TE School District

TESD: Proposed Tax Increase of 4.3% Drops to $3.875% — School Board to leave $20 in taxpayer pockets

Tax-increaseFor the 13th year in a row, it looks like the TE School Board will vote to increase taxes to its residents.

At the District’s budget workshop last night, the public learned that the proposed 2016/17 tax increase has decreased – the tax increase has reduced from the 4.3% contained in the preliminary budget approved in January.  The proposed tax increase is now 3.875%.  This ‘decrease in the increase’ means homeowners will keep roughly $20 of the proposed tax increase in their pockets.

T/E School District has one of the largest fund balances in the state – in 1996/97, the District had a fund balance of $4,333,661 and in the last decade we saw the fund balance increase to more than $28 million.  The total fund balance as of June 2015 was $32,381,047 – that’s $32.4 million in taxpayer dollars. Continuing to grow the fund balance, the District shows a budget surplus for the fifth year in a row yet residents continue to feel the sting of an annual tax increase.

Ray Clarke and Neal Colligan were in attendance at the budget workshop and their comments from the meeting are appreciated.  Thank you both.

If residents care about the proposed ‘thirteen years in a row’ tax increase, they should plan to attend the TE School Board meeting of April 25 and voice their opinion.

Budget Workshop Notes from Ray Clarke:

Three hours of discussion at last night’s TESD Budget Workshop culminated in some good news for taxpayers – although you’d need a microscope to see it.  The Board will vote at its April 25th meeting for a “Preliminary Final Budget” that includes a tax increase of 3.875% – down from the maximum allowable by a token 0.4% (worth about $20 for the average taxpayer, who is still faced with an increase of more than $200).

Notwithstanding well-articulated positions from members Dorsey, Sweeney, Burger and Hotinski (and from the audience) for a lower rate, more considerate of the increased fees to families and the fixed, inflation-linked incomes of retirees, the outcome seemed pre-ordained, driven by the same majority that voted for the senseless VFMS fences.  That majority seems pre-occupied by risk and unable to appreciate that every number they are given by the Administration is conservative.  For example:

–  Half of the adjustments to the Preliminary Budget could arguably be higher – most notable being the use of approved rather realistic estimates to budget the impact of staff retirements.

–  There was much lamentation of the possible impact of the next union contracts (due in 2017/18), without recognition that the projections already include 7-10% increases in the benefits costs (worth 1-2% in total compensation).

–  Revenue projections are especially murky.  This year’s transfer tax is already $1 million over Budget, as are even base real estate revenues – the most predictable of all line items!  It’s not at all clear if next year’s Budget, developed months ago, considers these developments.

Years of operating outcomes favorable to Budget show that the Administration is skilled at managing its resources.  Superintendent Gusick read a scripted plea for the Board to set the District’s tax parameters and pledged to implement a process next Fall to conduct the oft-advertised “deep dive” into expense strategies that would address any apparent operating deficit that resulted.

The April 25th Board vote is not final, but is nevertheless significant.  Anyone that believes that our School District should be managed more like the County Intermediate Unit, which also last night presented its Budget and a commitment to live within the Act 1 2.4% Inflation Index, should come out in support of our Board members who are trying to hold the line here in TE

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Budget Workshop Notes from Neal Colligan:

-Current Year operating projections now show an estimated $984,000 Surplus for the District for the 2015-16 fiscal year (this year).  Current year’s budget was passed with an anticipated deficit of $1.654 MM.  It’s a miracle…a $2.5 MM swing!

-This “miracle” of Deficit Budget morphing into an Actual Surplus has now happened in EACH of the last five years.

-As a result of these Surpluses; the District has added almost $12 MM to its Fund Balance over the last 5 years…that’s a pretty profitable operation!!!

-With over $32 MM in Fund Balance (about to be over $33 MM with this year’s Surplus); at what point is that adequate?

-The growth of the Surplus is remarkable as we always seem to be “up against the wall” when it comes time to set a new tax rate.  Possibly this pattern is a result of the budget forecasting methods employed when looking at the next year’s budget.  On average (10 years); the District collects a bit over 100% of budgeted revenue and spends about 95.5% of budgeted expenses.  Perhaps this speaks more to the budget estimates used at tax setting time than actual operational changes employed during a given fiscal year.

-At 3.875%; the tax increase this year will be higher than the 3.84% increase imposed on the community for this year.  Not sure the new Board Members ran to increase taxes.

-Perhaps it is time to look at using a small amount of our Surplus (88% funded by local sources) to dampen current tax increases?  One could certainly argue that the Fund Balance is now super-adequate and it is taxpayer money that they were told would go to education….!!!???

