TENIG

Looking for public updates from the TE School Board on District lawsuits, teacher contracts … but none given!

Communication + Transparency = Trust

I attended the final TESD school board meeting of the 2016-17 school year on Monday night for several reasons.

First, I wanted to hear the District’s statement about the two important lawsuits filed in the last couple of weeks.

  • On May 17, Thomas Batgos, an assistant Conestoga High School football coach fired by the T/E School District in the aftermath of the alleged hazing and sexual assault filed a lawsuit against District administrators – Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick and Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit cited defamation of character, misrepresentation, fraud, improper termination, etc. and seeks damages of at least $50,000 in compensation plus punitive damages.
  • On May 8, a Federal lawsuit was filed against T/E School District and Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit alleges that District administrators and teachers at Conestoga HS tolerated a culture whereby Arthur Phillips, a 67-year-old instructional aide could repeatedly sexually abuse a 15-year old female student. The lawsuit filed by the parents of the student, seek damages of at least $75,000 in damages and calls for the resignation of Dr. Meisinger.

There was no statement from the school board on these lawsuits.  Nothing, nada, zippo … I get that this a legal matter but what about an acknowledgement from the school board that the lawsuits exist? What about a reassurance that all policies/procedures related to suspected sexual abuse will be reviewed and updated as needed?  The TE School District is more than school rankings and the number of college acceptances — it is the safety of our children!

The law firm in the federal lawsuit, Ross Feller Casey, has won record-setting awards for its clients, including victims of predatory sexual abuse like seven men who were victimized by Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. This lawsuit has the potential to bankrupt the District financially and yet the board makes no public statement. 

Secondly, I attended the school board meeting to receive an update on the District teachers’ contract, the non-instructional employees (TENIG) contract and the Act 93 (administrators) agreement – all three of these contracts are due to expire in two weeks, on June 30, 2017.

There was no statement from the school board on the status of the TEEA or TENIG contracts.

The school board did however approve a raise of 1.7% plus a 1% bonus for District administrators to extend the Administrator Compensation Plan (Act 93 Agreement) through June 30, 2018.

And finally, I attended the school board meeting to see how the school board was going to handle the passing of the final budget for 2017-18 given that the TEEA and TENIG contracts and the Act 93 Agreement account for 70% of the budget and these items were labeled ‘TBD’ (to be decided) in the budget.  During the budget discussion prior to the vote, there was no discussion about needing any contingencies for these (soon to expire) contracts in the budget.

Although the preliminary budget had contained a 3.435% tax increase, the board agreed to lower the tax increase before approving the final budget. The school board passed the budget 9-0 with a 3.2% tax increase for 2017-18. The newly passed budget assumes no increases for teachers and non-instructional employees. By my calculations, this budget for 2017-18 marks 13 consecutive years of tax increases.  You would have to go all the way back to the 2004-05 to find a ‘no tax increase’ year.

I attended the school board meeting expecting to hear updates about specific important issues facing the school district. Instead I left the meeting feel very disheartened about the lack of information. The school board has a responsibility to involve the community and to communicate clear information to the public. The importance of transparency and providing public information to the community cannot be understated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TE School District Served With Another Lawsuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easttown Republican school board members leading the TE School District

We learned last week at the TE School Board meeting that Easttown resident Doug Carlson (R) was elected board president and Tredyffrin resident Scott Dorsey (D) the vice president.  On Tuesday, the newly seated school board held their first Finance Committee meeting – Virginia Lastner (R) will continue her role as chair.  Although I was unable to attend the Finance Committee meeting, Ray Clarke attended and kindly provides his notes/comments to Community Matters (see below).

Late today, the District posted the committee assignments on their website.  After serving as Facilities Chair for many years, it was interesting who would fill the vacated seat of Pete Motel. In addition to chairing the Finance Committee, we learned that Virginia Lastner will chair Facilities in addition to Finance. The two most important school board committee meetings (at least when it comes to tax dollars) is Finance and Facilities committees … and both will be chaired by Easttown resident Virginia Lastner.

With Carlson as Board president and Lastner in charge of the District’s Finance and Facilities committees, it looks like the Easttown Republicans are taking charge of the TE School District!  How’s this possible … for the first time in the District’s history, five of the nine school board members are Tredyffrin Democrats!

