TEEA

Obamacare healthcare compliance delayed a year — No need to cut the hours of TE employees!

Important Update:

Special School Board Meeting, Monday, July 9, 7 PM  Tredyffrin/Easttown School District Administration Offices at 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne.

With Obamacare requirement for businesses with 50 or more employees delayed a year, Monday’s School Board meeting presents an opportunity for the  Board to reverse its earlier decision and restore the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The Board has repeatedly said that these employees matter … now it’s up them to show us by reinstating their hours.

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The Obama administration has just announced that it will delay Obamacare requirement that businesses (school districts) with more than 50 workers provide health insurance by one year.  The Treasury Department has announced that the administration will start enforcing the mandate in 2015, rather than January 1, 2014 in order “to give business more time to prepare.” 

Here’s hoping that the Tredyffrin Easttown School District will turn the ship around and make things right for the aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department said in a statement, “During this 2014 transition period, we strongly encourage employers to maintain or expand health coverage.”  What does this mean to the TE School District? Answer:  There’s no longer any reason to decrease the hours of District employees from full-time to part-time for the 2013/14 school year!

The TE School Board is not scheduled to meet again until August, which is after the letters from the administration to the affected employees, are sent.  There needs to be an immediate brake put on this process of cutting hours of aides and paras in TE School District – the 2013-14 school year will not be affected by Obamacare healthcare requirement.  The School Board and the administration needs to do what is right for the employees and the children of this District.  They need to reverse course and reinstate the hours of all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  Plus, they do not have to offer health insurance to these employees, at this point.  Everything can remain status quo, just make the affected employees whole by giving their hours back over 27.5 hours.

This situation presents a wonderful opportunity for the District to appoint a citizens group to review Obamacare and the compliance requirements  during the 2013/14 school year.   As we have learned, the topic is confusing and needs further study.  As Mazur stated, lets all use 2014 as a transition period and learn more on the topic.  As more information becomes available from Washington, I am certain that the School Board will be better positioned to work towards compliance for the following year.  

If the employees are as important to the District as the School Board members say, there should be an easy solution to this situation.  Let’s put the cut of hours of District employees ‘on hold’ until we have more answers.  Please School Board, join the community in doing the right thing!

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TE School District has Multi-Million Dollar Budget Surplus … Again!

There was more to the June 17th  TE School Board meeting than the Board’s approval to cut the hours of aides and paraprofessionals.  With a 7-2 vote, the Board passed the District’s 2013-14 school year budget – Anne Crowley and Rich Brake dissented.

For another year, the District ended the year with a budget surplus – a year ago, it was a $3.9 million surplus and this year the surplus is higher, possibly as much as $5 million.  School board member Betsy Fadem defended the surplus, explaining that much of the surplus was due to one-time money situations.  Fadem’s logic may have been more convincing if it were not for the nearly $4 million surplus from the year before.

I understand that budgetary changes occur during the school year but the $8-9 million surplus of the last couple of years doesn’t balance well for me given recent Board decisions like the cutting hours of employees to avoid paying health insurance or the proposal to charge Valley Forge Elementary School neighbors a fee to use the tennis courts. How is that property-owning nonprofit organizations in our community are targets for District revenue or that taxpayers see an increase in their tax bill yet the school district has a yearly budget surplus of multi-millions?  This isn’t a few hundred thousand dollars in surplus, it’s millions!

My guess is that the teachers are paying very close attention to the District’s $8-9 million budget surplus that has occurred since  the signing of their last contract.  The TEEA contract is up June 2014, which means that contract negotiations are just around the corner.

Neal Colligan addressed the recently passed TESD budget in the latest issue of the Main Line Suburban.  Here’s his letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

Lost in last Monday night’s report on an emotional Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board Meeting was the economic news of the evening. This related to a summary of this year’s projected results and the adoption of budget for the 2013-14 school year.

As was announced the prior week at the board’s Finance Committee meeting, the district should see operating results this fiscal year that will show a surplus of $4 million to $5 million. Fiscal year 2011-12 (last year) ended with the district in a surplus position of $3.9 million. This is total surplus for the district of $8 million to $9 million in two years. It’s important to remember that the district imposed the maximum tax increases allowed in the Commonwealth (without voter referendum) in each of the last two years. These two tax increases totaled about $6.5 million in new revenue for the district. We were told that this was what was needed to educate our children in the next school year. The budgets adopted for those two fiscal years were each estimated to produce multi-million dollar deficits; even with the tax increases imposed. The reality is that there was enough revenue in each of these years to effectively operate our public schools without any tax increase. Looked at another way, our tax increases only ended up funding surpluses. This is a disturbing, and now repeating, pattern.

This year’s budget also included a tax increase. The presentation of the budget detailed, again, multi-million dollar deficits even with the now-adopted tax increase. This budget, as in the last two years, passed the board but not without dissenting votes. As it turns out, these dissenters in prior years were right voting against tax increases as they were not “needed” to educate our students. The old adage comes to mind: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times…? Let’s all hope this is not the case.

You may be asking the next logical question, what happens to these surpluses? They are accumulated in the district’s Fund Balance. This accumulation account is designated for many things; past untaken vacation days; stabilization of self-funded health insurance costs and a PSERS stabilization balance. Up until last year, the PSERS balance was the largest designated balance in Fund Balance. But it has never been used to protect the taxpayer from the increased expense of PSERS (the biggest demon the School Board uses to justify tax increases). Rather, the largest withdrawal from Fund Balance was taken last year and used to fund the Facilities operation. $10.4 million was moved from the PSERS stabilization designation and moved to a new Capital Fund. Unusual? You decide.

