outsourcing

TENIG Union votes against includingTE School District’s non-instructional aides — Why??

To the surprise of many, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) took a vote yesterday on whether to accept approximately 20 ‘non-instructional’ TESD aides into their union.  Falling close on the heels of Monday’s TESD meeting where the School Board voted to outsource the full-time jobs of 73 aides to CCRES (Chester County Regional Education Services), TENIG offer was seen by these aides as a lifeline to save some of the District jobs.

The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.  The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast. With 44 TENIG members voting, the target number was 23 votes.  Unfortunately, for the small group of non-instructional aides, the 23 votes were against accepting them as new TENIG members.

If you recall, the TENIG collective bargaining members battled themselves against District outsourcing during the last couple of contract negotiation rounds. The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) was settled under the threat of outsource vendor bids by the School Board.  To avoid outsourcing, the current TENIG contract required the custodians to accept a 2% salary reduction and give back one week of vacation. The other TENIG members (security, kitchen, maintenance and cafeteria) all received a 4% salary reduction but their vacation benefits remained intact.  For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees received a freeze on their salary.

Ultimately, the TENIG contract saved the District $400K in healthcare, $207K with employee salary reduction and $207K with the custodian vacation giveback – a total savings of $719K to the District.

Under the current contract, the TENIG employees did not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract, which runs for another two years, until June 30, 2017.  So the question is, why did the TENIG members vote against their fellow employees yesterday?  After the Board’s vote at the Monday’s School Board meeting, the TENIG vote only added insult to injury to this small group of District employees.

Were the actions of TENIG employees just paranoia or a real fear of repercussion from the District? There is no doubt that some of the TENIG members were fearful of retaliation and either did not show up for yesterday’s vote or voted against the inclusion of the non-instructional aides into their collective bargaining unit.

New Twist in TESD Aides & Paraeducators Outsourcing — Neal Colligan v. Tredyffrin Easttown School District in PA Open Records Case

During the last two years, the aides and paraeducators working in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District have lived with the threat of outsourcing. Given that we live in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb with an award right_to_know_squarewinning, nationally ranked school district, it is difficult to understand how the TESD leaders would seek to outsource valuable employee jobs rather than offer health care benefits as required by the Affordable Care Act. Due to the delay of ACA compliance enforcement, the aides and paras were able to continue their employment through the 2014/15 school year.

With the outsourcing threat present since 2013, residents continued to support the aides and paras, the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status).  Many in the community questioned the Board’s decision to outsource to avoid the cost of complying with ACA and … if this was the right alternative for the TE School District.

The journey of the District aides and paras moved forward during the 2014/15 school year, knowing that the Board continued to discuss their outsourcing future as a budget strategy. In a surprise move, the School Board approved a resolution to change the employment status of the 73 full-time aides and paras at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting. The action was taken without notice, other than listing ‘Affordable Care Act Update’ on the meeting agenda, and after five secret executive session discussions held on November 5, 2014, December 16, 2014, January 12, 2015,  January 20, 2015 and February 3, 2015.

The Board’s February 3, 2015 action to outsource disrespected our expectation of good government.  Some residents believed that a PA Sunshine Act violation had occurred by the Board’s action, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or … by intention.  Adding insult to injury, the affected group of aides and paras, learned of the Board’s decision via email at 10:30 PM following the February 3 Board meeting.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. The Act is a mechanism to increase public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  The School Board has had a longstanding practice of meeting in executive session before its regular meetings. In the case of the February 3 policy decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, the discussions were held in private during 5 Executive Sessions, out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation.

Believing that the Board’s actions of February 3 regarding the aides and paras violated the spirit and letter of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, a small group of concerned citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Barbara Jackson, Peggy Layden, Jerry Henige and I) sent a February 13, 2015 letter to the Board.  The request was simple … they asked the School Board to re-open the outsourcing discussion at the School Board meeting on February 23, to provide a thorough financial analysis of the ACA options and strategies, an explanation of suggested policy changes, and to allow for adequate resident commentary. As residents, these residents believed that with quick action at the February 23 meeting, the Board could remedy the process and maintain the trust of the community in the integrity of the District’s governance. The resident’s suggestion to re-open the outsourcing discussion was disregarded.

