Neal Colligan

TE School Board Meeting — A call for transparency and open communications

I attended last night’s School Board meeting and noted a common thread linking many of the resident’s comments.  The words may have been slightly differently from residents Neal Colligan, Scott Dorsey, Peggy Layden, Michelle Berger and myself, but the message to the School Board was the same.  We were all asking for transparency, public dialogue, open communication, etc. etc. between the Board, administration and the public.

In the first comment period, Neal Colligan asked the Board to detail the timeline and process for the TENIG and teacher contract negotiations.  He referenced the ‘early bird’ contract negotiations that are underway and asked that the public have adequate time to review any proposed contract.  The public understands that negotiations are private between the sides and we cannot be part of the process — however, once there is an agreement it would be appropriate that that there be adequate time for review.  Disappointingly, the Board did not offer much in the way of a response, except to say that the discussions with TENIG are ongoing.

At the August Board meeting it was announced that the RFP was going out shortly which would seek outsourcing bids for the TENIG contract.  (Both the TENIG contract and the teachers contract expire June 30, 2014.) It would seem to make practical sense for the Board (and TENIG) to have the cost analysis for outsourcing to use as a starting point to negotiate a contract.  How else would the District know what (if any) savings would occur through outsourcing without the ‘real’ numbers?  And for the TENIG members, how would they know ‘what’ they needed ‘to give’ back in salary and/or benefits if there was no comparative numbers from the outside? Last night it was entirely unclear if the RFP was sent out yet there’s rumblings of an agreement between the District and TENIG.  If  there is an agreement, it will be curious to see what TENIG members gave up to keep their jobs.  If you recall the last time, only the custodians were in the position of giving back whereas this time it is the all of TENIG that is at risk.  Whatever happens with TENIG is certain to have an effect on the teacher contrac negotations.

My comments last night related to Community Matters and the school district’s apparent ‘blocking’ of the website from their computers.  I read a prepared statement which included asking for the reinstitution of the District’s ‘Public Information Committee’ . I spoke of the need for open communication and transparency and asked the Board to respectfully remove the ‘block’ of my sebsite.  At least some members of the school board were not aware of the situation until I brought it to their attention.  Dr. Waters told the Board that he would look into the matter and report back.  Improving communication between the administration, Board and the public should be something that we all want to achieve.

As follow-up, I sent the following email to the Board, Waters and Robin McConnell:

Dear TE School Board Members,

This email is follow-up to my statement at last night’s school board meeting regarding the ‘blocking’ of Community Matters website from school district computers.  It was my understanding from the Board’s response that none of you were aware of this situation until I brought it to your attention.  For the record, I have had at least 15 people, including employees working in various District schools, support staff, substitute teachers and students to either call or send emails asking why they are receiving  ‘this site is blocked’ notifications when they attempt to access Community Matters.
At the school board meeting, Dr. Waters stated that he would look into the matter and would check with Robin McConnell,  who was not at the last night’s meeting.  I respectfully asked last night that the ‘block’ be removed from my site and the access be restored.  Can I expect that Board members will follow-up with the administration and correct this situation?
The community is looking for transparency and open communication from our elected officials; thank you all for supporting that goal.
Sincerely,
Pattye Benson
I hope that the situation is resolved quickly and that Community Matters is ‘unblocked’ in the school district.  To the employees and students who contacted me in this regard, thank you — please let me know if the situation is resolved.
During the second comment period, Neal Colligan once again addressed the Board, stating that they had not answered his earlier question about providing adequate public time to review and comment on any proposed union agreements.  Again no response from the Board.  Without a commitment from the Board on the process of public commentary in regards to any proposed union contracts, Colligan furthered his request.  He stated there would be new leadership on the school board come January 1 and based on the outcome of the November election, that could mean either 2, 3 or possibly 4 new Board members.  Colligan offered that it was not fair that new Board members would be saddled with the results of these ‘early bird’ contract negotiations and again suggested that there should be community input.

Recent history indicates that when there is public input, initial decisions of the Board can sometimes be changed — we saw this with the proposed outsourcing of the aides and paras and again with the tennis courts at Valley Forge Elementary School. When members of the community supports an issue, shows up at meetings and offers their opinion, it can make a difference.  Transparency and open dicussion between the Board, administration and the public is critical.