As with any operating entity in the public sector funded by our tax dollars, citizen diligence and attention is warranted. So let’s see what happens to this year’s projections of multi-million dollar deficits. We all hope it doesn’t play out that way but as a careful watcher of recent financial results; I’m not too concerned. The District has been widely wrong in its doom-and-gloom budgets in the recent past. Plus, they now have another funding increase in the form of your increased tax dollars. Will it be needed to educate our children or to create another surplus for the District? We’ll be watching…like a Hawk!

Neal Colligan
Wayne, PA

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Outcome of TE School Board Meeting more suited for black roses than white ribbons!

Much like the last TE School Board meeting on May 13, the audience was filled with residents and staff, including aides, paraeducators, paraprofessionals, teachers and TENIG members … the outcome of the evening more suited for black roses than white ribbons!

The same 9-0 Board vote to cut the weekly hours of aides and paras to part-time, 27.5 hours could have taken place in the first 5 minutes of the meeting, rather than dragging the vote out until 10:30 PM.  To those of us who attended, we all now know that the minds of the school board members were made up before the meeting ever started.

During the first public comment period of the night, TESD resident Neal Colligan delivered a statement that included the timeline of activity surrounding the decision on the District’s aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The ever-changing status of this group of District employees began six weeks ago with the outsourcing of their jobs to STS.  When STS pulled its proposal, the District turned to another outsourcing company CCRES.  Its unclear what happened with the CCRES outsourcing plan – that plan disappeared without explanation.  In its place, the employees were notified about 10 days ago, that their hours would be cut to part-time.

Colligan stated, “No one has seen a vote on any of these decisions.  The community, the employees who live in our community and the members of the public who have taken an interest in this issue ask for that vote tonight.”  He asked that the Board listen to the residents before taking the vote.

Often we hear residents complain about a local issue but when you suggest they speak up at a public hearing the answer most likely is this:  “Why bother, no one listens.”  Nothing truer could have been said about last night’s school board meeting! After a series of meetings, phone conversations and emails with many of the District aides and paras, it was clear they feared retribution if they spoke publically.  Believing that the Board needed to hear their testimonials, I collected personal statements to read.  With the 5 min. limit imposed for individual resident comments, I was only able to get through two letters.  I appealed for audience volunteers and residents lined up to read aloud the letters into the  meeting testimony.

The thoughtfully written personal statements are with an insight that only comes with years of experience in the school district.  Although personally affected by the decision to reduce their hours to part-time, the overriding concern of aides and paraprofessionals in their statements, is for the education, safety and well-being of our District’s children.

Click here to read full text of personal statements written the TE School Board.  Below are excerpted quotes:

  –  There is no substitute, when working with all children and especially kids with needs, for consistency, continuity, trust and relationship.

–  The aides and paras have been treated as puppets and the Administration and School Board are the Puppet Masters.

–  The loss of hours, I fear, will cause unnecessary turnover of staff with detrimental effects on school programs and the students of the district.

–  We go the extra mile because many of us had our own children go through TE and we are proud of the TE tradition.  You cannot pay for that.  Many of the aides were originally volunteers at their schools, putting in many hours making TE schools what they are.

–  What does affect me is seeing our school district begin a race to the bottom under the care of this school board.  The beginning of the “Walmart-ization” of our district as one speaker called it at a recent meeting.

–  There is a saying in organizational psychology, “If you want to know what is important to leaders don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do.”  What do you think your end run around the ACA says about how important the aides are to this school board?

–  The school board doesn’t care about us and they never will.

–  The relationship and bond between the aides and the children will be shattered with a revolving door of strangers in their lives. Beyond the nightmare of scheduling problems with all the part-time workers, are you prepared for the security risks that will come with brining all these new people into the schools?

–  If something bad happens as a result of your actions towards the aides and paraprofessionals of TE, it’s going to be your fault and no one else’s – you will have to live with the consequences.

In addition to the anonymous testimonials read for the record, several brave employees delivered their own written statements to the School Board, which contained similar sentiments.  Audience members who volunteered to read the personal statements, added their own messages of support for the aides, and encouragement to the Board to do the right thing.  On behalf of the TESD teachers, Laura Whittaker, president of the teachers union, delivered an impassioned plea to save the hours of the aides and paras, describing their important contribution to the District’s children and their families.

Following-up on her comments presented at last week’s Finance Committee meeting, TESD resident Joanne Sonn, sought and received guidance from the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington DC advocacy group with expertise in healthcare law.  Sonn presented a letter (click here to read) to the Board from Dania Palanker, Senior Counsel at the Women’s Law Center. The letter puts forth the assertion that under current laws a self‐insured plan  (to which TESD switched in 2011) can be in compliance with nondiscriminatory testing regulations while still offering a separate group of 30‐40 hr. /week workers a lesser valued plan.  As a result of Palanker’s information, Sonn respectfully requested the Board to reconsider its plans to avoid Affordable Care Act compliance by reducing the hours of District employees to part-time status.

The legal opinion of Palanker was dismissed by the District’s solicitor Ken Roos and the benefit expert from his firm, attorney Rhonda Grubbs.  They remained constant in their advice to the Board … claiming that the only way to avoid the ‘possible’ penalties of the ACA was to reduce employee hours to under 30 hours per week.  It was stated and re-stated by some Board members that the District could not afford the cost of healthcare for the lowest paid District employees nor could we afford the cost of possible associated penalties for ACA non-compliance.

So … in the end, the Board took a vote (9-0) to decrease the hours of aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals to 27.5 hours a week.  The vote also represented a decision not to listen to the residents, parents, aides and paras, teachers or the senior counsel of the National Women’s Law Center. Instead, all school board members chose to follow the opinion of the District solicitor.  Sadly, the takeaway from the Board’s action is that if you live in this community and feel that, you are not being listened to or acknowledged, you are probably right.