In an email dated February 20, the District’s solicitor Ken Roos responded (on behalf of the Board) to the residents’ letter of February 13, stating in part, “… At no time was the Sunshine Act violated. Moreover, the February 3, 2015 Board vote on this fully disclosed agenda item occurred after a lengthy public presentation, public Board discussion and public comment in full compliance with the Sunshine Act…”

Troubled by the dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act; further adding to the Sunshine Act violation case. Residents and signers of the February 13 letter appealed to the Board to step from behind the words of the solicitor, to take the situation seriously and to think independently.  Again, there was no response from the Board in this regard.

Lacking an adequate response from TESD and the School Board to the February 13 letter, Neal Colligan filed a Right-to-Know Request with the District, on February 18 with the following request:

“All records relating to the implementation and execution of the TESD Resolution of February 3, 2015 regarding the Affordable Care Act updates since November 1, 2014, including all documents used to formulate, communicate, explain or justify the ACA Resolution not disseminated in public meetings.

Of particular interest are the 5 closed (Executive Session) meetings referenced by the Board President on 2/3/15, and all written communications and meeting notices and records thereof related to the discussion on this topic.”

On March 27, Colligan received a response to his RTK request from the District’s Open Records Officer Art McDonnell with two attachments – the public power point presentation of the Affordable Care Act presented at the February 3 Board Meeting and an email exchange between School Board member Virginia Lastner and a resident. Neither of these items related to the Executive Session ‘behind closed door’ ACA discussions and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paras.  McDonnell’s response to Colligan’s RTK request:

Art McDonnell response

Colligan resplied to McDonnell and the School Board via email on March 27, 2015, noting that that both his first and last name were spelled incorrectly in the response and added that,  although his RTK request was made using his personal e-mail address, McDonnell’s response was sent to Colligan’s business email. The remainder of Colligan’s email reads as follows:

Your response and timing of response in this matter is very disappointing to me.  I’ve made a number of Open Records requests over the years and this is the second one DENIED.  Interestingly, those are the only two responses that took the maximum 30 days to receive.  While you are certainly within the boundaries of the law on these responses, I would think a Denial could be formulated much sooner in the process.  Water under the bridge….

My request was plainly written and, I assumed, easy to understand.

I was asking for the documents related to the closed Executive Sessions that occurred before the presentation on February 3, 2015 on this year; to the extent they were available and public.  What I received (attached) was the Power Point presentation from the 2/3/15 meeting and several e-mail chains between citizens and Mrs. Lastner dated after this critical meeting date.  Added to this was your denial that includes three different legal reasons for the denial of the request.  Wholly unsatisfying to this member of the community who was as puzzled as the rest of us regarding how a sensitive issue like this could have been made in a series of closed-door Executive Sessions.  I was hopeful that some light could be shed on your deliberations and decision-making thought matrix but that is not going to be the case.

It seems you have done a great deal of legal work here although the legal opinion and defenses articulated in your reply likely did not take outside research.  I’m sorry if you choose to spend valuable legal dollars just to deny this request.  If that was the intent, the response could have been forwarded last month when I made the request for Open Records.  The inclusion of post 2/3/15 items was outside of the scope of my request and it is my firm hope that you did not pay for legal review of these (and other post meeting communications) for redaction/exclusion for this Open Records response.

I’m not a lawyer and will not argue your various legal reasons for denying the request.  I know plenty of smart lawyers would tell me the counter to each of these defenses but I’m not looking to play that game.  I do know that there are many groups/organizations/people/firms dedicated to good and open government in the Commonwealth.  I’m also aware that the process for appeal of Open Records denials is a fairly simple and user friendly process…this is to insure that average citizens can shed light on the deliberations of government bodies in PA.  I’m very likely to take those steps and seek that help.  First I will confer with the other members of our community who supported me in this endeavor.  But I ask each of you: Is this the level of openness and transparency that you think appropriate for this issue?  Really, when you stood for election to your seat; is this the relationship with the community you wanted?  This is not the first time that transparency has become as issue; isn’t there one/some of you who would like to see this relationship change; the School Board become more open in process?  I know the answer is YES but we need someone brave enough to voice the opinion and insist on transparent government and it can’t come from the public.

