Phoenixville Area School District

Does T/E Have an Actual School Reopening Plan – A District Elementary School Teacher Weighs In

We learned this week that Gov. Wolf has announced additional restrictions on indoor dining, alcohol consumption and large gatherings in Pennsylvania to regain control after a resurgence of COVID-19 in parts of the state. Under Wolf’s order, indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 people will be prohibited. And businesses will be required to have their employees work remotely to the extent possible.

Although Gov. Wolf did not specifically mention schools in his latest press release, he has previously pushed the schools to reopen but is leaving the details of “how” to the individual school districts.  The president of Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state teachers union, weighed in this week urging the Governor to begin planning for online instruction in schools for 2020-21 school year.

We know that some school districts have done better jobs with drafting their reopening plans and with including stakeholders in the process than others.   For instance, the Phoenixville Area School District completed its draft plan for reopening schools back in June and posted the plan on its website. During the summer, PASD sent regular updates to parents, conducted multiple surveys and is hosting a series of online meetings to hear from parents and community members on issues related to reopening schools.  Based on the new information from PSEA, Phoenixville’s superintendent immediately videotaped a message for parents and posted it on the website.

Please look at PASD website, www.pasd.org  – it is remarkable, with updated information on their “virtual academy”, videos and superintendent chats with the parents and community. PASD is providing impressive communication and transparency, especially regarding COVID-19.

I am certain that many school districts are providing the same type of public information and updates and only use PASD as an example.  Now please look at TESD website, www.tesd.org  – the most recent item on the page is the video from the June 29 school board meeting.

From parents this week, I learned that the planned Conestoga High School graduation for next week is cancelled. Again, from parents, I learned that several members of the CHS football team (voluntary football practice had started) have tested positive for COVID-19 and that the football is cancelled. From parents, we learned of the special “secret” reopening meeting between the administration and a select group of parents.

As you will read below, I learned about the virtual teacher reopening meetings from an attendee not the school board or the administration.  None of this information is on the District website – there are no updates.

Scheduled for release next week, TESD parents and teachers are anxiously awaiting the specifics of its reopening plans.

In addition to the select (read secret) parent meeting held last week, the District’s administration held three separate virtual meetings  for the elementary, middle and high school teachers respectively.  As was the case with the parent meeting, no agenda was provided and no draft reopening plan was presented to the teachers.  With the debate on whether and how to reopen school buildings, the teachers had anticipated details from the administration to be provided at the meeting.

However, much like the parents the week before, the teachers left the reopening meeting with more questions than answers. With the teacher’s permission, I provide the following notes from a District elementary school teacher who attended the reopening meeting:

Dear Pattye,

We had our reopening meeting today and I wish I could say I feel better after given some info and time to ask questions but I don’t.

The only definite information we were given is that we have to be prepared to be virtual for the fall, but that will only happen if we are in the red phase again. They did tell us virtual learning will have live learning for language arts and math, and they’re working on specials, science, and social studies.

Questions were asked about how many students would be in each room – the questions weren’t answered.

Questions were asked about procedures if a student or teacher gets sick – no plan was given, just that the CDC is notified and they control what actions the school takes.

We asked about teachers who are high risk and what provisions would be made for them – question was not answered.

We did learn that the District is buying masks and face shields, and some desks will be equipped with Plexiglas for students who cannot wear a mask due to health reasons.

They are spacing the desks 3 feet apart right now, and hope to extend that spacer closer to 6 feet if the numbers allow.

They did say the plan is not finished, and they do not have a plan for specials yet.

They were also iffy when we asked about how we would be notified of exposure, saying the CDC would do contact tracing. Currently- we aren’t even notified of lice outbreaks so I’m not confident we’ll get notified about this.

So many questions were left unanswered I’m even more concerned about returning.

We were told that they are really trying to improve the virtual learning plan so it is more like in person school, and that they hope if the plan is good enough more parents will opt in for virtual learning so we can have lower in-school numbers.

In terms of transportation, they are extending the pick-up and drop-off window in hopes that more parents will do that instead of riding the buses. Right now, the recommendation is 2 students per seat, which we already do and seating on the busses cannot be done socially distanced 3-6 feet apart.

Lunches will be in the classrooms and students will get 2 choices- there was no mention of recess.

Really, what I took from the meeting is that the school district is only fully “online” if we’re in red, and they have no idea about anything else.  They did really focus on how we have until August 31 before anything is set in stone and that it’s very possible things may change before then.

I had asked a question on Community Matters about whether the teachers had received summer technology training in advance of the reopening of the schools to be prepared for the fall.  A teacher, who attended the District’s reopening meeting, saw the question and responded as follows:

I read your post today, and one of the questions I saw asked was if teachers had been provided online training to help if the schools are virtual.