Beyond the ongoing construction of the District’s maintenance building, looms the final report from the safety consultant on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project which is due by the end in the next few weeks. Looking at the makeup of the Facilities Committee, it’s unclear if consensus will be reached easily– newly elected school board members Michele Burger (D) and Ed Sweeney (R) publicly campaigned against the VFMS fencing project.  Will their opposition to the proposed fencing be sufficient to sway the other two members of Facilities, Lastner and Todd Kantorczyk (D)? The Valley Forge Middle School fencing project will likely be back on the Facilities agenda in early 2016.

It was good to see that the Public Information Committee is listed albeit as ‘Ad Hoc’; meetings held “when needed”.  In my opinion, there is always a need for public information.  Glad to see that Scott Dorsey is the committee’s chair – hopefully with Rev. Dorsey at the helm, we can look forward to increased transparency and public engagement from the Board.

With all the madness going on in the world, it was disturbing to see there the Diversity Committee was not listed.  Former school board member Liz Mercogliano previously chaired the Diversity Committee and would update the public at Board meetings on their important ongoing discussions.  Now, more than ever, we all must work together to ensure that we appropriately value the diversity within and among our schools. Promoting and encouraging respect for ethnic and cultural diversity within the school population, staff and community deserves to continue. Suggest that Diversity find a place on the calendar with the other committee assignments.

Here’s the complete list of school board committee assignments:

Facilities Committee

  • Virginia Lastner, Chair
  • Michele Burger
  • Todd Kantorczyk
  • Ed Sweeney

Education Committee

  • Scott Dorsey, Chair
  • Kevin Buraks
  • Roberta Hotinski
  • Kate Murphy

Finance Committee

  • Virginia Lastner, Chair
  • Kevin Buraks
  • Roberta Hotinski
  • Todd Kantorczyk

Legislative Committee

  • Doug Carlson, Chair
  • Michele Burger
  • Kate Murphy
  • Ed Sweeney

Policy Committee

  • Kevin Buraks, chair
  • Todd Kantorczyk
  • Kate Murphy
  • Ed Sweeney

Public Information – Ad Hoc

  • Scott Dorsey, Chair
  • Michele Burger
  • Roberta Hotinski
  • Kate Murphy

I appreciate the following comments/notes from the Finance Committee meeting as provided by Ray Clarke. Ray’s budget point #3 caught my attention – “assumptions about employee out-sourcing”. What?

In a follow-up call, Ray confirmed that there was no details or explanation offered by the Finance chair or the administration regarding this out-sourcing comment.  So, the public is left wondering which employees are they talking about — is it the few remaining aides and paras who remain as District employees? Or is the Finance committee and administration thinking ahead to other potential outsourcing opportunities  – TENIG’s contract is up in 18 months, so could it be that the District’s kitchen staff, secretaries and custodians will once again find their jobs in jeopardy?

Last night was the first meeting of the new Finance Committee (although the full Board was in attendance).  The group seems short on financial management experience, so there will need to be a steep learning curve. Exemplified by the fact that the Committee recommended that the Board vote in January to apply for all eligible Exceptions, totaling a 4.3% tax increase.  This is based on just eight numbers from the Administration, two of which are given from the mandated PSERS rate.  Two more are the same as the current year (State and Federal subsidies).  The bottom line is a scare-inducing $4.65 million deficit.

The four remaining budget lines:

  1.  Local Revenues:  Is the Board OK with projected revenues just $800,000 more than this year’s budget when this year’s real estate taxes, transfer taxes and interim taxes are already running $1,000,000 better to budget than last year’s rate?
  2.  Salaries:  Do they understand why salaries are flat despite a contracted TEEA step increase worth maybe 2%, a 5.7 FTE teacher increase, 1.7% salary increases for Admin, etc.?   We discovered last night that has something to do with assumptions about employee out-sourcing, but no detail was provided.  Nor of course, any detail about the expected staffing increase.
  3.  Benefits:  Apparently the consultant advised the District to project a 5% healthcare premium cost increase, and the total budgeted benefits increase vs 2015/16 is 5.1%.  But the TEEA, for example, is contracted to pay an extra percentage of the premium and there will be fewer employees apparently.  How does the math work?
  4.  “Other”: This is up nearly $3 million over the current year projection.  Presumably the out-sourcing projections have something to do with this, but no explanation was provided.