Three Conestoga senior football players charged with sexual assault of freshman player – This is no rite of passage!

FootballA month ago, we learned that an extensive law enforcement investigation was underway at Conestoga High School after they got wind of hazing allegations. The investigation centered on ritual hazing by football players which occurred on the same day each week at the high school.  Apparently some of the students were aware of the hazing and would deliberately avoid the gym at certain times.

Today we learned from Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan that three 17-yr. old senior football players, including the team captain, at Conestoga High School have been charged with an October 15 hazing incident where they allegedly penetrated a younger player with a broomstick after he refused to help other underclassmen clean the team locker room while wearing just their underwear. Criminal charges were filed against the three juveniles for “assault, conspiracy, unlawful restraint, terroristic threats and other offenses.”

According to Hogan, the football team had a tradition called “No Gay Thursday” where all “gay” behavior was allowed.  Allegedly the team’s upperclassmen bullied the younger team members, often in sexually explicit or suggestive ways, during the weekly Thursday locker room hazing incidents.

The October 15 assault occurred after underclassmen were told to strip to their underwear and clean the high school locker room. The 14-year old victim stripped to his boxers but then reconsidered.  When the high school freshman tried to leave the locker room, he was held down by his attackers and abused sexually with a broom handle.  The prosecutor said that the three upperclassmen football players “will not face sexual assault charges because the law requires a motive of sexual gratification, which was not the case here.”  I suggest that the law needs to change … this was rape.

Although Hogan said that there is no evidence that the coaches were aware of the assault, Conestoga’s head football coach John Vogan was suspended from all coaching activities pending the outcome of an internal investigation by the TE School District.

District Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick has sent a letter to the T/E families, which stated that administrators will conduct a “thorough school-based investigation to determine whether code of conduct violations occurred and the awareness and supervision of the coaching staff.”

Some may view school football hazing as a rite of passage – sexual assault with a broom handle is rape. Bottom line, the TE community needs to hold the District’s administration, staff and school board accountable and demand answers.  No one should be allowed to hide behind the curtain of “number one school district in the country”!

I suggest that the TE School Board members need to stop talking about school fencing and focus on what’s really important — sexual assault in the high school … the real safety risk to our children!

TE School District discusses laptops for teachers and students in grades 7-12 (Initial Cost: $1.8 million)

laptop stackThe TE School District’s Education Committee meeting included a surprising (and expensive) item on the agenda – the proposal to outfit all teachers and grade 7-12 students with District issued laptops.

A few short weeks ago, the school board approved a preliminary budget which included a 4.3% tax increase. With that unanimous vote, the Board assured the residents that expenses would be thoroughly reviewed ‘line by line’ in the coming months. And then we learn this week that this same board is discussing spending an estimated $1.8 million on teacher and student laptops. Where’s the fiscal responsibility?

Setting aside the expense of the laptops, is there research indicating this is a current school district need?  Don’t the majority of the teachers and students in the District already have computers? If a need for a computer exists with any of the students, it certainly should be met but has anyone polled the students/parents? What level of laptops are proposed? My guess is that many of our students and teachers already own a higher quality of computers than the District is proposing.

And what about liability issues that could arise with giving our students computers? Remember the Lower Merion scandal and subsequent lawsuit over district-supplied computers and the webcam spying on students. How will TE parents know that their children are protected from something similar? No one wants to believe that these things could happen in TE, but has the school board thought about security measures to protect the privacy of the students.

Because I did not attend the Education Committee meeting, I wanted to know if other residents shared my concerns.  Resident Doug Anestad attended and provides the following update for Community Matters:

The administration would like to buy a laptop for every teacher and student in grades 7-12 in what is commonly called one-to-one laptop program. They would roll it out over a three years. Each laptop would cost about $400 and they would purchase a 4 year warranty and accidental damage protection for $200 for a total cost of $600.

The school district just finished rolling out bring your own device (BYOD). However, they argue that it is not ideal because
– No expectation that all students will have a device
– No expectation that all devices will be the same
– Transformative on individual level
– Supplemental devices needed if instruction requires device
– Focus on device over instruction

They argue that 1:1 would be beneficial because
– Expectation that all students will have a device
– Expectation that all devices will be the same
– Transformative on class level
– Supplemental devices not needed
– Focus on instruction over device

As each laptop will cost around $600 ($400 + $200) and there are almost 3,000 students and teachers in grades 7-12, you are talking of a roll-out cost of around $1.8 million ($600 x 3,000). After the initial roll-out, I estimate would be an ongoing cost of around $450,000 ($1.8 every 4 years). These costs do not include software nor administrative overhead costs.

I find it disappointing that the education committee voted to proceed with this project right after the school board voted to approve a preliminary budget that increases our taxes 4.3% while still showing a projected deficit of $468,118.

