security fencing

TE School Board’s proposed fencing at VF Middle School costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, Tredyffrin Township Solicitor and Board of Supervisors now involved

legal feesThe legal bills to the taxpayers continue to mount because of the TE School Board’s fencing decision at Valley Forge Middle School.

Last week, residents of Green Hills in Chesterbrook sought a compromise at a meeting with members of the District’s Facilities Committee, (Pete Motel, Liz Mercogliano, Kevin Buraks and SB President Kris Graham), Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos, regarding the planned 6-ft. chain link fencing.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting. The meeting ended with no compromise to the proposed 6-foot chain link fencing.

Agreeing that proposed fencing violates the terms of the 2002 agreement with the Chesterbrook Civic Association, attorneys Nagle and Gill filed official Complaint letters with Tredyffrin Township yesterday on behalf of their respective clients.  The letters were sent to Tredyffrin Township’s solicitor Vince Donohue with copies to the Board of Supervisors and Township Manager. (Click here to read Nagle’s letter; click here to read Gill’s letter).

After reviewing the records, attorneys Nagle and Gill each concluded that the proposed fencing would violate a condition which Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board imposed on TESD in granting the 2002 Special Exception. The Special Exception does not permit the installation of a fence in the 250’ buffer area next to the Green Hills homes.  In his letter to Donohue, Gill states that “ … TESD’s present proposal to introduce an invasive and visually offensive fence into the agreed upon 250 foot buffer is a material change to the development to which our clients agreed and requires the Zoning Hearing Board’s approval.”  Gill further states that, “…the Township must not permit or otherwise allow that proposal to succeed.”

With this official Complaint letter, the School Board, under the leadership of Kris Graham, has caused additional costs to the taxpayers to defend their proposed Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. In addition to paying legal fees to the District’s attorney Ken Roos and to Saul Ewing attorney David Falcone, taxpayers can now add the legal fees of Tredyffrin Township solicitor Vince Donohue to the cost of fencing at VFMS. Plus, the TESD taxpayers of Green Hills in Chesterbrook must pay the legal costs of Nagle and Gill.

Here’s my question to the members of the TE School Board – when is this going to end? This isn’t YOUR money that you are using to defend your decisions, it’s OUR money – it’s the taxpayer’s money.  School Board, how many thousands more taxpayer dollars are you going to spend on legal defense of your decision?

Kris Graham, as President of the School Board, we challenge you to lead!

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TE School Board’s idea of ‘compromise’ at Valley Forge Middle School … Green Hills homeowners to get 6-foot high chain link fences in their backyards instead of previously announced 4-foot fences

Green Hills residents met with TE School District representatives regarding the proposed Chesterbrook fencing project last night and learned that compromise isn’t in the school board’s vocabulary.

Representing the TE School District at the meeting were school board members Pete Motel, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano and Kris Graham in addition to Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos. Motel, Buraks and Mercogliano are all on the Facilities Committee and School Board President Kris Graham attended in the absence of Virginia Lastner, the fourth member of the Facilities Committee.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting.

With the proposed chain link fencing planned extraordinarily close to the abutting properties, residents appealed to the school board for a reasonable discussion of the project. However, rather than finding common ground and understanding, the affected property owners learned that their backyard fencing would not be 4 feet high as previously stated at the District’s Facilities Meeting. No, in a surprise announcement, the Green Hills residents learned the District has changed the height of the chain link fencing in their backyards to six feet!

It seems to me that these homeowners are being targeted – the Valley Forge Middle School fence project calls for the two sections of fencing along Chesterbrook Boulevard and Valley Forge Road to have four foot high fencing whereas the Green Hills residents are facing 6 foot chain link fences in their backyards. I don’t’ think any of the other school fencing projects have 6-ft. high fences, do they? You have to wonder what the District uses as their criteria for 4 ft, 5 ft. or 6 ft. fencing.

