TE School District

House Tour, Hurricane Matthew, Fritz Lumber & T/E School District Finances!

Community Matters readers — I haven’t disappeared; it’s been a busy last month.  First there was the Trust’s 12th Annual Historic House Tour on Sept. 24 which I am delighted to report as extremely successful.  To the house tour guests and to the sponsors who support historic preservation and make the annual tour possible, we say thank you.  And a special thank you to the historic homeowners for opening their homes to the public – the historic homes really are the stars on house tour day!

Following the house tour, my husband and I went to our 100-yr. old house on Port Royal Island, SC for a few days.  On the intercostal waterways, the Sea Islands are located between Charlestown, SC and Savannah, GA, close to Beaufort, SC and Hilton Head.  We stayed on the island until Hurricane Matthew forced our evacuation and then spent the next 4 days wondering if our house survived. Although the area endured major destruction and many folks suffered great loss, I am happy to report that our house remained standing.  We did suffer some roof damage and are now maneuvering through the insurance process.

After returning from SC, my focus shifted to ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz … A Party in the Yard’ – a celebration of the Fritz family and the 153 years of the William H. Fritz Lumber Company in Berwyn on Saturday, Oct. 22, 7-11 PM. The property’s new owner Eadeh Enterprises is the presenting sponsor for the event — Company president Stacey Ballard has enthusiastically supported the event and the celebration of the Fritz family. On behalf of the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust, we are excited to honor the contributions of the Fritz family to the community.  Guests will enjoy great food, live music and live & silent auctions plus the opportunity to walk the property for one last time. It really will be an evening to remember, tickets are available at www.tredyffrinhistory.org .

Here’s another historic preservation update — John Zaharchuk, owner of Summit Realty Advisors invited me to a meeting a few weeks ago with himself and Heckendorn Shiles Architects.  Summit Realty is the developer for the CVS project at the Covered Wagon Inn site in Strafford. With restoration plans and drawings now in place, it was a privilege to see the PowerPoint presentation for the Covered Wagon Inn along with samples of proposed materials.  In a word – WOW.  I was truly impressed at their enthusiasm and with the level of preservation detail planned for the 18th century inn.  Yes, we will have a CVS pharmacy on the property but the Main Line landmark is saved (and restored!) in the process!  Thank you John Zaharchuk and Heckendorn Shiles!

Supervisor and school district meetings continue and I appreciate the diligence of  my friend Ray Clarke to attend, especially given my absence of late.

Ray reports that the TE School District finance meeting this week was particularly lively and offered the following three topics of note for me to share.  I hope that you will take the time to review Ray’s remarks and offer your own comments.  As always, thank you Ray —-

  1. Substitute teacher daily rates. TE is at the low end of the rates paid by our regional peers, and the fill rates for vacancies are down in the 80% decile from last year’s 90%.  This is a nationwide issue and reflective of lower teacher graduation numbers.  The Committee agreed to the Administration request to match the rate paid by Lower Merion (not the best comparison?), which would make our starting rate of $115/day higher than 10 of the 13 peers benchmarked.
  2. Bond advance refunding. Lots of technical issues here, but a notable bottom line: the Committee is recommending that the Board approve next Monday the parameters of a bond issuance, even though our long-time bond counsel, Saul Ewing, disagrees with the investment banker (not the district’s Fiduciary) about the IRS rules, the structuring of the issue and, as a consequence, the savings.   Between now and Monday the District is going to shop for a counsel to give a more favorable opinion to approve 10 year debt service savings of at least $500,000 and hopefully over $1 million.
  3. Budgeting. There was initial discussion of a proposal to replace the (now accepted, I guess) surplus budgeting of prior years with a specific “above-the-line” (ie: in the tax base) appropriation for capital expenditure.  At current capital spending levels of $6-7 million a year and 75% funding by borrowing this would phase in an expense item of over $1.5 million a year.  A number of assumptions in this:

a) that budgeting will henceforth be accurate

b) that current taxpayers should pay an assigned percentage (of whatever size) of capital expenditures benefiting future students

c) that current residents should pay anything while the General Fund Balance contains $32 million of current taxpayer money, including $5 million already committed for capital projects and over $9 million for PSERS (for which the district can and does tax every year).

