TEEA

Will Lower Merion School District’s handling of teacher’s contract play out similarly in TE School District — Some school board candidates weigh in

Last week a tentative agreement was reached between Lower Merion School District and their teachers. The deal between LM and the union was made in secret, with a process devoid of transparency.  The proposed teacher’s contract and its terms were not published for public review.

There are rumors that the TE School District is currently in ‘Early Bird’ contract negotiations with the teacher’s union. Because of the existing situation in Lower Merion, rumors of early bird talks and five seats on the TE School Board up for grabs on Election Day, there was discussion as to where our candidates stand on this issue.  The following email was sent to the ten Tredyffrin and Easttown school board candidates on Saturday.

To All TE School Board Candidates:

I know that you are all very busy campaigning in advance of Election Day. Tredyffrin resident Ray Clarke added a comment on Community Matters regarding the teacher contract, negotiations and keeping the public informed. He has spoken with several of you regarding his concerns, particularly given what is currently going on in Lower Merion School District.  As a result, I am asking you to read the following and provide a very  brief (100 words or less) response to me by 9 PM, Sunday, Nov. 1. The question and all candidate responses received will appear on Community Matters on Monday, Nov. 2.

Negotiating union contracts (teachers and support staff) will be important tasks for the new Board.  In Lower Merion School District, a secret deal is playing out between their school board and the teachers union.  Much to the chagrin of Lower Merion taxpayers, the union members get to review the contract before signing but the public is left in the dark and provided no information.

During the last teachers’ contract negotiations, the TE School Board moved in the correct direction with periodic updates to the public. Assuming that there are no secret “Early Bird” deals already in discussion  between the current Board and the union, [if elected] where do you stand on publishing any proposed contracts to the public at the same time as the unions send it to their members? In addition to publishing the terms of the contract to the public before signing, to also include the full annual cost of the contract for each year (including PSERS, salaries, benefits, etc.) with an explanation of how the Board will pay the costs. 

Again, I understand that you are pressed for time and I thank you in advance. Your responses may help get additional voters to the polls on Tuesday.

Pattye Benson

Because I know how busy the candidates are in the last days leading up to the election, their responses were to be brief – 100 words or less. One hundred words is very short; the second paragraph in the statement above (from “During … costs.”) is 109 words.

During this campaign season, most every school board candidate has used themes of transparency, public engagement and responsiveness to citizens in their campaigning literature, meet and greets with voters and during the Chester County League of Women Voters candidate forum. It is for that reason, that a brief response would allow each candidate the opportunity to restate and to reconfirm their transparency commitment to the voters before Election Day tomorrow (November 3).

Of the ten school board candidates, responses to the question were received by Kate Murphy (R) and Fran Reardon (D), Easttown, Region 3 candidates; Neill Kling (R) and Neal Colligan (R) Tredyffrin East, Region 1 candidates and Ed Sweeney (R) Tredyffrin West, Region 2.  The responses from these five candidates appear below.

The four Democratic school board candidates from Tredyffrin (Alan Yockey, Michele Burger, Roberta Hotinski and Todd Kantorczyk) each sent similar emails; all declining to respond, citing time constraints due to the campaign and/or previous personal commitments.  There was no response from Kris Graham.  If, as rumored (and I do say if) there are early bird negotiations already underway between the TE School District and TEEA, the District teacher’s union, it would not be possible for Ms. Graham to respond.

The TE School Board candidate responses are as follows:

Neill Kling, Tredyffrin East, Region 1 candidate:

A cloak and dagger approach serves neither party.  The union must understand throughout that what their members receive can be no more than what our tax base will reasonably be able to bear.  The current PESERS situation resulted from disregard of that sound principle.  Thus, I believe that the taxpayers should view the contracts when they are sent to the teachers for approval.  I am also in favor of providing a public estimate of how we propose to meet the contractual obligations.  The District must conduct negotiations with this estimate uppermost in mind.  Publishing it when they are completed is responsible stewardship.

Neal Colligan, Tredyffrin East, Region 1 candidate:

Of course, the public should be informed as negotiations move forward….this is by far the largest municipal contract in our community.  Start now by presenting the existing economics…total salary, benefits, pension contribution…show the history of these costs.  This information, reviewed at an entity level, will not disclose any employees’ personal compensation package and will not violate the rules of new contract discussions.  As the process advances, let the community know of the issues…I doubt the Union side would object.  People here are pretty fair and can draw their own conclusions on what is just as negotiations move towards a new contract.

From Ed Sweeney, Tredyffrin West, Region 2 candidate:

I would strongly agree to the first proposal if it was consistent with current agreement between the School District and the Union and with the provisions of relevant labor law.  As far as his other proposals, I need more information but I am a proponent of maximum disclosure at the appropriate time.

I agree with the principle of “MORE” . . . more transparency, more public disclosure, more committee meetings convenient to working parents, and more involvement of residents and stakeholders at an early stage of committee consideration of issues.  In my view, more = better.  More increases public confidence and protects the taxpayer.

From Kate Murphy, Easttown, Region 3 candidate:

In Pennsylvania, salaries and benefits make up the lion’s share of any school district’s budget, generally between 70% and 80%.  Pension benefits (PSERS) are set legislatively by the General Assembly and the Governor, and are not negotiated by local school boards.  All collective bargaining agreements must be available to the public for review and comment well in advance of the public vote to approve such agreements.  Periodic updates during the negotiations can be a helpful tool to inform the public.  District estimates of the full annual cost of the contract for each year should be available for timely public examination.

From Fran Reardon, Easttown, Region 3 candidate:

In negotiating contracts within the School District, we should maintain a high level of transparency for all parties involved.  Periodic updates should be available to the taxpaying public and all other stakeholders.  Current annual cost of contracts should clearly be given with the long term effects of PSERS obligations also laid out and presented to the TE community in a timely fashion before any vote by the school board.

As a member of the TE School Board, I will work with the full board to give the taxpayers value for their dollar and also maintain the excellence of our schools.