Colligan shared the District’s response to the RTK request and his reply to Art McDonnell (above) with the other signers of the February 13 letter.  The District’s response did not support the claim for exemption from public access and those claims are not applicable in this specific case.  Although McDonnell states that the RTK was granted ‘in part’ —  neither of the two records provided are germane to the request. The District’s RTK denial request contained provisions for an appeal to Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, part of PA Department of Community and Economic Development, within fifteen business days.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan took the next step in the process and filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records office. He provided requested background documentation, including copies of the original RTK request, response and records from the District. The case, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No. 2015-0442 is assigned to Appeals Officer Jill Wolfe, Esq. in Harrisburg.  Colligan is required to provide all supporting information and a legal argument by Wednesday, April 8 to the Open Records Office.  A final ruling on the appeal will be made within 30 days.

Transparency in government is not a new issue. John Adams, 2nd president of the United States, wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.”  Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan is asking for transparency and easily accessible information which should be public information.  He is not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.

Affordable Care Act compliance ideas for T/E School Board

AffordableCareAct-MainPhoto1I am passionate about our community’s history and the preservation of our historic buildings and the demolition of the house on Pugh Road has had my attention the last few days. The discussion on the township’s historic resources will continue but I want to get back to other issues, including the TESD budget and the District’s compliance of Affordable Care Act.

The school district held a special meeting on January 6 to present the preliminary budget proposal and for a ACA presentation by Rhonda Grubbs, Wisler Pearlstine attorney and Art McDonnell, District’s business manager. (See Community Matters related post).  Following the ACA presentation, many questions remained.  School board president Kevin Buraks told the audience that the ACA discussion would next be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting on Monday, January 13.

I attended the January 13th Finance Committee expecting further discussion of the ACA.  However, the decision was to postpone any additional ACA discussion to the next full school board meeting — upcoming on Monday, January 27. Although it was the decision of the school board members attending the Finance Committee meeting to postpone the ACA discussion, Pete Motel actively reached out to the community and asked that we provide our own ideas for compliance to the school board.  Remember, all TESD employees are not currently offered health care benefits – facing the ACA compliance deadline, the  Board needs to decide what to do about the aides, paras and substitute teachers, the employees not currently receiving health benefits.

The Finance Committee meeting is not videotaped so probably few in the community are aware that Motel encouraged ideas and suggestions about ACA compliance from the public. If you want to help keep the jobs of the aides and paras from outsourcing, they need to have health coverage.  This is important and the Board needs to hear from the public.  Send your suggestions, (be specific) to schoolboard@tesd.net and share those ideas for discussion on Community Matters.

Compliance with the ACA is not an easy task for the Board. There are many factors to consider and I think the Board left the ACA presentation with as many questions as members of the public.  The ACA presentation gave a negative, ‘cannot be done’ slant to the compliance situation.  However, there are people in the community that believe that there are other options for the Board to consider.

In an email, resident Ray Clarke suggests that it is important for the Board, “to base the analysis on reasonable estimates of any underlying variables (family vs single status, % opting out in favor of cash, etc. while of course, recognizing that the actual outcomes could be different (back up with budget contingencies, fund balance commitments).  The values for these assumptions should be published along with the impacts.”

Taking school board member Pete Motel’s suggestion to heart, Ray sent a list of ACA ideas to the Board and they are included below:

–  Provide the “current” healthcare plan to full time aides, paras, subs, and so make the non-discrimination test moot.  Make reasonable estimates for and publish all the assumptions: premium share, family status, coverage provided, wage adjustment, coverage waiver bonus, etc.

–  Provide a minimum “basic-care” employee-coverage-only plan to full time aides, paras, subs and Admin.  Deal with the Admin group as Keith has suggested on CM.  Make assumptions as above.