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Taxpayers deserve to know the bargaining framework in TE teacher negotiations

At the August school board meeting, the public learned at the District has entered into contract discussions with the teachers.  We were told that there was agreement on both sides not to discuss the negotiation.  Neither the ‘agreement’ not its specifics was made public.  Resident Neal Colligan contacted the District with a right-to-know request — hoping to find out more about the agreement and the bargaining framework for the teacher negotiations.  Neal sent me the following for Community Matters:

Pattye,

I wanted to let you know that I filed a Right to Know (RTK) request with the School District on August 27, 2013, specifically:

I would like a copy of any and all agreements related to the Early Bird TEEA contract negotiations particularly related to the “ground rules” for the Early Bird talks.  I understand that this will not include any employer or employee contract offers, that is and should remain confidential.

Again, thanks to Ray Clarke and his reporting on the T/ESB Board meeting.  I could tell he was trying to accurately portray the Board’s announcement of the Early Bird negotiations and the specific phrases he used led me to believe they may have been part of a written document.

Rather than grant or deny this request, I received a 30 day delay based on: Legal review required to determine whether record is a public record.  This was quite an odd response.  Possibly my follow-up communication to the Open Records officer will help make my thinking on their response more clear:

Thank you for your timely response to my request.  You’ve indicated that the document(s) that I requested do indeed exist which is a great start and not something that I had known for sure.  As they do exist, I am even more anxious to see them in the public domain.  While I understand the potential need for legal review “to determine whether record is a public record; I do have an opinion as to the timing of that review which you have indicated will take 30 days (September 27, 2013).  Certainly documents of this nature were constructed with legal review/input; meaning that the inside or outside legal team is already familiar with the nature and content of the documents.  The delay here is only to determine if the documents in question are of public record.  As they do not contain any actual negotiating points between the parties, I would think the determination of “public record” would be a quick call.  To be fair, I am not an attorney so I do not offer this as a legal opinion but only one of common sense.  30 days seems awfully long for this review.

This contract which is being negotiated under a gag order is of paramount importance to the members of our community…it is the largest publicly funded workforce in our townships.  Results of this contract will have a profound impact on taxing policy for years.  The Board has stated its intention “To keep the public informed of the progress as it moves forward”.  My request is simply to inform the public of the parameters involved in the formation of the “process that has been agreed to by the Board and each union” (both quotes form the 8/26/13 ActionLine posted on your website).  Please consider expediting my request.  In recent years, this Board’s actions related to (lack of) transparency have been brought into question several times on critical issues important to our citizens.  The Board’s rhetoric is one of openness but there is an opinion among many taxpayers that this Board is not as open in communicating with the community as they have promised.  Let’s turn the page on the past and start a process of inclusion with the citizens who are interested in these issues of local importance. 

To date, I’ve received no follow-up communication from the District.  A review of the District policy concerning Public Access to School District Records does allow for a maximum delay of up to 30 days for information requests.  That’s what I was given but it doesn’t seem necessary in this case for the reasons I’ve cited above.  I’ve also written to the members of the Board seeking their assistance in expediting this request.

Maybe your readers would have interest in this and you have my permission to print this if you see fit.

For the record, the District’s Business Manager Art McDonnell is the Open Records Officer — McDonnell is the one that responds to resident’s right-to-know requests.  As follow-up, I note that Neal has contacted members of the school board in an attempt to expedite the right-to-know request.  I am assuming that Board members have not responded to him.

I don’t understand why the agreement setting the negotiation ground rules between the District and the teachers union is not considered a public document.  The negotiating ground rules were established and apparently both sides agreed — so why shouldn’t the public know the rules. We all want the negotiation situation to be productive but the community deserves transparency.  The negotiating parties should provide the bargaining framework for the taxpayers.

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Outcome of TE School Board Meeting more suited for black roses than white ribbons!

Much like the last TE School Board meeting on May 13, the audience was filled with residents and staff, including aides, paraeducators, paraprofessionals, teachers and TENIG members … the outcome of the evening more suited for black roses than white ribbons!

The same 9-0 Board vote to cut the weekly hours of aides and paras to part-time, 27.5 hours could have taken place in the first 5 minutes of the meeting, rather than dragging the vote out until 10:30 PM.  To those of us who attended, we all now know that the minds of the school board members were made up before the meeting ever started.

During the first public comment period of the night, TESD resident Neal Colligan delivered a statement that included the timeline of activity surrounding the decision on the District’s aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The ever-changing status of this group of District employees began six weeks ago with the outsourcing of their jobs to STS.  When STS pulled its proposal, the District turned to another outsourcing company CCRES.  Its unclear what happened with the CCRES outsourcing plan – that plan disappeared without explanation.  In its place, the employees were notified about 10 days ago, that their hours would be cut to part-time.

Colligan stated, “No one has seen a vote on any of these decisions.  The community, the employees who live in our community and the members of the public who have taken an interest in this issue ask for that vote tonight.”  He asked that the Board listen to the residents before taking the vote.