Standing on the sidelines changes nothing — TE School District aides and paras taking steps to unionize

collective bargainIt’s official, the aides and paraeducators of TE School District are taking the necessary steps to unionize. As announced by Supt. Dan Waters at last night’s Finance meeting, this group of employees is currently engaged in the process to join the collective bargaining unit TENIG (Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group).

If you recall last spring, the District’s aides and paras came very close to having their jobs outsourced over the Federal government’s Affordable Care Act.  Because of ACA compliance issues, it appeared that the District would be forced to either offer insurance or outsource the jobs of the aides and paras. At that time, the Board claimed that the District could not afford healthcare for these employees and could not risk the possible financial risks for ACA noncompliance.  As a point of record, the TE School District is the only school district in the area that does not offer healthcare coverage for this group of employees.

Unfortunately, without the benefit of a collective bargaining organization there was little that the aides and paras could do to fight back against the proposed outsourcing of their jobs. In the end, the Federal government pushed off the required ACA compliance for another year.  As a result, the School Board granted the District aides and paras a reprieve for the 2013/14 school year; their jobs and hours remaining intact for one more year.

As the current school year ends, what has changed for the District aides and paras during the last twelve months – are they any better off than they were a year ago? Based on their moving forward with plans to collective bargain, my guess is the answer to that question is ‘no’ – nothing has changed.

Without job security and healthcare benefits, the aides and paras are now seeking protection of their jobs and collective bargaining representation for their own jobs and for the jobs of those that will come after them. They seek fairness and consistency in employment policies and personnel decision,  job security and protection of employee rights.

The community respects the passion and commitment of the aides and paraeducators to the parents and children of this District and values their contributions. It saddens me that this group of vulnerable, dedicated employees remains the school district pawns, at the mercy of the Board and the administration.

Supporting the need for an organized voice, the District aides and paras believe that all employees deserve fair and equal treatment. Standing on the sidelines changes nothing — I applaud the collective bargaining efforts of the aides and paras.; they deserve to be treated as full players not as an afterthought.

Tredyffrin Twp: Public Works Director Scott Cannon and Finance Director Tim Klarich are out and it’s only February!

Tredyffrin Board of Supervisors held a special board meeting on February 10 to terminate the employment of Public Works Director Scott Cannon.  Stating several acts of misperformance, including two instances of improper disposal of materials on Township property in addition to procurement procedure violations, the supervisors voted unanimously to dismiss Cannon, without public discussion or comment.

Two weeks to the day after the Public Works Director’s termination, the ominous “discussion of personnel action items” appears on the Board of Supervisors agenda. We learned last night that the township’s Finance Director Tim Klarich is the next one out the door.  Without explanation or discussion, the supervisors unanimously voted to accept the resignation of Klarich.

Although the public wasn’t privy to the details of Cannon’s termination, after only a couple of years in the job, I didn’t have a real sense of the pubic work director.  On the other hand, Tim Klarich was Tredyffrin Township Finance Director for nearly 4 years.  I found his analysis and preparation of the yearly township budget detailed and complete and his monthly financial updates to the board unfailingly thorough.  Two township department heads gone in two weeks, there was an  uneasiness with more questions than answers.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, I asked several questions and voice concern about Klarich’s abrupt departure from the township. When I received no response to my question as to when Klarich gave his resignation notice, I then asked ‘when’ his last day was.   Board of Supervisor chair Mike Heaberg referred my questions to the solicitor Vince Donohue, who stated that yesterday (Monday) was his last day. Donohue then stated that because it was a personnel matter, there would be no further information. It was obvious to those in the audience that there was more behind the departure of Cannon and then two weeks later Klarich than was publicly provided. I

Falling under the jurisdiction of ‘legal and personnel matters’, it is highly unlikely that we will ever know the details of Cannon or Klarich recent departures from the township. Less than two months in to the New Year and two department heads are already gone — What’s that saying from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Something is rotten in Denmark”?  Makes you wonder if there is more house cleaning ahead from the Board of Supervisors.

From the T/E School Board meeting also held last night came the unanimous vote to approve the teachers to approve the new 3-year contract.  Ray Clarke attended the TESD meeting and provides the following personal comments:

  • Dr. Waters actually lead the presentation of the TEEA contract.  A surprise since he rarely speaks.  He addressed many of the questions raised on CM, but with only occasional reference to the data on the slides so it was hard to follow, even for an experienced ear.
  • One of the ways that the impact is minimized is that the caps on column movement are lower than numbers assumed in the budget (but wouldn’t we have budgeted “status quo”?), and that difference is taken as “budgetary savings”
  • Also helping the overall budget is that (my estimates) there has been a redistribution of ~50 staff from the top level to the bottom levels through retirements and replacements.  Dr Waters provided total staff by level which will be handy for those wanting to sanity check the calculated impact.  No further “breakage” going forward is assumed in the impact assessment.
  • It sounded as though the one-time bonus was not included in the baseline numbers.
  • Note that the increased teacher contribution to healthcare premiums averages $74,000 per year – $160 per teacher.  We should not lose sight of the fact that taxpayers fund a very generous benefits package!
  • Outside the contract, I thought that the Committee Chairs gave richer summaries of their recent meetings than we have been used to.  Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but to be encouraged!

T/E School Board and Teachers sign tentative 3-year contract

The Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) and the T/E School Board have signed a tentative 3- year teachers’ contract for TEEA logoJuly 1, 2014 – June 30, 2017.  After the teachers ratification, the School Board will take action at Monday’s school board meeting on the contract.

The contract protects the jobs of the District teachers and includes no furloughs or demotions clause through June 2017.  The teachers will receive salary increases based on their step movement in the matrix.  Not certain how this equates to percentage yearly increase or budget impact – need some help to understand.

2.013 Salary Progression

Through the end of the contract, the salary of Employees will be determined by placing them on the Salary Schedule as agreed to by Employer and Bargaining Agent as set forth herein.

Effective July 1, 2014, current Employees except those at maximum, will move one (1) vertical step on the Salary Schedule. Each employee is limited to one column movement per year subject to Section 2.025.

