Kevin Buraks

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.

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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!

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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?

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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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Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board director resigns, claiming Board has transparency and communication issues

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in southern Chester County is a high-ranking school district and often enjoys the same elite national standing for student test scores, etc. as the T/E School District.  As an example, high schools from both school districts received gold level standing in the 2013 US News & World Report with Conestoga ranked #5 and UCF ranked #10 in Pennsylvania high schools.  Because of their similar academic achievement levels and their geographic proximity (both in Chester County) the two school districts are often compared on Community Matters.  Additionally, readers of CM may be familiar with regular commenter Keith Knauss, a member of the U-CF School Board, who often offers his experience and personal insight in our school district related discussions.

This week saw a surprise resignation of U-CF school board director Holly Manzone.  On the surface, Manzone’s decision is not significant for TESD residents, but in reading the resignation letter (that includes the reasons for her departure), her words contained an eerie familiarity.   During the recent League of Women Voters debate, most of the T/E school board candidates used buzzwords like trust, transparency, and open communication and morale issues. All but one candidate supported the need to improve the communication relationship between the Board and the residents.   TE School Board president Kevin Buraks, who is seeking re-election, disagreed with his fellow candidates and stated during the LWV debate that the Board already provides an open forum for the public and that there are no morale issues in the District.

In her resignation letter, Manzone acknowledges the excellent quality of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District but criticizes the U-CF School Board for what she says amounts to  ‘rubber stamping’ decisions of the Administration.  Claiming that the U-CF School Board is a model for ‘poor governance’, meetings ‘scripted’ and decisions ‘baked’,  Manzone states that she can, “no longer continue to participate on the Board on this basis without violating my principles and disturbing my conscience.  I cannot allow my continued presence on the Board to connote agreement with these practices.”    Manzone listed the following six issues in her resignation from the U-CF school board:

  • “Open discussion is frowned upon and dissent is squelched at both the public and executive meetings.
  • Meetings, especially public meetings, are often orchestrated, with many “pre-meetings” and phone calls behind the scenes to prevent genuine public discussion of contentious issues and avoid any embarrassment to the administration or the Board, i.e., “no dirty laundry.”
  • Executive sessions are over-used.  If there is a way to characterize a topic so that it can be discussed privately in executive session, it is.  Engineering topics in this way may allow the district to comply with the letter of the Sunshine Law, but it surely violates its spirit.
  • Community members raising issues are often themselves considered the problem.   Energy is expended complaining about these individuals rather than focusing on improvement.
  • Access to underlying data and original documents is withheld, even if it is not confidential.  “Confidentiality” is used as an excuse to withhold access to broad categories of data, without foundation.
  • Information is shared unequally, with not all Board members receiving the same background for deliberations.  Also, private “votes” are held without canvassing all members.”

Manzone is not seeking re-election; and decided that to take her issues with the UCFSD Board public in her resignation statement. I have read some of the comments to Manzone’s resignation letter — several Board members (including Keith Knauss) have come out strongly against Manzone’s allegations.  Conversely, Manzone does have her supporters, particuarly members of the public who have attended school board meetings.  (To read the comments in the Unionville Times, click here.)

Similar to the issues raised by Manzone, we have heard several T/E School Board candidates voice concerns and suggest the need to improve the communication, transparency and trust issues in the District.  My takeway — whether it is UCFSD, T/E or any other school board — open dialogue between school boards and the residents they serve is essential to building mutual trust; citizen input should be respected and welcomed.

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League of Women Voters Debate: Part I, TE School Board Candidates

democrats-republicansYesterday, the League of Women Voters held the TE School Board candidate debate and the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors candidate debate.  I attended both debates.  Although the debates were not shown live, they will be available for viewing (Comcast 2 and Verizon 24 channels) sometime after Monday’s Board of Supervisors Meeting.  My guess is that there will be separate schedules for the two debates – check the township website for details.

Unfortunately, due to the lateness of scheduling, the school board debate was limited to a 1-hour format versus the 2-hour supervisor debate format.  In speaking with the League of Women Voters representative, Mary Lou Dondero, before the debate, I learned more about their scheduling process.  Ms. Dondero was none too pleased about the lateness of which the school board candidates debate was scheduled.  When asked who was responsible for debate scheduling, it was interesting to learn that it not the local political party leaders that should ask but rather the candidates themselves who should contact the LWV.  This is good information to know going forward.

