance (83%)
  • Government mandates (44%)
  • District labor relations (36%)

My takeaway from the Stakeholder Survey is that the vast majority of respondents believe that finances is the most important issue and that it is important to have someone with leadership qualities and a business/financial background as the District’s next superintendent.

The School Board hired a consultant to help with the superintendent search and Graham explained last night that the she has conducted a couple of workshops with school board members in this regard.  According to Graham, there are currently five District employees with the educational qualifications for the position and they have received an application from one person.  The in-house superintendent candidate was unnamed by Graham but she did say that the Board would be conducting an interview in the next couple of days.

In the District’s online update of last night’s meeting the following information was provided on the superintendent search:

President Kevin Buraks and Vice President Kris Graham updated the public on the work of the Superintendent Appointment Committee and results from the Stakeholder Survey. The survey results are available on the District web site. The Board will continue to keep the public informed on the search process.

Although the message here is that the Board will “continue to keep the public informed on the search process”, there appeared to be something missing from this online information and from the Buraks and Graham update last night. There was no mention about where the District has posted the job for the superintendent position. I would be interested in know which educational resources the consultant suggested to the Board and where the job is posted.  Also, what is the timeline for the District to receive applications?

The Superintendent position is the most important job in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District and I know that the Board, parents, residents, employees and students want to make certain that the information is available to all possible candidates.

Although some in the administration disagree that a morale issue exists, too many District employees would suggest otherwise.  I will continue to maintain that the only way to fully correct the morale issues in the District is to hire someone from the outside – an individual with strong financial/budgetary experience (business experience and background) coupled with the educational component and someone that does not have an existing history with current employees is what is sorely needed.  The new Superintendent should fully understand the District’s financial needs and not simply rely on the Business Manager for answers.

Because the current Superintendent is not retiring for 12 months (June 30, 2015), the Board has the luxury to conduct a thorough superintendent search and fully vet all candidates for the job.  Once the job applications are received from outside the District, the Superintendent Search committee will be able to short list the candidates and then include the residents in their analysis prior to the final selection.

As discussed at last night’s meeting, informing the public of the Superintendent search process is important.  I look forward to the Board’s continued updates on the application process and search to find a new TE School District Superintendent.

TESD Agenda includes bonuses for administrators & 5-year contract for Business Manager; Tredyffrin Township Agenda includes new Finance Director and Police Department news

On Monday, there is a TE School Board meeting at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School. Rather than hitting the print button, I suggest that you read the agenda and accompanying materials online because it contains 450 pages.

On the fourth page of the agenda, under Section VII Other Recommended Action, these three items grabbed my attention.

A. 2014-2015 Supervisory and Confidential Employee Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments for 2-14-15 and June 2015 One Time Payment

B. 2014-2015 Administrator Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments and June 2015 One Time Payment

C. Business Manager Employee Agreement

In April, the School Board adopted a $120 million proposed final budget for the 2014-15 school year that includes a 3.2 percent tax increase. How is it that the District can increase our homeowner taxes for another year, but still manage to find available dollars for administrator and supervisor bonuses? Where is the fiscal watchdog looking out for the residents? (To find the current salaries and proposed bonuses on (A) and (B) in Section VII, you need to go to pgs. 435 and 436 of the agenda.)

Item (C) under Section VII, ‘Business Manager Employee Agreement’ refers to the proposed contract for Art McDonnell, the District’s current business manager. McDonnell’s salary for 2014-15 year is $163,220 although he is due to receive a one-time bonus of $1,632 as mentioned above.  Under his proposed employee agreement (see pgs. 438-441), McDonnell will enjoy a significant salary increase of $22,000/yr. or approximately an 14% yearly salary increase – if approved his salary becomes $185K/yr. rising to $186,632 with the addition of his bonus.

Under the position responsibilities in the proposed employee agreement, the terms state that McDonnell is “responsible for responding to all questions relating to the District business, financial and operation matters” and that he “will interpret the financial concerns of the District to the community”. Further responsibilities refer to an ‘Appendix A’, which is not included with the agenda – the business manager duties are vague and the job description without detail.