–  Facilitate the formation of a union/bargaining group for either the Admin group or the aides, paras, subs so that their benefits can be bargained separately and avoid the non-discrimination test.

–  Cap hours/days of all aides/paras/subs at 27.5 hours/3.5 days.  Flesh out the impact on students and management overhead and provide realistic estimate of any partially compensating salary increase.

–  Outsource as needed.  Provide guesstimate of impact based on rates paid for current out-sourced employees and from last year’s discussions with vendors.

I think that the Board should also have a table comparing compensation rates and all benefits (including PSERS) for aides, paras, subs in neighboring school districts.

Perhaps the Board can also be encouraged to get direct feedback from the affected employees.  There are web-based tools that could be used, for example, for a simple anonymous ranking of employee priorities (while of course recognizing that the priorities are not in practice independent and none can be guaranteed).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget and Affordable Care Act on TE Special Meeting agenda tonight … Is this the precursor to outsourcing?

There is a special TE School Board meeting scheduled for tonight for 7 PM at Conestoga HS. The two items for priority discussion on the agenda are (1) The Board will consider options to close the projected budget imbalance of approximately $3.1 M for the 2014/15 school year and (2) Presentation of the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the School District.  Unfortunately, this important special school board meeting conflicts with both the Tredyffrin and Easttown Board of Supervisors organizational and regular meetings, which includes the swearing in of newly elected officials, previously scheduled for tonight.

In the District’s draft budget (included in the agenda), the base model for the 2014/15 school year indicates a $3.1M budget deficit – this model assumes no tax increase from the Act 1 Index or  referendum exception (PSERS, Special Ed).  In the projection model that includes the Act 1 index (2.1% tax increase) the District’s budget deficit is reduced to $1.2M.  A third project model shows the budget deficit reduced to $141K if the District takes the referendum exception (1.1% tax increase) and the Act 1 index (2.1%).  The $141K deficit project model would still requires the District to find other cost savings in addition to the 3.2% tax increase to the residents.

If the District imposes the 3.2% tax increase for 2014/15 school year, I think that would make the third year in a row they have imposed the maximum tax increase allowed by state law without a voter referendum.  But here’s the disconnect for me – on one hand, the Board has voted to take the maximum tax increase but … for the last several years, the District has come up with multi-million dollar budget surpluses.  As examples, the 2011/12 year saw the District in a surplus position of $3.9M and for the 2012/13 year, the surplus was nearly $5M.  The budget surplus is not reflected in the District’s draft budget nor indicated in the next year’s budget.  The multi-million budget surplus is added to the District’s fund balance and the taxes continue to rise.

Since the multi-million dollar budget surplus is taxpayer dollars, wouldn’t it be great if the taxpayers had a say regarding the surplus?  Here’s an idea — Rather than adding additional millions of taxpayer dollars to the fund balance, what about using some of the budget surplus dollars for health insurance benefits to that all TESD employees as covered as required by the Affordable Care Act.  Afterall, the District lists ACA and the TEEA teacher contract as the two items to impact the 2014/15 budget.

Following the District’s 2014/15 budget discussion tonight, is an ACA overview by attorney Rhonda Grubbs.  Her presentation will discuss how the federal law will affect TESD and its employees. Grubbs is an associate at Wisler Pearlstine, the law firm of Ken Roos, the District’s solicitor.  You may recall that Grubbs offered her legal opinion on the ACA at a TE school board meeting last spring in response to the District’s aide, para and substitute teacher outsourcing debate.  Don’t get me wrong; I think a legal presentation on the ACA and how it will affect the District and its employees is important.  However, in my opinion, residents and employees would have been better served by a third-party legal expert versus a representative from the District’s contracted law firm.  And what about an insurance expert – I’m certain that there is any number of local insurance consultants/experts who would make a presentation to the District (and I’m guessing would do so, free of charge).

Under the ACA, employers will be required to provide employees who work more than 30 hours per week with health care benefits.  The federal mandate will go into effect for school districts in the 2014/15 school year.  Currently T/E aides, paras and substitute teachers do not receive health coverage.  For the record, T/E is the only school district in the area that does not provide health insurance for their employees – Great Valley, Radnor and Lower Merion school districts all offer healthcare coverage to all their employees.