I was a teacher for a decade. I taught grades 7-12. I taught math, science, and computer science. With the obvious exception of computer science, I never felt the need for the students to have computers every day.

I believe that teachers should have smart boards and laptops and should have access to either laptop carts or computer labs on those days when computers would be helpful. I also support the Office 365 initiative as it allowed all students to have access to the same software so that documents can be exchanged with fellow students and teachers as well as allowing shared documents.

I cannot however, support this abuse of taxpayer money when there is so much financial uncertainty and after so many massive tax increases over the past decade that show no sign of slowing down.

Police investigating ritual hazing involving Conestoga High School football team

FootballHearing reports on the news about Tredyffrin Township police and Chester County detectives investigating alleged hazing at Conestoga High School involving the school’s football team.

According to the report, teams of detectives are interviewing as many as 60 or 70 students about an alleged assault during hazing where one student was seriously injured.  The investigation is interviewing current football players and going back two years.

The report said that the investigation centers on ritual hazing by football players which occurred on the same day each week. Apparently some of the students were aware of the hazing going on and would deliberately avoided the high school gym at certain times.

The news report makes it sound like this was a routine weekly hazing … how is that no one knew what was going on? Where were the coaches, teachers, administrators?

All of this attention paid to fencing our schools for safety reasons but what about the safety of our children inside the schools?

Although at this point, the focus is on ‘alleged’ hazing, it’s hard to believe that Chester County DA Tom Hogan would have teams of detectives investigating if there wasn’t significant reason. According to the TE School District’s website, the District is not conducting their own investigation. From an administration standpoint, I would think that the District would want to conduct their own internal investigation and find out ‘who knew what and when’.

The following appears on the TE School District website:

Police Investigation into Alleged Hazing

We have been advised by Chester County law enforcement officials of a police investigation related to alleged hazing by Conestoga High School current and/or former football players. The District places the highest priority on student safety and, to that end, is cooperating in any way it can with law enforcement officials. As this is not currently a school district investigation, we are not in a position to answer any questions or provide more information at this time. However, if you or your child has any information pertinent to this matter, please contact the Chester County District Attorney’s Office or the Tredyffrin Township Police Department.

 

TE School District reorganization meeting: Election of Board president and vice president; plus update on Facilities Meeting

The five newly elected TESD school board members (Michelle Burger, Ed Sweeney, Roberta  Hotinski, Todd Kantorczyk and Kate Murphy) take office on Monday, December 10, at 7:30 PM.  The District’s reorganization meeting includes the nomination and election of school board president and vice president.

Some have suggested that former school president Kris Graham’s re-election defeat last month was a message for change from the community – a call for transparency and improved public engagement. Will that message influence the reorganization results?

School board vice president under Kris Graham was Easttown resident Doug Carlson and he looks to want to step up to the board president position.  Also seeking the president role on the board is Tredyffrin resident Scott Dorsey.

For the first time in TE School District history, the school board of nine members now has a Democratic majority (5 D’s, 4 R’s). Presumably this should give Dorsey (D) an edge over Carlson (R) but … it is unlikely that all D’s will support Dorsey. However, Dorsey does have the public endorsement of newly elected school board member, Republican Ed Sweeney.

Committed to honoring his campaign promise of improving public information and citizen involvement, Sweeney posted the following on his Facebook page today, “I endorse Scott Dorsey for TE School Board President. My district elected me to fulfill their expectations. Mr. Dorsey is very concerned about the issues that I think Tredyffrin and my district care most about and is well qualified to be President. I was impressed with his ability to outreach in his campaign for Board President. Mr. Dorsey will partner with fellow members, residents, and stakeholders to bring a new spirit of cooperative government to our area.”   Here’s hoping that all newly elected school board members will likewise honor their campaign commitments!

For those in the community that are paying attention, the first meeting of the new school board and the nomination/election process for board president should be interesting.

On another note, the final meeting of the ‘old’ school board was held on Friday, December 7.  Ray Clarke attended the Facilities Meeting and provided the following update for Community Matters:

The last Facilities Committee meeting of 2015 and of Dr Motel’s 16 year tenure was held on Friday.  The meeting was generally routine:  discussion of minor change orders, an update on the ongoing New Eagle and Maintenance Building projects with helpful status photos, and an outline of the timetable for bidding next year’s projects.  A few items caught my attention:

– Dr. Motel stated that the original rationale for the fences was for “the specific purpose of making sure students do not leave”, “nothing to do with active shooters” and “you can put that on the blog”.  So here it is.  Others may have different recollections.