The Board’s claims that the District cannot afford healthcare for the lowest paid and/or the possible financial risks for ACA noncompliance may work for some residents.  However, these claims of fiscal responsibility ring false when we learn that the District, for another year in a row, has uncovered a multi-million budget surplus. Or that the Board can afford to give bonuses to administrators and raises to the District solicitor and his attorneys … or that the Board can stand behind a 10-year $50 million ‘dream’ facilities  plan to be paid for by taxpayers for years to come.  Beyond our yearly tax increases, we have a school board who chooses to go after revenue from nonprofit organizations and seeks to charge taxpayers for the use of tennis courts.

The most troubling aspect of the school board meeting was the Board’s total disregard for the residents and their message.  Our ‘collective’ votes elected these people to listen to us; but based on last night, it was obvious that what the community wants is not part of the Board’s agenda.  Residents need to learn to vote for representatives that will listen and serve us instead of only pandering to us during election time.

To review … Of the nine currently serving school board members, Anne Crowley and Betsy Fadem, are not seeking re-election, their terms end December 31, 2013.  Kevin Buraks and Rich Brake are seeking re-election and their names will appear on the November ballot.  Buraks and Brake’s opponents, Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey, respectfully, support the District staff and spoke out last night against the Board’s decision to cut the hours of aides and paraeducators.  In addition, Connors questioned the proposed budget expenditures and surplus and to his credit, Dorsey asked for (and received) an apology from school board member Pete Motel for his behavior toward resident Joanne Sonn at the Finance Committee meeting.

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Note:  With the 10:30 PM vote to decrease the aides and paras to 27.5 hours, over half of the audience got up and walked out, including myself.  For those that remained, it is my understanding that Rich Brake delivered a lengthy personal statement and presumably the 2013-14 budget was passed.  This was the first time I have ever left a public meeting before it ended but somehow there seemed little reason to stay.  For those that did stay, please fill us in on what we missed.

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Clarification of TE School Board receipt of outsourcing alternative strategy

This post is offered as clarification regarding the ‘outsourcing alternative’ strategy that Neal Colligan prepared for the TE School Board’s consideration and the receipt of the document . On June 4, Neal sent the following email to the school board at the District email address (schoolboard@tesd.net ) with the outsourcing alternative document attached. (I was copied on the email).  As previously explained on Community Matters, the document represented the  collaborative effort between community members, District aides and paraeducators and, health care experts. (You can find a copy of the document at the end of this post).

As you know, a group of community members, along with many of the Paraeducators working in the district have been working on an alternative to the outsourcing strategy discussed at the May 13, 2013 Board Meeting.  Attached is the result of these efforts.  The many citizens of our community who have supported this initiative ask that the Board please seriously consider what we propose.  In essence, we urge you to comply with the letter of the Affordable Care Act and keep these several hundred jobs in the District.  We believe that this can be accomplished in a fiscally responsible and budget positive manner as you will see.

To be clear, we do NOT represent this employee group.  They, like us, are members of our community searching for solutions to a community issue.  Unlike those of us who have volunteered to help, they will be directly impacted by your decisions on this matter.  Their input was critical in considering the design of this strategy.  Many of these District employees are living in fear of workplace retribution for being a part of this effort.  As such, we will not attach their names to this conceptual plan.

Finally, it is a conceptual plan only.  As we did not possess all of the data necessary, we used estimates where necessary.  You will not be limited by this lack of information.  As in any conceptual plan, there will be issues to work out in the implementation process if you choose this alternative.  We believe that this concept can produce a viable alternative to your current strategy that is good for the District employees, taxpayers and the community at large.  As engaged members of the community, we are prepared to help in any way we can as you search for a solution to this issue.

Please accept this in the spirit it is intended…as an attempt to help.  Let me know when you receive as I can send this attachment in another format if necessary.

Neal Colligan

Rather than a response from the School Board to this email, a receipt from business manager Art McDonnell was sent to Neal.  It was unclear whether the Board received the information.  Because the outsourcing alternative document was to be publicly distributed on June 5, and because it was important that each Board member receive a copy in advance, I forwarded Neal’s email (with accompanying outsourcing strategy document) to each School Board’s personal email address (Neal was copied on the email) with the following message:

All –

I am re-sending Neal’s email and attached ‘Outsource Alternative’ on the outside possibility that you may not have received it.

Over the course of the last 3 weeks, we have met with many of the aides, paras and substitute teachers and I’m certain that as Board members, you share our interest in saving these District employees and their jobs.  It is impossible to fully measure the value that this group of employees brings to the District’s children and their families daily. Understanding the current economic requirements of the school district, I hope that you will give Neal’s plan the complete review that it deserves.  We both believe that the aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers are valuable assets to this community and their jobs need to be preserved, not outsourced.

Please let Neal or me know if there is anything we can do to help, as you review the various options.

Kind regards,

Pattye Benson

Following the re-sending of the email with the attached outsourcing alternative document, I received no notice of receipt from any Board member nor was there any response from the District.  As a result, it remained unclear if individual Board members had received the information.  A couple of days after sending the initial email, Neal did receive a personal email from Anne Crowley (no other Board member or myself were included on the email) stating that she would review the information he had sent regarding the alternative proposal. She went on to thank him for his “attendance, comments and thoughtful participation regarding school board issues.”

Other than the private email from Anne Crowley to Neal, I am unaware of no other school board or District communication to Neil in regards to the outsourcing alternative document – official or otherwise. Neal received no Board ‘thank you’ for his efforts as was stated at the Finance Committee meeting.  And for the record, there was no response to my email (above) by any School Board member. I hope that this clarifies the matter and I apologize for any misunderstanding.

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Click here to read the outsourcing alternative strategy as provided by Neal Colligan.