A couple of other noteworthy points:

– The arithmetic for the Special Ed calculation leads to a $900,000 tax increase, yet this year’s expense increase is less than $400,000 and there was no data on the slides supporting an expense projection for 2016/17.

– The projection for this year is that expenses will be $1.3 million less than Budget.

The response to this will say a lot about our new Board.  We were told over and over last night that the tax increase recommendation was just to “preserve our flexibility”, but we know too well how markers like that tend to get cemented in.  Are they prepared to lay down that marker with such minimal information provided by the Administration?

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Sometimes Do Overs are possible …T/E School District Union Votes to Save Aides from Outsourcing!

What is the saying about no do-overs in life?  For approximately 25 non-instructional aides in the TE School District, they learned yesterday that do-overs are possible!

To the surprise of many, you may recall on April 30, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) voted against including the small group of “non-instructional” TESD aides into their union.  The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.

In the aftermath of the April 30 vote, some members of TENIG rallied behind their fellow District employees and mounted a campaign for another vote; a vote that would include absentee votes. The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast.  The election results are in and the TENIG vote count to include the 20+ District aides is 53 Yes – 13 No.  The results indicate an overwhelming majority of the TENIG union members want their fellow District employees!

With the District’s deadline of May 15 (tomorrow) to outsource the full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES, this news for the non-instructional aides could not come at a better time.  The saga of the District’s full-time aides and paraeducators and the threat of outsourcing have gone on for the last two years.

Faced with offering health care benefits to all District employees under Affordable Care Act or paying penalties for non-compliance, the School Board had made the decision earlier this year to outsource. The 73 full-time aides and paraeducators were given the option of either working for the outsourcing company to keep their full-time hours or reducing their hours to part-time (27.5 hr. and below) and remain a District employee.  The District employees had until May 15 to make their decision.

Although the outsourcing of the District’s full-time aides and paraeducators would have avoided the cost of providing health care and PSERS, the Board’s plan has a new wrinkle.  The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) provides for health care benefits for all employees working 25 hours or more per week and as District employees, they receive PSERS.  Approximately 25 of the District’s non-instructional aides destined for outsourcing now will have a new home in the TENIG and enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining group, which includes health care!

Although some steps remain in the process to formally add the non-instructional aides in to TENIG, the hard work has been done.  Congratulations to John Brooks, TENIG president and to the many TENIG members, who supported their fellow District employees, appreciated their value and fought to save their District jobs!

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TENIG Union votes against includingTE School District’s non-instructional aides — Why??

To the surprise of many, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) took a vote yesterday on whether to accept approximately 20 ‘non-instructional’ TESD aides into their union.  Falling close on the heels of Monday’s TESD meeting where the School Board voted to outsource the full-time jobs of 73 aides to CCRES (Chester County Regional Education Services), TENIG offer was seen by these aides as a lifeline to save some of the District jobs.

The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.  The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast. With 44 TENIG members voting, the target number was 23 votes.  Unfortunately, for the small group of non-instructional aides, the 23 votes were against accepting them as new TENIG members.

If you recall, the TENIG collective bargaining members battled themselves against District outsourcing during the last couple of contract negotiation rounds. The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) was settled under the threat of outsource vendor bids by the School Board.  To avoid outsourcing, the current TENIG contract required the custodians to accept a 2% salary reduction and give back one week of vacation. The other TENIG members (security, kitchen, maintenance and cafeteria) all received a 4% salary reduction but their vacation benefits remained intact.  For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees received a freeze on their salary.

Ultimately, the TENIG contract saved the District $400K in healthcare, $207K with employee salary reduction and $207K with the custodian vacation giveback – a total savings of $719K to the District.

Under the current contract, the TENIG employees did not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract, which runs for another two years, until June 30, 2017.  So the question is, why did the TENIG members vote against their fellow employees yesterday?  After the Board’s vote at the Monday’s School Board meeting, the TENIG vote only added insult to injury to this small group of District employees.

