paraprofessionals

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.

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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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Is outsourcing aides and paraeducators to avoid the cost of complying with the Affordable Care Act the right alternative for TE?

Rising pension and escalating health care costs are putting intense pressure on school districts to lower costs. Tredyffrin Easttown School District is no different and there will probably be outsourcing discussion at Monday’s Finance Committee meeting.  Fueling the discussion of outsourcing TESD aides and paraeducators is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  As of January 1, public schools are required to provide health care coverage to all employees working more than 30 hours per week. The penalty for not providing health care coverage will be steep and school districts will face significant fines for noncompliance.

There are around 150 aides/paraeducators working in the District.  This group of employees is not included in the TENIG union and does not have benefits.  Although TENIG is comprised of ‘non-instructional’ workers, I wonder if it would be possible to expand their membership to include the aides and paraeducators.  There is strength in numbers; by increasing their membership could help TENIG when they fight their own outsourcing battle.

The District is currently not legally required to provide benefits to non-unionized support staff.  Based on a right-to-know request filed by Keith Knauss, it appears that this group of employees does not have healthcare coverage.  In response to Keith’s request for the benefit records of non-unionized staff, Art McDonnell’s response was, “The documents do not exist in School District records.”  I take that to mean that the non-unionized staff receives no benefits.  As a follow-up, I asked Keith about the benefits of non-union employees in Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.  His response was that none of UCF’s 250+ support employees is unionized.  However, most all are full-time and those that work 30+ hours per week receive standard benefits (healthcare, sick days, personal days, disability, life insurance).

If the interpretation of Art McDonnell’s response is correct and the aides/paraeducators do not receive health care benefits, then there is little doubt that the District is seriously considering outsourcing before the Affordable Care Act takes effect.  While outsourcing may save the District money, is it really the right option?  Special needs children and their families depend on the District aides and paraeducators.  Mainstreaming children with special needs so they may interact and share a ‘regular’ education experience is an important task.  Integral to a successful education experience is the consistency and established relationships with the support staff.  How can the School Board consider outsourcing those employees who share the most personal, one-to-one relationship with our District’s students? It makes no sense that the children who need the most consistency will be subject to “outsourced” caretakers who can feasibly change daily based upon the staffing circumstances of the outside company.

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention the obvious safety concerns that comes with wholesale turnover of 150 familiar District employees by outsourcing.  Is the newly hired safety consultant aware of the District’s possible outsourcing?  Have the consequences of outsourcing been thoroughly discussed by the District Safety Committee? We know that making our school buildings secure is important but so are background checks and appropriate oversight for those in contact with our children.

Is outsourcing aides and paraeducators to avoid the cost of complying with the Affordable Care Act the right alternative for TE?

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