TE School District

PA House Bill 1213 – An answer to ‘Spot Assessments’ or tying the hands of school districts and municipalities? State Rep Warren Kampf (R-157) and TE School District take opposing sides

In the last few days, local residents have received notices from the TE School District and State Representative Warren Kampf (R-157) with opposing views on PA House Bill 1213.

What is HB 1213 and why does the school district oppose the bill and why does our state representative support it?

In summary, the PA House Bill 1213 would establish that school districts and municipalities may not appeal the assessment of property based on purchase or sale of the property.

When the HB 1213 first surfaced last year, the TE School Board passed a resolution in May 2017 opposing the proposed legislation, believing that it would restrict the District’s ability to initiate property tax assessment appeals. In its February 2, 2018 newsletter, the District restates its opposition to the bill, stating the following:

HB 1213 is harmful to Pennsylvania schools for a number of reasons:

  • HB 1213 restricts a school district’s ability to initiate property tax assessment appeals.
  • If commercial or residential properties are permitted to pay taxes below the market assessment, remaining taxpayers will pay higher taxes to maintain school programs.
  • The bill maintains the property owner’s ability to appeal their assessment, setting up an unfair system. To date, TESD has lost property tax revenue in excess of $5 million through taxpayer-initiated appeals.

Over the past four years, TESD has successfully appealed properties that were undervalued based on economic factors using market-based sales data and the courts have agreed. These TESD-initiated property assessment appeals have produced almost $600,000 in new property tax revenue to fund the District’s educational program.   Lost revenue opportunities may lead to program cuts for students, increased fees for families, or higher taxes to property owners who already pay their fair share.

As sponsor of PA House Bill 1213, State Rep Kampf has previously stated that, “As the law now stands – without the enactment of House Bill 1213 – some of our state courts have given the 500 school districts and more than 3,000 local townships and municipalities in Pennsylvania the power to pick any single property and appeal its County assessment. As a result, they can (and do) challenge the assessment of a single property and, in the end, they raise taxes on that property owner alone. This is called spot assessment.”

Kampf challenged TESD’s latest newsletter as “misleading and plainly incomplete explanation of the bill” with his release of ‘Setting the Record Straight on House Bill 1213’ to residents yesterday, making the following points:

1/ The Pennsylvania Supreme Court this summer unanimously ruled that school districts were not allowed to target only commercial properties for spot assessing. This means that, if school districts undertake spot assessments, from now on they must do so to every type of property – including homes like yours and mine. Which home is picked is up to your school board to decide. That I know of, T/E has never spot assessed a home, but now—because they apparently have chosen to go forward with the practice—they must by law also target homes.

2/ House Bill 1213, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, would limit spot assessments by school districts to protect all property taxpayers from unfair targeting. Again, a spot assessment is where the school district targets and reassesses only your property, but does not reassess your neighbor’s even though your neighbor’s property is also under-assessed. Quite simply, spot assessment is inherently unfair and could even be maliciously undertaken if a school district chose to do so. The district is under no obligation to reassess all properties in a neighborhood or commercial district. They can simply pick one property and spot assess it alone.

3/ T/E says in its email it opposes HB 1213, which means they are going to start picking some homes for spot assessment. I would venture to say, since Chester County has not had a reassessment since 1997, virtually 80% of our homes are under-assessed, many significantly.

Your school district has decided that it will follow a path resulting in significant increases in valuation and property taxes for only select homeowners; these homeowners could see school property tax increases of 100%, or even 200%.

As we learned in recent arguments in the Supreme Court, it is also clear that very few school districts across the state follow this practice in any way. They either keep costs within the existing tax base, or they raise taxes on all properties, but they do not target individual properties.

Apparently, T/E finds it more important to obtain revenue than it does to protect you. I am further shocked that our school district would say such a practice is acceptable to them given that the amounts the school district admits to raising from this practice in the past equal 1/2 of 1% of their total annual budget.

4/ The school district also made a conscious decision to withhold in its email important information about HB 1213 as it is amended today. Currently, the legislation (at the request of school districts) allows a school district to try to raise the assessed value of a property if the property owner had previously obtained a reduction of that assessed amount by their own appeal. This addresses any issue of fairness.

In closing, Rep Kampf stands behind the PA House Bill 1213, stating that he “cannot sit by and allow school districts to target certain properties and create both a risky atmosphere in which to own a home, and an unpredictable place to make an investment.”

So … As a Pennsylvania resident, do you support or oppose the proposed legislation?