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TE Finance Committee meeting — How does the School Board regain public trust?

 I do not know anyone who attended last night’s Finance Committee meeting that left feeling good.  Although the Finance Committee is chaired by Betsy Fadem and includes other Board members Rich Brake and Jim Bruce, all members were in attendance.  Expecting a large audience, the meeting was at Conestoga.  Nearly all chairs were occupied with a significant number of aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals in addition to teachers, members of TENIG, teachers and residents.

Following the budget discussion, the public comment period was troubling and disheartening.  Based on the TE School Board president Kevin Burak’s email last week, we had learned that the District would not outsource the jobs of the District’s aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals but instead decrease the hours of 80% of these employees from full-time to part-time status.  The reduced work hours will cause a decrease  in pay as great as 25% — all this to avoid providing an affordable healthcare benefit option as required under the Affordable Care Act.

The Board cited the May 21 in-service day meetings with Buraks, Dan Waters and Sue Tiede and the aides/paras as the reason for this choice – stating that the paras and aides wanted reduced hours to stay employed as District employees.  Not only was this not the case, but also as I have stated previously on Community Matters, as Waters and Tiede explained to the aides and paras at that meeting, reducing hours was not a viable solution because it would then require the hiring of 35 more part-time employees to fill the void.

TE resident Neal Colligan asked the Board why no other alternatives were considered, including the one that he had offered.  For the record, Neal’s outsourcing alternative document was sent to the school board on June 4 with a request to notify that it was received.  Hearing no response, I re-sent the document to each individual school board member and we receiving nothing.  Neither Neal nor I received any notification from the Board that they received the document. Yet last night, school board member Karen Cruickshank not only tells the audience that the Board notified him that the document was received but that additionally, that the Board had thanked him for his efforts.  This simply did not happen.

Neal attempted to reason with the school board and asked they consider other alternatives rather than cut the hours of employees to avoid compliance with Federal law.  Seriously, what kind of message is this sending to our children — if you don’t like a law, look for ways around it?

There was no reasoning with the Board members in regards to their decision to reduce employee hours.  The Board stated that the District’s solicitor and the health care provider had researched the Affordable Care Act and provided the opinion that lowering the employee hours was the only way to avoid penalties for non-compliance. I will say that other than Liz Mercogliano  and Anne Crowley who did not speak, the school board presented a unified team on this issue.

TE resident Joanne Sonn ‘attempted’ to offer her own Affordable Care Act research and to present information that differed from what the District had previously presented.  Joanne had done her homework on ACA and offered names of several legal and healthcare expert sources, including Dania Palanker*,  senior counsel  at National Women’s Law Center in Washington, DC, .  Unfortunately, Sonn was not far into reviewing her research (which disputed the District’s findings) when Board member Pete Motel shut down further discussion by loudly yelling, “You’re wrong” at Sonn.  Motel’s action caused an immediate reaction from the audience and defense of Sonn’s right to ask questions.  Although this resident had much ACA information to offer to the Board, they were unwilling to listen, preferring to close further discussion by referencing the opinion of the solicitor.

In an email to me following the meeting, Sonn says in part, “I felt really disrespected by the board and patronized and I was not expecting that. All we are asking from the school board is to do due diligence. As you heard tonight, they will not listen to anyone but their own advisors. I think if they at least were respectful and open we would have left feeling better about this school board.”

Since the response to Neal Colligan by the Board was similar to Joanne Sonn’s … an attempt to limit discussion on the Affordable Care Act and its requirements, I asked Neal for his thoughts on last night’s meeting.  Here are his comments:

Interesting meeting last night.  Certainly the Board did not want to discuss the fate of the Paraeducators.  Seemed their impression of the situation was that this employee group was satisfied with reduced hours to avoid the ACA.  As that will impact about 80% of these 175 workers resulting in a cut in their total wages next year, I think it was clear that the Board’s impression was wrong.  It was nice to see so many of the employee group out at the meeting.  I wish they could have shared with the Board their individual situations as it relates to the reduced hours solution but I know they are still worried about workplace reprisals.

We don’t know how much work the Board has done on trying to find a plan to comply with the ACA Act so that these employees could maintain their status quo of hours.  They say they investigated and, on the advice of their solicitor, rejected the concept as containing too much liability.  We never heard that compliance could not be done to that another solution was not possible.  The audience last night only heard that they went as far as to ask their paid expert for an opinion.

As one Board member said last night, this situation has been a train wreck.  For the last six weeks, much effort has been spent soliciting outsource venders, negotiating with two of these firms, presenting inflated ACA penalty numbers to the community and finally abandoning outsourcing all together.  The current plan is the fallback avoidance strategy…cut hours and makes all of these folks part-time.  With all that work, time, and money spent on avoidance schemes, it is hard to believe that a compliance solution was fully vetted.  But we’ll never know.

This volunteer Board works as all of our local Boards do in the Public Trust.  They extract money from the community through taxes and use it for a public purpose; our community schools.  But the Trust of the Public is exactly what is missing here.  There were ugly parts to last night’s meeting as the audience clearly disagreed with the Statements of the members of the Board.  The shouting down of community members who rose to give opinions was also ugly.  I believe that this Board has lost its most critical attribute that it needs to carry on in the Public Trust and that attribute is the Trust of the Public.

As Neal states, the aides and paras are “worried about workplace reprisals” and fearful of speaking out.  They saw what happened to a resident Joanne Sonn when she dare offer an opposing opinion (and Ms. Sonn is not an employee of the District.)  It is remarkable to me that residents are encouraged by the Board to get involved, attend school board and committee meetings.  I guess what that really means is that you are welcome to attend, just don’t dare have an opinion.  I have often wondered why more residents are not involved but after last night, I know understand why.