There are really important issues in all of this, and I hope that residents can find some time assess the pros and cons and let the Board know their opinion.

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Should the recent court ruling ordering Lower Merion School District to rollback tax increase make a difference in the way TESD School Board manages taxpayer money?

Tonight, Tuesday, September 20th is the TESD Finance Committee meeting, 7 PM at the TE Administration Offices, 940 W Valley Rd # 1700, Wayne, PA .  Residents encouraged to attend — your voices do matter!

With an agenda of 110 pages, the community is fortunate to have residents willing to review the information in advance of meetings.  Ray Clarke provides the following commentary regarding the agenda (click here for agenda).

There are a couple of items that the community might want to pay particular attention to in the light of the recent injunction ordering Lower Merion School District to roll back this year’s tax increase.

To recap, the Montgomery County judge found that LMSD (quoting from the injunction) deliberately over-estimated deficits, failed to predict surpluses, represented to PDE that costs for Special Education and retirement could not be covered without a tax increase, and transferred Fund Balance to assigned accounts to avoid the statutory cap of 8% of the annual budget while still raising taxes.  The judge found that LMSD’s Fund Balance commitments were funded out of the budget each and every year.

These findings will seem very familiar to those following the affairs of TESD.  Moving to the agenda:

Item 6, Bond Discussion: TESD is considering repayment of $18 million of higher interest bonds – arguably a sensible move – but by issuing yet more bonds at mostly 4%, when there is $32 million of taxpayer money sitting in the General Fund, supposedly “committed”, earning about 0.75%.

Item 7, Capital Funding/Fund Balance:  Seemingly to support this plan (only one option is presented), the district is re-publishing its Fund Balance Policy and Regulation (not always consistent with each other), along with the commitments from 2015/16, presumably to establish commitments for 2016/17.  There is no analysis of the capital spending plan.

A couple of questions:

–  Does TESD plan to continue the Fund Balance fiction that brought judicial sanction on LMSD?

–  Are we going to borrow another $18 million we don’t need at the second “generationally low rates” in two years?  (About a percentage point lower than those last generationally low rates).  And pay underwriters and lawyers $150,000?

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Judge Tells Lower Merion School District to Revoke Tax Hike — Could the same thing happen in T/E School District?

A significant decision in the Arthur Wolk vs Lower Merion School District (click on bolded link to read 17 pg. decision) case  was rendered by Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Smyth this week.  Judge Smyth ordered Lower Merion School District to revoke its tax hike, claiming that the school district could not increase taxes for 2016-17 by more than 2.4 percent. If a Lower Merion resident could take on his school district for over-taxing (and win), this decision has far-reaching ramifications for other school districts, including T/E School District. Not only front page news locally in the Philadelphia Inquirer but the Associated Press has picked up the story with articles appearing in the Washington Post, Boston Globe and beyond.

In his decision, Judge Smyth ruled that Lower Merion School District had consistently understated revenues and overstated expenses so it could falsely raise taxes when in fact it had huge surpluses. TE School District residents are you listening?  Our school district has raised taxes for the last 12 years (see chart below) and continues to build its fund balance. The TE School District fund balance as of June 2016 school board meeting is $32,381,047. Just like Lower Merion School District, our school district continues to raise taxes and increase the fund balance. Folks, that is $32+ millions of taxpayer dollars!

Taxpayers in TE School District have seen their taxes increased for the last twelve years as follows:

  • 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

Will the Court’s decision to revoke Lower Merion School District tax challenge the TE School Board to reconsider their budgeting approach?