Setting aside the salary, the pending employee agreement for Art McDonnell includes very surprising job security, especially given current economic times – a whopping 5-year contract with automatic renewals for additional five-year terms. How does someone get this kind of deal these days?

The length of the District superintendent’s contract is 3-years so why should the business manager receive a five-year contract. Who negotiated this contract with McDonnell?  With the retirement of Dan Waters in June 2015, the replacement will inherit the business manager for the entire length of his or her superintendent contract.  Having just launched the search for a new Superintendent, why would the school board agree to a five-year contract for McDonnell?  Why would the Board want to force prospective superintendent candidates into this type of situation?

According to the proposed employee agreement, the District is required to give McDonnell 6 months’ notice if they want to terminate his contract; otherwise, his five-year contract rolls over with automatic five-year renewals.  (With an unsatisfactory evaluation, termination notice is reduced to 60 days). Gratefully, McDonnell’s contract was not included in the consent agenda.  Does this mean that the residents expect a Board discussion and explanation (rationale) for the terms of the proposed contract? Again, I ask who on the school board ‘negotiated’ this contract?  It looks to me like Art McDonnell asked for “the moon, the stars and the sun” in this contract and he’s likely to get it – where’s the fiscal responsibility?

Also on Monday night is the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors meeting, 7:30 PM at Township Building.  I found a couple of items interesting on the agenda

(1)  The appointment of Finance Director

(2) Approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (2015-2018) with the Tredyffrin Township Police Association (TTPA)

If you recall, within a two-week period between February 10 and 25 of this year, the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors terminated Public Works Director Scott Cannon without public discussion or comment and agreed to accept the resignation of Finance Director Tim Klarich, also without explanation. Klarich was Tredyffrin Township Finance Director for nearly 4 years. I always found his analysis and preparation of the yearly township budget detailed and complete and his monthly financial updates to the board unfailingly thorough.  There was uneasiness with the departure of these two department heads four months ago and Klarich departure was particularly unsettling. I look forward to the announcement of the appointment of the township’s new Finance Director.

As for the other agenda item of interest — the residents are aware that the Tredyffrin Township Police Department has been working with an officer deficit during the last several years. If you recall, the supervisors approved the spending of $49K for a Police Department study that concluded hiring of additional police officers was needed.  I am interested to see if the needs of the police department will be addressed in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Call for Internal Investigation: Interference in Collective Bargaining Process of T/E Aides and Paraeducators … Was a Crime Committed?

Not all is equal.  In the T/E School District, some workers enjoy equitable treatment and benefits while others do not.  This is the story about the aides and paraeducators, the District’s lowest paid employees, their collective bargaining efforts and the questionable behavior of those trying to derail the process.

Most of you reading this post will have no idea what I am talking about or what has been going on with the District’s aides and paras since January of this year.  My association with the aides and paras began last year with the District’s outsourcing threat over the Affordable Care Act and has continued during the collective bargaining process of the last five months.

At the request of Ruthann Waldie, UniServe representative for PSEA (Pennsylvania State Educational Association), I have not written about this matter until today.  Early on, Ruthann told me that the collective bargaining process for the TE aides and paras was ‘fragile’ and if the effort were to succeed she suggested that I not write about it on Community Matters.  I trusted her experienced wisdom and complied. However, during the last 72 hours, circumstances have dramatically changed that make it no longer possible to remain silent.

Before explaining the recent actions in the collective bargaining process, it is important to understand the timeline and review the details.

In 2013, after a very loud public outcry, the jobs of the District aides and paraeducators were saved from outsourcing – however, for only one year, the 2013-14 school year.  At that time, there was talk among some of the aides and paras about forming a collective bargaining unit but once the school board agreed not to outsource (and to keep their hours intact), the discussion on the subject lessened.  However, things heated up again when these employees received a threatening, demeaning memo from Sue Tiede, (the former TESD Personnel Director), in January of this year. Her communication established the 7-minute check-in and check-out policy for the aides and paras, and detailed the progressive discipline measures for violation, including suspension.