Besides Joanne Sonn and Neal Colligan, the other TE resident asking questions at the Finance Committee was Ray Clarke and here are his comments:

Last night’s Finance Committee meeting was most astonishing to me for the complete absence of any interest in collaboration with the community and affected employees to solve the aide/para healthcare issue.  The default approach is “how do we get around the AHA?”, not “how do we comply with the AHA most efficiently?”  Inexcusable.

We did also get for the first time an integrated picture of the expected financial results for the year, although you had to be quick with ear and pen to catch the numbers.  It’s part of a pattern of the Administration to keep all information tightly controlled.  Anyway, as best as I could figure, it looks like we are heading for revenues of $111 million ($2 million over budget) and expenses of $106 million ($3 million under budget).  The net result: a $5 million surplus.

It should be noted that $0.8 million of the revenue was paid by Vanguard under protest and is subject to the result of their assessment appeal.  Key parts of the favorable expense variance are $1.8 million of healthcare, $0.5 million of salary due to retirements and leaves and $0.2 million for transportation.

So there are a couple of important questions.  First, does this outcome have any impact on the 2013/14 budget, revenues of $112 million (up only $1 million with a proposed $1.5 million tax increase) and expenses of $114 million (up $8 million)?  Well, apparently not.  But of course there is no documented analysis of that.  Dr Brake did have a shot at getting an breakdown, but that went nowhere.  The Board should demand a clear explanation before voting next Monday to approve any tax increase for 2013/14.

Second, what to do with the surplus?  Dr Motel was quick and brusque in claiming it for his Facilities empire.  I asked for an explanation of how the $50 million Infrastructure Implementation Plan is vetted by the Board, and it is clear that there is no integrated oversight.  After the proposed approval on the Consent Agenda, the next the Board sees will be a decade-long, rolling series of one-off projects, also slotted in the Consent Agenda.  Who is making the trade-offs between employee benefits and security and new kitchens, lights and toilets?

It could indeed be that the best use of the surplus is a transfer to the Capital Fund.  The district has some $60 million of debt and interest to be repaid over the next dozen years, of which all but ~$10 million has already been spent.  Although there is a good argument that the cost of new facilities is properly shared with future generations through debt financing, the district needs to be very prudent in loading up with more and more interest-bearing debt.  The first step, though, is of course to make sure that the funds need to be spent in the first place…..

There’s an important Board Meeting next week, but last night’s evidence does little to inspire confidence in Board or Administration leadership.

Isn’t it amazing how last November 2012, the District discovered a surprise surplus of $3.9 million from the 2011-12 budget. Other than some health insurance adjustments, it was never clear how the financial forecast could have been off by nearly $4 million last year.  And if you recall, the surplus was conveniently found immediately following the signing of the teachers’ contract.

If we were to believe that last year’s budget surplus was a fluke of nature, guess what – the fluke happened again. According to Art McDonnell, it sounds like the District will have a surplus of $4-5 million from the 2012-13 budget.  Two things come to mind – if the District has a surplus of $8-9 million in the last two budget cycles, how is it that (1) we cannot afford to offer affordable health insurance to every full-time District employee  and (2) shouldn’t the taxpayers receive a check for overpaid taxes?

The questions continue but the answers do not.  Perhaps the Board will behave differently at next Monday’s School Board meeting … the cameras are on and their performance is recorded.  If you are an aide or paraeducators, a resident, TENIG employee, a teacher or a parent – I encourage you all to attend the meeting, June 17 at 7:30 PM, Conestoga HS.

Open dialogue and communication are key to the success of any organization. As TE School District residents, we have a right to comment and to ask questions of our District leaders and we cannot allow that right to be taken from us.

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*  Joanne Sonn has had extensive communication with Dania Palanka, as she sought expert legal assistance to better understand the Affordable Care Act and what its requirements would mean to the TE School District. Here is a brief background from Ms. Palanker’s resume — Dania Palanker focuses primarily on implementing health reform and expanding access to quality, affordable health care for women and their families. Prior to joining the Law Center, Dania worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Starting her work at SEIU in the research department, she became interested in expanding access to health care to low income families and spent a few years as Deputy Administrator of a health benefit program at SEIU, working to provide affordable health insurance to previously uninsured low wage workers and their families. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), she worked on implementing the law as Associate Director of Health Policy. Her background in the ACA includes insurance reforms, coverage expansions and delivery system reform, with particular expertise in employer benefits and insurance reforms. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Based on Ms. Palanker’s background, it appears that she is eminently qualified to address ACA compliance requirements in the TE School District.

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White Ribbon Campaign no Longer Needed — TESD Not to Outsource!

The TE School Board held an executive meeting last night and have decided against outsourcing of aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers for the 2013-14 school year!  This is great news for the District’s children and their families, the employee and the school district community!

Below is the email from the Kevin Buraks to the employees:

June 6, 2013

 
Dear T/E School District Aides, Para-educators and Paraprofessionals,
 
I write to you on behalf of the T/E School Board to inform you that the Board will not outsource our aides, para-educators and paraprofessionals in the 2013-14 school year. This action is in response to what we learned from you on our visits on May 21, 2013.
 
The District will restructure the work hours of the aides, para-educators and paraprofessionals in a manner that complies with the Affordable Care Act and does not result in new costs or penalties to the District.  The 2013-14 approved Proposed Final Budget does not require adjustment and continues to reflect a 1% raise for all aides, para-educators and paraprofessionals, as well as associated PSERS benefit costs. In addition, the School Board is not required to take any action since the budget is unaffected by this authorization. As I shared with you on May 21st, we greatly value and appreciate the contributions that you make to our students and staff every day. I wish you the best for a successful closing of the school year, a fine summer and look forward to seeing you in the fall.
 