Attending TESD Finance and School Board meetings over the years, we have witnessed knowledgeable, educated residents appeal to the District on this subject – Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Doug Anestad, etc. have repeatedly weighed in on financial issues with their comments and suggestions. The discussion of the TESD 2016-17 budget even had former Tredyffrin Township Supervisor Mike Heaberg  attempting to reason with the school board.  Sadly, the school board does not listen – but continues to increase our taxes, build its mountain of “fund balance” dollars and, for the most part, does so with a unanimous 9-0 vote.  Where does it end?

Having read the decision in the Lower Merion School District case, Neal Colligan (with input from Ray Clarke) provides the following economic analysis between LM and TE school districts.  Thank you both – and here’s hoping that the TE School Board reads it!

I know we’ve all been reading with great interest the results of the Lower Merion tax case which made its way to page 1 of the Inquirer today.  This is frighteningly similar to the operations of our School District and I thought it might be interesting to do some comparisons.

The resident case against the LMSD basically argued that they had District had entered into a pattern of projecting annual operating deficits during their budget (and tax rate increase) process and ended each year with large surpluses.  The lower Court judge agreed and ordered LMSD to rescind some of their current tax increase.  As you know; we’ve experienced the exact same pattern in T/E.  For each of the last 5 years; the District has projected a deficit in its budget deliberations; set an aggressive tax (sometimes the Max allowed in the Commonwealth) increase to “close the gap” ; and each year ended in a Surplus position.  It might be fun to dig deeper.

LM’s current budget allocates approximately $259 MM to District spending; T/E’s current budget is about $131 MM…just about half the size.  According to the press releases; LM accumulated $40 MM in Fund Balance over the last 6 years (16% of current budget); T/E has accumulated about $13 MM (10% of current budget).  In the prior six years LM taxes increases have been 21.01%; in T/E we’ve had 18.68%. (The Judge’s order states that since 2006 LMSD has increased its taxes by 53%; the increase in T/E has been 38%.  I used the more narrow, recent figure as LM’s increases were skewed in the early years).   LM’s accumulated Fund Balance is reported at over $57 MM (all Fund/Capital accounts included); T/E’s is about $42 MM (this includes Fund Balance and Capital Fund which was funded by Fund Balance transfer)…about 74% of LM.  Let’s go deeper: The Court commented in the LM suit that the District’s average overestimation of expenses was 5.5% and the average underestimation of revenues was 1.1%.  T/E has a similar history (I say it differently); in the last 10 years, our District has spent about 96% of its budgeted expenses (this budget drives the tax increase obviously) and collects about 101% of its budgeted revenue.  Does it all seem similar?

Some other interesting notes.  LM Enrollment growth in the last 4 years-9.03%; T/E Enrollment growth 1.46% (this statistic was used in the LM budget presentation to justify the tax increase).  Students (approximate): LM-8,200; T/E; 6,400.  Years in the last 6 that tax increase was in excess of Act 1: LM-6; T/E-5.  EIT in community: LM-No; T/E-No.  Special Education budget: LM-$46 MM; T/E-$20 MM.  Salaries: LM-$123 MM; T/E-$57 MM.

In many ways, we compare favorably to LM.  Remember that LM spends the highest amount on a per-student basis in the State.  Without getting too far into the weeds; the fact remains that we, like our neighbors in LM, have been given deficit budgets in each of the last 5 years followed by “necessary” aggressive tax increases.  Our results have been a production of SURPLUS in each of those years; just like LM.  That’s the fact pattern that this suit took to question.  The same fact pattern exists here…almost precisely.  It’s nothing new; we’ve talked about in the T/E Finance Committee meeting for years BUT now there’s a new finding from the Courts.

Come to your own conclusions…the facts are pretty easy to find.

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The saga continues in TE School District — Court rules against TE School District regarding residency of alleged hazing victim

court decisionThe saga continues … Sexting offenses, alleged hazing and residency dispute all involving one TE School District family. Chester County court rules against the TE School District in a stunning decision by Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Sommer regarding residency.