Tiede’s message represented a continuing trend of disrespect and intimidation directed at the aides and paras.  Growing concern returned about possible outsourcing and … with that concern, a sense of urgency among the aides and paras developed. Unfortunately, many of the aides and paras continue to feel undervalued and unappreciated by the administration and references such as ‘disposable’ by at least one school board member have done little to improve their morale.

Without representation by a collective bargaining group, the District’s aides and paras are powerless; their continued employment is solely at the mercy of the T/E School District’s Superintendent and School Board.  As a result, a small group of determined, dedicated aides and paras came together in early February to discuss options and plot a course of action to improve their working conditions.

According to Ruthann Waldie, PSEA representative, the aides and paras could not join the District’s teachers union because they were not considered ‘instructional’ employees. Furthermore, Ruthann explained that due to a law change five years ago, the aides and paras were prohibited from forming their own ‘new’ union when a qualifying union already existed. As explained, TENIG (Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group) the District’s qualifying union with non-instructional employees and therefore, the aides and paras would become part of that group.

Before the collective bargaining campaign was officially underway, I spoke with TENIG president, Mary Minicozzi to ask her opinion about adding the 176 District aides and paras to their union.  Her reaction was overwhelmingly supportive, stating that she was 110% in favor.  I invited her to attend the upcoming organizational meeting with all the District aides and paras and PSEA representatives. Mary confirmed that she would attend the meeting and that she would ask fellow TENIG members to also attend. However, something happened between that phone conversation and the organizational meeting a few days later. Mary did not attend the meeting nor did anyone else from TENIG attend. To my knowledge, she has had no further contact with any of the aides and paras since that point.

Over the course of the following four months, we learned through PSEA representatives, that Mary was no longer supporting the idea of the aides and paras joining TENIG, although it remained unclear as to why. However, the PSEA representatives continued to tell the aides and paras that it did not matter because the law required them to join TENIG.

The organizing campaign for the aides and paras continued to move forward. On February 21, the T/E School District and the School Board received official notification regarding the aides and paras interest in collective bargaining. Once notified of the organizing campaign, the PA Public Employee Relations Act 195 protected the aides and paras from any interference, threats, harassment, reprisals, etc. from the District during the process. (Or so we thought).

The T/E School Board hired solicitor Jeffrey Sultanik of Fox Rothschild, LLP to represent the District in the aides/paras collective bargaining process.  As an experienced labor relations attorney and school district contract negotiator, it is clear that Sultanik counseled school board members against interfering in any way with the aides and paras in the unionizing process. As their legal counsel, Sultanik would have explained the liability issues to the District if tampering occurred in the collective bargaining process.  Likewise, that same warning would have applied to all District administrators, including the superintendent.

Before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) in Harrisburg will schedule an election, there must be a suitable showing of interest by the employees in forming a union. PLRB requires a minimum of 30% of the effected bargaining unit employees to show interest by the signing of a ‘union assignment card’. The card does not indicate whether you would vote for or against a union – the signature simply signifies that you are in interested in moving the process forward and that you desire the appropriate local union (in this case the PSEA) to represent you for the purpose of collective bargaining. However, we learned that PSEA’s policy was to have at least 60% of the eligible employees sign the cards as an indicator of their commitment to the bargaining process.

As the campaign progressed, aides and paras from the eight District schools showed support for the collective bargaining process by signing the cards. (Due to years of intimidation and low morale issues in the District, the process however, was very slow.) In early May, after receiving 94 signed commitment cards, the PSEA representatives filed with the PA Labor Relations Board for an election for the aides and paras to join TENIG.

Upon approving the collective bargaining application, the PLRB was to set up a conference call between (1) the PSEA representatives, (2) the School District representatives and (3) the PA Labor Relations Board.  The purpose of the conference call determines all the rules and details around the election and sets the date for the actual election.