I thought that you needed a variance for 6 foot fencing in Tredyffrin Twp and we know that that the District previously withdrew their variance request. However, the District sidesteps the ZHB application process by putting a 4-ft fence along Valley Forge Road, which is technically the front of the school. According to Tredyffrin Township Zoning Ordinance 208-119, the back and rear yards at Valley Forge Middle School (which includes the Green Hills-TESD property line) only requires a permit for the 6-ft. fence not a variance. (Note – as of late today, the township had not received a fence permit request from TESD).

Green Hills resident and abutting property owner Pete Stanton attended the meeting and provides his summary below.

Summary of meeting 3/25/15 with representatives of the TE School Board and concerned citizens of Green Hills and Chesterbrook regarding proposed VFMS Fencing project.

– No agreement was reached over fencing. The status is that the School Board is still determined to place the fence at or near their property line. They plan to notify residents in the near future exactly where the line of the fencing will go.

– In a surprise turnaround, the Facilities Committee Chair Peter Motel announced the fence facing Green Hills homes would be 6 feet high. Previous Facilities Committee discussions that I attended had indicated the fence near our properties to be a four foot fence. No explanation for this change was offered. The Contractor is making an application for a fencing permit to Tredyffrin Township.

– The fencing architect from Daley and Jalboot reinforced the idea that the primary goal of the fencing on their property line was border identification. The School Board had evidently not considered any other option to fencing to “mark” their borders, such as signage.

– Attorneys for Green Hills, Chesterbrook Civic Assn and the School Board’s attorney as well as their outside Counsel were all present. There was some back and forth questioning, but nothing substantive at this time.

– The invited guests presented a wide variety of commentary … the excess expense of the fence in time of fiscal crunch for the school District, the security flaws inherent in their planned fence placement and deployment, and the general disruption to all residents in cutting off the continuous access to the Rural Conservation (RC) zoned areas and paths to the fields, St Isaac’s etc.

– An alternative fencing line was proposed by a citizen (non-Green Hills resident) as a “compromise” which places the fencing well out from the homes but still cuts off access to the paths. This proposed alternative is certainly an improvement to the District’s plan, but may wind up costing the District more (due to needed new path construction) and in my opinion does not go far enough in allowing unfettered access to the 20.7 acre RC zoned open area. I have color coded the 2 alternative proposals for consideration. Please see the attached map showing my desired fencing line, (the green line plan), the Citizen’s “compromise” fencing route (red line plan) along with the pathway needed for that plan (new path is blue line). Click here for map of VF Middle School Fencing Plan.

– Green Hills and local Chesterbrook residents and the 5 “abutter” families seem clear that they want unfettered access to the 20.7 acre open area behind their homes as they have for decades. By placing the fence as a continuation of the four foot fence already in place on the upper fields closest to the school, the School District will enhance student safety. By being able to visually monitor the entire fenced area directly from the School plant, continue to allow resident path access that they have utilized forever, and save the District thousands of dollars in fencing costs… All these arguments taken together are compelling for the District to alter their current plans and strongly consider the one that I am offering here. With the “green line plan”, everyone wins.

It would seem that supporting the District’s proposed chain link fencing project is not a particularly smart political move for anyone seeking reelection to the school board. Board President Kris Graham (the only incumbent seeking reelection) and her unfavorable position on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing plan could pose a political hurdle for her in November.

It is my understanding that some members of the school board have agreed to a walkabout at the Green Hills fencing location with the five affected homeowners. I still contend that if all the board members would take the time to walk the abutting neighbor’s property, they would agree to a compromise discussion.

Here’s hoping that there is still time for reasonable people to make reasonable decisions on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project.

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Valley Forge Middle School … Do Fences Make Good Neighbors?

The struggle between the Green Hills residents in Chesterbrook and the TE School District regarding the proposed chain link fencing project continues. As the last Community Matters post and many of the associated comments would suggest, residents are asking for an open, respectful dialogue and are not confident that the school board is listening.

Some people have asked about the agreement between Chesterbrook Civic Association and TESD. Click Here to read a portion of the 2002 Agreement TESD-CCA as presented in September 2002 by Stephen Aichele (with Saul Ewing and legal counsel to TESD at that time). This agreement from 13 years ago precludes the fence construction and provides for landscaping buffer. Also included in the agreement is the community use of the fields and nature trails – the fencing will cut off accessibility.