Six of the eight school board candidates participated (due to prior commitments, Easttown Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim were unable to attend). After each candidate presented a 2-minute opening personal statement, the moderator read questions, which audience members had anonymously submitted.  Each question was answered by all candidates with the moderator giving each candidate the opportunity to be first to answer.  Following the questions, each candidate had an opportunity for a 2-minute closing statement.

The LWV debate is not the traditional format that many of us recall from our high school/college days, but rather a Q&A forum. The downside of the LWV debate style is it does not allow for rebuttal by candidate. Case in point, the LWV repeatedly asked the candidates (both school board and supervisors) to respond to the specific question yet several candidates answered the LWV questions with accusations against their opponents.  Due to the LWV format, it made it difficult for the candidates to defend the accusations.

Everyone that follows Community Matters knows that I fought for a school board candidate debate.  Important school district issues surfaced this year, making for a contentious situation for all involved — the Board, administration, employees and the public.  For my efforts in moving the school board debate forward, some questioned my agenda.  If I had an agenda, it was simple – voters need to ‘know’ the candidates and candidates need to have the opportunity to deliver their views on issues, before Election Day.  Hindsight being 20/20, I’m actually glad that I had nothing to do with the school board debate other than to attend.  I cannot be accused of unfairness or a bias in the organization of the debate – candidates were not coerced; they own their words.

For those of us who regularly attend and/or watch the school board meetings, there was little surprise in most of the audience questions. As a result of contentious school board meetings this year, many of the questions related to communication, trust, transparency and morale issues, — asking what would the candidates do to ‘improve’ the current situation, if elected.

Five of the six candidates spoke of the need to improve communication and several of them mentioned morale issues.  School board director Rich Brake (R), who is seeking re-election, accepted that there have been communication issues between the Board and the residents and spoke of the need to improve the dialogue, suggesting town hall meetings. Brake believes that the negativity issues need to be handled directly and wants to bring people together. It was refreshing to have a current elected official acknowledge the problems, accept responsibility and suggest ways for improvement.

With a similar response, Brake’s opponent Scott Dorsey (D) supports greater transparency and open dialogue between the public and the Board, suggesting a public advisory board. Dorsey spoke out against the Board’s use of the consent agenda and suggested its use should be reconsidered. The consent agenda is designed for routine items, such as meetings minutes. However, as Dorsey explained, the consent agenda takes away the public’s right to question an issue.  The consent agenda can bury an item that the Board does not want publically discussed.  In my opinion, in 2013 we saw the misuse of the consent agenda by the school board for the hiring of Andy Chambers and the inclusion of administrator raises and bonuses.  If the hiring of the former police chief as the District’s security expert or giving raises to the administrators was such a  good idea, why not openly discuss them in a public school board meeting, than than buried in a consent agenda. Dorsey was the only candidate to address the consent agenda issue.

Easttown Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner spoke favorably on the topic of communication, wanting to see greater resident participation and awareness of District issues.  Lastner wants the employees to feel that they can speak candidly and not risk their jobs by speaking out.  Referring to her background and prior elected positions in Connecticut, Lastner is a proponent of the “listen and learn” concept.

Tredyffrin school board candidate Pete Connors (R) remarks on this topic included “morale starts with leadership”.  Connors believes that there exists a trust issue in the community and proposed an advisory citizens group.  He specifically cited the threat of outsourcing and the proposed demolition of the tennis courts where the Board was forced to reverse their decisions due to the public.  Concerned about the Board’s lack of transparency that has decisions being made in private, Connors promoted a greater sharing of information with the public.

The consistent theme from Brake, Dorsey, Connors, Lastner and Carlson was the need for the school board to provide greater communication opportunities for the public. Dorsey, Brake and Connors took it a step further and spoke of changing the negative tone, improving trust and respectfulness and supporting the creation of some type of citizen advisory group.