The aide and paras hoped that if the conference call occurred by early June, PLRB would schedule the election for before June 20, the last day of the 2013-14 school year. To vote in the election, you must be an eligible employee.  All 176 aides and paras are eligible to vote (whether they signed the commitment card or not). TENIG members are not eligible to vote. The PLRB requires that the union receive 50% + 1 votes of all employees who cast ballots. (Example: if only 10 eligible employees showed up to vote, the count needs to be six voting yes).

Unfortunately, the scheduled conference call between the Labor Relations Board, PSEA and the School District was delayed until June 18, which in turn pushed the election to September, after school starts. Although the aides and paras were disappointed to learn of the election delay, they had fought an uphill battle to come this far and remained committed to staying the course.

Then the unthinkable occurred this past Thursday, June 5 … the reason for this post.  A pre-selected group of 6-8 aides and paras received word in a PSEA conference call that their collective bargaining application would be withdrawn from the PA Labor Relations Board.  Why? Because Mary Minicozzi, president of TENIG, did not want the 176 aides and paras in her union. During the call, the PSEA representative further stated that the aides and paras would now need to start the campaign process all over again to form their ‘own’ union in the District.

By early Friday morning, as aides and paras learned the news, accusations of impropriety, collusion and tampering in the collective bargaining process began to surface. Interestingly, members of TENIG were also seeking answers.  Evidentially there was no official discussion with the TENIG members about the aides and the paras joining their union nor was a vote taken by the TENIG members. It would appear that the president of TENIG, Mary Minicozzi made this unilateral decision on her own to exclude the aides and paras from joining TENIG.  (Remember, this same individual personally told me four months before that she “110 percent supported” their inclusion!)

Many TENIG members have worked together with the aides and paras in the T/E School District for years.  The aides and the paras are their fellow District employees and TENIG workers know all too well, what it is like to be the target of the school districts’ outsourcing ax.  It seems highly unlikely that if the issue had come to a vote, that the TENIG members would have voted against including the aides and paras.  Why would they? Adding 176 more employees to TENIG would increase their collective bargaining group to over 300 members.

And let’s not forget that PSEA’s Ruthann Waldie told the aides and paras from the start that ‘legally’ they had to be in TENIG – as she explained, it was their only option.  She had further indicated that because it was the law, it did not matter whether TENIG wanted them or not.

The PA Labor Relations Board has already fielded calls from the District aides, paras and even TENIG members demanding answers – and some have already reached out to attorneys.

How is it possible that the TENIG president can control the future of 176 aides and paras in the T/E School District?   If Mary didn’t involve her fellow TENIG members in the decision-making process, exactly who was involved. I find it impossible to believe that she acted completely on her own.  It makes no sense — Why would you not include 176 additional workers in a union; adding the aides and paras would increase TENIG’s collective bargaining group to over 300 members strong!

We know that Mary’s decision was not based on an impending TENIG contract. If you recall, Mary signed a new TENIG contract in September 2013, 9 months before the existing contract was set to expire. The new 3-year TENIG contract begins July 1, 2014 and goes to June 30, 2017. I will not believe that Mary Minicozzi made this decision on her own – what did she have to gain? Was there a promise of something in exchange?

Why did Ruthann Waldie repeatedly tell the aides and paras that the law required them to join TENIG when this week the story changes and now are told they must form their own union? Things just don’t add up.  It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Somethings rotten in Denmark”.

Section 1201, Article XII, Unfair Practices of the Public Employee Relations Act states that public employers, their agents or representatives are prohibited from engaging in ‘unfair labor practices’. As defined by Public Employee Relations Act, unfair labor practices include a couple of relevant sections: (1) Interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights under Act 195 and (2) Dominating or interfering with the formation, existence or administration of an employee organization.