Often we hear residents complain about a local issue but when you suggest they speak up at a public hearing the answer most likely is this:  “Why bother, no one listens.”  Nothing truer could have been said about last night’s school board meeting! After a series of meetings, phone conversations and emails with many of the District aides and paras, it was clear they feared retribution if they spoke publically.  Believing that the Board needed to hear their testimonials, I collected personal statements to read.  With the 5 min. limit imposed for individual resident comments, I was only able to get through two letters.  I appealed for audience volunteers and residents lined up to read aloud the letters into the  meeting testimony.

The thoughtfully written personal statements are with an insight that only comes with years of experience in the school district.  Although personally affected by the decision to reduce their hours to part-time, the overriding concern of aides and paraprofessionals in their statements, is for the education, safety and well-being of our District’s children.

Click here to read full text of personal statements written the TE School Board.  Below are excerpted quotes:

  –  There is no substitute, when working with all children and especially kids with needs, for consistency, continuity, trust and relationship.

–  The aides and paras have been treated as puppets and the Administration and School Board are the Puppet Masters.

–  The loss of hours, I fear, will cause unnecessary turnover of staff with detrimental effects on school programs and the students of the district.

–  We go the extra mile because many of us had our own children go through TE and we are proud of the TE tradition.  You cannot pay for that.  Many of the aides were originally volunteers at their schools, putting in many hours making TE schools what they are.

–  What does affect me is seeing our school district begin a race to the bottom under the care of this school board.  The beginning of the “Walmart-ization” of our district as one speaker called it at a recent meeting.

–  There is a saying in organizational psychology, “If you want to know what is important to leaders don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do.”  What do you think your end run around the ACA says about how important the aides are to this school board?

–  The school board doesn’t care about us and they never will.

–  The relationship and bond between the aides and the children will be shattered with a revolving door of strangers in their lives. Beyond the nightmare of scheduling problems with all the part-time workers, are you prepared for the security risks that will come with brining all these new people into the schools?

–  If something bad happens as a result of your actions towards the aides and paraprofessionals of TE, it’s going to be your fault and no one else’s – you will have to live with the consequences.

In addition to the anonymous testimonials read for the record, several brave employees delivered their own written statements to the School Board, which contained similar sentiments.  Audience members who volunteered to read the personal statements, added their own messages of support for the aides, and encouragement to the Board to do the right thing.  On behalf of the TESD teachers, Laura Whittaker, president of the teachers union, delivered an impassioned plea to save the hours of the aides and paras, describing their important contribution to the District’s children and their families.

Following-up on her comments presented at last week’s Finance Committee meeting, TESD resident Joanne Sonn, sought and received guidance from the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington DC advocacy group with expertise in healthcare law.  Sonn presented a letter (click here to read) to the Board from Dania Palanker, Senior Counsel at the Women’s Law Center. The letter puts forth the assertion that under current laws a self‐insured plan  (to which TESD switched in 2011) can be in compliance with nondiscriminatory testing regulations while still offering a separate group of 30‐40 hr. /week workers a lesser valued plan.  As a result of Palanker’s information, Sonn respectfully requested the Board to reconsider its plans to avoid Affordable Care Act compliance by reducing the hours of District employees to part-time status.

The legal opinion of Palanker was dismissed by the District’s solicitor Ken Roos and the benefit expert from his firm, attorney Rhonda Grubbs.  They remained constant in their advice to the Board … claiming that the only way to avoid the ‘possible’ penalties of the ACA was to reduce employee hours to under 30 hours per week.  It was stated and re-stated by some Board members that the District could not afford the cost of healthcare for the lowest paid District employees nor could we afford the cost of possible associated penalties for ACA non-compliance.

So … in the end, the Board took a vote (9-0) to decrease the hours of aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals to 27.5 hours a week.  The vote also represented a decision not to listen to the residents, parents, aides and paras, teachers or the senior counsel of the National Women’s Law Center. Instead, all school board members chose to follow the opinion of the District solicitor.  Sadly, the takeaway from the Board’s action is that if you live in this community and feel that, you are not being listened to or acknowledged, you are probably right.

The Board’s claims that the District cannot afford healthcare for the lowest paid and/or the possible financial risks for ACA noncompliance may work for some residents.  However, these claims of fiscal responsibility ring false when we learn that the District, for another year in a row, has uncovered a multi-million budget surplus. Or that the Board can afford to give bonuses to administrators and raises to the District solicitor and his attorneys … or that the Board can stand behind a 10-year $50 million ‘dream’ facilities  plan to be paid for by taxpayers for years to come.  Beyond our yearly tax increases, we have a school board who chooses to go after revenue from nonprofit organizations and seeks to charge taxpayers for the use of tennis courts.