– Resident Cindy Marturano tried to engage the Committee in a discussion of protocols for communication to all residents of facilities projects that impact the community, linked with the possibility of extending West Walker Road to Chesterbrook Boulevard to ease the traffic congestion at VFMS.  The response to both points came down to: “if it’s a road matter talk to the Township”.  However, Tredyffrin Township records show that West Walker Road is “Private”, and the Chester County GIS has the property line between the school and church running right down the middle of the road.  On the other hand, the Township included West Walker Road on its list of roads to pave in 2015.  Are the maps incorrect?  Is Tredyffrin subsidizing the School District?  Or is there more opportunity here for the School District to improve the daily nightmare than the District knows about or would like to accept?

– The outgoing Committee spent some time discussing the goals for the 2016 Committee.  Since that Committee will have a different composition with likely some newly elected Directors, this seemed rather presumptuous, but the Committee did not take kindly to the idea of including even a “Recommended” modifier, noting that the new Committee can always repeat the same exercise.

– This last point may be related to a gift to the Committee from Daley and Jalboot of a life size “Flat Pete”, with the request that it be used as a reminder of Dr. Motel for future Committees.

Dr. Motel noted that when his parents came to Easttown in the last century it was because TE was a highly rated school district.  I think that the Board and staff are fortunate to serve a community that continues to be driven by this value.

Ray proFlat Petevided the following photo of the cardboard cutout of Flat Pete, as presented by the District’s architects, Daley & Jalboot. When asked about the bulls-eye on Dr. Motel’s chest, Ray explained that the necklace had a gold star one side and a bulls-eye on the other, presumably to represent Motel as a target.

I wasn’t at the meeting, but I found this gift rather bizarre. It was unclear if the Flat Pete cutout went home with Dr. Motel after the meeting or if it will continue to haunt the Facilities meetings going forward.

Tredyffrin Township Police Department brings multiple pornography charges against middle school students in the TE School District

Today the Tredyffrin Township Police Department filed multiple pornography charges against three middle school students at TE Middle School and Valley Forge Middle School for allegedly creating and sending sexually explicit images.  According to the police report the images included nudity and child pornography.  The ages of those charged range from 11 – 15 years old. Suspects viewed and shared the images while in school.  The investigation by the Tredyffrin Township Police began in April 2015.

An excerpt from the Tredyffrin Township Police Department press release of November 3, 2015 is as follows:

The Tredyffrin Township Police Department has announced that Juvenile Allegations have been filed against three (3) juveniles, for different incidents related to the creation and distribution of intimate images and harassment.  The distribution of intimate images can range from a charge grading of a summary offense to a felony, depending on the age of the participants, the age of the receiver of the image and circumstances involved in the viewing, storage and distribution of the intimate image.

In this case, those intimate images consisted of pictures or videos of students who attend Tredyffrin-Easttown School District middle schools; Valley Forge Middle School and T/E Middle School, as well as images retrieved from the internet.  The age of the juveniles charged ranged from age 11 – 15 at the time the incidents occurred.  Additional juveniles are likely to be charged in the near future.

The allegations were a result of investigations which were begun in April of 2015 by Tredyffrin Township Police Department and are continuing.  During the investigation it was reported by both victims and participants, that intimate images consisting of child erotica, nudity, child pornography and pornography were created, sent, stored, and viewed by a number of students both at their homes and while at school.

In most cases the images and videos were sent voluntarily by the juveniles to other minors.  In some cases intimate images were sent to unknown persons who were met in Cyber Chats conducted with various social networking applications.  In another case, a student offered to sell an intimate image of a classmate to another student. The charges connected to this were, Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, Section 6321 (a)(1), Transmission of Sexually Explicit Images by a Minor, a summary offense and a Misdemeanor of the 3rd.

In one case, an intimate image of a sex act was taken off of the World Wide Web by a juvenile male, then distributed and portrayed as being that of a juvenile female student to her class mates.  The resulting harassment lead to an assault at the T/E Middle School.

The charges related to this incident, from Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Crime Code included the following: Section 5903, Obscene and other Sexual Materials and Performances, a Felony of the 3rd degree; Section 7512, Criminal Use of a Communications Facility, a Felony of the 3rd degree; Section 6318, Unlawful Contact with a Minor, a Felony of the 3rd degree and Section 2709, Harassment, a Misdemeanor of the 3rd degree. Also charged was Section 3126 Indecent Assault, a Misdemeanor of the 2nd degree; Section 2709.1, Stalking, a Misdemeanor of the 1st degree.

During the investigation the majority of the parents whose children were involved were very concerned and cooperated fully with the investigation. One parent who routinely checked their child’s cell phone and computer usage was surprised to learn that his child was using a cloud based storage service to store and retrieve intimate images and avoid detection by his parents.

