school district tax increase

The Clock is Ticking Down to TESD Budget Vote, Monday, June 8:  Includes 2.6% Property Tax increase, Administration Salary Increases (Business Manager +3.1%) and Elimination of ERB Testing

T/E School Board votes on the 2020-21 final budget on Monday, June 8, 7:30 PM.  Due to Covid-19, the meeting is held virtually — to access the meeting visit the T/E School District website, www.tesd.net.

Last chance to have your voice heard as the clock ticks down – Send your public comment to the school board at virtualboardcomment@tesd.net If you sent a comment prior to the June 1 Finance Committee, I suggest that you send another comment! Comments must reference Priority Discussion topic Final Adoption of the 2020-21 Budget and must be received before 6 PM on Monday, June 8. Make sure you include your name and township of residence (Tredyffrin or Easttown).

As it now stands, the District budget includes a 2.6% tax increase – the largest increase permitted by Act 1 guideline. Should the School Board approve the 2020-21 budget with a tax increase, it will mark sixteen straight years of a tax increase to the District’s residents.  How does the School Board respond to raising property taxes to people who are losing their incomes?

At a time when residents have lost their jobs, and every segment of our economy, including our local small businesses, are feeling the effects of the pandemic, could the School Board at the very least ensure no increase in property taxes.  Most all of us are finding ourselves in worse financial shape — freezing property taxes for District residents should be more than a nice thought!

At the Finance Meeting on June 1 (click here for video), it was obvious that I was not alone in my concern about the proposed tax increase.  At the end of the meeting [and only stopping because of video time constraints] at least twenty-five resident comments were read — and all but a couple asked for no tax increase and/or no to the elimination of ERB testing.

To his credit, Scott Dorsey has remained a constant, the only school board director who echoed the words of residents and asked for a zero tax increase in the 2020-21 budget!  Thank you Rev. Dorsey for understanding that we are all suffering because of the Covid-19 crisis and that now is not the right time to raise our property taxes.   Two other board members, Michele Burger and Mary Garrett Itin, asked for a 2% tax increase with the remaining six members apparently in favor of a 2.6% tax increase.

As noted in the 2020-21 budget agenda materials (see pgs. 311- 314), the School Board will vote on salary increases and bonuses for the District’s administration, supervisory and confidential employees.  Thank you to resident Ray Clarke for providing commentary on the proposed employee increases:

Once again, the final fiscal year Board materials contain proposed salary increases and bonuses for Administration, Supervisory and Confidential employees.

And, as usual, there is no information provided to allow the Board to assess the appropriateness of the increases, and perhaps we now see the reason why.

Increases have moderated this year, but the increases for employees in all these categories still add $141,987 to the annual budget, moderated a little by the replacement of some Supervisory/Confidential personnel by lower paid employees.  The straight average of increases for personnel in place both last year and this is 2.25%.  Increases are mostly in the 2% to 2.5% range, with the maximum of the Act 1 Index 2.6% being received by a few.

Note that the total of Administration increases still exceeds the 1.7% stipulated in the Act 93 contract.  At a time when other school districts are freezing salaries, it seems unlikely that this exceptional increase is required by “the competitive job market”.

However, there is one exception to the Index limit, and that is listed only in the Employment Agreement section of the TESD website.  No increase comes close to Business Manager Art McDonnell’s 3.1% annual increase to $216,427/year, stipulated by contract, regardless of the Act 1 Index, inflation, or taxpayers’ ability to pay. This increase is worth $6,507, and amounts to 4.6% of all the salary increases.

These increases average at about $2,000 a year for Supervisory/confidential personnel and $3,500 for Administration.  I hope that the Board considers the appropriateness of these substantial additional payments at a time of such economic uncertainty.

Adding insult to the residents, who are struggling in the midst of an uncertain future and a proposed 2.6% tax increase, is that the School Board would consider salary increases that exceed the Act 93 contract for administration, supervisory and confidential employees.  And further, that TESD Business Manager Art McDonnell will receive the highest salary increase, +3.1%!

There are school districts in Pennsylvania that are freezing employee salaries as a cost-savings measure for 2020-21. Not only is TESD not freezing the salaries, the Board’s vote to approve will increase salaries above the contractual agreement. School Board, how is this possibly fair to the taxpayers?

The administration, supervisor and confidential employee increases will add $142K to the District 2020-21 budget with no discussion to freeze the salaries for one year. Yet on the other hand, the proposed budget includes the elimination of ERB testing to save $85K as a cost-savings measure. Budget savings should not come at a cost to our students!

A form of assessment to guide instruction and reading, ERB testing has been used in TESD for many years to measure students’ progress and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the District’s curriculum. TESD has no other tests that give grade level snapshots of students’ performance in reading and math – it is the only test of its kind!