Do you believe that without the enactment of PA House Bill 1213, that (as Pennsylvania residents) we are at risk for “spot assessment” by our school districts and local municipalities?

Or, do you believe that the passage of PA House Bill 1213 would tie the hands of school districts and municipalities to challenge under assessed property taxes, therefore making it more unfair to the average homeowner?

Couldn’t the problem be solved with regularly scheduled property assessments?  On a personal note, my husband and I have purchased several investments properties on the South Carolina coast in the last couple of years — in South Carolina, property assessments are routine, every 5 years, eliminating the need for proposed legislation, like PA House Bill 1213.

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A New Year — Swearing In of Tredyffrin Supervisors and TE School District Projected $6.8M Budget Imbalance & Discussion of 5-Year Superintendent Contract

A New Year … and so it begins.  This is the time of year when we say goodbye to the old and welcome the new; to review 2017 and judge whether we are better or worse off than we were 12 months ago.

Whether you were delighted with the politics of 2017 or devastated, we can all look forward to expressing ourselves in 2018 (and hoping that it will make a difference).  We live in challenging times but staying informed and engaged is the catalyst that makes this grand American experiment work.

Starting off the new year, is the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors meeting tonight at 7 PM. The 2018 organizational meeting, will elect the Board chair and vice chair — for 2017,  Republicans Trip Lukens and Sean Moir served as chair and vice chair of the board.

The November election in Tredyffrin saw a historic increase in the number of Democrats serving on the Board. The Republicans still retain a 4-3 majority, including Paul Olson, the longest serving supervisor in the history of the township.  Included on the agenda tonight is the swearing in of new supervisors – Matt Holt and Kevin O’Nell will be sworn in for their 1st term and Murph Wysocki will be sworn in for this 2nd term.  Best wishes for a successful year to all seven supervisors!

On the TE School Board side, the school board starts off the new year tonight with their January school board meeting at 7:30 PM at Conestoga. Click here for agenda.

Two priority discussion items on the agenda — first, the Board will consider options to close the projected budget imbalance of approximately $6.8M for the 2018-2019 school year.  Sounds like the start to tax increase discussion to me.  For the record, TE School District residents have seen their property taxes increase for 13 straight years.  You would have to go back to 2004-05 for the last zero tax increase year.

The second priority discussion is the reappointment of Dr. Rich Gusick as Superintendent of the District.  Originally, Gusick was given a 3-year contract, July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2018. The superintendent agreement under discussion tonight is for 5 years, July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2023.

Much has happened in the District in 2017 including ” a federal lawsuit against the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and Amy Meisinger, principal of Conestoga High School alleging administrators and teachers at the High School created and tolerated a culture that emboldened Arthur Phillips, a 67-year old instructional aide, to repeatedly sexually abuse a female student.”  Phillips was sentenced to 10-20 years for his criminal action and the Federal lawsuit remains open against the District.

Also in 2017, the public learned that Christine Towers, a former teacher’s aide and coach at Conestoga was sentenced to 11 to 23 months for a sexual relationship with a 16-year old learned disabled student at Conestoga that she tutored.

In May of 2017, Tom Batgos, the assistant Conestoga High School football coach fired by the District in the aftermath of the alleged hazing and sexual assault filed a lawsuit against District administrators, including Dr. Gusick citing defamation of character, misrepresentation, fraud, improper termination, etc. and seeks damaged of at least $50,000 in compensation plus punitive damages. I do not think that this lawsuit has yet been resolved.

The latest employee incident occurred on November 21. David Walker, an employee in the District’s IT Department was arrested by Tredyffrin police on November 21 (on school district property) for “open lewdness” and “indecent exposure”. This case is set for its preliminary hearing tomorrow, January 3 at 9 AM in the Easttown court of Magisterial District Judge Thomas W. Tartaglio.  It is unclear how this arrest affects Mr. Walker’s employment in the District.

In the midst of outstanding legal issues of 2017, including the potential of a very expensive Federal lawsuit against the District, will this have any bearing on the Board’s decision to grant a 5-year contract to the Superintendent (six months in advance of its expiration)?

A New Year … and so it begins!

____________________________

UPDATE:  Republican Heather Greenberg was elected Chair of Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors and Murph Wysocki (D) was elected Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors.  Congratulations Heather and Murph!

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Justice: Former TE School District Aide Receives 10-20 Years for Sexual Abuse of 15-Year Old Conestoga High School Student – Where Do We Go From Here?

It seems that in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding movie producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against powerful men are flying left and right.

Actors, politicians, lawmakers, newscasters – each day brings new complaints alleging “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace”. From Hollywood to the White House, prominent men are accused of using their status to take advantage of women in unconscionable ways.