Many of the intimate images were found to have been created by the juveniles taking selfies, in their own homes with the location services setting on their phones activated.  This action would allow for viewers of the images, including child predators to locate the homes of the juveniles via Meta data stored in the picture file.

Following the release of the Tredyffrin Township Police Department special juvenile report today, the TE School District released the following statement:

The T/E School District has been cooperating with a police investigation related to alleged misconduct by middle school students. We take these matters very seriously and follow up with procedures that promote safety for all students. The incident may also carry school-based discipline. As such, the District cannot comment on specific student discipline matters, as we must do all we can to preserve the privacy rights of all students.

The District has cooperated fully with law enforcement agencies throughout this investigation and will continue to do so. We join with the police and the entire community to emphasize responsible use of technology and to affirm the rights of all individuals to live and thrive in an environment free from harassment. This message is central to our mission and our daily work with students.

Mark Cataldi
Director of Assessment and Accountability
District Safety Coordinator

Update on TE School District Finances and Tredyffrin Township declares State of Emergency for Pope’s visit

 

Tuesday night marked TE School District’s first Finance Committee meeting of the new school year.  Although I was unable to attend the meeting, my friend Ray Clarke did attend the meeting and shared the following notes from the meeting.  Thanks Ray!

The TESD Finance Committee opened the 2015/16 season with a relaxed session on Tuesday night.  The meeting was attended by candidates Berger, Colligan, Kling, Hotinski and Kantorczyk.  A few highlights from my perspective:

Budget Process

– Finance committee approval of the Preliminary Budget is due in just three months.  After some discussion about teeing up review of opportunities in the district’s self insurance of its health plan and potentially of some special education risks, Doug Carlson requested that the Administration present the Committee with full district budget scenarios that start with expenses managed to revenues with no tax increase.  Hopefully we’ll get more than the standard operating procedure showing a $6 million deficit.

– By the way, somehow in an environment of last 12 months US inflation of 0.2%, the Act 1 index is 2.4%.  Half of the index is the increase in the Federal school employment cost index, showing how contract awards get baked into future taxes.

Current Financials

– August YTD expenses/encumbrances are up across the board, total up 12% versus last year, driven by special ed instruction up 32% (over $3 million) YTD.  I don’t recall the explanation for this but I didn’t hear any immediate concern that the overall 5% budgeted expense increase would be exceeded.  One number that does stand out for the full year budget is the $770,799 (11%) increase in the Administration budget.

– For those of use that liked to do a quick scan of the month’s check register from high to low, the task has been made harder by a switch to reporting the check register by pay period in alphabetical order.  This seems arbitrary; when asked why, no reason was provided.

– The actual results for last year are still months away, awaiting the external audit.  The Business Office is working through the encumbrances and deciding what should be released; an interesting exercise, no doubt.

Department of Unintended Consequences

– Restricting part-time employees to 27.5 hours has caused a significant shortfall in the number of teachers/aides available to support the after-school homework clubs, and this is becoming a real problem with the clubs usually starting up in October.  Part of the program is funded by FLITE, which is not able to contract with employees of our out-sourcing company, CCRES.  The District is looking to advertise specifically to hire homework club leader and assistant positions at $28 and $17/hour, which FLITE would apparently be able to continue to fund.

Other

– Kris Graham brought up the need to fully air condition all of the elementary and middle school buildings in the light of the current heat wave.  She did not offer a cost estimate for this.

Residents also learned on Tuesday that the Tredyffrin  supervisors voted to declare the township a state of emergency for the upcoming Pope’s visit, citing expected traffic and congestion. According to Police Supt. Giamio, there will be over 16,000 train riders during the pope’s visit and that the highest number are expected to use the Paoli station!  Yikes!  As an aside, I am glad about my decision to move the annual historic house tour up a week to Saturday, Sept. 19 (www.tredyffrinhistory.org) to accommodate the Pope’s visit.

We should plan around the Pope’s visit as if the weather people were predicting a blizzard — get to the grocery store and don’t forget your medication before the storm hits (or rather, the Pope lands).

Voters to select 5 T/E School Board Directors in November – All 10 Candidates provide responses

Your vote mattersIn November, voters in the TE School District will go to the polls to select five school board directors. People bring different backgrounds and qualifications to the job of school board director and as voters; we need to make the right choices on Election Day.

To assist voters in the decision-making process, it is important for the public to know the candidates. In early July, the following question was emailed to the ten T/E School Board candidates:

Although there are many important issues facing the TE School District, what one issue will you focus on should you be elected?  As a school board director, what in your background, experience or education prepares you to help with this specific issue.