As president of the school board, Kevin Buraks (D) was center front to the confrontational monthly and committee school board meetings of 2013 yet did not agree with the other candidates on District morale or communication issues.  Unmistakably Buraks is disconnected to the important issues raised by his fellow school board director Rich Brake and by Democrat Scott Dorsey.  At times, it was hard to believe that Buraks and Brake are both on the same school board or that Buraks and Dorsey are representing the same local political party.

Responding to a question, Buraks stated clearly that there are no morale issues in the District. He further commented that if there were moral issues in the District, the employees would leave.  On the issue of communication, his stance is that the school board already provides an open forum, is transparent and that through emails, website, etc. all District information is available.  He pointed out that the Board listened to the public about the demolition of the tennis courts and the outsourcing of the aides and paras and reversed their decision. In other words, according to school board president Kevin Buraks, there is no trust, respect or communication issues in the school district. He backed these assertions by continuously pointing to T/E school district’s rankings as his proof.

So overall, was there any new ‘news’ or any surprises learned from the school board candidate debate for me?  Yes and no.  Because I regularly attend the school board meetings and understand most of the issues, some of the information was not new.  However, I did not know the background and views of Easttown residents Virginia Lastner and Doug Carlson, so appreciated the opportunity to learn more about them.  I know candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey and both have previously spoken out about the District’s communication and transparency issues, so was not surprised by their responses.

The surprise was in the school board incumbents performances. Perhaps it is because Kevin Buraks is an attorney, but his stance during the debate was not to back down or take responsibility for any of the public’s  perceived ‘miss-steps’ of the school board or of his term as the president.  I guess as an attorney, you make a calculation and then stand by your decision, using the mantra of no ‘do-overs’ allowed. Taking the approach that because the TE School District is highly ranked, Buraks wants the voters to believe it is a result of his leadership.  Other the other hand, incumbent Rich Brake took a completely different approach and surprised me with his candor. Portraying himself as somewhat of a school board outsider, Brake acknowledged that there needs to be greater dialogue with the public and more openness.  Whereas Buraks would have the public believe that everything is cohesive and agreeable among the school board directors, Brake paints a very different picture.

These are my personal observations from the school board debate, I welcome others who attended to contribute their opinion.  If you did not attend the debate, I would encourage you to watch in on online when it is available.

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Partisan Politics; No need to go to Washington!

The Federal government shutdown has magnified the political partisan bickering in Washington.  Unfortunately, over the last week, I have had a front-row seat to the local version – I’ll explain.

In the last Community Matters post, I mentioned that the League of Women Voters is conducting a Tredyffrin Township supervisor candidate debate on Saturday, October 19, 2-4 at the township building.  Knowing that in the past a similar LWV debate was scheduled for the school board candidates, it struck me odd that no such event was planned for this year.

I was told that the reason that there was no scheduled TESD school board debate was that the LWV calendar was full and therefore could not accommodate the event. The explanation seemed plausible and I probably would have walked away from the situation except that two TESD school board candidates (Scott Dorsey (D) and Pete Connors (R)) approached me (separately) questioning ‘why’ there was no scheduled school board debate as both were interested in participating in such a forum.

This discussion of a ‘Meet the School Board Candidate’ forum occurred last week as I was completing last minute details for the Paoli Blues Fest.  Between the Blues Fest and community street fair on October 5, the 9th Annual Historic House Tour the Saturday before and eye surgery in between, I was certainly not anxious to take on  another ‘project’.  However, believing that more people in our community need to be engaged in local issues and to ‘know’ the candidates before casting a vote next month, a debate/forum needed to develop. Without the assistance of the LWV or any other organization, I first contacted Tredyffrin Township to check available dates/times to hold the forum.  To the credit of the Tredyffrin Township staff (particularly the township secretary Pat Hoffman) and the police department, township manager and ultimately the Board of Supervisors, I was given approval to hold the candidates forum on Saturday, October 26, 2-4 PM.  If you are wondering why I approached the township for use of their building rather than the library or one of the schools – the answer is simple, cost.  There is a fee to use the schools or the library for an event.