We know that interference has occurred in the collective bargaining process of the aides and paraeducators of the TE School District. At the ninth hour, the collective bargaining process was derailed. Why would anyone risk the legal ramifications of tampering with the process?  Who is involved and why?  Did the president of TENIG act alone or was she coerced? Did the Superintendent, the School Board or the District Solicitor know what was going on?

For the record, as of Friday, June 6, an attorney at the PA Labor Relations Board reported that the aides and paras collective bargaining file remains open and their application active.  By exposing the interference in the collective bargaining process, maybe there is a chance that this situation can ‘right itself’ and continue to move forward with the June 18 conference call and a September election to join TENIG. The District aides and paras have earned this right.

The T/E School Board has a fiduciary responsibility to those who have elected them to serve as advocates and stewards of our school district. I do not want to believe that any member of the School Board was involved nor had any knowledge of the derailment of the collective bargaining process of the aides and paras.  With accusations of interference, tampering, collusion, misconduct, etc. swirling, the Board needs to act quickly.  I suggest an internal examination to figure out ‘who’ knew ‘what’ and ‘when’. The PA Labor Relations Board may deem there is sufficient evidence to conduct their own investigation and if I were T/E School Board directors, I would want to be out in front of such an investigation not behind it.

Standing on the sidelines changes nothing — TE School District aides and paras taking steps to unionize

collective bargainIt’s official, the aides and paraeducators of TE School District are taking the necessary steps to unionize. As announced by Supt. Dan Waters at last night’s Finance meeting, this group of employees is currently engaged in the process to join the collective bargaining unit TENIG (Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group).

If you recall last spring, the District’s aides and paras came very close to having their jobs outsourced over the Federal government’s Affordable Care Act.  Because of ACA compliance issues, it appeared that the District would be forced to either offer insurance or outsource the jobs of the aides and paras. At that time, the Board claimed that the District could not afford healthcare for these employees and could not risk the possible financial risks for ACA noncompliance.  As a point of record, the TE School District is the only school district in the area that does not offer healthcare coverage for this group of employees.

Unfortunately, without the benefit of a collective bargaining organization there was little that the aides and paras could do to fight back against the proposed outsourcing of their jobs. In the end, the Federal government pushed off the required ACA compliance for another year.  As a result, the School Board granted the District aides and paras a reprieve for the 2013/14 school year; their jobs and hours remaining intact for one more year.

As the current school year ends, what has changed for the District aides and paras during the last twelve months – are they any better off than they were a year ago? Based on their moving forward with plans to collective bargain, my guess is the answer to that question is ‘no’ – nothing has changed.

Without job security and healthcare benefits, the aides and paras are now seeking protection of their jobs and collective bargaining representation for their own jobs and for the jobs of those that will come after them. They seek fairness and consistency in employment policies and personnel decision,  job security and protection of employee rights.

The community respects the passion and commitment of the aides and paraeducators to the parents and children of this District and values their contributions. It saddens me that this group of vulnerable, dedicated employees remains the school district pawns, at the mercy of the Board and the administration.

Supporting the need for an organized voice, the District aides and paras believe that all employees deserve fair and equal treatment. Standing on the sidelines changes nothing — I applaud the collective bargaining efforts of the aides and paras.; they deserve to be treated as full players not as an afterthought.

T/E Proposed Final Budget indicates 3.2% tax increase plus — the new Superintendent search gets underway

At the T/E School Board meeting last night, the Board approved the 2014-15 proposed final budget as follows – The Proposed Final Budget for the 2014-2015 school year is in the amount of $117,254,089 revenue, 2,671,891 fund balance transfers and $119,925,980 for appropriations on a tentative basis.

As presented, the ‘Budget Development Summary’ slide below indicates that the projected expenditures of $117,069,428 exceed the projected revenue of $113,962,589 = projected budget deficit of $3,106,839.   With a tax increase of 3.2% (Act 1, 2.1% and exception, 1.1%) plus a net revenue increase of $211,370 and a net expenditure increase of $1,356,552, the revised budget has a remaining deficit of approximately $1.8 M.  It is proposed that the $1.8 M will be satisfied with a fund balance contribution.  The final budget is to be approved in June.