Sincerely,
Kevin Buraks
President
Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board
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Harassment, intimidation and bullying have no place in our schools …

The troubling stories of intimidation by the TE School District administration continue, as does the School Board’s silence regarding this issue.  After As I See It: Tredyffrin Easttown School District … Intimidation to Silence” appeared in Main Line Suburban, I received additional phone calls and emails from former and current District employees, describing our schools as a workplace which seeks to control and silence.  A former TE teacher wrote, “Employees have noted for years that they felt bullied and targeted when raising any questions or concerns regarding building and/or programming changes.”  From a current District aide, The negativity and lack of respect from the administration is always present.” 

What is really going on behind the walls of our schools – the morale continues to plummet but other than bringing awareness to the problem, there is no indication that anything is changing or that anyone on the School Board is actually listening.  Disappointingly, there has been no response to either of the two emails sent to School Board President Kevin Buraks in regards to this matter.  Some may suggest that Buraks does not respond because he is in re-election campaign mode and does not want to risk his quotes appearing on Community Matters.  If that is the case, I wonder what excuse is offered  for not responding to the concerns of other School District residents.  How about a press release suggesting that the School Board is addressing employee concerns and claims of intimidation?  The employees need to know that their contributions are valued and that they have a right to a working environment free from harassment and intimidation.

By speaking out, employees feel that their jobs are threatened.  Following the School Board meeting, the administration suggested to certain TENIG members that they had no business attending the meeting.  These individuals did not speak at the meeting (although if TESD residents, they have that right); they merely attended the meeting.  I find this level of control by intimidation from the administration extremely disturbing. All employees deserve a supportive working environment not a place where they fear losing their jobs for raising questions or concern.

With the level of discontent, negativity and lack of respect that many District employees are indicating, I simply do not understand why the School Board does not investigate and find answers.  Why should employees fear retribution from the District administration for speaking out or … in the case of some TENIG workers, for just showing up a public meeting?  When a District employee speaks as a citizen at a meeting, does the First Amendment not protect them? How is it possible that a school district is allowed to exercise control over an employee’s private speech.

There are examples of intimidation and low morale of the employees from all areas of the District — the kitchen staff, the custodians, the aides and the teachers.  Large segments of the employee community feel disconnected from the District leadership; leaving them to question why the School Board seemingly does not care. How do the members of the School Board rationalize and not react to what District employees are saying?  I will say it again, this is not some isolated, disgruntled employee looking for attention but rather the new reality of what it means to be a TE School District employee.   Respect and support should be commonplace on the education ladders of TE schools, regardless of whom you are or whom you know.

There’s no magic wand to make this simmering problem within our schools disappear. Increasing awareness suggests that our award-winning TE School District needs a thorough internal examination and review to look at what is really going on inside our school walls.

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Footnote:  In a quick Google search, I found ‘School Perceptions’, an independent research company that collects data, conducts internal examinations, professional development,  benchmark surveys, etc. and measures feedback from community, parents, students and staff in public and private schools.  According to their website, their mission is to “help educational leaders gather, organize and use data to make strategic decisions” by measuring what matters.  I understand the economics of the School District and I realize that School Perceptions, or a similar company, does not come without a price tag however … this situation requires action.  One solution is an independent examination and review of the working environment of the District employees.

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Outsourcing analysis by TE School District does not stand up to public scrutiny – decision ‘on hold’

Taxpayers, teachers, PTO presidents, paraprofessionals, parents, substitute teachers, TENIG members and students brought their collective voices to the School Board meeting last night, and were heard, at least temporarily.

Standing three people deep and overflowing into the lobby, all attended the meeting for the singular purpose to oppose outsourcing of paraprofessionals in the TE School District.  For over three hours, one voice after another was echoing the same message to the School Board, “don’t outsource.”  For the record, not one person spoke in favor of the District’s proposed outsourcing plan.

With Fox News and ABC Action News filming most of the proceedings,Board members, District business manager Art McDonnell, personnel manager Sue Tiede and Superintendent Dan Waters repeatedly claimed that many of us had misunderstood and that the third-party outsourcing to STS would actually help ‘save’ the jobs of District aides and paras.  They wanted us to believe that STS would hire all the displaced TE employees and that our employees would be making more money working for STS.

According to McDonnell, the need for outsourcing is based on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the cost to provide healthcare for the aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers working 30 hours or more per week in TESD. These employees have never received healthcare coverage through the District.  McDonnell claimed the annual cost to provide healthcare coverage to these currently uninsured District employees would be in excess of $2.3M and further citing a potential fine of $1.2M annually for noncompliance.

By the time the last person had spoken out about outsourcing, it was abundantly clear that the District and the School Board had many more questions than answers.  McDonnell had predicated his evaluation of the healthcare coverage costs to the District on all 175 employees needing insurance.  As was repeatedly pointed out, most of these employees have insurance through their spouses and do not need the coverage.  The District’s cost to insure was based on all 175 employees working 30+ hours per week which had many in the audience asking why not reduce their hours (so the District would not be affected by the requirements of ACA).

Several residents spoke of personal experience with the Affordable Care Act and its requirements.  One in particular, a CFO for a local corporation, offered that the District’s analysis was incomplete and inaccurate, and suggested the Board seek healthcare benefit expertise so as to make an informed decision. Example of inadequate District analysis — The Affordable Care Act does not stipulate that the healthcare coverage must be the same as offered to the teachers and administrators.  Rather than plugging in the cost for a ‘basic’ healthcare coverage in their outsourcing analysis, the McDonnell used the cost of the Cadillac-type of healthcare coverage of the administrators.