Once I had the day/time locked in, I gathered the email addresses of all eight TESD school board candidates, which includes incumbents Rich Brake (R) and Kevin Buraks (D).  All eight received the same invitation to participate. With my contact information, I sent the following email to the eight candidates:

Dear Tredyffrin Easttown School District School Board Candidates,

‘Meet the Candidates’ forums are central to democratic processes and are an important element of civic action and engagement. In recent years, the League of Women Voters has held these forums for township supervisor candidates and school board candidates.  The League of Women Voters will hold a debate for Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors candidates on Saturday, October 19, 2 – 4 PM but a similar forum is not planned for school board candidates of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District.

This type of forum establishes connections between candidates and residents; allows voters to make informed decisions on election day, gives candidates the opportunity to present their platforms on issues that matter to residents; and gives residents the opportunity to raise issues that they feel need to be addressed by the successful candidate(s).

Utilizing a grassroots community organizational approach, there will be a ‘Meet the School Board Candidates Forum’ on Saturday, October 26, 2 – 4 PM at the Tredyffrin Township Building, 1100 Duportail Road, Berwyn, PA 19312.  All candidates for the T/E School Board are invited to participate in this upcoming forum.  The purpose of this forum is to give school board candidates an opportunity to address a wide range of issues that affect our school district…

Appreciating that the moderator of the candidate forum needed to be a non-TESD resident, I contacted a friend who is an attorney and a financial planner.  With no questions asked, he agreed to help.  I then asked four residents (representatives from Easttown and Tredyffrin Townships) to serve on a committee to help with the planning, logistics, marketing, etc of the candidate forum. For the record, two were Republicans, one a Democrat and the fourth a non-US citizen.  As a registered Independent, I looked more at choosing people that understood the local school board issues versus their party affiliation.  These four individuals were enthusiastic and anxious to help with the event.  As stated in my invitation to the candidates, I was utilizing a “grassroots community organizational approach” to this “Meet the School Board Candidates” forum.

Of the eight school board candidates, I immediately received responses from five candidates (3 Republicans, 2 Democrats), offering support, appreciation for the effort, willingness to re-arrange personal schedules so they could participate, etc.  With a moderator, a volunteer committee, a place, day/time and support from the majority of the candidates, I was feeling confident about this TESD school board candidate forum.

Then the rumblings from the local political parties started – I should mention, that my invitations went directly to the candidates, not the political parties that they represent.  Believing that elected officials need to be independent-thinkers, it seemed the decision of whether to participate in this public community event should be up the candidates themsevles, without influence from the leadership of the respective political parties.  Again, to the credit of many of these school board candidates, there was overwhelming support for the candidate forum.

What do I mean by ‘rumblings’ – I received questions about the format, where would the questions come from and how would the questions be asked, would questions come from the audience, (if so, how would they be categorized), would the process be ‘fair’ or  biased to the Republican candidates or biased to the Democratic candidates, what political party were the volunteers, etc. etc.  The rumblings started within 24 hours of my sending the invitations to the candidates – but it should be noted that not one of the five candidates who contacted me criticized or questioned my motives or my fairness.

About the time the local partisan politics started to surface, it mysteriously became known that the League of Women Voters schedule was not full and that they could accommodate a school board candidate’s forum.  Imagine that!  I knew if ever there was a moment when something was meant as a ‘sign’ this was it.  It had become painfully obvious and very quickly, that no matter how I organized this candidates forum, either the local Democratic Party or the Republican Party (or both) was not going to be satisfied with my efforts or the results.  The finger pointing had already started and it was only 24 hours since I sent the candiate’s their invitations.  If a school board candidate debate was to happen, it was up to the ‘D’s’ and the ‘R’s’ to organize it with the League of Women Voters.

As a result, the following email was sent to the eight school board candidates:

TE School District Board Candidates —

I was working on scheduling a TESD School Board Candidate Forum on Saturday, October 26 for two reasons: (1) to provide an opportunity for candidates to present their platforms on important issues facing the TE School District and (2) to give residents the opportunity raise issues that they feel need to be addressed by the candidates.  A public forum to discuss school district issues is important. When I questioned why there was no school board candidate forum scheduled as in prior years, I was told that the League of Women Voters did not have availability on their calendar.  Based on the information that the League of Women Voters was unable to schedule such an event (and having been approached by two school board candidates, a ‘D’ and an ‘R’), I moved forward to make the necessary arrangements for such a forum.