TESD  2014-15 Preliminary Budget

Once the revenue and expenditures projections for the 2013-14 school year are in, it will be interesting to see if the District ‘finds’ surplus dollars.  If you recall, the District has found mega-millions in surplus the last two years in a row.  Unfortunately, for taxpayers, each year the money has been ‘found’ until after the next year’s budget was passed (with a tax increase).

The budget surplus was $3.9 million for the 2011-12 school year and nearly $5 million for 2012-13 school year.  It’s never been entirely clear what caused the budget surplus these last two years although I do recall that “lower than anticipated insurance costs” was used to explain a portion of the surplus.  I have to believe that the Board would not approve a 3.2% increase for the taxpayers only to discover a budget surplus for the third year in a row.  Not sure that there could be a valid explanation if that were to happen.

Another couple of notes from last night’s meeting. In the update from the Public Information committee meeting, Scott Dorsey announced that the process by which the public asks questions at School Board meetings and the Board responds has moved to the Policy Committee for further discussion. The next Policy Committee meeting is Friday May 9 at 12:45 PM at TEAO.

School Board President Kevin Buraks formally announced that Supt. Dan Waters will retire at the end of his current contract which ends June 30, 2015.   Regardless of how people personally feel about Waters, his time remaining on the job is winding down – a little over a year left on his contract.  As announced by Buraks, there is discussion underway about the process/search to hire his replacement. It appears that the Board will be utilizing the experiences of Jeanne Pocalyko, the new Personnel Direct, in conducting the search.

Ray Clarke sent the following note about last night’s meeting –

A note on the TESD Superintendent search from last night’s Board meeting.  A Board Search Committee has been appointed. Members I think: Graham, Cruickshank, Bruce, Carlson but I could have missed someone over the general hubbub at the beginning of the meeting.  There will be a survey to get public input sometime in May.

I wonder if they will ask meaningful questions:  eg:  From inside or outside the district? Re the above, definitely or preferably? Experience as a Superintendent?  Rank a given set of possible selection criteria in order of importance?  (Or, rate importance of the criteria, but all could be 10 out of 10).  Criteria such as: experience in  a high performing district; track record of improving educational results; track record of meeting budget; demonstrated public communication expertise; employee satisfaction results, and so on.

In her prior position at  Dallastown Area School District (DASD,  Pocalyko and the Superintendent search committee took a ‘community engagement’ approach and included administrators, teachers, parents, support staff, students, community and committee members in the effort.  Although ultimately the final determination and selection of the new Superintendent remained the responsibility of the DASD Board, the decision process included the compilation of stakeholder feedback, interview results and comments from each interview round, reference checks and the school board’s consideration of district needs and input from the Committee.

Election 2013 Results: Surprises for Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors & T/E School Board!

The 2013 Election Day results are in and there are some changes for the Board of Supervisors in Tredyffrin Township and the T/E School Board.  National politics and the Tea Party movement certainly appear to have influenced the outcome in some of our local races.

In a surprising upset, two Democratic at-large candidates Murph Wysocki and Mark Freed, beat incumbent Michelle Kichline (R) who currently serves as the chair of the Board of Supervisors and Trip Lukens (R), chair of the township’s Planning Commission.    In the middle District supervisor race, EJ Richter (R) beat Laurie Elliot (D).  Prior to this election, only 2 Democrats (Paul Drucker and Mark DiFeliciantonio) have ever served on Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors.  As of Election Day 2013, that number has now doubled.

For the T/E School Board, incumbent school board president Kevin Buraks (D) won his race against opponent Pete Connors (R).  However, incumbent Rich Brake (R) lost his seat on the school board to Democratic candidate Scott Dorsey.  Election results indicate that Republicans Virginia Lastner and Doug Carlson will join the school board from Easttown Township.

Thank you to all the candidates and congratulations to those who won!