The most striking comments of the evening were from those who had called the proposed outsourcing company, STS to learn about the company and their employment requirements.  They were told that STS employees only need graduate from high school, or a GED will suffice. (Remember all the aides, paras and substitute teachers working in TE have 4-year degrees and many have Master degrees). When asked if any additional training was needed to serve as a school district paraprofessional, the response from the company HR — was one evening of their STS Academy training (!).  One young woman in the audience spoke last night who works for TESD but is also a STS employee.  She explained STS hiring procedure and the shocking revelation that STS hired her with no interview required.

Personnel director Sue Tiede repeatedly countered the low employment standard of STS that should District use this company, they would be required to meet the TESD requirements.  We also learned that STS has no experience with this type of job outsourcing.  Although McDonnell and Tiede offered that a couple of Lancaster County school districts employ STS, we learned quickly from audience members that these contracts were only recently signed … therefore leading to the speculation that our award-winning school district would serve as the company’s outsourcing guinea pig.

Facing many unanswered questions from audience members and an outsourcing analysis that did not stand up to public scrutiny, at 11:20 PM, the School Board voted unanimously to table the discussion of outsourcing for the night.  By the Finance Committee meeting on June 10, the administration and the Board will seek a better understanding of the Affordable Care Act (and its requirements) plus work to answer the many questions and possible solutions offered by the public last night.

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Will outsourcing in TE School District signal decline of property values?

At the Monday TE School Board meeting, our community’s taxpayers, parents and School District employees deserve an open and honest discussion on the impact of outsourcing.  If the jobs of aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers are outsourced with a third party contractor, we deserve to know the long-term costs and financial benefits, if any.  Based on the numbers provided at the Financial Committee meeting, I am not convinced that outsourcing is a cost-savings measure.

Outsourcing subjects our most vulnerable students, those with special needs, to a revolving door of low-paid, less qualified replacements hired by the low bidder outside contractor. Is this better for children with special needs than keeping the dedicated longtime TE employees who parents and students trust and respect?

And what about the taxpayers in the community who don’t have children in the school district …  the issue of outsourcing affects you too.  To date, Tredyffrin and Easttown Township residents  have enjoyed stable real estate values; the reputation of the T/E School District a key to the sustainability. The quality of a school district affects local property values and as a result, homeowners are willing to pay a premium.  With the outsourcing of paraprofessionals in T/E, I think we will see the beginning of a downturn in our home values.  Everyone needs to understand that if the School Board votes on Monday to outsource the aides and paraeducators, the jobs of the District’s custodians, kitchen workers and support staff will not be far behind. The homeowners in this School District should have assurances that living in the T/E community will continue to mean sustainability of the home real estate values. 

Upon his election as T/E School Board president in December 2012, Kevin Buraks stated, “We’re benefiting families with kids who are in school because they’re getting a top-level education that they’ll have for the rest of their lives. I think we’re also benefiting families who don’t have kids in school, because we’re keeping high property values because the schools are ranked in the top of the state”.  Contrary to what you stated 5 months ago, I would argue Mr. Buraks that outsourcing of aides is not beneficial to our families and outsourcing will certainly not keep our property values high.   Perhaps, President Buraks should review his own words prior to the outsourcing vote.

Scott Dorsey sent in a comment for the last Community Matters post but rather than have it buried in the stream of comments, I am adding it to this post.  Mr. Dorsey is a School Board candidate and voices strong opposition to outsourcing. Opposing Dorsey in Tredyffrin Region II is currently serving School Board Director Rich Brake.  In Tredyffrin Region I, incumbent Kevin Buraks is challenged by Peter Connors.  The four Easttown Region III candidates are Doug Carlson, Virgnia Latner, Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim. 

Primary Election Day is May 21 and knowing where candidates stand on issues has never been more important than in 2013.  I invite current School Board Directors Buraks and Brake and candidates Connors, Carlson, Latner, Piccioni and Kim to submit a personal statement on the issue of outsourcing.   Similarly to Scott Dorsey’s statement,  all statements received prior to Monday night’s meeting will appear on Community Matters.  (Although Betsy Fadem and Anne Crowley are not seeking re-election, they are welcome to submit outsourcing statements as well Pete Motel, Jim Bruce, Liz Mercogliano and Kris Graham.)

From Scott C. Dorsey …

As a resident of Tredyffrin, I stand firmly against any proposal that would outsource the jobs of my fellow neighbors. I truly believe there is an assault on those who have no union representation and it is time for our community to let its voice be heard.

I am saddened by the latest actions of our School Board. The Board has lost its way in giving our top administrators a sweet pay increase and retirement bonus while pushing paraprofessionals out to the lowest outsourcer bid. I understand the Board struggles to find financial opportunities to keep the school district solvent, but do we stoop to tactics of harassing nonprofit organizations by questioning their tax status or attempting to tear down neighborhood popular tennis courts? Do we discard loyal and valued employees who contribute to our students’ success?

Why are they making these decisions without the full input of the community? Where is the transparency?

Government can’t solve all the problems on its own, but Tredyffrin has been a community where people of all backgrounds can raise their families and provide their children a great education. In recent years, our educational system has come under attack. It is time to have public meetings and hear the voices of our neighbors before making decisions that will radically change the character of our schools.

Outsourcing will not save the district money or be a better deal for aides and paraprofessionals, as some School Board members have suggested. I beg my friends on the Board to listen to the people. It is time to focus on investing, not slashing the greatness of our community. I ask all my neighbors to come to the School Board meeting on Monday night to oppose the outsourcing of our educational system. Let us fight to protect those who are oppressed. May God bless us to find the right solutions that will preserve a great school district by investing in its children and valued employees.

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175 Aides and Paraeducators are on the verge of outsourcing in T/E School District — Help save their jobs!

It is almost impossible to believe that we live in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb with award winning, nationally ranked schools and our School Board is voting whether to outsource 175 aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers at Monday’s School Board meeting.