I asked that the candidate’s response “not to be a political campaign plug or a laundry list of school district issues”. Their personal response was to “(1) focus on ‘one’ issue that is important to you and (2) to explain how your background/experience qualifies you to tackle this issue. All TE School Board candidates were invited to send a response not to exceed 500 words by August 1.

After reading the responses from the candidates, you be the judge whether or not the candidates successfully answered the question. Since many of the candidates spoke of transparency and communication with the public, it will be interesting to see if they respond to questions or comments.  I would ask you to remember, that these candidates are our neighbors — they are one of us – and I ask that all comments/questions be respectful and not personal attacks.

In the Tredyffrin, District 1 school board race, Dr. George Anderson withdrew from the race; therefore, his statement will not be included. On July 30, Neill Kling announced his candidacy to replace Anderson in a Tredyffrin, Region 1 candidate. With the receipt of Kling’s response today, I can now say that all ten candidates have provided a response for Community Matters.

The school board candidate responses will appear on Community Matters in alphabetical order (by last name) according to the region race. The schedule is as follows:  Tredyffrin, Region 1 on Wednesday, August 5, Tredyffrin, Region 2 on Friday, August 7 and Easttown, Region 3 on Monday, August 10.  Below is the list of candidates by region:

Candidates for Tredyffrin, Region 1:
Neal Colligan
Roberta Hotinski
Todd Kantorczyk
Neill Kling

Note: There are 2 seats available in Tredyffrin, Region 1. The two candidates receiving the highest number of votes in November win. Colligan and Kling endorsed by Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee; Hotinski and Kantorczyk endorsed by Tredyffrin Township Democrats.

Candidates for Tredyffrin, Region 2:
Michele Burger
Kris Graham*
Ed Sweeney
Alan Yockey
  *Incumbent

Note: There are 2 seats available in Tredyffrin, Region 2. The two candidates receiving the highest number of votes in November win. Burger and Yockey endorsed by Tredyffrin Township Democrats; Graham and Sweeney endorsed by Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee.

Easttown, Region 3:
Kate Murphy
Francis Reardon

Note: There is 1 seat available in Easttown, Region 1.  The candidate receiving the highest number of votes in November wins. Murphy endorsed by Easttown Township Republican Committee and Reardon endorsed by Easttown Township Democrats.

New Twist in TESD Aides & Paraeducators Outsourcing — Neal Colligan v. Tredyffrin Easttown School District in PA Open Records Case

During the last two years, the aides and paraeducators working in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District have lived with the threat of outsourcing. Given that we live in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb with an award right_to_know_squarewinning, nationally ranked school district, it is difficult to understand how the TESD leaders would seek to outsource valuable employee jobs rather than offer health care benefits as required by the Affordable Care Act. Due to the delay of ACA compliance enforcement, the aides and paras were able to continue their employment through the 2014/15 school year.

With the outsourcing threat present since 2013, residents continued to support the aides and paras, the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status).  Many in the community questioned the Board’s decision to outsource to avoid the cost of complying with ACA and … if this was the right alternative for the TE School District.

The journey of the District aides and paras moved forward during the 2014/15 school year, knowing that the Board continued to discuss their outsourcing future as a budget strategy. In a surprise move, the School Board approved a resolution to change the employment status of the 73 full-time aides and paras at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting. The action was taken without notice, other than listing ‘Affordable Care Act Update’ on the meeting agenda, and after five secret executive session discussions held on November 5, 2014, December 16, 2014, January 12, 2015,  January 20, 2015 and February 3, 2015.

The Board’s February 3, 2015 action to outsource disrespected our expectation of good government.  Some residents believed that a PA Sunshine Act violation had occurred by the Board’s action, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or … by intention.  Adding insult to injury, the affected group of aides and paras, learned of the Board’s decision via email at 10:30 PM following the February 3 Board meeting.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. The Act is a mechanism to increase public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  The School Board has had a longstanding practice of meeting in executive session before its regular meetings. In the case of the February 3 policy decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, the discussions were held in private during 5 Executive Sessions, out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation.

Believing that the Board’s actions of February 3 regarding the aides and paras violated the spirit and letter of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, a small group of concerned citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Barbara Jackson, Peggy Layden, Jerry Henige and I) sent a February 13, 2015 letter to the Board.  The request was simple … they asked the School Board to re-open the outsourcing discussion at the School Board meeting on February 23, to provide a thorough financial analysis of the ACA options and strategies, an explanation of suggested policy changes, and to allow for adequate resident commentary. As residents, these residents believed that with quick action at the February 23 meeting, the Board could remedy the process and maintain the trust of the community in the integrity of the District’s governance. The resident’s suggestion to re-open the outsourcing discussion was disregarded.