TESD Employee & Resident Debbie Watson speaks out about District morale issues

On May 16, I wrote, “TE School District … Intimidation to Silence” on Community Matters.  From the outside, the school district is the image of excellence by any standard, with its impressive test scores, accomplished, high-achieving students, supportive parents and caring teachers.  After receiving many emails and phone calls from teachers, aides, custodians, kitchen workers, etc., it was apparent that those inside the District described an atmosphere far differently, “a place of fear and intimidation, a place where our District employees, fearing retribution do not feel they have a voice.”   The article received many comments, including from former and current District employees, who could take cover behind their anonymity on Community Matters. Many TE employees believe that they would risk losing their jobs by questioning decisions of the administration or by voicing concerns.

Other than bringing awareness to the morale problem, there was no indication that anything is changing or that anyone on the School Board actually listened.  Emails in May to the School District and the school board president received no response. On May 31, I followed up with another Community Matters post on this topic, “Harassment, intimidation and bullying have no place in our schools …”  I wrote, “With the level of discontent, negativity and lack of respect that many District employees are indicating, I simply do not understand why the School Board does not investigate and find answers.” Employees are the District’s most valuable assets and they need to know that their contributions are valued and respected.

This campaign season has had many school board candidates using buzzwords like ‘communication’, ‘morale’ and ‘trust’ on their campaign websites, voter literature and during the League of Women Voters forum.  All school board candidates, with the possible exception of Kevin Buraks, recognize there are District issues related to communication and employee morale that need addressing.  Mr. Buraks stated in the LWV forum that the employees must be satisfied because otherwise they would leave the District.

I received the following email from District employee (and TESD resident), Debbie Watson.  No longer in the shadows of anonymity, Debbie is an insider speaking out about the morale in the schools and recent hiring trends of the District.  It is with Debbie’s permission that this letter appears on Community Matters.  Debbie is courageous, her words powerful and I applaud her for speaking out and making a difference! 

Hi Pattye,

I’m writing to you today about a disturbing statement I heard from another T/E employee.  I found the remark ironic as our school board and administration keeps touting their transparency, openness and willingness to communicate with the public.

It appears that the new trend is going to be only to hire people to fill open school district positions if they are outsiders (that is they do not reside in T/E School District).  In this person’s words, “Dan has put the word out that new hires will NOT be District taxpayers. We do not want them going home and talking to their neighbors about what is going on in the schools.”  REALLY????

It seems to already be happening. They replaced the Food and Nutrition Services Director with someone who came in from Twin Valley School District even though we had qualified people inside the District who applied for the job. He in turn hired a neighbor of his to be the Cafeteria Manager at Valley Forge Elementary. This manager does not have Food Service certification from Chester County, and he told the girls that he has never worked a kitchen before!

The morale was already very low in the schools and it is getting worse. The District passes over qualified T/E employees and hires less experienced outsiders for the job. We had several people (with Chester County certification) already working in the District that applied for the job (I didn’t bother, as I’ve been “blacklisted”), one was from my kitchen (Beaumont Elementary). One of the reasons given for her not getting the job was that she “didn’t have the experience required.” Another woman (from Devon Elementary) was told that she lacked managerial experience (she was a manager for Aramark for YEARS) And he does???

If the District cared about its employees, they would give us a chance to advance. The Union was contacted and their response was that the bottom line is that the District can hire whomever they want regardless of experience. This just isn’t fair to the hard-working T/E employees. We’ve already seen how awful our union is with the TENIG contract that just came about. I don’t know why people continue to pay their dues and give the union their money for nothing in return. Art McDonnell sat in on the interviews so he knows the lack of qualifications as well.

I’ve been with the District almost 10 years and am a ‘general kitchen worker’. I was a ‘Greeter’ for 5 years, took a year off, then came back, and moved to the kitchen.  Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom and was a PTO president at Devon Elementary School.  Basically, I have been in the schools for 25 years. (Also grew up here and went to T/E schools).

