Lower Merion School District

America’s Best High Schools But Where is Conestoga High School?

Newsweek has released a list of the top 500 public high schools in America.  Here are high schools in our local area that made the list and their ranking:

  • Harriton High School:  #123
  • Radnor High School: #146
  • Lower Merion High School:  #224
  • Downingtown East High School; #279
  • Downingtown West High School: #339
  • Great Valley High School:  #346
  • Haverford High School: #466

But where is Conestoga High School . . . ?

To create the list of the top 500 public high schools in America, Newsweek used the criteria below, with its corresponding percentage of calculated weight:

  • Four-year, on-time graduation rate (25%)
  • Percent of 2010 graduates who enrolled immediately in college (25%)
  • AP tests per graduate (25%)
  • Average SAT score (10%)
  • Average AP test score (10%)
  • Number of AP courses offered per graduate (5%)

With all the discussion about the quality of TESD schools, does it not strike some of you odd that Conestoga High School is not on the list?  I have to believe that Conestoga High School would not fall short in any of the categories as based on Newsweek’s criteria (above).

There has been much discussion, including on Community Matters, in regards to the quality of our T/E school district.  Repeatedly, people have affirmed that the quality of our school district is helping to sustain our property values.  If that is correct, shouldn’t TESD taxpayers expect the same ‘bragging rights’ as the other school districts?

Unable to explain ‘why’ Conestoga High School is not on the list, I researched further.  Under Newsweek’s category, “Methodology: How we compiled the list” and I may have discovered the answer.  From the Newsweek website, I found the following:

To compile the 2011 list of the top high schools in America, NEWSWEEK reached out to administrators, principals, guidance counselors, and Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate coordinators at more than 10,000 public high schools across the country. In order to be considered for our list, each school had to complete a survey requesting specific data from the 2009-2010 academic year.

Based on Newsweek’s methodology, is the explanation to Conestoga’s MIA status on the list as simple as the administration dropped the ball and did not complete the survey?

Regardless of whether you give credence to school rankings, what does it say that every other public high school in the area is on the list except for Conestoga High School?

If you were moving into the Philadelphia suburbs and had high school age children, would it make a difference to you?  If all was equal, do you think that a family with high school age children would opt for one of our neighboring school districts because they were ranked by Newsweek and TESD was not?

Bottom line, as our property taxes continue to increase, I am guessing that most taxpayers in T/E would like to see their high school on the list.  If nothing more, it helps take some of the sting out of the tax bill.

I would be curious what explanation our school board members would have to say on the ranking and Conestoga’s MIA status on the list.

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As a follow-up note, I have emailed school board president Karen Cruickshank and cc the T/E school board.  If I receive a response, I will be glad to post it.

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The Clock is Ticking Down for T/E School Budget . . . Will Property Tax Increase be the Highest of our Neighbors

The clock is ticking down . . . the T/E School Board votes on the final budget for 2011-12 on Monday, June 13, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School.  The preliminary school budget contained a property tax increase of 3.8%.  Will that tax increase remain in the final budget or is possible that the school board members may consider a lower increase?

The school board and the administration have battled their way through the 2011-12 budget since last fall, with regular school board meetings as well as finance and special budget meetings.  The board and administration thoroughly reviewed many budget strategies and made difficult educational and programming decisions. The school district reached agreements for the 2011-12 school year with the teachers union (TEEA) and with the non-instructional union (TENIG).  In the spirit of shared sacrifice, union members from TEEA and TENIG showed their support for the school district and agreed to a variation of a salary freeze to help the bottom line of the District’s 2011-12 budget.

According to the TEEA agreement with the T/E school district, the teachers will have their salaries frozen for the first 6 months of the 2011-12 school year based on their final paycheck of the 2010-11 school year.  As part of the agreement, TESD agreed there would be no involuntary furloughing or involuntary demotion of teachers for 2011-12.  The cost savings for the TEEA agreement is approximately $1 Million to the school district.

The agreement reached between TENIG and TESD is a zero percent wage increase for the 2011-12 school year.  The savings to the school district with TENIG’s salary freeze is $300K.  Adding the additional reduced overtime wages and the total TENIG savings to the District is approximately $450K.

The school board members applauded the efforts of TEEA and TENIG . . . the combined total help from the two unions represents nearly $1.5 million in savings to the school district. 

Here’s my question . . . given the substantial level of savings, due to TEEA and TENIG’s spirit of shared sacrifice, will the school board also recognize the ongoing sacrifices of the taxpayers in this school district?  Will the school board consider a reduction in the proposed 3.8% property tax increase?  The preliminary 2011-12 budget could not predict the $1.5 million savings from the unions, so should the taxpayers expect the final budget to reflect those savings?  I believe that the 3.8% includes taking the full Act 1 exemptions but maybe in light of the union savings, the percentage increase could be reduced.