Effective July 1, 2015, current Employees except those at maximum will move one (1) vertical step on the Salary Schedule. Each employee is limited to one column movement per year subject to Section 2.025.

Effective July 1, 2016, current Employees except those at maximum will move one (1) vertical step on the Salary Schedule. Each employee is limited to one column movement per year subject to Section 2.025.

For all Employees hired prior to July 1, 1995, no Master’s Equivalency achieved after January 1, 1997, will be recognized as a Master’s Degree on the Salary Schedule.

Unless specifically mentioned in this Section, Section 2.013 does not apply to Health Room Nurses.

I was surprised to see a distance e-learning pilot program included in the contract.  If you recall, TEEA previously filed a suit (and won) against the District over their implementation of distance learning. However, this contract includes a Distance E-Learning Pilot Program that will run the length of the contract, expiring on June 30, 2017.  The e-learning opportunities will be offered to students by non-bargaining sources at the discretion of the District.  The rapid growth of information technologies has influenced the way in which education is delivered and experienced – it is encouraging that the teachers’ contract includes an agreement for this pilot program in the District.

It looks like the teachers should be pleased with this 3-year contract!

T/E School District institutes 7-minute clock-in and clock-out rule for aides and paras & progressive discipline for violation

A bit of background —

On February 4, I received a copy of a memo dated January 31, 2014 from Sue Tiede, Director of TESD Personnel.  Tiede’s letter went to ‘All Employees paid on an Hourly Basis’ (aides/paras) with the subject line, ‘Attendance & Punctuality’.  Although I was told that ‘all aides and paras’ received the letter, that was not accurate – some of the aides and paras did not receive the letter until this week, 10+ days later.  On Wednesday, February 12, aides and paras across the District were called individually into the principal offices of their respective schools to read Tiede’s letter. Before discussing the contents of Tiede’s letter, I have a problem with lack of District cohesive communication.

Memo to T/E aides and paras –

The focus of Tiede’s memo is the District’s establishment of a 7-minute period of clocking-in and clocking-out for hourly employees.  These employees are only permitted to clock-in within a 7-minute period before their scheduled start time and within a 7-minute period after your scheduled end time.  If scheduled to start work at 7AM, employees can only clock-in between 6:53AM – 7AM. If scheduled to end your workday at 3:30PM, employees can only clock-out between 3:30PM-3:37PM.

Having set the guidelines for the 7-minute clock-in and clock-out period in her memo, Tiede then details the progressive discipline measures for violation. A three level discipline approach, aides and paras receive a verbal warning and written notice for their first offense.  An employee receiving a second violation receives a written warning in theur personnel file with threat of suspension or discharge if another violation occurs. If an employees is cited for a third violation of the 7-minute rule, they are subject to suspension without pay and possible termination.

I find the contents and tone of Tiede’s letter demeaning and threatening to the District hourly employees.  District aides, paras and substitute teachers currently do not have District provided health coverage.  TESD aides, paras and substitute teachers do not have the benefit of organized union protection as do other District employees — the  teachers (TEEA) and members of  TENIG.

What is driving this letter of intimidation from the District?  In my opinion, the answer is Affordable Care Act and a way for the administration to make certain that hourly employees not go over the 30-hour limit that requires employee covered health coverage.  By instituting this policy of progressive discipline, the District is not considering the safety of flight risk children and special needs children. Did the District explain this new 7-minute policy to the parents of these children?  There will be situations occur where aides and paras are required to choose between remaining with a child or risking disciplinary action by not clocking-out within the 7-minute window.  The use of time clocks for our District educators is nothing more than a different category of factory worker.

Was this 7-minute District policy and corresponding disciplinary action vetted by the School Board members? Was their discussion about the ramifications of this policy for special education students and their parents?  Is this just another approach by the District to outsource the aides and paras – meaning, intimidate and threatened these employees to the point that they just leave.

Last spring, we saw the backlash from the public over the School Board’s attempt to outsource the aides and paras rather than comply with the Affordable Care Act — is this letter to District’s hourly workers, and its contents, a precursor to round two this spring? As previously mentioned on Community Matters, the School Board has repeatedly delayed any further public discussion of the ACA compliance issues — meeting after meeting.  Perhaps part of the back-story to the Board’s continuing resistance to discuss the associated ACA compliance issues is related to Sue Tiede’s letter to the aides and paras.

I encourage you to read the letter below, draw your own conclusions and welcome your comments on Community Matters..  Please share the information with District parents, particularly those parents (and their children) who rely on the services of these targeted District employees.  On the offside chance that School Board members are unaware of Sue Tiede’s letter to the aides and paras, I will email them a copy of this post.

 

TESD Suspension

 

 

 

Reflections from TE School Board Director Richard Brake

Locally elected school boards are the only entity that has the mission of keeping public schools public. They have a vested interest in retaining public control of schools and ensuring quality education since their actions directly impact local community life.

Richard Brake, a Republican, was defeated on Election Day in his attempt at a second term on the TE School Board; losing to Democrat Scott Dorsey.  Monday, November 25 marks the final school board meeting for Brake, Betsy Fadem and Anne Crowley.   On Monday, December 2, the torch is officially handed to those newly elected  to serve the school district,  including Dorsey, Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner.

The defeat in a local election is not what defines you.  I hope that Dr. Brake and other school board (and township supervisor) candidates defeated in the recent election  will take the words of Andre Malraux to heart and remain involved in the community – it’s important.

 “Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk – and to act.”

The following is an editorial written by Rich Brake which appears in the print version of Main Line Suburban this week.

Why I Lost, and the Future of Tredyffrin Politics
By Richard A. Brake, Berwyn, PA

You win some, you lose some.  That’s what I told my family and friends after I lost my re-election bid for T/E School Board.  As a lifelong Cubs fan and former competitive long-distance runner, I have experienced defeat much more than victory, and so I know that you always learn more from your losses than your wins.  I also believe in Providence, and that it is likely that as this door closes, others will certainly open and new opportunities for service will present themselves.  I very much enjoyed my time on the Board, and hope that I performed some small public service for the benefit of our community.  The bottom line is that the sun rose the day after I lost, and since politics at all levels remains a peripheral part of our lives (which is a good thing I think, though not without its downsides), it would be wise to keep this small little episode in its proper perspective.