Were the actions of TENIG employees just paranoia or a real fear of repercussion from the District? There is no doubt that some of the TENIG members were fearful of retaliation and either did not show up for yesterday’s vote or voted against the inclusion of the non-instructional aides into their collective bargaining unit.

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TE School Board Votes to Outsource Aides & Paraeducators and Makes Records Public from Secret Executive Sessions

After two long years of battling to save their District jobs, it is now official – the TE School Board voted to outsource the jobs of 73 full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES (Chester County Regional Educational Services).

In a School Board meeting that went until midnight, the School Board listened to a nearly endless stream of resident comments, which supported the aides and paraeducators, opposed the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project and those who called for Board transparency and public input on District matters.

There were many residents asking for the District to provide health care benefits but the Board was not moved by the appeals.  Kevin Buraks insisted that this was not a financial decision but that rather related to the District’s possible penalty of ACA compliance issues.  What is interesting is that the contract with CCRES includes the caveat that should CCRES be fined for ACA noncompliance, the penalty will be passed to the District (taxpayers).

When time finally came to vote to outsource the District’s aides and paras, School Board member Jim Bruce recused himself, for financial reasons – stating that he is on the CCRES Board of Directors, implying that this was a paid position.  (With an obvious conflict of interest, it is noted that Mr. Bruce has never recused himself from other previous CCRES-related issues and decisions).  During the outsourcing discussion, Liz Mercogliano stated her opposition on the issue but at the time of the vote, she abstained. Although she did not publically offer a reason, perhaps it is because her daughter is a part-time aide.  In a roll call vote, the other seven School Board members all voted for the CCRES as the vendor. The Republicans School Board members President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Peter Motel and Democratic School Board members Kevin Buraks, Karen Cruickshank and Scott Dorsey voted together in favor of outsourcing the full-time employees to CCRES.

At midnight last night, the District’s aides and paras received the following email notifying them of the outsourcing decision.

To All District Aides, Paraprofessionals and Paraeducators who work more than 27.5 hours per week:

This evening CCRES was approved as the vendor for aides and paras who choose to remain working more than 27.5 hours per week.  The vote occurred during the regularly scheduled meeting of the School Board of Directors. We understand that you may have many questions, so we will be setting up meetings with CCRES and District representatives in the very near future. We will notify you of those meeting dates and times later this week. The decision deadline has been extended to Friday, May 15.

Best regards,

Jeanne Pocalyko
Personnel Director

Related to the outsourcing decision, Neal Colligan was notified at 4 PM yesterday by Art McDonnell, the District’s Open Records Officer and Business Manager, that the School Board had approved the release of information from the five secret Executive Sessions regarding the discussion of the aides and paraeducator employment change and the Affordable Care Act.  Various related records from the secret meetings were made public and are now available on the District website at ACA/Support Materials .

At the School Board meeting, District Solicitor Ken Roos explained that the Board waived their attorney-client privilege by making the records public.  With this latest action of the  District, I assume that the School Board has decided against an appeal to the Chester County Court of Common Pleas in the case of Neal Colligan vs Tredyffrin-Easttown School District and that the matter goes no further.

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Call for Internal Investigation: Interference in Collective Bargaining Process of T/E Aides and Paraeducators … Was a Crime Committed?

Not all is equal.  In the T/E School District, some workers enjoy equitable treatment and benefits while others do not.  This is the story about the aides and paraeducators, the District’s lowest paid employees, their collective bargaining efforts and the questionable behavior of those trying to derail the process.

Most of you reading this post will have no idea what I am talking about or what has been going on with the District’s aides and paras since January of this year.  My association with the aides and paras began last year with the District’s outsourcing threat over the Affordable Care Act and has continued during the collective bargaining process of the last five months.

At the request of Ruthann Waldie, UniServe representative for PSEA (Pennsylvania State Educational Association), I have not written about this matter until today.  Early on, Ruthann told me that the collective bargaining process for the TE aides and paras was ‘fragile’ and if the effort were to succeed she suggested that I not write about it on Community Matters.  I trusted her experienced wisdom and complied. However, during the last 72 hours, circumstances have dramatically changed that make it no longer possible to remain silent.