The men accused of sexual misconduct with adult women are very, very wrong. Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore is accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with children. This is not the same thing. They are not comparable. When an adult in power – whether a teacher, clergy member, coach, or in the local TE School District case an instructional aide —initiates sexual contact with a minor child, the incident is child sexual abuse, period.

Sixty-seven year old Arthur Phillips, a former instructional aide in Conestoga High School’s television production studio, sexually abused his 15 year old female victim for months. According to the police investigation, the alleged victim said that Phillips sexually assaulted her from January until April of this year on more than 10 occasions in various areas in Tredyffrin, despite saying no. Investigators alleged that Phillips made the student have sex with him. Police said that Phillips would grope, touch and kiss the student in his office at the high school. The investigation revealed that Phillips and the victim talked about “sexual issues” via text messages and at least once, he sent her a picture of his genitals.

In April, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan criminally charged Phillips with 100 counts including statutory sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and endangering the welfare of a child, among other related charges.

In June, a Federal lawsuit was filed against the TE School District by the parents of the victim, seeking at least $75K in damages and calling for the resignation of Conestoga’s Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit claims that the District was aware of the improper conduct of Phillips and “created an environment that allowed the assaults to occur”.

According to the lawsuit, a Visual and Performing Arts teacher at the high school was aware of the ‘relationship’ between Phillips and his 15-year student and that with her husband, “double-dated” for dinner to celebrate the victim’s birthday.  The lawsuit contains the names of 14 District administrators, teachers and aides who were aware of Phillips’ inappropriate relationship but took a “blind eye” and failed to take steps to investigate or halt the conduct. The Performing Arts teacher lost her job in the District last month.

We learned from Caroline O’Halloran’s Savvy Mainline that the District has responded to the lawsuit against it and Principal Meisinger on August 14 with a 28-page “motion to dismiss”.  The court has yet to rule.

Last week Phillips had his day of reckoning before Chester County Court of Common Pleas Judge Patrick Carmody.  As a former Chester County Assistant DA, Carmody has handled thousands of cases from white crime to homicide and we now know he has no tolerance for child sex offenders. We learned from the Daily Times, that Phillips pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, institutional sexual assault, and corruption of minors and in a plea agreement was given a sentence of 10-20 years in state prison.  Phillips will also be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

According to the Daily Times article, Judge Carmody was particularly incensed that Phillips apologized to his wife, his daughter, his son-in-law, and to his friends but not to his victim.

The judge told Phillips, dressed in a plaid shirt and a black jacket and speaking in a nervous whisper,  that the only reason that he was accepting the proposed plea agreement and sentence offered by the prosecution and defense was that its specifics amounted to a near life term for the 67-year-old. If not for Phillips’ age, he would reject the agreement as too lenient, he said.

“You may never leave jail, you understand that?” Carmody asked. “You’re going to be sitting in jail for at least the next 10 years.”

As the accusations of sexual harassment and assault fill the national news daily, there is much talk of “fixing the problem”.  What about the outstanding federal lawsuit against the TE School District and Principal Meisinger.  Having read the lawsuit filed by the parents of the Conestoga student, it certainly appears to provide substantial evidence. I do not claim to be an attorney but it seems to me that the Phillips guilty verdict will only strengthen the case against the school district and the principal.

So the question is, where do we go from here? Although it remains to be seen how Phillips’ guilty verdict will impact the federal lawsuit,  shouldn’t the larger issue be, has the school district “fixed the problem”? Are there policies now in place to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again? Are our children safe?

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Election 2017: Referendum on President Trump as Democrats upped their game in Tredyffrin and TE School District races

The “Trump Effect” sweeping the nation found its way to our local municipal and school board elections. Every local election can be seen as a referendum on President Trump as voters came out in mass and cast their votes overwhelmingly in support of Democratic candidates, ousting sitting Republicans in the process.

In the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors race, At-Large candidate Murph Wysocki (D) was re-elected to a second term and newcomers Matt Holt (At-Large) and Kevin O’Nell (Middle District) candidates beat their Republican opposition. Historic in Tredyffrin Township, the election marks the first time in its 300 year history, that three of the seven seats will be held by Democrats.  If memory serves me correctly, Paul Drucker was the first Democrat elected to the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors in 2005.

As a result of the 2017 election, there are big changes coming to the T/E School Board.  Running for second terms on the school board from Region III, Easttown residents Virginia Lastner (R) and Doug Carlson (R) lost to their Democrat opponents Heather Ward and Tina Whitlow.  Region I school board candidate Scott Dorsey (D) had no opposition and will serve a second term.