With that said, I am reminded of a saying one of my graduate school professors was fond of repeating – “If you’re not interested in politics that’s too bad, because politics is always interested in you.”  So I do think that there are important lessons to learn from this campaign season.  It is also the case that it is hard to have your entire life’s work, and the principles that this work represents, pilloried, caricatured, demonized, and ridiculed in front of the entire township.  It is natural, then, to try to make sense of a difficult experience like this – was it something I said; was it something I did?  Are my principles that reprehensible?  Did I allow them to blind me to the real issues we faced on the school board?

When I look into the mirror, I don’t see a monster or a label, but a flawed but nevertheless dedicated father, husband, educator, veteran, and public servant – but I know that we all come-off very differently to others than we do to ourselves, and maybe some of the problem was not what I said but how I said it.  Regardless, it was clear on election day that there were a lot of people that didn’t like me, or what I supposedly stood for, and that is a bitter pill to swallow, especially when you have to explain this to your kids (by the way, I don’t want to teach creationism in the schools, and have no idea where that outright lie came from!).  Obviously I could have done a much better job communicating to the voters who I am and what I really stand for, but it is also the case that the other side bears a great deal of responsibility in creating a false and misleading picture of me.  Politics ain’t beanbag, to be sure, but I brought a water pistol to a bazooka fight, and that kind of negative, name-calling brand of politics unfortunately won on November 5th.

As a result, I’d like to spend the rest of this piece examining the case my opponents built against me; whether that kind of campaign, though successful in the short-term, really serves the best interests of our community; and whether someone like me, with the principles I believe in, should be or will ever be allowed, to serve the public trust here in Tredyffrin again.  Along the way I hope to suggest a more optimistic, collegial, and effective brand of local politics than the slash and burn variety that we have witnessed these last two election cycles.

So why did I lose?  Four years ago I won by 400 votes, 55%-45%.  This year I lost by over 200 votes, even though I garnered more votes this year than four years ago.  So what happened?  From a sheer numbers perspective, the Democrats turned out their base more than the Republicans did, and in a local race like this, turnout is everything.  How did they do it?  Simple.  They labeled me Tea Party to their supporters – and successfully tarred me with the residue of the recent partial government shutdown, the responsibility of which – rightly or wrongly – has been placed by many at the feet of so-called tea party republicans in DC.  In other words, instead of focusing their campaign on local issues, the democrats nationalized a local election (sometimes Tip O’Neill is wrong; politics is not always local), and the white-hot antipathy local democrats have for the tea party convinced many more of them than usual to come out and cast their ballots not only against me, but other republicans as well.

Now there is a lot to say about these tactics.  First, I think that the partial government shutdown was a collective failure to compromise on the part of the entire elective branches in Washington, and not just some vocal faction that controls only one house out of three.  And with the recent problems with the disastrous roll-out of Obamacare, we will just have to see how this DC morality tale plays out in the weeks and months ahead.  I also think that by and large, local campaigns should be about local issues and not distant fights in far-away capitols (I will have more to say about those local school issues in a moment).  I have no problem with a vigorous and aggressive exchange of views that draw sharp distinctions between candidates.  That is the heart of elections – a debate about competing ideas – and as long as those fights are fought on the merits, I am happy to accept the verdict of my community if they feel my ideas won’t work to solve the pressing issues of the day.  But that is not what happened here!

What did happen was a classic case of guilt by association.  What heinous thing was I guilty of being?  Why, a conservative of course, and working in the conservative movement and with local tea party groups on their constitutional education classes.  So let’s deal with the charge of being a conservative.

I am a constitutional scholar who has a great reverence for the founding principles of our country, and have spent most of my life teaching the story of our country and its animating leaders and ideas to high schoolers, college students, and ordinary citizens who have expressed an interest in learning more.  That’s what I do at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute today, and I am proud of our work in teaching American first principles – constitutional government, free enterprise, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and traditional moral values.  Since when have those principles become dangerous and subversive?

So again, I guess I am guilty of being a conservative, and I happen to be a conservative of the Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and Ronald Reagan variety (just to name a few, along with founding fathers like John Adams, James Madison, John Dickinson, and Richard Henry Lee).  If you don’t know who these guys are, look them up and tell me if you disagree with them.  As a “traditionalist” conservative (www.imaginativeconservative.org), I have great sympathies for localism and grave misgivings about corporate “crony” capitalism.  I believe that liberty must always be tempered by the requirements of order and the mercies of justice, which means that we have both rights and duties in a free and virtuous society.  I believe in community and what some now refer to as “crunchy” conservatism, whose tenets are best expressed on this great blog www.frontprochrepublic.com.  I could go on, but I was under the impression that I was running for my local school board on November 5th, which is why I spent all of my campaign talking about my record on the issues, and not about far-away political battles and my particular brand of conservatism.

But my opponents had other thoughts in mind.  For them, conservatism is not a legitimate rival public philosophy that has a distinguished history and respectable intellectual pedigree.  My guess is that the local democrats are completely ignorant of the great thinkers of the modern conservative movement (I can assure you that I know and respect, though disagree with, their great thinkers, like Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and FDR), and instead rely on caricatures of conservatism from the mass media and their own think tanks and interest groups.  No, conservatism has become a dirty word, boiled down to the epitaph “Tea Bagger” – and like the term “communism” in the 1950’s, this neo-McCarthyite name-calling seems to have worked among a large swath of the electorate, not only here in Tredyffrin but across the country.  I honestly expected more from such a highly-schooled community, but clearly there is an emotional reaction this term engenders and it does the electoral trick (and as a conservative, I too had problems with some of the tactics employed by our politicians in Washington).