(The complete article from today’s Main Line Media News follows my comments).

After reading the article, the first word that comes to mind is “accountability”.  Under whose authority did this situation happen — the hiring of the private investigator (from Cloud Feehery & Richter) at tax payer expense ($12K +) over a specific residency issue?  Does the District pay the private investigator over each claim of non-residency or was it just trying to get this specific student out of the District after sexting offenses? Who made this decision? Was it at the direction of the TE School Board and/or Superintendent? Is the hiring of investigators in residency situations routine in the District?  Does the School Board approve the residency investigations or is decision up to the school administration?

In rendering his decision in this residency case, Judge Sommer stated, “We find that the hearing officer willfully and deliberately disregarded competent portions of (the father’s) testimony and relevant evidence which one of ordinary intelligence could not possibly have avoided in reaching a result, thus making his credibility determination arbitrary and capricious,”  The judge also determined that the alleged victim and his father were denied their right to counsel.

The ruling of Judge Sommer certainly points to incompetence of the private investigator and the TE School District. The judge calls the District’s investigator incompetent and the taxpayers are stuck with the bill.  School Board, where are you?  Were you aware of this specific investigation regarding the residency of the alleged hazing victim and the apparent mishandling of the process? Was this a way to get the student out of the District?  And how does the District Solicitor Ken Roos factor into the residency investigation — was the decision to engage a private investigator in this specific case at his recommendation/advisement?

Who is in charge, where’s the oversight and accountability? I note that the District declined to comment for the article, what about the School Board? Will we receive an explanation?

Court rules in favor of the alleged hazing victim; judge rules student was legal resident of T/E SD

by Adam Farence

Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey R. Sommer ruled in favor of the alleged hazing victim with regard to his residency issue with the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, reversing the school board’s original decision to stop funding the alleged victim’s education at Buxmont Academy. Sommer also ruled the victim does not owe over $13,000 to the school district.

According to court documents, Sommer drew his conclusion from two issues. First, he determined the hearing officer from an earlier meeting incorrectly concluded the alleged hazing victim did not meet the federal definition of homeless.

The victim was reportedly kicked out of his previous Devon residence by his great-grandmother after his arrest for sexting-related offenses in October 2015. After he was kicked out, the alleged victim’s father drove him back and forth between his Devon bus stop and his mother’s residence in Chester, Delaware County.

It was during this time period that T/E officials hired a private investigator from Cloud Feehery & Richter to determine if the alleged victim did actually live within the school district boundaries. After several months of surveillance, the private investigator determined the victim did not live there.

The school district spent $12,281.92 on services rendered by Cloud, Feehery & Richter, according to a Right-to-Know request filed by the Daily Local News.

The alleged victim could not claim the Chester residence as his, according to court documents, essentially depriving him the chance to pursue a free education in Delaware County, and Sommer determined the alleged victim met the federal definition of homeless. He also criticized the hearing officer’s original finding.

“We find that the hearing officer willfully and deliberately disregarded competent portions of (the father’s) testimony and relevant evidence which one of ordinary intelligence could not possibly have avoided in reaching a result, thus making his credibility determination arbitrary and capricious,” Sommer wrote.

Sommer also pointed out the hearing officer was employed by the school district. “It takes no great leap of faith to recognize that the hearing officer is being paid by TESD, their ‘adversary,”” he wrote.

Second, Sommer determined the alleged victim and his father were denied their right to counsel.

According to court documents, the victim’s father was notified of the Jan. 20 non-residency hearing with the hearing officer only a few days prior. Sommer also wrote that the school district did not notify the father’s attorney even though they had been told in writing to do so.