In the T/E School Board Region II race, current Valley Forge Middle School teacher Kyle Boyer (D) prevailed over his Republican opponent Doug Anestad.   As a teacher in the T/E School District, Boyer has been the focus of much attention since declaring his candidacy last March and is now required to resign from his reaching position before the December 4 school board meeting. It has been stated that Boyer will immediately tender his resignation to the school district and the District will waive the 60-day notification requirement so that he can take office.   As a result of the 2017 election, the T/E School Board make-up will be seven Democrats and two Republicans.

All Chester County row office elections were won by Democrat candidates, including Tredyffrin Township resident Yolanda Van de Krol as newly elected County Clerk.

Thank you to all the candidates for caring about our community and your willingness to serve! Congratulations to those who have been elected – wishing you much success!

 

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Conestoga High School Student Sexual Assault Case: Federal Lawsuit Filed — Lawsuit in Separate Case Pending

This is a follow-up post to my last post “TE School District served with another lawsuit” dated June 8. After posting the previous article, I was emailed a copy of the federal lawsuit and  press release from Ross Feller Casey, the Philadelphia law firm who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the parents of the 15-year-old victim in the case.

In the Ross Feller Casey press release, it states that the law firm, “filed a federal lawsuit against the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and the principal of Conestoga High School alleging administrators and teachers at the High School created and tolerated a culture that emboldened Arthur Phillips, a 67-year old instructional aide, to repeatedly sexually abuse a female student.”

Among other things, the federal lawsuit alleges that “Phillips, an instructional aide in the television production studio at Conestoga since 2006, engaged in a classic yet disturbing pattern of sexual grooming and assault against a student starting when she was only 15 years old.”

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan has criminally charged Arthur Phillips with over 100 counts, including 10 felony charges of statutory sexual assault and 10 felony charges of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. According to the lawsuit, the sexual assaults were daily between January and mid-April of this year and allegedly “took place in various locations at Conestoga High School, including the school’s TV studio, Phillips’ office, Conestoga’s parking lot and in Phillips’ automobile”.

According to Pennsylvania state law, “Statutory sexual assault becomes a first-degree felony offense in cases when the accused is 11 years, or older, than the minor. If convicted of this charge, a person could face a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Additionally, he or she may be fined up to $25,000.” The minor in this case is a 15-year old female and the accused is a 67-year old male, 52 years her senior.  And remember, the ten counts of statutory sexual assault is only one of the criminal charges against Phillips – if convicted, this man is going to prison for a very, very long time.

The lawsuit is against TE School District and Conestoga Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger, but numerous other CHS teachers and administrators are identified in the 36-page lawsuit.  The lawsuit is a public document but because 14 different CHS teachers or administrators (in addition to Meisinger) are identified by name, I will not upload it to Community Matters. To be clear, the only T/E School District administrator being sued in this lawsuit is Meisinger.

I have read the lawsuit several times. It contains many graphic and sexually explicit details that do not need to be repeated here. As the mother of a daughter, I cannot imagine the horror of this situation for the girl and her family.

What is remarkable is the level of detail contained in the lawsuit of places that Phillips took the student during school hours and after school including Berwyn Pizza, Handel’s Ice Cream and restaurants such as Estia (Radnor), Christopher’s in Wayne and City Works Eatery and Pour House (King of Prussia). Phillips and the student went to multiple Wawa convenience stores in the area including Malvern, Paoli, King of Prussia, Audubon and Norristown. Additionally, Phillips took her on shopping trips to the King of Prussia Mall and ice skating in Dilworth Park outside of City Hall in Philadelphia, and to the IFly Indoor Skydiving Center and to Valley Forge Casino.  Phillips gave the student numerous items, including gift cards.

My guess is there would be security cameras, date and time stamped credit card processing receipts, etc. from most of these locations. According to the lawsuit, “many of Phillips contacts with Plaintiff are documented on Conestoga’s video monitoring system, including those cameras used to observe school entrances and exits and around the bus drop-off/pickup location.”  The lawsuit claims that the school district “failed to review the camera footage and failed to intervene in the outwardly inappropriate and illegal behavior of Phillips” which therefore constitutes a “systematic violation of school district policies”.

To celebrate her birthday, Phillips and the student ‘double-dated’ with a Conestoga teacher and her husband at Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar in King of Prussia. According to the lawsuit, “numerous district officials and teachers were aware of Phillips’ inappropriate relationship with the girl but failed to take steps to investigate or halt the conduct”.  Further, the lawsuit alleges that Phillips’ office was decorated with homemade signs that included the girl’s initials, her first name and the word “love”.