I think the main reason why the democrat’s tea party strategy worked is that they equated all conservatives and republicans with the tea party, and then they equated the tea party with one simple word – MEAN.  And there are a lot of Tredyffrin residents who view conservatives exactly in this way.  We are MEAN because at all levels of government we are skeptical of large government programs, and the growing tax burden they require, actually working to solve the very real problems of poverty, hunger, joblessness, and access to quality health care, housing, and education.  But what most people hear, and what conservatives do a horrible job of addressing, is that we are simply against THE PEOPLE who are poor, hungry, jobless, homeless, and lack other basic necessities.  And if that was really true, then conservatives would be MEAN, and should not be trusted in public office.  Since enough people believed that caricature on November 5th, conservatives like me were shown the door.

The only problem with all of this, besides the glaring rhetorical problem conservatives have, is that in my case, I really am not mean.  As a devout and practicing Catholic, I do try to practice my faith through good works for the poor, and a helping hand around the neighborhood.  I think those that know me, even those on the other side of the political aisle, know this to be true.  I really do believe in the parable of the rich man, the camel, and the eye of a needle, and hence know that we can’t serve both God and Mammon, which is why we must be truly charitable with our time, talent and treasure.

I guess what it comes down to is that I don’t believe that the only or primary way to be charitable is through large bureaucratic government programs that spend most of their resources not on their poor clientele but on salaries and benefits of an ever expanding government work force (I would be for a complete de-regulation and consolidation of welfare assistance, cutting out the government middle-men, and increasing cash payments to the truly poor for a fixed period of time).  And with our ever-growing unpaid debts we are incurring – whether it be in Harrisburg with our pensions or in DC with all of our entitlement programs (and now a new one in Obamacare) – the worry I have is that these unsustainable programs will continue to crowd-out private economic activity that produce the jobs that we all need to pay our mortgages, feed our families, and send our kids to school.  The best welfare program still remains a good job!

And so to turn the argument on its head, I actually thinks it’s MEANER to continue to rack-up mountains of debt and debase our currency in Washington; not to address our unsustainable pension obligations in Harrisburg; and not to put a brake on higher and higher property taxes here in Tredyffrin – because this failure to act will end up hurting our kids who will be saddled with debt, hyperinflation, bleak job prospects, and lower standards of living; will damage our educational program as more funds are diverted from the classroom to retirees; and will force more seniors on fixed incomes out of their homes.  In the end, then, it is MEAN to believe in utopian good intentions and hopelessly complex social engineering schemes that not only fail to ameliorate the true suffering that exists in our fallen world, but will also make it that much harder for those who are trying to play by the rules and be self-sufficient to have the spiritual and material resources they need to take care of themselves and not be overly-reliant on government.

As for the actual school board issues that I thought would be the focus of this campaign, I’m not sure that the outcome on the 5th will help us come to terms with the very real problems we all face as a school community.  My opponent Mr. Dorsey criticized me for voting against recent school district budgets, and then his party put up signs saying to stop the cuts to our schools and vote democrat.  Hmmn?  I know that democrats Kevin Buraks and Karen Cruickshank voted for every district budget these last four years, and I voted for one.  Who then voted for the cuts?  I was for the cuts if they were also coupled with a more prudent use of our over $30 million reserve fund to cushion the blow to taxpayers during a recession.  Since that did not happen the last three years, and we raised taxes higher than we should have and still produced surpluses – I voted against those budgets.  Someone needs to tell me which side acted rashly and radically?

Now that I’m off the Board, I can also make clear that when we were negotiating our last teacher contract, which was indeed better than the last one (but that wasn’t hard – average salaries rose 8% per year under that one with virtually no teacher contribution to health care), we were told by our chief negotiator Jeff Sultanik that our $30 million fund balance was a major liability in our bargaining position with the teachers.  That is why the leadership of the Board moved $10 million out of the fund balance into the capital fund where it could not be touched.  Now, we do have anticipated capital projects that need to be paid for, but the more traditional approach would be to issue a bond and have more than one generation help pay for the capital expenditure.  I would have also developed a more transparent plan to draw down some of these reserve funds in a coherent fashion to help cover our growing pension obligations.  Instead, the board leadership decided to use part of the fund balance to give our teachers another bonus to help buy labor peace, and not to give our hard-hit taxpayers a break.

I now hear rumblings that the teachers are indicating that they have given all they can give, and that they will not accept further salary and benefit concessions, so my guess is that they will be looking at that reserve fund as ripe for the picking.  What will Mr. Dorsey and his allies do then – another pay-off bonus?  My guess is that they will also argue that we need more revenue, and with the Act 1 caps in place, they will say that they are forced by circumstances out of their control to adopt an earned income tax for approval by the voters.  My position, not surprisingly, would be different.  To be clear, I would NOT call for a cut in teacher salaries (just FYI, the average teacher makes over $85,000/year plus pension and benefits for 10 months work), but instead would reduce the rate of growth in teacher salaries by completely revamping the salary matrix, instituting pilot merit pay programs, and asking teachers to pay private-sector levels for their health care.  Now that I am off the board, there will be nobody making those kinds of arguments, and your taxes will continue to go up without any commensurate increase in enrollment or academic achievement.

Of course these positions I suggest are not easy to take – some would call them MEAN – but I don’t think realism is mean.  It’s actually what is called for when adults confront tough issues, instead of relying primarily on emotional appeals.  I do think that conservatives need to do a better job of appealing to both the heads and hearts of our community, but that does not mean we shouldn’t make the necessary changes to our system because it might offend those that stand to gain the most from maintaining the status quo.  This is what Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, meant when he reminded us that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”  In an ironic twist, it’s conservatives like me who are calling for prudent reforms to the status quo financing of public education in order to save the system, while it is forces on the left – the public sector unions and their democrat allies – who are conservatively maintaining an unsustainable system.  I’m for change, and my opponents are for the status quo – who is for hope and change now?