In anticipation of TESD’s final budget vote on Monday, I thought it would be interesting to see where the currently projected 3.8% property tax increase measures up against other local school districts. I think that it is fair to use Radnor, Lower Merion and Great Valley school districts for comparison.  Generally speaking, these school districts are comparable in level of education quality and I would think that the economic climate of the taxpayers is similar.  Each of these school districts has approved their final budgets —

  • Radnor Township School District1.4% tax increase Lowest RDSD tax increase in years. RTSD credited the Radnor teachers’ sacrifice in reaching a contract agreement for the low tax increase.
  • Great Valley School District 2.9% tax increase  GVSD Superintendent Alan Lonoconus, said of the tax increase, “We tried very hard this year to make sure the impact to programs was as gentle as possible. But we also kept in mind the economic conditions not only of our district, but of the nation.”
  • Lower Merion School District3.3% tax increase  Lowest tax increase since 1984-84 fiscal year

Although not an adjacent school district and perhaps not as highly ranked academically as Radnor, Great Valley, Lower Merion and T/E school districts, I was fascinated by West Chester School District’s final budget decision —

  • West Chester School DistrictNO tax increase.  The 0 percent tax increase balanced WCSD budget by taking $3 million from their fund balance.

It is not surprising that the taxpayers of WCSD overwhelming supported the decision of their school board leaders not to increase taxes.  In reviewing the demands of their school budget over the last months, there was much discussion between school board members and residents in regard to the severe economic conditions facing the residents, rising gas prices, high unemployment, etc. Many taxpayers in the WCSD complained that they are already financially pushed to the limit — the 0 percent tax increase decision came as welcomed news.

As it now stands, unless the T/E school board members reconsider, a property tax increase of 3.8% is on the table for a vote at Monday night’s school board meeting; this increase will represent the highest increase among our neighbors. TESD is a great school district, and one for which we all can be proud, but likewise could be said for Lower Merion, Great Valley and Radnor school districts.  My guess is that the argument that some will make is that TESD currently has a lower tax rate than these other mentioned school districts and therefore taxpayers are in a better position to afford the tax increase.  Correct? 

I have not done a research analysis but I believe that TESD may have the highest fund balance of any of these neighboring school districts. (In fact, I think I read somewhere that TESD fund balance is one of the highest in the state).  Some could argue that the fund balance represents over-taxing of residents in prior years, so . . . now that the taxpayers of this community need financial relief can we ask that the TESD use more of the reserve and lessen our property tax increase?

To help the community, the teachers, secretaries, custodians, cooks and maintenance personnel in this school district have shown us the meaning of shared sacrifice.  Is it possible that TESD will acknowledge the sacrifices of the District taxpayers, and lower the expected property tax increase?  Or, is this just wishful thinking on my part . . . ?

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Statewide Rankings of PSSA Test Performance Shows Tredyffrin-Easttown, Radnor & Lower Merion School Districts in the Top 10 in the State!

Pittsburgh Business Times has compiled the statewide rankings of PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Exams) test performance for the last six years. The PSSA results come from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.  Raw results can be found at www.pde.state.pa.us — click on ‘Data and Statistics, then ‘PSSA’.  The survey ranks the 500 school districts in the state based on the PSSA performance. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

Once again, for the sixth straight year, the Upper St. Clair School District in Allegany County (Pittsburgh suburbs) held on to its top spot as highest-scoring school district in Pennsylvania on state standardized tests.

There is good news for T/E School District – for the second year in a row, TESD landed No. 2 on the list of highest-scoring PSSA school districts.  In the Philadelphia regions, in addition to TESD, four other school districts are in the top 10 in terms of performance. Here are those results:

  • Tredyffrin-Easttown School District in Chester County (No. 2)
  • Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in Chester County (No. 3)
  • Radnor Township School District in Delaware County (No. 4)
  • Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County (No 7)
  • Central Bucks School District in Bucks County (No. 8)

Neighboring Great Valley School District in Chester County was listed as No. 13 on the list.  Downingtown School District’s PSSA performance is No. 28. Upper Merion School District in Montgomery County is No. 68. Phoenixville School District in Chester County was listed as No. 68 in 2010 and dropped to No. 85 on the PSSA performance list. 

Looking at the bottom of the performance list, I was curious to see if any Philadelphia region school districts were on the list.  Interesting to note the following:

  • Pottstown School District in Montgomery County (No. 461)
  • Norristown School District in Montgomery County (No. 475)
  • Philadelphia School District in Philadelphia County (No. 484)
  • William Penn School District in Delaware County (No. 488)
  • Chester-Upland School District in Delaware County (No. 496)
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Will T/E School Board Include an Activity Fee in the 2011-12 Budget?