Originally, the family was represented by William McLaughlin Jr., before he passed away in late March. For the remainder of the case, the family was represented by a new lawyer, Robert DiOrio. “…TESD not only did not notify Attorney McLaughlin of this hearing but made the pre-hearing notice period so short as to effectively cut Attorney McLaughlin out of the process,” court records state.

At the Jan. 20 non-residency hearing, the victim’s father did say he chose to come without counsel and knew he had the right to proceed with counsel if he wanted, but according to court documents, the circumstances surrounding the hearing undermined due process.

“We are very pleased with Judge Sommer’s well-reasoned decision,” wrote DiOrio.

School district officials declined to comment.

“We do not discuss individual student matters and therefore do not intend to comment on this specific case,” wrote district Solicitor Ken Roos. “However, the district remains committed to enforcing its policy of only permitting district residents, including anyone properly qualifying as homeless, to attend district schools.”

The alleged hazing victim’s father received a bill late January for over $13,000, after the school district originally determined he and his son reportedly lived outside the district’s boundaries. The father reported the alleged sodomy to school district officials about a week later in early February, and Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced assault related charges against three Conestoga High School football players on March 4. Over the course of a few days, news of the charges and the alleged sodomy spread across the nation.

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Downingtown Area School District Approves Zero Tax Increase for 4th Year in a Row – TE School District Set to Approve 3.6% Increase (12th consecutive year of tax increase)

Tax-increase 2016

At tonight’s TE School District meeting (7:30 PM, Conestoga High School), the school board will vote on the 2016-17 final budget and property tax rate.

In January, the board had adopted the preliminary budget which contained a 4.3% tax increase – they approved the budget with the Act 1 Index of 2.4% and allowable Act 1 Exceptions of 1.9%.  At the April 25, 2016 regular school board meeting, the proposed final budget reduced the property tax rate from January, from 4.3% down to 3.875%.

According to the meeting agenda and budget materials (click here) the board will vote on the District’s 2016-17 final budget with an Act 1 Index of 2.4% and Referendum Exceptions of 1.2% for a 3.6% tax increase to the taxpayers.

The following chart shows TESD tax increases over the last twelve years.   2004-05 was the last zero tax increase year.

  • 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

The TE School District residents can take solace that they are not alone in their tax increase. According to Adam Farence’s Daily Local article, 11 out of the 12 school districts in Chester County contain 2016-17 budgets with tax increases.

The only Chester County school district without a 2016-17 tax increase is Downingtown Area School District.  DASD recently approved their 2016-17 budget with no tax increase but what is more fascinating is that this is the fourth year in a row without a tax increase!

Looking at TESD tax increase chart above for the last four years, you have to wonder how it is that DASD delivered zero tax increases to its residents during the same time period. According to the Daily Local article, the DASD chief financial officer Rich Fazio “attributes the four-year streak of not raising taxes to the foresight of prior school boards.”  Fazio states that, “We were fortunate to prudently allocate funds and accumulate savings. Because of that we have not had a tax increase for four years.” He further indicated that DASD “will strive to duplicate a zero increase in taxes for as long as possible.”  

The total operating budget for Downingtown Areas School District is $210 million versus TE School District operating budget of approximately $129 million. DASD has a fund balance of approx. $24.5 million versus approx.  $32 million in TESD indicating that both districts understand the importance of saving for the future.

Someone is going to have to help me understand how these two Chester County school districts can operate so differently financially – and yes, I understand that TESD is ranked academically higher than DASD.

TE School District has always been an academic powerhouse, so other than 20 miles of separation between the two Chester County school districts, how is it possible that DASD repeatedly holds the zero tax increase to its residents and TESD has had 12 consecutive years of tax increases? Perhaps TESD business manager Art McDonnell could have coffee with DASD chief finaicial officer Rich Fazio to compare notes and discuss financial strategies!

DASD proudly displays the following 2015-16 tax increase chart on their website:

Tax Increase vs Act 1 Index Chart

According to the agenda budget materials for tonight’s TE School Board meeting, there were spending cuts before, during and after budget approval to reduce expenditures in the 2016-17 budget.  An explanation of those specific reductions would be helpful to taxpayers.