Finally, a few words about the disturbing tone and declining civility of our local politics.  Two years ago I was the only school board member in Tredyffrin who spoke out publicly against some of the tactics employed during that election cycle.  The issue was the EIT, and while I am strongly opposed to such a measure, I did think we needed to study it, and probably have a public referendum on it to finally put the issue to rest.  There were misleading mailings sent out on this issue, and I took a lot of heat from my side of the aisle by speaking out against them in a public meeting.  I also had written a letter to the editor prior to the election making my opposition clear, but the Suburban refused to run it given its timing (I have the letter and emails to prove it).

That was not an easy thing for me to do, so I was very disappointed that my opponent Mr. Dorsey forgot what I did and proceeded to launch a negative campaign, not against my school board record, but my closely-held beliefs and educational career.  I can tell you that it hurt to have so many people on election-day cast disparaging looks my way, as if I was a leper or worse, because I believe in and work for the Constitution, free enterprise, and traditional values.  I guess Mr. Dorsey also forgot how we collaborated together on the bipartisan survey and forum I did with Sean Moir to help increase public input into school affairs.  I know Mr. Dorsey is a preacher and believes in Christian values like turning the other cheek, which I certainly plan on doing once I pull the knife out of my back.  Eh Tu, Scott?

In the end, we need a better brand of politics that treats rival beliefs not as heresies but as differences between means, not ends.  We all want the same things for our community, we just disagree on the size and scope of the government that is required to help us get to where we all want to be.  I for one would love, as a start, to completely shift the ratio of taxes we pay, so that most goes to our local governments, then the state, and the rest to Washington.  If that happened, not only would there be greater accountability, I think you would be surprised by the new political alliances that would emerge, because I know my brand of communitarian conservatism has a lot in common with such left-of-center causes as historic preservation, open space, local agriculture, the new urbanism, and anti-box store campaigns.

Now don’t get me wrong. I also think Americans as a whole pay far more in taxes than we should (right now, the average American pays 45% of their income in locals, state, and federal taxes, and I think the maximum should be around 30%).  I believe that because I would rather allow Americans to keep more of what they earn so they can practice private charity rather than compulsory government assistance, and to take care of their own problems rather than relying too heavily on government welfare.  Of course, you are free to disagree with me on this, but that doesn’t make me mean-spirited (and to think so might make you narrow-minded and overly-ideological).

What I am hoping for is an entirely new political paradigm that rejects the old bromides of the right and the left, and the cynical politics of personal destruction, and instead looks hard at the pressing issues of the day and offers common sense solutions and not bumper stickers.  And since I now have a lot more time on my hands, I’d be interested in helping begin a new conversation, perhaps even a new coalition, that would be inclusive and not exclusive, that would be open to tea partiers and occupiers, to libertarians and greens, to independents and partisans of all stripes, not because we will always agree with each other, but because we value each other’s opinions and are more interested in the public good rather than private interests that tend to dominate our politics (along with the insiders who benefit from the same old fights).

After all, wouldn’t this be a lot better, and a lot funner, than what we just went through this time around?  I certainly would hope so.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to this apologia, and for the great honor of representing you on the T/E School Board.  I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Sincerely,

Richard Brake
Berwyn. PA

Four weeks and counting until Election Day

Election Day 2013 is 4 weeks from tomorrow, Tuesday, November 5.  If you are not registered, today is the last day to register to vote in the Municipal Election.  Applications from Pennsylvanians registering for the first time, those changing their address or changing their party affiliation must be postmarked or delivered to Chester County’s board of elections by the close of business today, October 7.  Chester County’s board of elections is located at Government Services Center, 601 Westtown Rd., Suite 150, West Chester, PA 19380. Their phone number: 610-344-6410. Office hours: 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM.

Do you know the candidates for the Board of Supervisor or the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board? What issues facing the township and school district are important to you – do the candidates share your concerns, your opinions? How likely are you to vote on November 5?

If you are a voter in Tredyffrin Township, you will have an opportunity to learn more about the Board of Supervisors candidates.  The League of Women Voters is holding a supervisor debate on Saturday, October 19, 2-4 PM at the Tredyffrin Township Building. There are three contested seats on the Board – two for supervisor-at-large and a district supervisor for the middle district.  Seeking one of the two at-large supervisor seats is incumbent Michelle Kichline (R), Trip Lukens (R), Murph Wysocki (D) and Mark Freed (D).  Current at-large supervisor E.J. Richter (R) is opposing Laurie Elliott (D) for the middle district seat.

In recent years, the League of Women Voters also has held a debate for the TE School Board candidates. Unfortunately, the volunteer organization will not hold a similar debate this year for the school board candidates.  This is an important time to know your candidates – what are their backgrounds and experience, where do they stand on issues, etc. etc.  So … why no debate for the school board candidates?  Do you know who the school board candidates are?

On the Tredyffrin side of the school district, we have Democrat incumbent Kevin Buraks being challenged by Republican Pete Connors in Region I.  In Region II, Scott Dorsey (D) opposes incumbent Rich Brake (R).

On the Easttown side of the school district, there are two seats available in Region III.  For personal reasons, neither Betsy Fadem (R) nor Anne Crowley (D) is seeking re-election.  I attend almost every school board meeting and I have not met any of the four candidates vying for the two open Region III seats.  The candidates are Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner and Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim.

School board candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey have each stated that they want the opportunity to discuss school district issues and are interested in pursuing a debate forum with the other school board candidates — Neither knows why a debate was not scheduled as in prior years. Because of my discussion with Connors and Dorsey (and the interest from the public in learning about the school board candidates), several options are being explored.  However, with only 4 weeks remaining until Election Day 2013, it does not leave much time to organize a ‘meet your school board candidate’ forum.

If the past is any indication, the political war for control will rear its ugly head over the next 30 days with school board and supervisor candidates door knocking, campaign mail pieces hitting our houses and the robo-calls that invariably come at dinnertime.  Voters need a reason to go the polls on November 5 – they need to know the issues and which candidates support their views. Everyone should be interested in the election because the future of the township, the school district and the community are dependent upon strong, issue-focused leadership.  The issues are complex and the School Board (and the Board of Supervisors) must work as a team united (with the community) to find effective solutions.