It has now come to my attention that the League of Women Voters is available for Saturday, October 26 to host the forum/debate for the school board candidates.  To those candidates that contacted me either with a commitment to participate in the forum or a willingness to rearrange their personal schedules, thank you and your responses were most appreciated. Please know that as a community member and as a registered Independent, my only intention in scheduling a school district candidate forum was to engage more residents in our important school district issues and to allow candidates an opportunity to express their views on these issues.  There was no personal agenda on my part.

The location, day and time for the school board candidate forum has been reserved for Saturday, October 26, 2-4 at the Tredyffrin Township Building. If you were interested in pursuing this opportunity with the League of Women Voters, I would encourage you to contact your local Republican and Democratic Party representatives.

Please accept my apologies for any confusion and best wishes for a successful campaign.

Pattye Benson

The moderator and committee members that I had contacted to help received the same update as the candidates.  I thank these five volunteers for their support and willingness to help.  So … where does the school board candidate situation now stand?  It is my understanding that the leadership of the political parties is working with the League of Women Voters to organize a debate. The last update I received was that the plan was to schedule the school board candidate debate prior to the Tredyffrin Township supervisor debate on Saturday, October 19 at the township building. I look forward to hearing a confirmation on the date and time.

It remains unclear why the local Democratic and Republican parties scheduled the supervisor candidate debate with the League of Women Voters and did not do the same for the school board candidates. However, I am hopeful that the school board candidate forum will occur; that important school district issues will be discussed and that candidates can have the opportunity to present their view.

In closing, the last ten days has taught me one thing, … whether it’s  elected officials in Washington or our local political parties, I recognize that I am no fan of the partisan sandbox. For me, it’s about understanding the issues and then supporting the candidate that best represents my views.

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Four weeks and counting until Election Day

Election Day 2013 is 4 weeks from tomorrow, Tuesday, November 5.  If you are not registered, today is the last day to register to vote in the Municipal Election.  Applications from Pennsylvanians registering for the first time, those changing their address or changing their party affiliation must be postmarked or delivered to Chester County’s board of elections by the close of business today, October 7.  Chester County’s board of elections is located at Government Services Center, 601 Westtown Rd., Suite 150, West Chester, PA 19380. Their phone number: 610-344-6410. Office hours: 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM.

Do you know the candidates for the Board of Supervisor or the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board? What issues facing the township and school district are important to you – do the candidates share your concerns, your opinions? How likely are you to vote on November 5?

If you are a voter in Tredyffrin Township, you will have an opportunity to learn more about the Board of Supervisors candidates.  The League of Women Voters is holding a supervisor debate on Saturday, October 19, 2-4 PM at the Tredyffrin Township Building. There are three contested seats on the Board – two for supervisor-at-large and a district supervisor for the middle district.  Seeking one of the two at-large supervisor seats is incumbent Michelle Kichline (R), Trip Lukens (R), Murph Wysocki (D) and Mark Freed (D).  Current at-large supervisor E.J. Richter (R) is opposing Laurie Elliott (D) for the middle district seat.

In recent years, the League of Women Voters also has held a debate for the TE School Board candidates. Unfortunately, the volunteer organization will not hold a similar debate this year for the school board candidates.  This is an important time to know your candidates – what are their backgrounds and experience, where do they stand on issues, etc. etc.  So … why no debate for the school board candidates?  Do you know who the school board candidates are?

On the Tredyffrin side of the school district, we have Democrat incumbent Kevin Buraks being challenged by Republican Pete Connors in Region I.  In Region II, Scott Dorsey (D) opposes incumbent Rich Brake (R).

On the Easttown side of the school district, there are two seats available in Region III.  For personal reasons, neither Betsy Fadem (R) nor Anne Crowley (D) is seeking re-election.  I attend almost every school board meeting and I have not met any of the four candidates vying for the two open Region III seats.  The candidates are Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner and Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim.

School board candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey have each stated that they want the opportunity to discuss school district issues and are interested in pursuing a debate forum with the other school board candidates — Neither knows why a debate was not scheduled as in prior years. Because of my discussion with Connors and Dorsey (and the interest from the public in learning about the school board candidates), several options are being explored.  However, with only 4 weeks remaining until Election Day 2013, it does not leave much time to organize a ‘meet your school board candidate’ forum.