The District lists the following ACA compliance options:

1.  Health Benefits:

  • Provide health coverage for employees working 30 hours/week or 130 hours/month

2.  Contracted Services:

  • Outsource the jobs of aides, paras and substitute teachers

3.  Reduce Hours:

  • Reduce hours of aides/paras to 27.5 hours/week and hire additional aides/paras to cover the reduced hours
  • Limit substitute teachers to 3.5 days/week
  • Reduce hours of aides/paras to 27.5 hours/week while increasing the hourly rate to make the reduction in hours neutral to the employee income
  • Reduce hours of aides/paras to 27.5 hours/week while increasing the hourly rate to all aides/paras

4.  Incur IRS Penalty

After much debate, the Board decided not to outsource the aides, paras and substitute teachers for the 2013/14 school year.  It is my understanding that 40% of the District’s aides/paras did not return for the current school year.  Although neither the school board nor the administration has confirmed it – I was told that the positions of non-returning aides/paras who worked 30 hours or more were outsourced.  If this is true, than the number of District employees that need to be covered by the ACA has dropped since this issue was debated last year.

As follow-up, how has the outsourcing of the aides/paras worked out for the District?  For the record, several parents, aides and paras have told me that the result has been less than satisfactory — it would be interesting to know if the administration and Board are pleased with the job performance of these contracted employees.

I cannot help but think that the administration and the school board may have already made up their minds about the ACA situation.  Were it not for the pushback they received last year, I believe that the administration would have already outsourced the jobs of aides, paras and substitute teachers working 30 or more hours per week.  Clearly, the handwriting was on the wall in 2013 for the District’s aides, paras and substitute teachers and the 2013/14 school year may prove to be only a one-year reprieve for these employees.

Some have described tonight’s planned Affordable Care Act presentation by the District’s law firm representative as nothing more than a PR move but …  I remain hopeful that some of our school board members will show their support of the District’s aides, paras and substitute teachers and fight for them to keep their jobs (and their hours).

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.

TESD Finance Meeting Tonight — agenda includes RFP for TENIG contract

There is a TE School District Finance Committee meting tonight at 7 PM.  According to the agenda, the RFP for the TENIG contract will be discussed.  The RFP is lengthy (over 100 pages) and details all requirements.  The TENIG union includes the custodial workers, maintenance, security, kitchen staff and support staff.

After all the months of back and forth regarding the aides and paras and their employ in the District, I was curious as to how many actually returned for the 2013/14 school year.  The week before the start of school, I sent the following email to Sue Tiede:

Sue,

With the start of the 2013/14 school year only a few days off, I am following-up on the status of the returning aides and paras and have a few questions –
(1)  How many aides/paras did not return for the 2013/14 school year?
(2) Of the total vacated positions, how many positions were filled with new employees?
(3) Were the vacated positions filled with part-time employees?
(4) Did the District fill the vacated positions through outsourcing?
(5) If the District outsourced the vacated positions, which company was used?

Thank in advance for this information.

Pattye Benson

In response to my email, I received the following email from Sue.  I look forward to hearng the update at the Finance meeting tonight.

Dear Pattye,

We are finalizing our hiring process at this time and have received several resignations as late as yesterday afternoon. At the September Finance Committee Meeting we plan to summarize our staffing for the 2013-14 school year. Our hiring process for aides has remained unchanged. As always, we plan to fill each vacancy with qualified candidates.

Best regards,

Sue

TE School Board Will Not Reinstate Aides/Paras Hours Unless Affordable Care Act Answers Received by August 1!

I attended the Special School Board meeting last night and when the Board was 20 min. late coming from their executive session, that should have been a clue as to what was to come.  The agenda did not include the regular opportunity for questions or comments from community members at the start of the meeting but instead the Board went directly to the discussion of the Vanguard assessment appeal resolution. As background, Vanguard filed appeals challenging the assessments for its main corporate campus on Cedar Hollow Road and several of the buildings that surround the main campus for the tax year 2012-13.  Vanguard and the District also both appealed the decision by the Board of Assessment for a building leased by Vanguard.