In an email dated February 20, the District’s solicitor Ken Roos responded (on behalf of the Board) to the residents’ letter of February 13, stating in part, “… At no time was the Sunshine Act violated. Moreover, the February 3, 2015 Board vote on this fully disclosed agenda item occurred after a lengthy public presentation, public Board discussion and public comment in full compliance with the Sunshine Act…”

Troubled by the dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act; further adding to the Sunshine Act violation case. Residents and signers of the February 13 letter appealed to the Board to step from behind the words of the solicitor, to take the situation seriously and to think independently.  Again, there was no response from the Board in this regard.

Lacking an adequate response from TESD and the School Board to the February 13 letter, Neal Colligan filed a Right-to-Know Request with the District, on February 18 with the following request:

“All records relating to the implementation and execution of the TESD Resolution of February 3, 2015 regarding the Affordable Care Act updates since November 1, 2014, including all documents used to formulate, communicate, explain or justify the ACA Resolution not disseminated in public meetings.

Of particular interest are the 5 closed (Executive Session) meetings referenced by the Board President on 2/3/15, and all written communications and meeting notices and records thereof related to the discussion on this topic.”

On March 27, Colligan received a response to his RTK request from the District’s Open Records Officer Art McDonnell with two attachments – the public power point presentation of the Affordable Care Act presented at the February 3 Board Meeting and an email exchange between School Board member Virginia Lastner and a resident. Neither of these items related to the Executive Session ‘behind closed door’ ACA discussions and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paras.  McDonnell’s response to Colligan’s RTK request:

Art McDonnell response

Colligan resplied to McDonnell and the School Board via email on March 27, 2015, noting that that both his first and last name were spelled incorrectly in the response and added that,  although his RTK request was made using his personal e-mail address, McDonnell’s response was sent to Colligan’s business email. The remainder of Colligan’s email reads as follows:

Your response and timing of response in this matter is very disappointing to me.  I’ve made a number of Open Records requests over the years and this is the second one DENIED.  Interestingly, those are the only two responses that took the maximum 30 days to receive.  While you are certainly within the boundaries of the law on these responses, I would think a Denial could be formulated much sooner in the process.  Water under the bridge….

My request was plainly written and, I assumed, easy to understand.

I was asking for the documents related to the closed Executive Sessions that occurred before the presentation on February 3, 2015 on this year; to the extent they were available and public.  What I received (attached) was the Power Point presentation from the 2/3/15 meeting and several e-mail chains between citizens and Mrs. Lastner dated after this critical meeting date.  Added to this was your denial that includes three different legal reasons for the denial of the request.  Wholly unsatisfying to this member of the community who was as puzzled as the rest of us regarding how a sensitive issue like this could have been made in a series of closed-door Executive Sessions.  I was hopeful that some light could be shed on your deliberations and decision-making thought matrix but that is not going to be the case.

It seems you have done a great deal of legal work here although the legal opinion and defenses articulated in your reply likely did not take outside research.  I’m sorry if you choose to spend valuable legal dollars just to deny this request.  If that was the intent, the response could have been forwarded last month when I made the request for Open Records.  The inclusion of post 2/3/15 items was outside of the scope of my request and it is my firm hope that you did not pay for legal review of these (and other post meeting communications) for redaction/exclusion for this Open Records response.

I’m not a lawyer and will not argue your various legal reasons for denying the request.  I know plenty of smart lawyers would tell me the counter to each of these defenses but I’m not looking to play that game.  I do know that there are many groups/organizations/people/firms dedicated to good and open government in the Commonwealth.  I’m also aware that the process for appeal of Open Records denials is a fairly simple and user friendly process…this is to insure that average citizens can shed light on the deliberations of government bodies in PA.  I’m very likely to take those steps and seek that help.  First I will confer with the other members of our community who supported me in this endeavor.  But I ask each of you: Is this the level of openness and transparency that you think appropriate for this issue?  Really, when you stood for election to your seat; is this the relationship with the community you wanted?  This is not the first time that transparency has become as issue; isn’t there one/some of you who would like to see this relationship change; the School Board become more open in process?  I know the answer is YES but we need someone brave enough to voice the opinion and insist on transparent government and it can’t come from the public.

Colligan shared the District’s response to the RTK request and his reply to Art McDonnell (above) with the other signers of the February 13 letter.  The District’s response did not support the claim for exemption from public access and those claims are not applicable in this specific case.  Although McDonnell states that the RTK was granted ‘in part’ —  neither of the two records provided are germane to the request. The District’s RTK denial request contained provisions for an appeal to Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, part of PA Department of Community and Economic Development, within fifteen business days.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan took the next step in the process and filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records office. He provided requested background documentation, including copies of the original RTK request, response and records from the District. The case, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No. 2015-0442 is assigned to Appeals Officer Jill Wolfe, Esq. in Harrisburg.  Colligan is required to provide all supporting information and a legal argument by Wednesday, April 8 to the Open Records Office.  A final ruling on the appeal will be made within 30 days.