If the past is any indication, the political war for control will rear its ugly head over the next 30 days with school board and supervisor candidates door knocking, campaign mail pieces hitting our houses and the robo-calls that invariably come at dinnertime.  Voters need a reason to go the polls on November 5 – they need to know the issues and which candidates support their views. Everyone should be interested in the election because the future of the township, the school district and the community are dependent upon strong, issue-focused leadership.  The issues are complex and the School Board (and the Board of Supervisors) must work as a team united (with the community) to find effective solutions.

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TE School Board & TENIG reach new 3-year contract deal — No outsourcing!

What a difference a week makes!  At last Monday’s September 23rd T/E School Board meeting, several TESD residents including Peggy Layden, Neal Colligan and Scott Dorsey questioned the Board about the status of the TENIG negotiations. The public was told by Board President Kevin Buraks that contract discussions were moving along and that the Board would report on the process when there was information to report.  And Betsy Fadem volunteered that once the responses from the TENIG RFP were received (and reviewed) there would be public discussion in January.  The current TENIG contract as well as the TEEA (teacher) contract run through June 30, 2014.   When questioned on public communication and transparency issues, Buraks was very specific that the public would be informed of the process although it was not clear how much notice there would be for public review of any proposed contracts.

Buraks (and Fadem) responses to residents was counter to the rumblings that some of us had heard regarding the ‘early bird’ contract discussions.  Nonetheless, because there was an overt attempt by several Board members to suppress any resident complaints on lack of transparency or public discussion, it was my expectation that the Board leadership would make certain that the public was kept informed.

This evening I had a phone call from Mary Minicozzi, the TENIG president. (She agreed that her name could be used and that the information was public).  Mary wanted me to hear the TENIG contract details directly from her so that the facts would be correct.  According to Mary, TENIG presented a contract proposal to the school board 2 weeks ago and that sometime since that point (she was not certain of the exact date), the Board ‘voted’ to accept the proposal.  At today’s TENIG meeting, members voted to ratify with 83 members accepting the contract and 5 members rejecting the contract.

This news surprised the heck out of me because at last week’s TESD meeting, President Buraks and Betsy Fadem were talking about keeping the public informed on the progress of negotiations – had they already accepted the TENIG contract offer?

The vendor bids were not due back to the District until October 11 so how could the Board know what the expected savings to the District would be.  How would TENIG know how much they needed to ‘give back’?  Was this not the point of sending the RFPs out to the vendors?  In addition, this reasoning lined up with Betsy Fadem’s remark that the discussion would take place in January 2014 (allowing for adequate review of the vendor bids and public input).  According to Mary, there were a number of vendors lined up to provide bids to the District – 13 vendors for janitorial, 3 vendors for security, 8 vendors for maintenance, 3 vendors for secretarial and 5 vendors for the cafeteria. Presumably, now the vendors will be immediately notified that the District has cancelled the RFP and has settled the contract.

The good news is that the 3-year TENIG contract, July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017, has no outsourcing of TENIG employees and no discussion of outsourcing to occur during the length of the contract.  Any new employees hired will be part of the District (and TENIG) – those positions will not be outsourced.  However, there will be wage restructuring for all new TENIG hires, equating to an average of $3/hr. less than current employees in that position.

All TENIG employees received a 4-1/2% raise for the final year of their current contract (which is July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014).  In the new 3-year contract, the custodians will receive a 2% salary reduction and additionally will give back 1 week of their vacation.  (The rationale is that the District has to hire subs when the custodians are on vacation).  The other members of TENIG (security, kitchen, maintenance, and cafeteria) will receive a 4% salary reduction in the new contract but their vacation benefit remains intact.

On the benefit side, Mary explained that TENIG currently receives the best healthcare benefits of all District employees – paying an average of $300/yr. for a family health insurance plan.  Under the new contract, TENIG member’s health insurance will be on par with TEEA (teachers) members.  In the new contract, the TENIG employees will contribute approximately 6% for their health care benefits.  For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees receive a freeze on their salary.