TE School Board & TENIG reach new 3-year contract deal — No outsourcing!

What a difference a week makes!  At last Monday’s September 23rd T/E School Board meeting, several TESD residents including Peggy Layden, Neal Colligan and Scott Dorsey questioned the Board about the status of the TENIG negotiations. The public was told by Board President Kevin Buraks that contract discussions were moving along and that the Board would report on the process when there was information to report.  And Betsy Fadem volunteered that once the responses from the TENIG RFP were received (and reviewed) there would be public discussion in January.  The current TENIG contract as well as the TEEA (teacher) contract run through June 30, 2014.   When questioned on public communication and transparency issues, Buraks was very specific that the public would be informed of the process although it was not clear how much notice there would be for public review of any proposed contracts.

Buraks (and Fadem) responses to residents was counter to the rumblings that some of us had heard regarding the ‘early bird’ contract discussions.  Nonetheless, because there was an overt attempt by several Board members to suppress any resident complaints on lack of transparency or public discussion, it was my expectation that the Board leadership would make certain that the public was kept informed.

This evening I had a phone call from Mary Minicozzi, the TENIG president. (She agreed that her name could be used and that the information was public).  Mary wanted me to hear the TENIG contract details directly from her so that the facts would be correct.  According to Mary, TENIG presented a contract proposal to the school board 2 weeks ago and that sometime since that point (she was not certain of the exact date), the Board ‘voted’ to accept the proposal.  At today’s TENIG meeting, members voted to ratify with 83 members accepting the contract and 5 members rejecting the contract.

This news surprised the heck out of me because at last week’s TESD meeting, President Buraks and Betsy Fadem were talking about keeping the public informed on the progress of negotiations – had they already accepted the TENIG contract offer?

The vendor bids were not due back to the District until October 11 so how could the Board know what the expected savings to the District would be.  How would TENIG know how much they needed to ‘give back’?  Was this not the point of sending the RFPs out to the vendors?  In addition, this reasoning lined up with Betsy Fadem’s remark that the discussion would take place in January 2014 (allowing for adequate review of the vendor bids and public input).  According to Mary, there were a number of vendors lined up to provide bids to the District – 13 vendors for janitorial, 3 vendors for security, 8 vendors for maintenance, 3 vendors for secretarial and 5 vendors for the cafeteria. Presumably, now the vendors will be immediately notified that the District has cancelled the RFP and has settled the contract.

The good news is that the 3-year TENIG contract, July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017, has no outsourcing of TENIG employees and no discussion of outsourcing to occur during the length of the contract.  Any new employees hired will be part of the District (and TENIG) – those positions will not be outsourced.  However, there will be wage restructuring for all new TENIG hires, equating to an average of $3/hr. less than current employees in that position.

All TENIG employees received a 4-1/2% raise for the final year of their current contract (which is July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014).  In the new 3-year contract, the custodians will receive a 2% salary reduction and additionally will give back 1 week of their vacation.  (The rationale is that the District has to hire subs when the custodians are on vacation).  The other members of TENIG (security, kitchen, maintenance, and cafeteria) will receive a 4% salary reduction in the new contract but their vacation benefit remains intact.

On the benefit side, Mary explained that TENIG currently receives the best healthcare benefits of all District employees – paying an average of $300/yr. for a family health insurance plan.  Under the new contract, TENIG member’s health insurance will be on par with TEEA (teachers) members.  In the new contract, the TENIG employees will contribute approximately 6% for their health care benefits.  For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees receive a freeze on their salary.

As an incentive for current employees to leave the District, there is an interesting caveat in the new contract.  If any TENIG employee with 15 or more years of District service, voluntarily resigns prior to end of the first year of the contract (by June 30, 2015), they will receive a buyout bonus of 15% of their salary, up to $7K.  The idea is to replace some of the higher-paid District employees with new lesser-paid employees, thus decreasing overhead budget costs.

So, how much is the new 3-year TENIG contract saving the District?  The contract savings includes $400K from the healthcare benefit component, $207K with the employee salary reduction and $207K from the custodian 1-week vacation giveback for a grand total savings of $719K to the District.

Although Mary stated that the Board had voted to accept the TENIG proposed 3-year contract and that the TENIG membership ratified the contract, I believe that the contract still has to be officially ‘voted on’ in public, doesn’t it?  According to Mary, the Board will sign the contract at a special Board meeting that will be held in conjunction with the Finance Committee meeting.  Looking at the upcoming District meetings, the Finance Committee is scheduled for Monday, October 14 – which interestingly is Columbus Day.  (The offices in Tredyffrin Twp are closed on Columbus Day, but I guess not for TESD).

I want to be clear about something – I am pleased for the TENIG employees; glad they will not be outsourced and that they will not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract.  However, last week’s School Board meeting has me troubled. After several residents asked for greater public input and communication, the public was assured that the Board was transparent, and that contract updates would be provided, and that simultaneously to early bird negotiations with TENIG that the Board would also review the results from the RFP.  With agreement from the Board and TENIG on the new contract, there will be no vendor bids.

TE School Board Meeting — A call for transparency and open communications

I attended last night’s School Board meeting and noted a common thread linking many of the resident’s comments.  The words may have been slightly differently from residents Neal Colligan, Scott Dorsey, Peggy Layden, Michelle Berger and myself, but the message to the School Board was the same.  We were all asking for transparency, public dialogue, open communication, etc. etc. between the Board, administration and the public.

In the first comment period, Neal Colligan asked the Board to detail the timeline and process for the TENIG and teacher contract negotiations.  He referenced the ‘early bird’ contract negotiations that are underway and asked that the public have adequate time to review any proposed contract.  The public understands that negotiations are private between the sides and we cannot be part of the process — however, once there is an agreement it would be appropriate that that there be adequate time for review.  Disappointingly, the Board did not offer much in the way of a response, except to say that the discussions with TENIG are ongoing.