ERBs are particularly important given the distance learning challenges faced by District families because of Covid-19. Parents need to know that their children are on track academically and many support the continuation of ERB testing as evidenced by the number of comments previously received by the District.

BUILD T/E, an advocacy organization in TESD for parents of children with learning differences, fully supports ERB testing in the District and opposes its elimination in the 2020-21 budget. Click here for BUILD’s latest blog post concerning the proposed elimination of ERBs in budget.

Do you have a comment for the School Board regarding the 2020-21 budget? Do you OPPOSE a 2.6% tax increase? Do you OPPOSE the elimination of ERB testing? Have a comment about employee salary increases in the proposed budget?

Send your comments to the School Board NOW — email the comments to Virtualboardcomment@tesd.net.  If you sent a comment prior to the June 1 Finance Committee meeting, I suggest that you send another comment!

Comments must reference Priority Discussion topic Final Adoption of the 2020-21 Budget and must be received before 6 PM on Monday, June 8. Make sure you include your name and township of residence (Tredyffrin or Easttown).

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What Does it Take for a Vendor to Get Paid in T/E School District … GEM Mechanical Services Owed $36K+ for Work Completed in August 2019

About three weeks ago, I was contacted by Sean Gaffney, VP of construction at GEM Mechanical Services regarding TE School District Renovations Project PO 19102724 and an unpaid balance of $36,295 (of a $700K contract). The boiler project work at Devon Elementary School and Beaumont Elementary work was completed in August 2019.

Before reaching out to me, either Sean or other employees of GEM had sent 30+ emails to Heckendorn Shiles Architects and the District during the past nine months seeking payment. To date, the final payment for the work remains unpaid.

As a result, I sent three emails to the District’s business manager Art McDonnell (with copies to the school board and superintendent) inquiring about the final payment due GEM. Mr. McDonnell’s response to the first two emails was dismissive and unsatisfactory.  My third and final email on this subject received no response from the business manager.

I naively assumed that there was a simple explanation – a misunderstanding – and that TESD would send GEM Mechanical Services its final payment.  Unfortunately, promises of the “check is in the mail” remain unfulfilled. Other than for me to publicize the situation, it is unclear what else I can do to move the matter forward although legal options are available to the construction vendor.

From the time last August when GEM completed the boiler project, a punch list was requested and final payment sought.  Months went by and GEM was only very recently presented with a punch list (long past its legal due date), which included installation of gauges. It makes me wonder if this a tactic by the District to delay payment on a project by waiting nine months post-completion and then come up with a punch list?  And for what purpose – what’s the endgame?

Although Heckendorn Shiles placed an associated value of $7500 for the gauges on the punch list (and without explanation increased the value last week to $11,850), it does not explain why the District is withholding the remainder of the $36,295 final payment. It is my understanding that there are legal ramifications for withholding payment to a vendor for services rendered. In addition, the District will owe interest to GEM on the unpaid balance.

GEM Mechanical Services has worked in many neighboring school districts and the Philadelphia School District but this was the company’s first experience in TESD. And, according to Sean Gaffney, it will be the last. What is that saying, the “more you know, the more you wish you didn’t know”? In speaking with him, I have learned a lot about the reputation that the District has with construction vendors.

In an email last week to Heckendorn Shiles Architects and TESD, Sean Gaffney wrote the following,

GEM went above and beyond to complete your project on-time and the job has been completed for nearly a year…There were multiple project delays caused by existing and faulty equipment in Devon Elementary and asbestos in Beaumont that was uncovered and not included in the ACM reports. GEM is also due interest for TESD’s repeated late payments. All said, if HSA and TESD truly want to close out this project then they should consider releasing GEM’s final payment immediately and contact me to schedule one day for GEM to come out and complete the two remaining punch list items.

Have you ever wondered why there are so few vendors bidding the construction jobs in T/E? As Sean Gaffney says, “Some people at TESD want to continue to play by their own set of rules. GEM (and many others) will not bid construction projects for TESD”.

Based on GEM Mechanical Services’ experience, it is no wonder that there is decreasing vendor interest in working in TESD.  The low bidder turnout on TE School District projects compromises the competitive bid process; which is ultimately damaging to TESD taxpayers. For competitive bidding to work successfully, outside vendors need to feel confident that they will be treated fairly if hired by the TE School District.

In the TE School District, all roads lead “to” or “through” the business manager which I believe is a problem and indicative of a far greater issue. This is the same business manager who has yet to satisfactorily explain the $1.2 million accounting error. And these are the folks in charge of the $35 million high school expansion project!

In closing, I would be remiss not to remind TESD residents that the 2020-21 preliminary budget includes a property tax increase of 2.6% – in the midst of high unemployment, small business failures and an uncertain future! For the record, the school board approved the preliminary budget 8-1 (Scott Dorsey was the sole dissenting vote). The final vote on the 2020-21 budget is June 8.

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