The lawsuit alleges that Phillips continually wrote ‘hall passes’ for the student to miss class when school district policy only permits a teacher (not an aide) to write these passes.  It is alleged that “none of the teachers who received these ‘hall passes’ filled out by Phillips took any action to investigate, manage, question or stop said absences or tardiness”.  Between January and mid-April of this year, the student missed over 20 English classes yet the teacher (allegedly) never discussed the absences with the parents.

Ross Feller Casey is also representing the parent of the 17-year old male CHS student who was sexually abused by another Conestoga staff member, 26-year-old teacher’s aide Christine Towers. Towers was convicted earlier this year and is currently serving time for the crime. The law firm is investigating a separate federal lawsuit against TE School District in that case. In both the Towers case and the Phillips case, the parents of the two abused students are calling for the resignation of the Conestoga principal.

In the Ross Feller Casey press release, attorney Matt Casey stated, “The heartbroken parents I represent, and their children, are demanding accountability on the part of the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, something that has yet to be achieved despite repeated, shocking instances of sexual abuse at Conestoga High School. The already-known facts lay bare a school district custom of deliberately turning a blind eye to criminal acts in its midst.”  To support this claim, the lawsuit includes the middle school sexting scandal, the football hazing incident and the teacher’s aide who sexually abused the male student case prior to this latest criminal investigation – all occurring in the last couple of years.

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The school board meeting is tomorrow, Monday, June 12, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School and includes the adoption of the 2017-18 final budget. The meeting agenda continues to list the teachers’ contract (TEEA), the non-instructional contract (TENIG) and Act 93 Agreement (administrators) as ‘TBD’ in the proposed final budget. The contracts constitute 70% of the District budget yet the budget includes no contingencies.  However, it is noted that on page 293 of the agenda, we see that the school board will take a vote on giving administrators a 1.7% increase to their 2016-17 base salary plus a one-time bonus of 1% to be paid in June 2018.

Since the last regular meeting of the school board, there have been two lawsuits filed against the District … the agenda makes no mention of either.

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TE School District Served With Another Lawsuit

Lawsuits against TE School District and Conestoga High School administrators are climbing at an alarming rate.

Two weeks ago on May 25, I wrote the headline, “Conestoga High School Hazing Fallout: Football Coach Sues T/E School District Administrators”.  We learned that Thomas Batgos, an assistant Conestoga High School football coach fired by the T/E School District in the aftermath of the alleged hazing and sexual assault had filed a lawsuit against District administrators – Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick and CHS Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit cited defamation of character, misrepresentation, fraud, improper termination, etc. and seeks damages of at least $50K in compensation plus punitive damages.

In April, I wrote about Arthur Phillips (age 67), a male instructional aide in the television production studio at Conestoga High School, who was charged with having sex with a 15 year old female student from January to April of this year.  According to the victim, they had sex on more than 10 occasions and that Phillips also groped and sexually assaulted her. Hundreds of sexual text messages were found on both of their cell phones, including a picture that Phillips texted the victim of his genitals. Phillips was charged with statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, corruption of minors and related offenses.

Today we learn from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that a federal lawsuit was filed against TE School District by the parents of the girl, seeking at least $75K in damages and calling for the resignation of Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger.

According to the article, the lawsuit claims that the District was aware of the improper conduct of Phillips and “created an environment that allowed the assaults to occur”.

The Inquirer article states, “According to the suit, Phillips took the girl from the Conestoga campus to buy her meals, took her shopping, and “groomed” her during and after the school day. The lawsuit alleges a teacher and her husband went to dinner on a “double date” with the girl and Phillips and that other teachers knew Phillips was taking the girl off campus during the school day. An aide referred to the girl as “Art’s girlfriend” to several teachers, the suit said.”

How in the world could a teacher go on a double date with Phillips and the 15-year old student?  And the relationship was known by teachers at the high school and the victim is called “Art’s girlfriend”.  How is it possible that this could go on and no one knows?  I just do not understand.

The original article has been updated to include a statement from the District’s solicitor, who claims that the accusations against the school district are false, that no staff (including Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger) knew of the relationship between Phillips and the student until contacted by Tredyffrin Township police.

An interesting point is made in the lawsuit – Phillips wrote hall passes for the girl to miss classes and that between January and mid-April, she missed 20 English classes. Isn’t there some kind of parental notification when a student misses that many classes?  What is the policy?