The Vanguard discussion was confusing because the agenda published on the District website differed from the agenda available at the meeting. Ray Clarke attended the meeting, questioned the inconsistencies between the two agendas and provided the following personal observations:

The TESD voted to approve a proposed settlement of the “Vanguard appeal” that appears to be a significant improvement over the worst case scenarios for which we have been prepared.  Good news all around, although the $1.3 million “windfall” did not appear to affect the Board majority’s willingness to accept any remaining minimal risk on the aide/para issue.

Once again, the audience had to listen carefully to the financials, which as reported by the Solicitor were significantly different from the numbers published with the original meeting Agenda.  It appears that the bottom line is:

1.  A repayment to Vanguard of $150,000 in respect of 2012/13 tax year.  We had been bracing for a repayment of $830,000.  By my calculation this will contribute to expected 2012/13 revenues of $111 million and an expected surplus of $3.6 million.  (The actual accounting may perhaps depend on the fiscal years in which the settlement can be recognized?).

2.  A repayment to Vanguard of $153,000 (or a new tax bill revised by that amount) in respect of 2013/14 tax year.  It appears that we had budgeted for revenue $800,000 less than the original tax bill, since Art McDonnell reported that revenue will now be $650,000 higher than the budget.  It looks to me as though this should bring the budget into balance (before the one-time $1.16 million TEEA bonus – and before the $300,000 of expense savings for the current year that may well recur).

3.  There was no impact on 2011/12 tax year, contrary to the first version of the agenda materials.[According to the Solicitor there was an error and the assessment did not include the 2011/12 tax year as previously stated.]

Perhaps some credit should go – in addition to TESD’s negotiating team – to whichever Court of Common Pleas Judge urged the settlement discussions.

My only comments to add to Ray’s remarks are that the settlement of the Vanguard appeal requires the approval from the other taxing authorities (township and county) and the Board of Assessment. From a timeline standpoint, the Solicitor expected the additional approvals by the end of the month.  Further, the settlement comes with the agreement that Vanguard will not file any assessment appeals for 3 years.

Immediately following the Vanguard discussion, under Recommended Other Action on the agenda, Board president Kevin Buraks launched into a very long motion that in essence was to reverse the June 17 Board decision and return the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals to their 2012-13 school year level. Buraks referenced the Treasury Department’s announcement of the one-year delay in the Affordable Care Act compliance requirement as the basis for his motion.

What is the saying about ‘no do-overs in life’ – apparently, what the many aides/paras and other audience members viewed as a simple task to re-instate the employee hours proved anything but simple for the TE School Board!  Betsy Fadem immediately launched into commentary on all the unknowns of the ACA information and the what-if scenarios, convincing Buraks that his motion could not be open-ended — the District does not have enough information on the ACA delay and therefore too risky at this point.  Buraks called upon the District personnel director Sue Tiede for a status report on the aides/pars and expectation of their return in September.  According to Tiede, 135 aides/paras have said that they intend to return, two said they would not and there has been no response from 29.  Buraks asked Tiede how much time was needed to fill any vacancies before the start of school.  Her response was one month, or August 1.

Much to the chagrin of two Board members (Anne Crowley and Liz Mercogliano), the intial motion was quickly re-written to include August 1 deadline.  According to Buraks revised motion, the Board must have further verification on the Affordable Care Act to make certain that the District will not be liable should they re-instate the hours of the aides and paras.  It will then be up to the District solicitor to determine if the necessary ACA information (guarantee?) is received by August 1.  If the solicitor does not receive any further ACA information by August 1, the affected employees remain reduced at 27.5 hours or below.  Also included in the motion is that any new Ditrict aides, paraeducators or paraprofessionals hired will not exceed 27.5 hr. workweek.