On the eve of the Special T/E School Board meeting, there is much discussion on the $8.8 million deficit for the district’s 2011-12 school year and its challenge.  Over the last couple of weeks, I do not recall much discussion about the possibility of adding an activities fee to the 2011-12 budget. If you recall, the T/E School Board passed the 2010-11 school year budget without the inclusion of an activity fee.  The estimated $80K in activity fee revenue was removed before the passage of the final budget. The consensus at the time was there was not enough time to look at the details required for such an assessment.  However, it was thought that some form of an activity fee should be discussed for inclusion in the 2011-12 budget.

Every year, students of all ages opt for extra-curricular activities.  The activity may not be high-profile football or some other “major” high school sports.  The involvement may be in the performing arts or any variety of positive clubs or organizations that contribute to making school kids better citizens.  Depending on the activity, the kids and their parents may spend a lot of personal money on extra-curricular expenses (sports workout clothing, voice or instrumental music lessons, club-related materials, etc.). In addition, along with time spent on their studies, these students spend inordinate amounts of time practicing to become better performers or working for the good of the club. It’s also not uncommon for them to devote many hours of added time with fund-raisers to defray organizational expenses.  Parents are not to be spared, either. Any parent of an “involved kid” at school will tell you about driving kids to and from practice, helping with fundraisers, etc.  So how do we feel about imposing an activity fee on the T/E students and their families?  Do you think that an activity fee will impact participation?

Checking other school districts, Lower Merion, Coatesville, Phoenixville, Owen J. Roberts and Kennett school districts currently have no additional activity fees. (I was not able to verify that Radnor School District imposes an activity fee – maybe a reader knows the answer.)  Great Valley and West Chester school districts do not currently have an activity fee but are considering such a fee for the 2011-12 school year. The Downingtown school district charges their activity fee at a flat rate of $25 per sport. 

Unionville-Chadds Ford School District currently has an activity fee but is considering an increase for next year’s budget. Their suggested approach is a creative four level-tiered schedule – $10, $25, $50 and $75 depending on the type of sports and student activity.  The fees will cover many kinds of activities from math and academic clubs to participation on sports teams, like football and basketball.  With the increase, the activity fees will generate an annual income of $133.00.  The calculation of fees was based on total cost of the activity, an amount not to exceed 20% of the total cost.  Using football fees as an example, the proposed increase is 200%, from a current $25 fee to $75; the increase would still be under the 20% of total cost.

If T/E adds an activities fee to the 2011-12 budget, how would the assessment be applied . . .  per activity, per sports involvement?  Would the charge be an annual assessment per student or per family?  Will the assessment be a flat rate or a creative multi-tiered approach?  Where does the T/E school board stand on the activity fee subject?  I will be curious to see if the activity fee subject is discussed at tomorrow night’s special School Board meeting.

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Important Tredyffrin-Easttown School District Meetings . . . Includes Earned Income Tax (EIT) Discussion

For many residents, the upcoming election on November 2nd has captured your attention but there is interesting news from the T/E School Board that should not be missed.  A couple of important School Board meetings — tomorrow’s Finance Committee Meeting at 7:30 PM at the high school and the following Monday, October 18, an EIT Information session.

Topics included on the agenda for the Finance Committee Meeting:

  • Projection Model
  • Capital Sources and Uses
  • 2011-2012 Budget Calendar
  • Earned Income Tax
  • Print Shop and Printing Costs
  • Fund Balance Designation – information about the $6M accrual for untaken sick/vacation entitlement

The Finance Committee will be setting the stage for the following week’s special presentation on the EIT. 

I applaud those School Board members responsible for the October 18th public Earned Income Tax presentation.  The School Board is bringing in a third-party, a representative from the Pennsylvania Economy League to provide information about the implementation and effect of an EIT. 

This is an important meeting because the School Board will make a decision at its October 25th meeting about whether to advise the Townships of its intent to place an EIT on next May’s ballot as a voter referendum.  This notice is non-binding, and would allow the Board, the Townships and community time to fully consider the matter.

We understand that the School Board represents us, the residents.  If you do not want the School Board members to make decisions in a vacuum, than I think more of the community needs to be engaged.  There are hard decisions facing the school district in the 2011-12 school year. How do you want the Board to fund the ever-increasing deficit and the ballooning pension situation . . . increase your property taxes, cut educational programs in the district, impose an EIT?   Leaving the situation as a ‘status quo’ is not an option.  I am 100% supportive of exploring all options and democratically deciding on the best option.  Before anyone jumps in and says no one wants an EIT — and that previously the public was overwhelmingly opposed to it, we need to recognize that our options are becoming increasingly more limited.  Would you prefer a large property tax increase?  If you take an EIT and property tax increase off the table, . . . what’s left?  Educational program and staffing cuts?  Is this the answer?