There appears to be some confusion regarding the ‘fence permit’ between the District and Tredyffrin Township. It was announced at last week’s Facility Committee by its chair Pete Motel, that the District had received the fence permit. However, when residents have inquired at the township, they were told that the township has not issued a permit and stranger yet, the residents were told that no permit application from TESD has been received. As an aside, there appears to be some question whether the District even needs a permit for the proposed fencing. Which is it? Does the District need a permit or can they just put the fencing up?

There is some encouraging news – at the school board meeting it was stated that only the 5 ‘abutter’ homeowners were permitted to attend the upcoming March 25 meeting with the District but now an additional three Green Hills homeowners have received invitations.

I continue to receive emails and phone calls from Green Hills residents, including Joel Greenberg. Dr. Greenberg attended the Facility Committee meeting and wanted the following included on Community Matters:

I live on Brandywine Lane in Chesterbrook, and although my property does not directly abut the school property, I do see that their plans will be detrimental to the community of Green Hills. And, as outlined, will NOT provide additional safety for the school children. Yesterday I posted on the Nextdoor site a few of my observations from attending several recent meetings: School Board, TESD Facilities Committee meetings, TESD Budget meeting, Supervisors meeting, and Township meeting.

It appears that the Township feels that the problem is not theirs and that we should voice our objections with the TESD. The TESD appears to just want to erect the fence as they have already planned. Get it up quickly, realizing that once it is up, it will very, very difficult to get it moved (which would involve significant sums of money). Following is the text that I submitted to the Nextdoor site:

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed by Peter Stanton and others on the Nextdoor site. The facilities committee of the School Board of TE has shown absolutely no interest in listening to the opinions of the concerned residents.

They autocratically have made decisions to serve their own interests and specifically are trying to enact a plan for fencing the Valley Forge Middle School that is ill conceived with regard to safety, and is in violation of an agreement that they made in 2002 with regard to the land behind the Valley Forge Middle School that borders Green Hills.

The school board has obtained a permit and has a signed contract to erect a chain-link fence within several feet of houses bordering the school property. This was all done without consulting the affected neighbors. They consented to a meeting with ‘some’ of the neighbors of Chesterbrook only after many vocal complaints. Additionally, they unilaterally picked a date and time without consulting any of the neighbors and specifically said that only a few select neighbors could attend this meeting – those whose homes bordered the school property.

When asked if invited participants could send a representative if they were out of town and could not attend, the chairman of the Facilities Committee stated that he would absolutely not allow this because one of the representatives might be an attorney and he didn’t want any attorneys present. Considering that many people appoint a representative to attend closing on a house if they are unable to be present, it seems entirely out of place for this to be disallowed for a meeting with members of the School Board on issues that affect the tax-paying residents.

Joel Greenberg

One of the abutter homeowners, Pete Stanton took the following photos from his Green Hills neighborhood and overlaid the approximate proposed fencing onto the photos.  Looking at the photos certainly gives you a sense of the invasive fencing into the Green Hills community.

Chesterbrook fence 1 Miller-Stanton fence

The left side of the photo is Green Hills abutter properties and the right side is the school district’s property at Valley Forge Middle School. The proposed fencing is indicated on the photo.

View of proposed fencing from entrance to Green Hills train at Salomon.  Valley Forge Middle School is so far from this proposed fencing, it is not visible.

View of proposed fencing from entrance to Green Hills path at Salomon. Valley Forge Middle School is so far from this proposed fencing, it is not visible.

This is a photo of an abutter's home on Hancock in Green Hills indicating how close the proposed fencing is to the house!

This is a photo of an abutter’s home on Hancock in Green Hills indicating how close the proposed fencing is to the house!

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Secret School Board Meetings Considered Strategic!

What’s that saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”? Well, when it comes to outsourcing the jobs of the aides and paraeducators in the TE School District, I think the fat lady sang two years ago and was confirmed again at last night’s School Board meeting.