As far as I know, no we have not. The question was asked in our teacher reopening meeting if we would be provided distance learning training.  The administration say they may set up some practice times the week of August 24th for teachers to get used to possibly having a camera on them and juggling virtual and in person class at the same time (if the District chooses to go with the integrated plan).  It’s all a mess.

Following up on the teacher’s camera comment, it is my understanding that the District has purchased 500 cameras for the classrooms. The cameras would focus on the teacher and she/he would teach to the students who are in the classroom in addition to the students remotely learning from home.  Having participated in a number of Zoom type meetings over the last several months myself (and with adults!) this kind of technology is not always easy to maneuver.  I cannot imagine the juggling required for a teacher to do both distance learning and in class instruction simultaneously while the camera watches!

It was disappointing to learn from teachers that there was no distance learning training provided this summer. Although some parents and students had a favorable opinion of the remote learning provided in the spring, I think most would suggest that there was room for improvement.  The District needed to dedicate attention to developing and improving online instruction with the teachers.

I question whether TESD actually has a detailed reopening plan – according to the parents who attended the secret meeting and the teachers who attended the virtual reopening meeting; the District is coming up short on the details.

Regarding the coronavirus and the reopening of the schools next month, is the public expected to trust the TE administration and the school board?  Rather than expect communication and transparency from the District, should we adopt a casual “wait and see” attitude.

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PA State Rep Warren Kampf’s Town Hall Meeting — Budget, Pension and Property Tax Reform, Liquor Privatization & the Legalizing of Marijuana

I attended State Rep Warren Kampf’s Town Hall meeting last night in Phoenixville.  Kampf opened the meeting with a 15-20 min. update on the budget, pension reform and status of legislation, liquor privatization, and property tax reform.  Following his presentation, the evening continued with Q & A from the audience members, with about 30 questions on a variety of topics.

In his discussion of the recently passed 2014-15 PA Budget, Kampf offered the following highlights:

  • The budget passed on time for the fourth straight year, with no tax increases to the residents.
  • Although there was a modest increase in the 2014-15 budget from the previous year, the budget increase remains well below the rate of inflation.
  • Pennsylvania received a $340 million cut in Medicaid Funds from the Federal government.
  • The budget includes an additional $250 Million to implement Affordable Care Act provisions;
  • The budget includes an additional $600 Million in increase in pension costs
  • The budget includes an additional $600 Million for Medicaid increase

There has been much discussion about Corbett cutting education spending but according to Kampf, the 2014-15 budget has education spending at an all-time high, and that the recently passed budget includes an additional $520 Million in educational spending.  This topic was one of much interest from the audience members.  We have all seen the campaign rhetoric with one side claiming cuts to education and the other side saying it is untrue

Kampf further clarified that Corbett’s budget includes $10.5 Billion on Pre K – 12 line items, stating it is the most ever committed.  The budget includes an additional $20 Million for Special Education.  The Pre-K Counts Program, which increases access to quality pre-kindergarten to PA children and their families with a priority in at-risk communities, received a $10 Million increase in the budget.

To help offset the cost of postsecondary education, the budget includes a new $5 Million ‘Ready to Succeed Scholarship’ that provides up to $2,000 to eligible students whose families earn up to $110K.

Pension costs and the need for reform continued to be a significant discussion point.  Kampf offered the example that the PSERS line item on the 2014-15 PA Budget increased from $375 million to $1.4 Billion this year!  As taxpayers, we know firsthand the effect that the skyrocketing pension costs have had on our own tax bill.  The pension costs have impacted the school districts statewide, forcing school boards to make difficult decisions and painful cuts.

Clearly, pension reform is needed sooner rather than later.  Kampf’s hybrid pension reform bill, HB 1353, which includes a traditional 401k type plan, was presented as a possible solution.  It was interesting to note that there continues to be confusion among some of the residents – the suggested pension reform bill, HB 1353 is for new hires; not those workers currently in the system.  Kampf believes that his plan would create $11 – $20 Billion in savings.

I was glad for a discussion on liquor privatization but it does not look like House Bill 790 is going anywhere anytime soon.  The House approved the bill 105-90 in March 2013 but according to Kampf, the Senate has not agreed to move the bill forward.   We hear the argument that the 600 states stores generate money and therefore the government should keep things status quo.  Pennsylvania loses millions annual to neighboring states because of the inconvenience of buying at states stores. What is it going to take to bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century – 48 other states enjoy convenience and choice, why can’t we?  Other than Utah and Pennsylvania, states don’t want to be in the business of selling alcohol.

On property tax reform, there were updates but little ‘new’ news. PA House Bill 76, the ‘Property Tax Independence Act’, remains in the House Finance Committee and has not moved forward for a vote. This legislation would eliminate school property taxes across the Commonwealth and replace those taxes with funding from a single state source.

Kampf voted yes on House Bill 1189, which would amend the Local Tax Enabling Act to provide school districts with the option to eliminate property taxes.  Although Kampf supports HB 1189, he added that the Senate has not taken action on this legislation.