The most troubling aspect of the school board meeting was the Board’s total disregard for the residents and their message.  Our ‘collective’ votes elected these people to listen to us; but based on last night, it was obvious that what the community wants is not part of the Board’s agenda.  Residents need to learn to vote for representatives that will listen and serve us instead of only pandering to us during election time.

To review … Of the nine currently serving school board members, Anne Crowley and Betsy Fadem, are not seeking re-election, their terms end December 31, 2013.  Kevin Buraks and Rich Brake are seeking re-election and their names will appear on the November ballot.  Buraks and Brake’s opponents, Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey, respectfully, support the District staff and spoke out last night against the Board’s decision to cut the hours of aides and paraeducators.  In addition, Connors questioned the proposed budget expenditures and surplus and to his credit, Dorsey asked for (and received) an apology from school board member Pete Motel for his behavior toward resident Joanne Sonn at the Finance Committee meeting.

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Note:  With the 10:30 PM vote to decrease the aides and paras to 27.5 hours, over half of the audience got up and walked out, including myself.  For those that remained, it is my understanding that Rich Brake delivered a lengthy personal statement and presumably the 2013-14 budget was passed.  This was the first time I have ever left a public meeting before it ended but somehow there seemed little reason to stay.  For those that did stay, please fill us in on what we missed.

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Clarification of TE School Board receipt of outsourcing alternative strategy

This post is offered as clarification regarding the ‘outsourcing alternative’ strategy that Neal Colligan prepared for the TE School Board’s consideration and the receipt of the document . On June 4, Neal sent the following email to the school board at the District email address (schoolboard@tesd.net ) with the outsourcing alternative document attached. (I was copied on the email).  As previously explained on Community Matters, the document represented the  collaborative effort between community members, District aides and paraeducators and, health care experts. (You can find a copy of the document at the end of this post).

As you know, a group of community members, along with many of the Paraeducators working in the district have been working on an alternative to the outsourcing strategy discussed at the May 13, 2013 Board Meeting.  Attached is the result of these efforts.  The many citizens of our community who have supported this initiative ask that the Board please seriously consider what we propose.  In essence, we urge you to comply with the letter of the Affordable Care Act and keep these several hundred jobs in the District.  We believe that this can be accomplished in a fiscally responsible and budget positive manner as you will see.

To be clear, we do NOT represent this employee group.  They, like us, are members of our community searching for solutions to a community issue.  Unlike those of us who have volunteered to help, they will be directly impacted by your decisions on this matter.  Their input was critical in considering the design of this strategy.  Many of these District employees are living in fear of workplace retribution for being a part of this effort.  As such, we will not attach their names to this conceptual plan.

Finally, it is a conceptual plan only.  As we did not possess all of the data necessary, we used estimates where necessary.  You will not be limited by this lack of information.  As in any conceptual plan, there will be issues to work out in the implementation process if you choose this alternative.  We believe that this concept can produce a viable alternative to your current strategy that is good for the District employees, taxpayers and the community at large.  As engaged members of the community, we are prepared to help in any way we can as you search for a solution to this issue.

Please accept this in the spirit it is intended…as an attempt to help.  Let me know when you receive as I can send this attachment in another format if necessary.

Neal Colligan

Rather than a response from the School Board to this email, a receipt from business manager Art McDonnell was sent to Neal.  It was unclear whether the Board received the information.  Because the outsourcing alternative document was to be publicly distributed on June 5, and because it was important that each Board member receive a copy in advance, I forwarded Neal’s email (with accompanying outsourcing strategy document) to each School Board’s personal email address (Neal was copied on the email) with the following message:

All –

I am re-sending Neal’s email and attached ‘Outsource Alternative’ on the outside possibility that you may not have received it.

Over the course of the last 3 weeks, we have met with many of the aides, paras and substitute teachers and I’m certain that as Board members, you share our interest in saving these District employees and their jobs.  It is impossible to fully measure the value that this group of employees brings to the District’s children and their families daily. Understanding the current economic requirements of the school district, I hope that you will give Neal’s plan the complete review that it deserves.  We both believe that the aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers are valuable assets to this community and their jobs need to be preserved, not outsourced.

Please let Neal or me know if there is anything we can do to help, as you review the various options.

Kind regards,

Pattye Benson

Following the re-sending of the email with the attached outsourcing alternative document, I received no notice of receipt from any Board member nor was there any response from the District.  As a result, it remained unclear if individual Board members had received the information.  A couple of days after sending the initial email, Neal did receive a personal email from Anne Crowley (no other Board member or myself were included on the email) stating that she would review the information he had sent regarding the alternative proposal. She went on to thank him for his “attendance, comments and thoughtful participation regarding school board issues.”