At the August Board meeting it was announced that the RFP was going out shortly which would seek outsourcing bids for the TENIG contract.  (Both the TENIG contract and the teachers contract expire June 30, 2014.) It would seem to make practical sense for the Board (and TENIG) to have the cost analysis for outsourcing to use as a starting point to negotiate a contract.  How else would the District know what (if any) savings would occur through outsourcing without the ‘real’ numbers?  And for the TENIG members, how would they know ‘what’ they needed ‘to give’ back in salary and/or benefits if there was no comparative numbers from the outside? Last night it was entirely unclear if the RFP was sent out yet there’s rumblings of an agreement between the District and TENIG.  If  there is an agreement, it will be curious to see what TENIG members gave up to keep their jobs.  If you recall the last time, only the custodians were in the position of giving back whereas this time it is the all of TENIG that is at risk.  Whatever happens with TENIG is certain to have an effect on the teacher contrac negotations.

My comments last night related to Community Matters and the school district’s apparent ‘blocking’ of the website from their computers.  I read a prepared statement which included asking for the reinstitution of the District’s ‘Public Information Committee’ . I spoke of the need for open communication and transparency and asked the Board to respectfully remove the ‘block’ of my sebsite.  At least some members of the school board were not aware of the situation until I brought it to their attention.  Dr. Waters told the Board that he would look into the matter and report back.  Improving communication between the administration, Board and the public should be something that we all want to achieve.

As follow-up, I sent the following email to the Board, Waters and Robin McConnell:

Dear TE School Board Members,

This email is follow-up to my statement at last night’s school board meeting regarding the ‘blocking’ of Community Matters website from school district computers.  It was my understanding from the Board’s response that none of you were aware of this situation until I brought it to your attention.  For the record, I have had at least 15 people, including employees working in various District schools, support staff, substitute teachers and students to either call or send emails asking why they are receiving  ‘this site is blocked’ notifications when they attempt to access Community Matters.
At the school board meeting, Dr. Waters stated that he would look into the matter and would check with Robin McConnell,  who was not at the last night’s meeting.  I respectfully asked last night that the ‘block’ be removed from my site and the access be restored.  Can I expect that Board members will follow-up with the administration and correct this situation?
The community is looking for transparency and open communication from our elected officials; thank you all for supporting that goal.
Sincerely,
Pattye Benson
I hope that the situation is resolved quickly and that Community Matters is ‘unblocked’ in the school district.  To the employees and students who contacted me in this regard, thank you — please let me know if the situation is resolved.
During the second comment period, Neal Colligan once again addressed the Board, stating that they had not answered his earlier question about providing adequate public time to review and comment on any proposed union agreements.  Again no response from the Board.  Without a commitment from the Board on the process of public commentary in regards to any proposed union contracts, Colligan furthered his request.  He stated there would be new leadership on the school board come January 1 and based on the outcome of the November election, that could mean either 2, 3 or possibly 4 new Board members.  Colligan offered that it was not fair that new Board members would be saddled with the results of these ‘early bird’ contract negotiations and again suggested that there should be community input.

Recent history indicates that when there is public input, initial decisions of the Board can sometimes be changed — we saw this with the proposed outsourcing of the aides and paras and again with the tennis courts at Valley Forge Elementary School. When members of the community supports an issue, shows up at meetings and offers their opinion, it can make a difference.  Transparency and open dicussion between the Board, administration and the public is critical.

TE Teacher & TENIG contract discussions begin …

I was unable to attend the monthly TE school board meeting last night.  But fortunately Ray Clarke was at the meeting and supplied the following notes:

Buraks read a statement to the effect that the Board has entered into discussions with both TENIG and the TEEA to explore the opportunity for “Early Bird” contracts.  All parties have agreed to a “gag order” in order to “give the best odds of reaching agreement” (or words to that effect). The public will be kept informed as the process evolves.  In response to my question (and after consulting with the solicitor (!)) Buraks stated that the Board representatives for TENIG are Brake, Bruce, Fadem, for TEEA are Cruickshank, Graham, Motel.  There was no information provided as to new TEEA leadership.

The other item of note was the Priority Discussion on the Act 93 salary adjustments.  Waters gave a lot of detail in an oral report that reiterated the general agreement from January, but of course, the only thing we had to follow was the table in the Agenda materials that kindly calculated 1% of each individual’s salary for the arithmetically challenged!  Of course, we could go look up somewhere the 2012/13 salaries, but why not just put them in the table to help the Board and community get some perspective?

The Board reiterated its opposition to the Keystone exams.  As a survivor of the UK’s “11 Plus” which determined our future at 10 years old, I’m not well qualified to comment on that!

The District’s collective bargaining agreements with TENIG (custodians, support staff and kitchen workers) and TEEA (the teachers union) expire on June 30, 2014.  In addition, the District’s arrangement with the aides and paras for the 2013/14 school year also expires in June.  Unless I’m missing something, it appears that the entire workforce of the TE School District is ‘under discussion’ with the exception of the administration.  I am glad to see that school board members (Cruickshank, Graham, Motel) are sitting at the negotiation table this time around with the teachers union. (If you recall, this was not the case the last time).

I hope that the Board President Buraks is sincere about the School Board keeping the public informed during the the process as Ray notes suggested.  It was the lack of transparency during the last teachers contract negotiations that troubled many of us — I re-read an old CM post on this topic from April 2012, ‘Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations’  which had a follow-up post on May 17, 2012, ‘TE Teachers Turn on Transparency Lights in Contract Negotiations’ .  In re-reading these posts and the many comments, what was striking was the need for regular updates to the public by the Board.  The lack of information and/or misinformation during the contract negotiations aggravated an already difficult situation.  In the CM post of May 17, 2012, I wrote,

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

I remain hopeful that the contract negotiations between the District and TEEA (and TENIG) will be open, honest and as transparent as possible.  To clarify —  representing the teachers union, is TEEA president Dr. Bob DeSipio, Conestoga HS science teacher.  TENIG president is Mary Minicozzi.

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