We may be seeing the tip of the iceberg as more and more of the school districts are facing similar economic challenges.  Methacton School District is set to go on strike Friday, October 15.  Teachers in that Montgomery County school district have been working without a contract for over a year (contract expired June 2009).  Although wages is the main issue, other contract differences include medical premiums, the length of the work year, and the payment of postretirement medical benefits. Methacton’s School Board accepted the findings of a nonbinding fact-finder’s report this fall; but the Methacton Education Association, the teachers union, rejected it. 

I think that the TESD teachers contract is up in 2012. (Please correct me if I’m wrong).  It is going to be interesting to see if the teacher contract negotiations of Lower Merion, Radnor and Great Valley will influence our district.  The current TESD teachers contract allows for a 5% yearly increase in wages, correct?  With several School Board members terms up in 2011, it is going to be interesting to see who will decide to stay and seek re-election.  With teacher contract negotiations and the pension situation, could be a challenging 2012 for School Board members.

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Paoli Resident Calls for Fair Play and Common Sense From Elected Officials

The following Letter to the Editor appears in this week’s Main Line Suburban Life newspaper.  Written by Paoli resident Eugene Grace, this letter really hits on what some of us have been thinking lately.  Mr. Grace doesn’t write his letter with a particular political view or slant; nor is he suggesting that one political party is better or worse than another.  Mr. Grace’s  message is simple . . . he is asking for fair play and common sense from our elected officials.  An interesting letter — comments?

  To the Editor:

Fair play and common sense are the two traits that voters want from their political leaders.

Fair play means simply following the established rules of the game as well as their related customs and traditions. Locally, fair play does not include Tredyffrin’s use of “New Matter” to keep a significant township matter off the published agenda. Locally fair play would not allow the Lower Merion School District to plant remote-controlled webcams into school-provided computers without some form of notice.

Nationally fair play does not include the U.S. Senate’s use of a tactical tool known as “Reconciliation” to pass major legislation. Under “normal” Senate rules, 60 votes are required to move legislation through that body. Reconciliation was developed as a speedier way to move smaller budgetary or tax issues through the Senate with only a simple majority of 51 votes. The Senate’s use of Reconciliation for health care would be a departure from Senate rules and tradition.

Common sense informs us that Tredyffrin should have collected monies owed under previous commitments without further study and that the Lower Merion School District should have provided notice to students regarding a potential invasion of privacy. Common sense says that the U.S. Senate should not employ Reconciliation regarding health care, which constitutes 16 percent of the U.S. economy. Common sense tells us that leaders should lead.

The fact that “The People” are leading on all these issues tells us that fair play and common sense have been thrown to the wind. Common sense tells us that the “leaders” responsible for these decisions should have a similar fate.

Eugene P. Grace, Paoli

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FBI Investigating Lower Merion School District's Use of Laptop Webcams to Allegedly Spy on Students and Their Families!

Did you hear about the lawsuit filed against Lower Merion School District? In the case of Blake J. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, the suit claims that laptops were issued to Harriton High School students with webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools’ administrators. The suit claims that the administrators were able to use this webcam feature to spy on students and even their families.

The issue came to light when the Robbin’s child was disciplined for “improper behavior in his home” and Harriton High School Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these specific webcam equipped laptops.

If these allegations are true, how creepy is this for the students and their families? Think about it . . . I’m sure that a number of these kids have their laptops in their bedrooms where they may be getting dressed, or how about if the laptop is located in an area where there are private discussions with the students families. It is one thing if a school district has the ability to monitor emails or mark inappropriate website visits but to use these computers as ‘bugs’ is horrifying.

Schools all over this country are worried about kids divulging too much personal information online, concerned about pedophiles, embarrassing uploads of photos, etc. that may affect college acceptances or future job opportunities. Kids are taught by parents and school administrators to threat their personal details as though they were precious. And now we have this revelation in nearby Lower Merion School District?

It is my understanding that Lower Merion School District has admitted that the laptops were shipped with software for covertly activating their webcams, but is denying wrongdoing. Late today, the Associated Press is reporting that the FBI is now involved in the case. The FBI is investigating the Lower Merion School District over allegations that a high school in the school district spied on students through their laptop webcams. The official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, says the FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.

Lower Merion officials say they remotely activated webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops in the past 14 months, but never did so to spy on students, as the Blake J. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District lawsuit claims.

What is Tredyffrin Easttown School District’s policy on computer usage outside of school hours?  Does the school district have a similar laptop program to Lower Merion?  I don’t think our school district assigns laptops to individual students, correct?  Are any of the district’s laptops permitted to leave the schools?

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