The parents also claim that there was no review of camera footage at by District employees which would have shown Phillips repeatedly leaving Conestoga High School with the girl. According the lawsuit, the sexual assaults occurred in the high school parking lot, Phillips car and office and in Conestoga’s production studio. Again, I would ask — what is the policy for reviewing camera footage?  School security has been an ongoing focus of the school board, which would presumably include routine review of the cameras.  I would think that if you have a student missing 20 classes during a relatively short time span, and there is an aide who is writing the passes, shouldn’t this cause an internal investigation, which might include a review of the camera footage?  Just asking the question, do not know if there is a process currently in place and it was ignored or if such a process doesn’t exist.

There is also the potential of another lawsuit against TE School District.  Remember the 26-year old Conestoga coach and teacher’s aide Christine Towers who had a sexual relationship with a 16 year old learning disabled student who she tutored.  Towers received a jail time of 11 to 23 months.  Now the parents of that boy are also considering a federal lawsuit against the District.

I have been harping about what I see as public information and transparency problems, most recently as it related to the three contracts due to expire in 3 weeks – TEEA (teachers), TENIG (non-instructional) and Act 93 (administrators). The monthly school board meeting is on Monday, June 12 where the final budget for the 2017-18 school year needs to be approved and the status of the contracts is unknown. The contracts make up 70% of the school district budget but the public has received no updates.

I think the school board’s approach to public information needs to expand to include lawsuits. In two weeks, two lawsuits have been filed against the school district with the potential of a third lawsuit.  My guess is that the school board will make no mention of the lawsuits at the upcoming school board meeting. It’s easier to pretend that it isn’t really happening.

A few weeks ago, the school board reappointed Ken Roos as the District solicitor for another year, July 1 – June 30, 2018 at a rate of $180/hr.   Wouldn’t you love to know what the taxpayers are spending on legal fees to Wisler Pearstine between lawsuits and contract negotiations?  Sadly, that would probably require filing a ‘right-to-know’ through Art McDonnell, and I have a feeling that the request would be denied.

By all accounts, Conestoga High School graduation last night was wonderful — congratulations to all our 2017 graduates and best wishes for the future!

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Three T/E School District Contracts Due to Expire in 30 Days … What is the Status on the Teachers (TEEA) Contract, Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) Contract and Act 93 (Administrators) Agreement?

The TESD Finance Committee meeting agenda for Wednesday, May 31, 6:30 PM is available here.

The school board is on the countdown to the approval of the 2017-18 budget on Monday, June 12 but there’s a major open issue as indicated in the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting. Actually, there are three unknowns or ‘TBD’ as stated on the draft budget as shown below:

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For the first time that I am aware, the school board is faced with the contracts of the District teachers (TEEA), the non-instructional group (TENIG) and Act 93 (administrators) all expiring on the same date — on June 30, 2017. In years past, the contracts terms were staggered. To my knowledge, there has been no update from the school board regarding any one of these three contracts that expire in a month.

In years past, the threat of outsourcing of some of TENIG’s employees was considered by the school board (as a budget savings).  In tight budget times, the District’s custodians, secretaries, maintenance workers and kitchen workers all became a target for outsourcing during budget negotiations.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m no fan of outsourcing.  (We don’t need to look any further than the school board’s decision to outsource the aides and paras and ask how that has worked out.)

In the current TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2017), the custodians received a 2% salary reduction and additionally had to give back 1 week of their vacation.  (The rationale was that the District had to hire subs when the custodians are on vacation).  The other members of TENIG (security, kitchen, maintenance, and cafeteria) received a 4% salary reduction in the new contract but their vacation benefit remains intact.  Since the current TENIG contract required salary reductions, it does not seem plausible that these T/E workers would not receive an increase in the new contract (at least the new contract should bring the TENIG employees back to their June 30, 2014 salary level). The public doesn’t know the answer.

The current TEEA contract (July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2017) was ratified in February 2014, months in advance of its June 30, 2014 expiration date. The contract protected the jobs of the District teachers and included a ‘no furloughs or demotions’ clause through June 2017.  The teachers received salary increases based on their step movement in the matrix.  The contract included a Distance E-Learning Pilot Program that ran the length of the contract, expiring on June 30, 2017.  If you recall, TEEA previously filed a suit (and won) against the District over their implementation of distance learning so it was somewhat surprising to see its inclusion in the contract. Are we confident that the new TEEA contract will honor the ‘no furlough or demolition’ clause contained in the current contract?  The public doesn’t know the answer.