Since attending the Finance Committee meeting and writing about it this week, I have heard from parents, residents, aides, TENIG members and teachers.  Not a single person contacted me to say that they support outsourcing, touted as a cost-savings measure by the District.  I understand that there is pressure to cut costs in the District budget but cutting costs should not be at the expense of our most vulnerable students.

Although the District business manager Art McDonnell presented a couple of slides at the Finance Committee meeting about outsourcing, many in the audience left short on answers and confused.  Here’s a review of what I think we know at this point about the outsourcing.  According to McDonnell, the staff researched outsourcing opportunities and met with five different vendors. We were not given the names of the other vendors, only the recommended vendor – Substitute Teachers Service, Inc. (STS). During the evening, it was repeatedly stated that STS is one of the nation’s largest outsourcing vendors and has been in the business for 25 years.

The “Analysis of Outsourcing of Aides and Paraeducators” slide indicated that the 2013-14 anticipated wage and benefits costs for aides and paraeducators is $3,359,784. The cost to the District to outsource with STS is 22.5% of actual wages paid to the aides and paraeducators.  STS will pay all benefits form the 22.5%.  It was unclear what those ‘benefits’ were beyond the required Social Security, etc.  The agreement with STS will be for 3 years.  The increased costs to the District for outsourcing in Year One is $126,307 and Year Two is $59,678.  In Year Three, the District will see a projected savings of $529,544. How does the District go from losing money ($190K) the first two years to saving $500K?  I have no idea.

The anticipated wages and benefit costs for substitutes for 2013-14 is $842,250.  Like the aides and paraeducators, if outsourced to STS, the cost to the District is 22.5% of actual wages and vendor pays all ‘benefits’ out of the 22.5% and is a three-year agreement.  The increased cost to the District is Year One of $76,500, Year Two of $60,112 and Year Three of $44,275.  It is my understanding that the District will not see a savings until Year Six if the substitute teachers are outsourced!  By outsourcing, the District loses money for 5 years before recognizing savings … and this is viewed as a solution?

To be very clear, should outsourcing occur, there is no guarantee that the aides and paraeducators will still have jobs in our school district.  How do I know this absolutely … I asked that specific question at the Finance Meeting and was told by Sue Tiede that the District would ‘encourage’ STS to keep our employees.  I asked if the District’s agreement with STS could mandate that the outsourcing company hire our employees and the answer was NO.  I don’t view encouraging a vendor to hire our employees as any guarantee to the 175 aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers.

When I asked the Board if STS would compensate the TE employees at their current pay level, the answer from Art McDonnell was no, he indicated that their pay would be lower if outsourcing occurs. However, by the end of the outsourcing discussion, that response shifted with Dan Waters stating that the outsourced employees would actually be paid more if they were outsourced.  The rationale behind this claim – when outsourced, the paraprofessionals will not be making the 7.5% PSERS contribution so therefore the employee makes more money. What? This is not more money as the contribution was the employee’s money in the first place.

I’m asking the question again, ‘Where’s the fairness”? Three months ago, the School Board approved raises for the highest paid employees — the administrators.  Now the Board is contemplating outsourcing the employees with the least amount of power, making the least amount of money.  If you recall, the administrator raises were buried in a consent agenda; and we came very close to see a repeat performance with the outsourcing.  The game plan at the Finance Committee meeting was to add outsourcing on the School Board meeting consent agenda. However, thanks to Board member Anne Crowley speaking out, outsourcing will be a priority discussion, which allows for public comment prior to the Board vote. How does the District balance raises to administrators against the outsourcing of aides … interesting interpretation of ‘shared sacrifice.’

In closing, I am including excerpts from some of the emails in the last few days in regards to the District’s proposed outsourcing:

From a District aide …

“These individuals have direct contact with our children on a daily basis. They are our greeters in the lobby, the aides who work one on one with special kids in the classrooms, they monitor lunch periods and recess, they work in the library and in the office , they assist teachers in the classroom, accompany our children on field trips and the do so much more. Many live in our community, have children in the school system. They are our neighbors and friends. 

Personally, I worry that non-local strangers will be brought into our schools and not give the same quality of care and attention to our kids that my colleagues or I would. Our current aides have a college degrees and many master’s, they go through rigorous security screening by the district and by the school staff. Many have been working here for several years. “

From a resident …

 “I challenge the School Board to spend some time really thinking about the outsourcing decision before you vote. Spend some time; really know what these people do, because those paraprofessionals have among the hardest jobs in the building. I’ve done that job; I respect the heck out of those people.”

From a TE teacher …

“This outsourcing will affect all students in various ways none of which are good.  Paraprofessionals are partners to the teachers in the education process.  They pick up where the teachers leave off.  They are there to lend a hand when one or a few students need it, so teachers can continue teaching the other students in the classroom.  I think the important message here is the fact that the role of paraprofessional in TESD is a very important one and I urge the Board to weigh the financial savings against the impact on our students.  I’d like the Board to think about the students first.  I think we’ve lost our way a little bit with regards to our students.”

From a parent of a special needs child … 

“I completely support the paras of TE.  They do this job because they love it and they love being with the children.  The paras make very little money and many have teaching degrees.  To me, as a parent, it makes me feel very comfortable sending my child who has special needs to school each day.  I know what it would do to my child having a different face in class each day who doesn’t know what to do or how to help.  Cutting costs should not come at the expense of our students. Both special needs and typically developing children benefit from having para professionals in our schools that are there every day.”

If you care about the future of 175 aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers  in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District plan on attending the upcoming School Board Meeting.  Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a paraprofessional, a TENIG member or a resident and oppose outsourcing, join me on  Monday, May 13 at  7:30 PM at the T/E School District Administration Offices (TEAO), West Valley Business Center, 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne.

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