To their credit, Anne Crowley and Liz Mercogliano fought passionately to have the August 1 deadline removed from the motion.  At one point, Crowley offered an official change to the initial motion to exclude the August 1 date, but it failed 7-2.  When Mercogliano lamented that the District should offer all employees healthcare benefits, Betsy Fadem, who told her the Board was not going to revisit the discussion of June 17, quickly cut her off.  Only Crowley and Mercogliano defended the current employees and the need to preserve their hours, particularly in view of last week’s Treasury Department announcement.

Unfortunately, Crowley and Mercogliano held a minority viewpoint in the discussion. After 30 minutes of the Board going around and around with each other and back and forth with the solicitor, it was increasingly obvious that the majority of this Board was not going to give the hours back to the affected employees or … at least not easily. Why should doing what’s right (and practical) be so difficult!  In the end, the motion to return the hours to the aides/paras (with the inclusion of the August 1 date caveat) was approved 8-1. Fadem voted no to the motion, she clearly wants no do-over to the June 17 vote.

I have no idea what magic answers Buraks and the other Board members (except Crowley and Mercogliano) expect to have from Washington in the next 3 weeks. It is as if he and the others expect some kind of personal guarantee from the Federal government that the terms of the ACA will pose no liability issue for the TE School District.  I read the press release from the Treasury Department and it seemed clear to me that businesses with 50 or more employees were given a one-year reprieve for compliance (without any penalty).  The Affordable Care Act is complex and the additional year was intended to give employers (school districts) an opportunity to more fully understand the implementation requirements.  In addition, we know that the requirements and compliance issues are in a state of flux and who knows what will happen over the next year.  However, here in the TE School District, the Board has decided they need more answers from Washington – and those answers need to be in by August 1.

Bottom line about last night’s school board meeting – I entered the meeting very hopeful that the Board would do the right thing and reinstate the hours of the aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals to their 2012-13 school year level.  However, my hoping, wishing, wanting was not to be last night.  I suppose there’s a small sliver of possibility that if more ACA information becomes available by August 1 and if the District solicitor determines the information is sufficient, then maybe the aides and the paras will see the return of their hours.  Is it likely to happen … that is anyone’s guess!

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For the record, the regular District solictor Ken Roos did not attend the meeting – there was another attorney from the Wisler Pearstine law firm in his absence.  Also, Rich Brake and Karen Cruickshank attended the meeting remotely, by phone.

Obamacare healthcare compliance delayed a year — No need to cut the hours of TE employees!

Important Update:

Special School Board Meeting, Monday, July 9, 7 PM  Tredyffrin/Easttown School District Administration Offices at 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne.

With Obamacare requirement for businesses with 50 or more employees delayed a year, Monday’s School Board meeting presents an opportunity for the  Board to reverse its earlier decision and restore the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The Board has repeatedly said that these employees matter … now it’s up them to show us by reinstating their hours.

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The Obama administration has just announced that it will delay Obamacare requirement that businesses (school districts) with more than 50 workers provide health insurance by one year.  The Treasury Department has announced that the administration will start enforcing the mandate in 2015, rather than January 1, 2014 in order “to give business more time to prepare.” 

Here’s hoping that the Tredyffrin Easttown School District will turn the ship around and make things right for the aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department said in a statement, “During this 2014 transition period, we strongly encourage employers to maintain or expand health coverage.”  What does this mean to the TE School District? Answer:  There’s no longer any reason to decrease the hours of District employees from full-time to part-time for the 2013/14 school year!

The TE School Board is not scheduled to meet again until August, which is after the letters from the administration to the affected employees, are sent.  There needs to be an immediate brake put on this process of cutting hours of aides and paras in TE School District – the 2013-14 school year will not be affected by Obamacare healthcare requirement.  The School Board and the administration needs to do what is right for the employees and the children of this District.  They need to reverse course and reinstate the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  Plus, they do not have to offer health insurance to these employees, at this point.  Everything can remain status quo, just make the affected employees whole by giving their hours back over 27.5 hours.

This situation presents a wonderful opportunity for the District to appoint a citizens group to review Obamacare and the compliance requirements  during the 2013/14 school year.   As we have learned, the topic is confusing and needs further study.  As Mazur stated, lets all use 2014 as a transition period and learn more on the topic.  As more information becomes available from Washington, I am certain that the School Board will be better positioned to work towards compliance for the following year.  