The third TESD contract due to expire in a month is the Act 93 Agreement — the District’s administrator compensation plan. The current Act 93 Agreement (January 29, 2013 – June 30, 2017) included a one-time bonus for service in the previous two and one-years and a one-time bonus of 1% of the individual’s salary award each June.

At the time the Act 93 contract was signed, there was discussion that the lowest paid groups – the TENIG workers – were taking a salary decrease whereas the administrators’ salaries were increasing.  So with the teachers, administrators and the non-instructional workers with contracts expiring in a month, it’s going to be interesting to see if fairness will prevail. Will the administrators continue to receive an annual bonus? The public doesn’t know the answer.

For me, the problem is that there’s been no update whatsoever in the contract negotiation process and the final budget is to be approved in a couple of weeks on Monday, June 12.

Although the draft budget includes a maximum tax increase of 3.4%, it indicates a $1.6 million deficit. The plan is to make up the deficit with a transfer from the District’s fund balance. Plus, we do not know the impact of the teachers, administrator and TENIG contracts on the budget. As indicated in the graphic above, the three contracts are ‘TBD’.

I re-read an old Community Matters post on this topic from April 2012, ‘Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations’  which had a follow-up post on May 17, 2012, ‘TE Teachers Turn on Transparency Lights in Contract Negotiations’. In re-reading these posts and the many comments, what was striking was the need for regular updates to the public by the Board. The lack of information and/or misinformation during the contract negotiations aggravated an already difficult situation. In the CM post of May 17, 2012, I wrote,

” … making the teacher contract negotiation process transparent for the public would help the community understand how our children will be taught and how our tax dollars will be invested.  The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes this school district.  There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract negotiation process. …”

Harping on the lack of transparency and public information by the school board does not seem to work – except maybe in an election year! (School board directors Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner and Scott Dorsey are up for re-election although Scott has no opposing candidate.) No doubt the school board would lament that they cannot provide updates during the contract negotiating process as its explanation for keeping the public in the dark.

The final approval on the TESD 2017-18 budget looms in two weeks, Monday, June 12. When will the school board provide the public with the three contracts? When will the final budget (with the missing ‘TBD’ contract information) be made available to the public?  Perhaps some of these answers will be available at the Finance Meeting on Wednesday night.

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Conestoga High School Hazing Fallout: Football Coach Sues T/E School District Administrators

Fourteen months ago in March 2016, the TE School District fired five Conestoga High School football coaches and head coach John Vogan resigned after Chester County DA Tom Hogan charged three football players with sexual assault of a younger player. The investigation stemmed from a freshman football player’s allegations that three senior players held him down and penetrated his rectum with a broom handle in October.

The teenage victim of the Conestoga High School football hazing scandal claimed that the school district failed to protect him from hazing and sexual abuse.The District claimed that the fired football coaches failed to supervisor the football players in the locker room. A letter from the school district at the time of the charges stated, “The locker rooms had an insufficient adult presence throughout the football season, creating an environment where hazing activities could occur …”

In January of this year, the District Attorney office announced that the former football players plead guilty to a lesser charge of harassment and the assault charges were dropped. Because the most serious charge of assault was dropped, some in the community pointed to this as proof that no assault occurred.

Thomas Batgos, an assistant football coach fired by the T/E School District, has now filed a lawsuit against District administrators – Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick and Conestoga High School principal Dr. Amy Meisinger, in addition to the father of the accuser in the incident. Batgos’ lawsuit cites defamation of character, misrepresentation, fraud and improper termination and seeks at least $50,000 in compensation plus punitive damages.

At the time the coaches were fired, the TE School District indicated that the coaches were responsible for oversight of the football players in the locker room. In his lawsuit, Batgos claims that it was not his job as a part-time football coach to supervise the locker room (where the alleged assault occurred).

The entire T/E School District community has really struggled to move on – the allegations against the Conestoga High School football players was reported nationwide. Dealing with the situation has been a challenge for the young men accused but as a community we also need to remember the lives and reputations of the football coaches were forever changed.

If you are Batgos and the other football coaches, how do you move on after your reputation is ruined and your standing in the community is damaged?

Although other Conestoga football coaches were terminated, Batgos is the only one to date who has filed a lawsuit. But I am guessing that there could be more lawsuits to follow and it is interesting to note that Batgos sparred the school board in his legal action.

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It’s happened again – Student sexually assaulted by Aide at Conestoga High School

Is it me or does there seem to be an upswing in teachers/aides crossing the line with their students?