Because the Town Hall meeting was held in Phoenixville, several audience questions were local to that area.  One question related to Phoenixville Area School District’s decision to acquire the Meadowbrook Golf Club via eminent domain and where did Kampf stand on the topic.  Kampf supported the legal right of the school district to take the property [using eminent domain] but suggested it should only be used when all other alternatives were exhausted.

On allowing illegal immigrant children in the US, Kampf deferred to the Federal government, stating that as a State Representative he was not in a position to cast a vote.

A couple of people asked Kampf for his personal opinion on legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania.  Although he was not aware of any currently proposed legislation in the House on the subject, he said he could support the legalizing of medical marijuana. He was not going to commit himself beyond the use of marijuana for medical usage, preferring to take one step at a time.

On June 27, the Senate Law and Justice Committee unanimously voted in support of the bipartisan Senate Bill 1182, known as the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act, to ease the suffering of people with epilepsy or other ailments. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have approved medical cannabis programs, could Pennsylvania be next?

I give credit to any elected official who holds a Town Hall Meeting with no pre-screening of questions.  Last night numbers were distributed and the questions asked in numerical order; everyone with a question was given an opportunity to ask it. Nothing was off limits – only requesting that questions be asked by residents of Kampf’s legislative district.  As a registered Independent,  I am pleased to report that the evening contained no political party bashing by audience members or by Kampf.  Would love to see a similar forum in Tredyffrin Township.  Or how about a PA-157 State Representative debate between incumbent Warren Kampf and his challenger Marian Moskowitz?

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Looking at Local School Districts, Does the Buck Stop with Taxpayers?

As Tredyffrin-Easttown School District works through the 2011-12 budget, it is interesting to watch how other school districts are handling their budget shortfalls, particularly in light of the public education cuts in Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget.

This week the Radnor School District and the Radnor Township Education Association reached a tentative agreement for a new teacher contract. The collective bargaining negotiations between the school district and the teacher union have been going on for over a year. Details of the contract will not be released until after the teachers union presents the contract to its members for ratification early next week.  As our school district neighbor, I wonder if their contract will have any influence on TESD teacher contract discussions.

Another neighbor to TESD, the Phoenixville Area School District (PASD) has major budget issues. As the dust settles from the cuts contained in Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget, a tax hike of 8.75% is needed to close the gap – twice as much as the district had anticipated.  Previously, the school district budget included a 4.43% tax increase but with the loss of state funding, they will require an additional 4.32% . . . a tax hike of 8.75%!

At the Pottstown School District meeting this week, their school board took a stand with three interesting votes:

  1. The school board rejected the idea of “forward borrowing” of $23 million without voter approval.  (The district has authorization for $28 million for work on the district’s elementary schools and the vote would have increased that borrowing amount by $23 million).
  2. The school board approved the extension of a contract for mid-level administrators and principals that freeze their salary for one-year. (Cost savings: $30K)
  3. The school board accepted an offer by the district’s three top administrators to freeze their salaries for one-year.  (Cost savings: $15K)

Prior to the vote, the school district was considering a 4-year contract for administrators and principals to include a minimum 1.5% salary increase plus potential merit pay increases. According to the district superintendent, following the announced funding loss from the state was announced, these employees volunteered to take pay freezes for one-year. Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget will provide $3.1 million less state funding to the Pottstown School District.

For comparison sake, I checked on the salaries of administrators in the Pottstown School District.  The top 10 highest paid administrators in the Pottstown School District earn in the range of $102K – $119K per year; their superintendent has a base salary of $152K.

The Pottstown school board hopes that the administration’s one-year pay freeze sends a message to the teacher union, Pottstown Federation of Teachers.  According to Pottstown Mercury, www.pottstownmercury.com , Pottstown School District president thanked the administrators for the one-year salary freeze,  “I want to thank you for pulling your belts a little tighter for us, I hope some of the other school districts around here see what you’re doing for us, how you lead by example.” There is an unresolved contract between the district and the teachers union. The teachers are currently without contract and last month rejected the independent fact-finders report that the school board accepted unanimously.  Sound familiar . . . Unionville-Chadds Ford School District currently have a similar situation with their teachers union.

I guess TESD can take solace in knowing that we are not alone.  With school districts facing looming deficits in their budgets and increasing expenses, Corbett’s proposed budget does not offer much hope for help from the state. 

Corbett’s campaign promises included no tax increase but it seems to me that he has just pushed that job down to the local school districts.  School districts are expected to balance their school budgets, but how? Not much in the way of choices . . .  school boards are forced to make education cuts or they raise taxes. Does no responsibility lie in the shoulders of our elected officials in Harrisburg? How can they expect citizens to pay more in property taxes than they can afford? 

 Or . . .  does the buck just stop with the taxpayers?

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