Other than the private email from Anne Crowley to Neal, I am unaware of no other school board or District communication to Neil in regards to the outsourcing alternative document – official or otherwise. Neal received no Board ‘thank you’ for his efforts as was stated at the Finance Committee meeting.  And for the record, there was no response to my email (above) by any School Board member. I hope that this clarifies the matter and I apologize for any misunderstanding.

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Click here to read the outsourcing alternative strategy as provided by Neal Colligan.

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Say No to Outsourcing in TESD … An Outsourcing Alternative

The decision about outsourcing the aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers should not only be about money.  It should be about doing what’s right — these employees are part of our community and deserve to be treated fairly.  The outsourcing sales pitch may seem like the answer but it’s not a panacea.  I hope that the Board and the administration will re-think the proposed outsourcing … tripping over dollars to pick-up pennies is not a solution.

Following the May 13th TE School Board meeting, the community was left with many unanswered questions related to the proposed outsourcing of the aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers.  Requirements of the Affordable Care Act  (ACA) and the effect that compliance will have on the District are at the core of the situation.  The aides, paras and substitute teachers are the only group of TESD employees not currently receiving health care benefits.  As of January 1, 2014, the ACA will require the District to offer these benefits to all employees working 30 hours or more.

Since the last School Board meeting, the aides, paras and substitute teachers, representing all 8 District schools, have met three times and I attended the meetings.  The mission of the meetings was to disseminate information and discuss acceptable alternatives to outsourcing.  The meetings were intended to provide a ‘safe’ forum where affected employees could express their concerns and ask questions, yet some did not attend, fearing workplace retribution for their participation.

At my request, Neal Colligan attended the meetings and helped us understand how the District could comply with the ACA without resorting to outsourcing.  I want to be clear that neither Neal nor I represent these employees – we are simply residents seeking a solution to a community issue. Through the discussion with the paraeducators and other members of the community, an outsourcing alternative evolved.  As part of the collaborative effort, Neal spoke with health care experts to better understand the requirements of the ACA and what compliance would mean for the District.

The parameters of the ACA requires that the school district offer health insurance to its employees that work 30 hours or more that is both affordable and of minimum value.  Currently the only group of employees in the District not receiving health care benefits is the aides, paras and substitute teachers.   The ‘affordable’ test means that the employee cannot be asked to pay more than 9.5% of their household salary for insurance. The insurance plan is of minimum value if “the plan’s share of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan” is at least 60% of such costs.

Given the information available, Neal created a conceptual outsourcing alternative that would comply with the law and keep the jobs of 260 employees from outsourcing. (Click here for copy of the outsourcing alternative). The alternative was presented to the aides, paras and substitute teachers in attendance at this week’s meeting and copies were sent to the administration and school board members for their review (in advance of Monday’s Finance Committee meeting).

Neal provided the following explanation of the outsourcing alternative for today’s Community Matters post:

As the District has spent all of its time on a plan to outsource to avoid the Affordable Care Act (ACA); we based our plan on the idea of complying with the new Federal Law.  With the help of community members and industry experts, we were able to price a health care insurance offering that is Affordable and meets the minimum standards required by the ACA.  You will see in our analysis that complying with the Law (and offering a health care option) should be far less expensive to the district and its Taxpayers than paying the fee attached to outsourcing.  We’ve also done some work on  PSERS costs as it relates to this employee group and have devised a plan to neutralize those cost increases to the District.

Please know that this is a conceptual plan only.  We did not have all of the information needed to develop “hard” numbers.  The District, if it decides to investigate this option, would not be limited by estimates.  Further, the cost of our insurance offering was also estimated.  We believe this to be a conservative estimate as the District is a large insurance client and may be able to secure this type of plan at a more competitive cost.  The new insurance plan offered (in our analysis) may be considered discriminatory as it is not of the caliber offered to the other District employee groups.  Certainly it is no more discriminatory than the current situation where this employee group is not covered at all.  We also believe the District is not in danger of violating the discriminatory parameters of the ACA as they do not meet the test of “fully insured employer” (they are partially self-insured…this may be too mush inside baseball for many).

We ask the District to consider this conceptual approach.  We believe an alternative to outsourcing along these lines can and will produce a more cost-efficient and sustainable solution while keeping this employee group as District employees.

If you oppose outsourcing the jobs of the District’s aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers, please plan to attend these meetings:

  • Finance Committee Meeting: Monday, June 10 at 7 PM, Conestoga High School
  • School Board Meeting: Monday, June 17 at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School
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