I’ve finally had enough and gave the District my notice a couple of weeks ago. I had actually decided during the summer that I was leaving but it got too close to the start of school and I didn’t want to leave my kitchen shorthanded at the beginning of the year as it’s too hectic. My last day of work is November 15th. I can’t continue to work for an administration that treats people the way they do!

Mr. Buraks was correct in his statement that if someone had a morale problem in the District that they would just leave — he’s right and I am (leaving). Sad thing is that I LOVED my job. I just don’t want to do it anymore.  I wrote a short resignation letter and didn’t blast them (advice was given to not “burn any bridges”) much as I wanted to! I know that you (and Neal and Ray) stay on top of things and wanted you to be aware of what’s really going on inside the schools.

Sincerely,

Debbie Watson

Investing in the District’s best talent and promoting from within the TENIG union is good for employee morale.  TE employees, like Debbie Watson, are frustrated when a position is given to someone from the outside, especially when the person is not as experienced or qualified as an existing District employee.  What kind of message does this send to the our employees?

How sad that the District is losing Debbie Watson, a dedicated, long-serving employee. As long as the leadership and administration choose to put a sunshine spin on the District’s morale issue for the public’s sake, nothing is going to change.   Can the School Board agree that employee morale in the Tredyffrin Easttown Scholol District is an important issue and a critical topic worth discussing.   School board candidates, are you listening?

TESD Voters will select 4 school board directors on Tuesday — Who will get your vote?

Commenters have started a dialogue on the last Community Matters post about the selection of TE school board directors.  The discussion is important and I want it to continue. On Tuesday, the TE community will select 4 school board members from the 8 candidates in the race.

The following are TESD School Board candidates:

  • Tredyffrin, East – Region 1:  Kevin Buraks (D) **
  • Tredyffrin, East – Region 1:  Pete Connors (R)
  • Tredyffrin West – Region 2:  Rich Brake (R) **
  • Tredyffrin, West – Region 2:  Scott Dorsey (D)
  • Easttown, Region III:  Doug Carlson (R)
  • Easttown, Region III:  Virginia Lastner (R)
  • Easttown, Region III:  Maryann Piccioni (D)
  • Easttown, Region III: Jean Kim (D)

** Buraks and Brake are incumbents seeking re-election for another 4-year term.  With the exception of Piccioni and Kim, the other candidates participated in the League of Women Voters forum.  In case you missed it, click here.

With the exception of Kim, the other candidates supplied Main Line Media News with a brief statement that contained their background, experience and why they thought they should be elected (or re-elected as in the case of Buraks and Brake). Click here for the MLMN article on the school board candidates.

Beyond the LWV forum and statements in the newspaper, you can find further information online – some of  the TE school board candidates have their own websites.   A quick Google search found Tredyffrin residents Buraks, Connors, Dorsey and Brake with websites but I couldn’t find sites for Easttown candidates.  Additional information can be found on the Democratic school board and supervisor candidates at Tredyffrin Township Democrats website, www.ttdems.com.  Unfortunately, the local Republican Committee in Tredyffrin has not updated their website since before the May Primary, www.ttgop.org .  And then we have all been bombarded with the endless stream of campaign literature in the mailbox.  As a registered Independent, I have the good fortune (?!) of receiving candidate campaign flyers from the Democrats, Republicans and any ‘other’ political party affiliation!

There has been much discussion on Community Matters about ‘knowing’ the candidates before you go on Election Day.  As voters, what should we look for in a school board candidate?  What important issues in TESD are important to you, the voter … teacher contract negotiations, special education, outsourcing, pension reform, transparency, quality of education, employee morale, respect for diverse points of view, property taxes, etc.?  Which candidate supports your position?

At the baseline, we know that all the school board candidates believe in the value of public education. But who do we select that will govern with the interests of the entire school community – the children, the parents, the taxpayers. Whose background and experience makes him or her most qualified for your vote?

I welcome your comments on the 8 TE school board candidates but will not post any comments that contain personal attacks or mention of candidates spouses and/or children.  Please keep the focus of your comments on the individual candidates and the important District issues.

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