We know that the Board members received many phone calls and emails regarding their February 3rd Affordable Care Act decision – 73 full-time District employees received a choice, either go part-time or your job is outsourced. Many of us in the community wanted a ‘do-over’ on the Board’s policy change. And there was hope that with a significant public pushback, that the Board would reconsider. But as we learned last night, no amount of public input was going to change their minds — the TE School Board isn’t a fan of do-overs. We got the message, loud and clear, ‘they’ make the decisions and it is up to ‘us’, the residents, to abide by them, like it or not.

Oh, many of the Board members lamented how hard the decision had been and how they wished there could have been a different outcome; repeatedly stating that they ‘had’ to do it, there just was no other way. However, no matter how many times they said it and no matter who said it, I just sat there thinking, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way”. Somehow, the Board finds money for a fancy LED sign at the high school, money for administrator raises, money for district-wide fencing projects and then money to pay legal fees defending the fencing projects, yet … there’s no money for health care benefits for the aides and paras.

Look, I had resigned myself two years ago to the fact that the Board was going to outsource this group of employees; clearly, the handwriting was on the wall then and nothing really changed since. The Affordable Care Act just gave the Board ‘cover’ … a Federal law to stand behind and something to point to as the reason for outsourcing.

No, what I found the most troubling on February 3, the intervening weeks since and then at last night’s Board meeting was the lack of transparency and disregard of the public by some of our elected officials. I am careful to say ‘some on the Board’ because I believe that not all of these Board members have agreed with the way this matter was handled. One highlight of the evening was Kevin Buraks’ diatribe defending the Board actions, referencing transparency and calling the decision of February 3rd ‘strategic’.

In addition to the many residents who reached out to the School Board over the last several weeks, special thanks go to Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Peggy Layden and Barb Jackson. These folks, who regularly attend committee and regular school board meetings, stepped up to the plate regarding the School Board’s February 3 decision. Like me, they believed that the policy change was a ‘wrong’ that needed ‘righting’ and sent a letter to the School Board stating the concerns. Unfortunately, rather than joining with us and the community in seeking a solution, the Board chose to stand behind the words of the District Solicitor. As I said last night, I really do believe that the individual School Board members are better than that letter from the solicitor and that we, and the many others who contacted them since their February 3 decision, deserved better.

Although viewed as an unfavorable School Board decision by many in the community, we will all move forward.

I’m really looking ahead to Spring!

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For another take on last night’s School Board meeting, here’s Ray Clarke’s account:

I was surprised by the proceedings at last night’s Board meeting.  On the positive side, the order of business was adjusted to allow airing of the two most pressing issues, the out-sourcing and fencing projects.  The depth of resident concern has clearly got through.  On the downside, though, there is no sign of that resident concern actually making a difference.

The fencing contract was still approved based on a specification that may or may not meet Township ordinances, and the apparently illegal ACA vote was not reconsidered.  Indeed, the Board adopted the Rudy Guiliani approach: double down on the outrageousness.  To paraphrase: “It was actually our considered strategy to have the meetings in secret and the vote unadvertised”.  The reason given being a “threat of unionization”.  That looks to me like a scheme to claim a legitimate exception to the Sunshine Act, which would be hard and expensive to disprove.  Only we know full well that there have been no organization attempts for at least twelve months.  I encourage everyone to review the meeting video for the unvarnished story.

Looking for a silver lining, there is a commitment to review the out-sourcing analysis at the upcoming March 9th Finance Committee/Budget workshop.  Of course if this consists of showing us slides with the same numbers as given verbally on February 3rd, then our time will have been wasted.  On the other hand, if there is a comprehensive analysis of:

  1. a) all the options based on realistic assumptions about the specific population of long-serving full-time employees, specific figures for penalties, laid out by year, and
  2. b) evaluation of the trade-off between those realistic options and other discretionary items like new maintenance buildings, fencing, floor refinishing, new kitchens, architect fees, etc., borrowing $24 million that costs $1 million a year while our $32 million Fund Balance sits idle, and so on then perhaps the public can be convinced that the plan does in fact represent the values and best interests of our community, and it is best to ask those employees and district residents to bear the full cost of this situation.

All those who have rallied for open government have cracked the door open a little.  Thank you and please keep pushing!

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