If the employees are as important to the District as the School Board members say, there should be an easy solution to this situation.  Let’s put the cut of hours of District employees ‘on hold’ until we have more answers.  Please School Board, join the community in doing the right thing!

Post-TE School Board Meeting: Saying No to “Sockpuppeteering’

The dust has begun to settle following the emotionally charged June meeting of the TE School District, a little over a week ago.  I wasn’t sure how (or if) I was going to write another post about that evening, but yesterday on my way to Valley Forge Park I passed a white ribbon tied to a Chesterbrook street sign and took it as a ‘sign’.

The reality of the June 17th meeting, and the unanimous vote by the Board to decrease the weekly hours of District aides and paraeducators, has me wondering how the energy expended by so many, had so little influence in the outcome.  At every District meeting, we hear the Board president encourage residents to attend meetings, and to participate in the decision-making process, but based on last week’s Board meeting, you really need to stop and ask yourself, why bother?  The three hours of citizen commentary was reduced to a short paragraph in the District’s update of the meeting, stating that that all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals would be reduced to part-time, and that their work week would not exceed 27.5 hours.

Before an audience of residents and District employees, our elected leaders were unmoved by the comments and suggestions from the public. Passionate parents spoke of the relationships their children shared with aides and emotional statements from affected employees (many of them TESD residents) explained what the reduction in hours would mean to them personnally.  Community members who had sought answers from healthcare experts, and thoughtfully offered their findings to the Board, were also unable to change minds. The outcome of the vote predetermined and the decision of the Board final, we are left puzzling why there’s such a disconnect between the public and our elected officials. The most troubling aspect was the Board’s total disregard for the residents and their opinions.

In the days since the Board meeting, some have suggested that the District aides and paras would have been better off had they been outsourced.  Although criticized that I did the affected employees no favors with my ‘no to outsourcing’ stance, I maintain there was ‘middle ground’ between outsourcing District jobs and cutting employee hours  … a dicussion the administration and school board was unwilling to have. One individual suggested that because our daughter did not attend TE schools that I have no business weighing in on school issues — implying that only those residents with children in the District are qualified to discuss. I disagree.  To the 80% of the residents, who are not parents of children in the TE School District, decisions made by the school board do affect you, and your opinion does matter!

I have received criticism for allowing anonymous comments on Community Matters.  Although I would prefer that people own their words under their own name, I understand that people may have personal reasons for remaining anonymous – including the fear of negative reprisal. As a result, I respect the preference of some genuine commenters to remain anonymous.  However, during the 4 years of Community Matters, I have discovered a negative subset of some anonymous commenters – ‘sockpuppeteering’.  This is a technique where an individual attempts to fool readers into believing that their comments originate by more than one person, while commenting with more than one screen name.

The New York Times explains the childish behavior of sockpuppeteering as, “the act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies, or company.”  Recent comments on a Main Line Media News article had an individual masquerading as several different commenters, criticizing Community Matters and me. I cannot control the comment posting process of other sites, but going forward on Community Matters, please understand that if you attempt to post with more than one screen name, I will not post your comment. Just as I respect the need for anonymity, I ask that you respect and abide by this rule.

We understand that being an elected official is not an easy thing to do.   I believe that most people, regardless of party affiliation, run for office usually for the right reasons.  I think that most of them want to make a difference, most want to do the right thing and most of them want to help the people they represent.  I’m not sure why the train sometimes goes off the track.  Perhaps in the past, we have failed to hold our public officials accountable and as a result, they take on an attitude of indifference when we finally come to our senses and react to their actions.  As a result, they proceed on doing as they please instead as some of us wish.

So, where do we go from here?  For those that became engaged in the process during the outsourcing issue, now is not the time to give up and walk away.  The continued success of the TE School District is too important and requires our attention.  It takes a village to raise a child and … it takes the great teachers, aides, paras and support staff of the TE School District (plus supportive parents)  to educate the child!

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