Back in January, school board members Ed Sweeney and Scott Dorsey spoke out against the preliminary tax increase of 4.3% as unacceptable … will they now be OK with 3.6% tax increase?  Instead of a typical roll call vote on the TESD 2016-17 final budget, I encourage board members to be accountable and offer the public an explanation of their vote.

Many of the newly school board members used fiscal responsibility and accountability as a campaign platform – now is the time to deliver on those promises.

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Fritz Lumber, the oldest place of business in Berwyn, is closing its doors after 150+ years!

Sadly, Fritz Lumber, the oldest place of business in Berwyn is closing its doors after a century and a half of service to the community and is residents.

The history of the William H. Fritz Lumber Company began in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was in office. Henry Fritz and his soon-to-be wife Mary Lobb decided to open a coal and lumber business in their hometown community of Reeseville, known today as Berwyn. Within a few short years, the business would prosper.

After 153 years, the fifth-generation of Fritz Lumber has decided to close its doors. Howard Fritz sent the following letter to the Easttown Board of Supervisors, detailing the sale of the business.

I would like to formally announce to you that the Wm. H. Fritz lumber company’s property is under agreement of sale to Eadeh Enterprises. Eadeh Enterprise is a very responsible and community minded organization as you all know. The business at Fritz, will remain open till all inventory is sold. Presumably by September 1, 2016.

This decision has been a very long and painful process. Wm. Fritz (Bill) is in his eighty seventh year and wishes to retire. I am sixty two and have health issues and concerns for both myself and my dear wife Roberta. My two adult children do not have an interest or desire to continue in this business. Neither have building experience or knowledge of it, nor do they have the required, management skills needed to sustain a viable and prosperous supply company.

It is very disappointing to have to close a family business that has been in existence since the civil war…153 years ago. With that said…I am very grateful to our community and the Easttown Township for the many years of support. The Fritz family has been active community members….past and present. From helping to start a bank, a church and Station II. To most recently, our vocation for the Berwyn/Devon business Assoc., Veteran Assoc., Easttown Tricentennial, and the park and recreation committee to name a few.

We also joyfully received the same high paying compensation the supervisors receive for all their hard work and efforts!! All jokes aside…l am honored to be allowed the opportunity to serve this very fine community which I lived in for twenty plus years. Obviously timely communications between us is an absolute must. We may be reached at our office at 610 – 644-0608 for any questions or concerns on this matter. Once again… we sincerely thank you all… and wish everyone the very best.

Sincerely, (and perhaps regretfully),

Howard Fritz

V.P. WM. H. Fritz Inc.

Redevelopment decisions by the new owners of the property, Eadeh Enterprise (another old business name in the community) will be guided by Berwyn Village zoning ordinance changes of 2013.   At that time, the plan approved by Easttown supervisors placed the Berwyn Village properties into three districts: Village Business, Village Residential and Village Transition.

The ordinance change allowed that the buildings located in the Berwyn Village could stay exactly as they were in 2013 – whether retail, multi-family or single family. However, if the building was sold, torn down or re-developed, it would need to conform to the new zoning requirements.  At the time the zoning ordinance was passed, some local residents were concerned that the neighborhood feel of Berwyn could be lost, depending how redevelopment were to occur — pointing to multi-story East Side Flats on King Street in Malvern as an example of what could happen.

For those concerned about the demands that the various land development projects are placing on the TE School District — Wayne Glen, Parkview at Chesterbrook, Station Square, etc.- the redevelopment of the Fritz Lumber site may pose another.

But regardless of Eadeh’s plans for the property, it is safe to say that after 150 years, the appearance of Lancaster Avenue in Berwyn is about to change.

?

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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

————————————————————————————————–

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….!!!???

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

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