Transparency in government is not a new issue. John Adams, 2nd president of the United States, wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.”  Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan is asking for transparency and easily accessible information which should be public information.  He is not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.

TE School District Avoids ACA Compliance Issue – Reduces Hours and Outsources Aides and Paras

We learned at last night’s school board meeting, that the TE School Board’s way around the Affordable Care Act compliance issue is to reduce employee hours. The ACA does not require the District to provide health insurance to those employees working less than 30 hours a week – so the District’s answer to the Federal law is simple … cut hours of the lowest paid employees.

The District’s quick and dirty solution to avoid ACA compliance issues for 73 full-time District aides and paraeducators is to give them two options – either the full-time employee agrees to work part-time (27 ½ hrs. or less) or they will see their District job outsourced, effective July 1.

Under the leadership of School Board President Kris Graham, the School Board approved the following resolution:

Aides and paras resolution

The Board vote to approve the resolution was 7 – 1.  Republicans Kris Graham, Jim Bruce, Virginia Lastner, Doug Carlson, Peter Motel and Democrats Karen Cruickshank and Kevin Buraks voted in favor of the resolution. Democrat Scott Dorsey opposed the resolution and Republican Liz Mercogliano was recused from voting because her daughter is a part-time aide in the District.  In addition to not voting, Mercogliano was not permitted to comment or ask any questions regarding the Affordable Care Act. Voting is one thing but it is unclear why District solicitor Ken Roos would not permit Mercogliano to ask questions regarding the Affordable Care Act.

The full-time District aides and paras did not receive notice that last night’s school board meeting would include a decision regarding their employment future. Nor was there any attempt to seek public comment or discussion on the ACA compliance issue.  Buried on page 4 of the meeting agenda was the seemingly innocuous ‘ACA Update’.  Other than school board directors and some administrators who would know that ‘ACA Update’ was actually code for outsource the District’s aides and paraeducators.  To be clear, the resolution did not appear in the online agenda materials or on the District website (it was only available to those attending the meeting).

The 73 full-time District aides and paraeducators learned their fate following the Board meeting, through a 10:30 PM email from Personnel Director Jeanne Pocalyko. The aides and the paras must make a decision by May 1 – they can opt to stay a District employee as a part-timer (with reduced hours) or their job is outsourced to an unnamed vendor.  No details about the selection process of a vendor – will the District solicit vendors through an RFP or has the unnamed vendor actually already been decided?

A key component in the computation of PSERS (retirement benefits) is the final average salary of the employee, which is calculated based on an average of earnings during their last three years of employment.  So … say one of these full-time District aides was 57 yrs. old and had planned to retire at age 60. Under the conditions of continued District employment, he or she has a substantial reduction in salary from full-time to part-time status. Because the PSERS calculation of retirement benefits is based on these final three years of employment – with earnings reduced by the District, the employee will see their retirement benefits reduced at time of retirement as a result.

Are there legalities with this resolution – the Board’s decision will affect the future retirement benefits of 73 District employees. Many of the District aides and paras have served the District’s children and their families for years; is this the way the Board rewards their loyalty?

Let’s review – the District can afford administrator bonuses, raises and a Cadillac health plan to the highest paid District employees but rather than provide insurance to the lowest paid employees, the School Board elects to cut the hours of 73 aides and paras, thus reducing their future retirement benefits.**

Ms. Graham’s term on the school board ends in 2015 but she plans to seek reelection.  Will her leadership in the outsourcing of aides and paras influence her endorsement by the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee?  More importantly, will Graham’s decision to outsource influence voters in November.  The terms of Jim Bruce, Liz Mercogliano and Pete Motel also end in 2015. I know that Bruce will not seek re-election but not certain of the plans of Motel and Mercogliano.

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** According to the PA state retirement system website, the formula for establishing retirement benefits states, “Your final average salary is the highest amount you earned during any “three non-overlapping periods of four consecutive calendar quarters. For most employees, it is the average of your last three years’ salary.”  

The key is that typically the highest paid three years would occur at the end of one’s career.  In the case of the TESD aides and the paraeducators who will go from full-time to part-time hours should they choose to stay employed in the District, their pension will be based on a prior 3-year period.

For further information regarding Pennsylvania state pension, visit the website: http://sers.pa.gov/members-pension-formula.aspx

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