Before explaining the recent actions in the collective bargaining process, it is important to understand the timeline and review the details.

In 2013, after a very loud public outcry, the jobs of the District aides and paraeducators were saved from outsourcing – however, for only one year, the 2013-14 school year.  At that time, there was talk among some of the aides and paras about forming a collective bargaining unit but once the school board agreed not to outsource (and to keep their hours intact), the discussion on the subject lessened.  However, things heated up again when these employees received a threatening, demeaning memo from Sue Tiede, (the former TESD Personnel Director), in January of this year. Her communication established the 7-minute check-in and check-out policy for the aides and paras, and detailed the progressive discipline measures for violation, including suspension.

Tiede’s message represented a continuing trend of disrespect and intimidation directed at the aides and paras.  Growing concern returned about possible outsourcing and … with that concern, a sense of urgency among the aides and paras developed. Unfortunately, many of the aides and paras continue to feel undervalued and unappreciated by the administration and references such as ‘disposable’ by at least one school board member have done little to improve their morale.

Without representation by a collective bargaining group, the District’s aides and paras are powerless; their continued employment is solely at the mercy of the T/E School District’s Superintendent and School Board.  As a result, a small group of determined, dedicated aides and paras came together in early February to discuss options and plot a course of action to improve their working conditions.

According to Ruthann Waldie, PSEA representative, the aides and paras could not join the District’s teachers union because they were not considered ‘instructional’ employees. Furthermore, Ruthann explained that due to a law change five years ago, the aides and paras were prohibited from forming their own ‘new’ union when a qualifying union already existed. As explained, TENIG (Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group) the District’s qualifying union with non-instructional employees and therefore, the aides and paras would become part of that group.

Before the collective bargaining campaign was officially underway, I spoke with TENIG president, Mary Minicozzi to ask her opinion about adding the 176 District aides and paras to their union.  Her reaction was overwhelmingly supportive, stating that she was 110% in favor.  I invited her to attend the upcoming organizational meeting with all the District aides and paras and PSEA representatives. Mary confirmed that she would attend the meeting and that she would ask fellow TENIG members to also attend. However, something happened between that phone conversation and the organizational meeting a few days later. Mary did not attend the meeting nor did anyone else from TENIG attend. To my knowledge, she has had no further contact with any of the aides and paras since that point.

Over the course of the following four months, we learned through PSEA representatives, that Mary was no longer supporting the idea of the aides and paras joining TENIG, although it remained unclear as to why. However, the PSEA representatives continued to tell the aides and paras that it did not matter because the law required them to join TENIG.

The organizing campaign for the aides and paras continued to move forward. On February 21, the T/E School District and the School Board received official notification regarding the aides and paras interest in collective bargaining. Once notified of the organizing campaign, the PA Public Employee Relations Act 195 protected the aides and paras from any interference, threats, harassment, reprisals, etc. from the District during the process. (Or so we thought).

The T/E School Board hired solicitor Jeffrey Sultanik of Fox Rothschild, LLP to represent the District in the aides/paras collective bargaining process.  As an experienced labor relations attorney and school district contract negotiator, it is clear that Sultanik counseled school board members against interfering in any way with the aides and paras in the unionizing process. As their legal counsel, Sultanik would have explained the liability issues to the District if tampering occurred in the collective bargaining process.  Likewise, that same warning would have applied to all District administrators, including the superintendent.

Before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) in Harrisburg will schedule an election, there must be a suitable showing of interest by the employees in forming a union. PLRB requires a minimum of 30% of the effected bargaining unit employees to show interest by the signing of a ‘union assignment card’. The card does not indicate whether you would vote for or against a union – the signature simply signifies that you are in interested in moving the process forward and that you desire the appropriate local union (in this case the PSEA) to represent you for the purpose of collective bargaining. However, we learned that PSEA’s policy was to have at least 60% of the eligible employees sign the cards as an indicator of their commitment to the bargaining process.

