paraeducators

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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TE School District response to the Affordable Care Act — Reduce employee hours

Now that the dust begins to settle on yesterday’s announcement that the TE School District will not outsource jobs of aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers for the 2013/14 school year, residents and employees are again left with more questions than answers.

My initial reaction upon hearing the news that 260 District jobs were saved from outsourcing was enthusiastic;  but now in hindsight, I admit it was probably premature.  I was thrilled for this group of employees, believing that the School Board had finally recognized their value and commitment to the District’s children, in making the choice not to outsource.

However, after spending a few minutes reviewing Burak’s email to the employees in addition to phone calls and emails, the celebratory mood quickly changed. The statement reads that the “District will restructure the work hours” of the employee to comply with the Affordable Care Act and “does not result in new costs or penalties to the District”.

What we learn from Burak’s words is that the School Board’s way around the ACA compliance issue it to reduce employee hours. The ACA does not require the District to provide health insurance to those employees working less than 30 hours a week – so the District’s answer to the Federal law is simple… cut hours. TESD 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.

Does the School Board want the community to feel good about what they are doing?  Is this an acceptable solution? Where is the plan for the future … the vision … leadership?

Keeping healthcare coverage out of the hands of the least paid and oh, by the way, we are reducing your hours to comply with Federal law.  This same Board gave the District administrators salary increases and bonuses and in less than 4 months is now cutting the hours of aides and paras.  But don’t forget the Board also gave this group of employees a 1% raise. If you are an employee making $10/hr., with your 1% raise you will now make $10.10/hr.  However, don’t get too excited District employee because we now must reduce your hours below 30 to avoid offering you health insurance.

Let’s review; the Board gives bonuses, raises and a Cadillac health plan to the highest paid District employees but provides no insurance coverage and cuts the hours of the least paid District employees.  Seems hardly fair or equitable.

I had a phone call last night from a District aide who works 37 hours a week and cannot afford for her hours to drop below 30 hours.  Her family’s health insurance is covered through her husband’s employer and they do not need coverage from the District.  Her question to me — would she still be able to work the 37 hours a week in the District because she does not need the health insurance from the District.  Of course, I could offer no definitive response.  What would she have to do, sign an agreement with the District saying she wouldn’t take the health insurance if they offered it to her?  This aide also wanted to know ‘when’ this matter would be resolved, what was the timeline for knowing if she would have 29 hours or 37 hours?  Again, I don’t know and School Board President Buraks offered no details, except to enjoy the summer and he’d see them in the Fall.

I recall previous suggestions about reducing the hours below 30 hours so that the District would not have to offer health care coverage and comply with the Affordable Care Act. Dan Waters response was immediately negative to that suggestion, stating that the kids would suffer with the reduction in hours.  Yet magically a month later, are we now to believe that the kids will no longer be in danger with a reduction in the hours of the aides and paras?

Beyond the personal effect on the employee in reduction of hours, how exactly does the District expect to make up the discrepancy and provide adequate coverage for the students?  Is the plan to hire additional part-time employees to make up the missing hours? If so, at what cost?

Addressing the District aides, paras and substitute teachers in his email, Buraks states, “… we greatly value and appreciate the contributions that you make to our students and staff every day.” – To that, I’d say that you certainly have an odd way of showing it!

Bottom line … there are many unanswered questions and the employees and the residents deserve answers.  Finance Committee meeting is Monday, June 10, 7 PM at Conestoga High School.  I hope that the Board and the administration is prepared to respond to the questions.

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