As an incentive for current employees to leave the District, there is an interesting caveat in the new contract.  If any TENIG employee with 15 or more years of District service, voluntarily resigns prior to end of the first year of the contract (by June 30, 2015), they will receive a buyout bonus of 15% of their salary, up to $7K.  The idea is to replace some of the higher-paid District employees with new lesser-paid employees, thus decreasing overhead budget costs.

So, how much is the new 3-year TENIG contract saving the District?  The contract savings includes $400K from the healthcare benefit component, $207K with the employee salary reduction and $207K from the custodian 1-week vacation giveback for a grand total savings of $719K to the District.

Although Mary stated that the Board had voted to accept the TENIG proposed 3-year contract and that the TENIG membership ratified the contract, I believe that the contract still has to be officially ‘voted on’ in public, doesn’t it?  According to Mary, the Board will sign the contract at a special Board meeting that will be held in conjunction with the Finance Committee meeting.  Looking at the upcoming District meetings, the Finance Committee is scheduled for Monday, October 14 – which interestingly is Columbus Day.  (The offices in Tredyffrin Twp are closed on Columbus Day, but I guess not for TESD).

I want to be clear about something – I am pleased for the TENIG employees; glad they will not be outsourced and that they will not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract.  However, last week’s School Board meeting has me troubled. After several residents asked for greater public input and communication, the public was assured that the Board was transparent, and that contract updates would be provided, and that simultaneously to early bird negotiations with TENIG that the Board would also review the results from the RFP.  With agreement from the Board and TENIG on the new contract, there will be no vendor bids.

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TE Teacher & TENIG contract discussions begin …

I was unable to attend the monthly TE school board meeting last night.  But fortunately Ray Clarke was at the meeting and supplied the following notes:

Buraks read a statement to the effect that the Board has entered into discussions with both TENIG and the TEEA to explore the opportunity for “Early Bird” contracts.  All parties have agreed to a “gag order” in order to “give the best odds of reaching agreement” (or words to that effect). The public will be kept informed as the process evolves.  In response to my question (and after consulting with the solicitor (!)) Buraks stated that the Board representatives for TENIG are Brake, Bruce, Fadem, for TEEA are Cruickshank, Graham, Motel.  There was no information provided as to new TEEA leadership.

The other item of note was the Priority Discussion on the Act 93 salary adjustments.  Waters gave a lot of detail in an oral report that reiterated the general agreement from January, but of course, the only thing we had to follow was the table in the Agenda materials that kindly calculated 1% of each individual’s salary for the arithmetically challenged!  Of course, we could go look up somewhere the 2012/13 salaries, but why not just put them in the table to help the Board and community get some perspective?

The Board reiterated its opposition to the Keystone exams.  As a survivor of the UK’s “11 Plus” which determined our future at 10 years old, I’m not well qualified to comment on that!

The District’s collective bargaining agreements with TENIG (custodians, support staff and kitchen workers) and TEEA (the teachers union) expire on June 30, 2014.  In addition, the District’s arrangement with the aides and paras for the 2013/14 school year also expires in June.  Unless I’m missing something, it appears that the entire workforce of the TE School District is ‘under discussion’ with the exception of the administration.  I am glad to see that school board members (Cruickshank, Graham, Motel) are sitting at the negotiation table this time around with the teachers union. (If you recall, this was not the case the last time).

I hope that the Board President Buraks is sincere about the School Board keeping the public informed during the the process as Ray notes suggested.  It was the lack of transparency during the last teachers contract negotiations that troubled many of us — I re-read an old CM post on this topic from April 2012, ‘Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations’  which had a follow-up post on May 17, 2012, ‘TE Teachers Turn on Transparency Lights in Contract Negotiations’ .  In re-reading these posts and the many comments, what was striking was the need for regular updates to the public by the Board.  The lack of information and/or misinformation during the contract negotiations aggravated an already difficult situation.  In the CM post of May 17, 2012, I wrote,

” … making the teacher contract negotiation process transparent for the public would help the community understand how our children will be taught and how our tax dollars will be invested.  The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes this school district.  There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract negotiation process. …”

I remain hopeful that the contract negotiations between the District and TEEA (and TENIG) will be open, honest and as transparent as possible.  To clarify —  representing the teachers union, is TEEA president Dr. Bob DeSipio, Conestoga HS science teacher.  TENIG president is Mary Minicozzi.

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