In the Philadelphia Inquirer last month we read, “Ex-Aide of Conestoga High School gets jail time for sex with student”. The public learned that Christine Towers, age 26, a former teacher’s aide and coach at Conestoga High School was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in jail for having a sexual relationship with a 16-yr. old T/E student who she tutored. Towers had a month-long affair with the learning disabled student in 2016.

A paraeducator and middle school and high school coach, Towers was an employee of T/E School District from August 2014 until April 2016, when she was arrested.

Our community was greeted a few days ago with the headline, “Conestoga High School staffer sexually assaulted student”. This time around it is a male aide at the high school who is arrested for having sex with one of his students.

Arthur Phillips, age 67, a male instructional aide in the television production studio of Conestoga High School was charged with having sex with a female student from January to April of this year.  According to the victim, they had sex on more than 10 occasions and that Phillips would also grope and sexually assault her. Hundreds of text messages of sexual nature were found on both of their cell phones, including a picture that Phillips texted the victim of his genitals.

The victim alleges that the incidents happened in Phillips’ office at Conestoga High School and in his car. Another disturbing element in this case, is that Phillips has been with T/E School District since 2006 – eleven years! Knowing that many students pass through the television production studio of the high school, it has to make you wonder was this young girl Phillips’ only victim?

Remember these latest scandals are on the heels of the Valley Forge Middle School sexting scandal where four male T/E students sent sexually explicit videos and images of a fellow female student. And then there was the story that made the national news of the Conestoga High School football players accused of hazing a younger player by sodomizing him with a broomstick.

As is the District’s policy, Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick and Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger sent the obligatory letter of notification to T/E families after the recent arrest of Arthur Phillips. Sadly, the regularity of these incidents has created an almost ‘boilerplate’ explanation from the school administration … just another educator having sex with a student.

Where is the outrage?  Where is the demand for accountability?  Monday night, April 24 is the regular meeting of the T/E School District, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School – can we expect answers?

School Board, please don’t sweep this latest sexual assault under the carpet and turn a blind eye. Top-ranked Tredyffrin Easttown School District must be more than just high SAT scores and a good football team.

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Lower Merion School District loses appeal … Must pay back millions to taxpayers

Yesterday was a big win for taxpayers in the Lower Merion School District.

You may recall that last year Lower Merion School District was ordered to revoke its latest tax hike, saying that the school district mislead taxpayers by projecting large budget deficits as justification for raising taxes. The class-action lawsuit was filed by Arthur Wolk, a lawyer who lives in Gladwyne. The judge in the case determined that Lower Merion School District actually had socked away millions of dollars.

According to the judge’s findings, Lower Merion School District got away with raising taxes above the Act 1 index of 2.4 percent by saying the money was needed to cover soaring special-education and employee pension costs, two of the biggest expenses for most public school districts.  It was determined that Lower Merion School District, one of the wealthiest school districts in the Philadelphia area, deliberately over-estimated deficits and failed to adequately predict surpluses; thus allowing the stashing of millions in reserves.

Taxpayers in Lower Merion School District had long complained about the yearly tax increases, as they watched the end-of-the-year surpluses continue to grow.

Lower Merion School District appealed the court decision of August 2016 and we learned yesterday that the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality – apparently the school district failed to file the motions within the 10-day deadline. Wonder who was responsible for that ‘oversight’ … their business manager, their solicitor Ken Roos? Coincidentally, Roos of Wisler Pearlstine, is also the solicitor for TE School District. In addition to refunding millions of dollars, the taxpayers have the burden of legal fees from the original lawsuit and from the appeal.  Wow.

An unprecedented ruling, the win for taxpayers in Lower Merion School District could pave the way for other school districts to follow suit. The following chart shows TESD tax increases over the last thirteen years.  And from recent budget workshops, we know the preliminary TESD 2017-18 budget proposes another tax increase. 2004-05 was the last zero tax increase year.

2016-17: 3.6%
2015-16: 3.81%
2014-15: 3.4%
2013-14: 1.7%
2012-13: 3.3%
2011-12: 3.77%
2010-11: 2.9%
2009-10: 2.95%
2008-09: 4.37%
2007-08: 3.37%
2006-07: 3.90%
2005-06: 1.40%
2004-05: Zero Tax Increase

During the last several years, most tax increases have ended up as surplus in the operations of the TESD schools and now those taxpayer dollars are sitting in the District’s fund balance – which is currently $32 million!  This is not an argument about adequately funding and maintaining the high level of quality of our schools.

The ruling in Lower Merion School District should provide a wake-up call to all school districts who justify tax increases but end up with surpluses year after year.

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