As the campaign progressed, aides and paras from the eight District schools showed support for the collective bargaining process by signing the cards. (Due to years of intimidation and low morale issues in the District, the process however, was very slow.) In early May, after receiving 94 signed commitment cards, the PSEA representatives filed with the PA Labor Relations Board for an election for the aides and paras to join TENIG.

Upon approving the collective bargaining application, the PLRB was to set up a conference call between (1) the PSEA representatives, (2) the School District representatives and (3) the PA Labor Relations Board.  The purpose of the conference call determines all the rules and details around the election and sets the date for the actual election.

The aide and paras hoped that if the conference call occurred by early June, PLRB would schedule the election for before June 20, the last day of the 2013-14 school year. To vote in the election, you must be an eligible employee.  All 176 aides and paras are eligible to vote (whether they signed the commitment card or not). TENIG members are not eligible to vote. The PLRB requires that the union receive 50% + 1 votes of all employees who cast ballots. (Example: if only 10 eligible employees showed up to vote, the count needs to be six voting yes).

Unfortunately, the scheduled conference call between the Labor Relations Board, PSEA and the School District was delayed until June 18, which in turn pushed the election to September, after school starts. Although the aides and paras were disappointed to learn of the election delay, they had fought an uphill battle to come this far and remained committed to staying the course.

Then the unthinkable occurred this past Thursday, June 5 … the reason for this post.  A pre-selected group of 6-8 aides and paras received word in a PSEA conference call that their collective bargaining application would be withdrawn from the PA Labor Relations Board.  Why? Because Mary Minicozzi, president of TENIG, did not want the 176 aides and paras in her union. During the call, the PSEA representative further stated that the aides and paras would now need to start the campaign process all over again to form their ‘own’ union in the District.

By early Friday morning, as aides and paras learned the news, accusations of impropriety, collusion and tampering in the collective bargaining process began to surface. Interestingly, members of TENIG were also seeking answers.  Evidentially there was no official discussion with the TENIG members about the aides and the paras joining their union nor was a vote taken by the TENIG members. It would appear that the president of TENIG, Mary Minicozzi made this unilateral decision on her own to exclude the aides and paras from joining TENIG.  (Remember, this same individual personally told me four months before that she “110 percent supported” their inclusion!)

Many TENIG members have worked together with the aides and paras in the T/E School District for years.  The aides and the paras are their fellow District employees and TENIG workers know all too well, what it is like to be the target of the school districts’ outsourcing ax.  It seems highly unlikely that if the issue had come to a vote, that the TENIG members would have voted against including the aides and paras.  Why would they? Adding 176 more employees to TENIG would increase their collective bargaining group to over 300 members.

And let’s not forget that PSEA’s Ruthann Waldie told the aides and paras from the start that ‘legally’ they had to be in TENIG – as she explained, it was their only option.  She had further indicated that because it was the law, it did not matter whether TENIG wanted them or not.

The PA Labor Relations Board has already fielded calls from the District aides, paras and even TENIG members demanding answers – and some have already reached out to attorneys.

How is it possible that the TENIG president can control the future of 176 aides and paras in the T/E School District?   If Mary didn’t involve her fellow TENIG members in the decision-making process, exactly who was involved. I find it impossible to believe that she acted completely on her own.  It makes no sense — Why would you not include 176 additional workers in a union; adding the aides and paras would increase TENIG’s collective bargaining group to over 300 members strong!

We know that Mary’s decision was not based on an impending TENIG contract. If you recall, Mary signed a new TENIG contract in September 2013, 9 months before the existing contract was set to expire. The new 3-year TENIG contract begins July 1, 2014 and goes to June 30, 2017. I will not believe that Mary Minicozzi made this decision on her own – what did she have to gain? Was there a promise of something in exchange?

Why did Ruthann Waldie repeatedly tell the aides and paras that the law required them to join TENIG when this week the story changes and now are told they must form their own union? Things just don’t add up.  It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Somethings rotten in Denmark”.

Section 1201, Article XII, Unfair Practices of the Public Employee Relations Act states that public employers, their agents or representatives are prohibited from engaging in ‘unfair labor practices’. As defined by Public Employee Relations Act, unfair labor practices include a couple of relevant sections: (1) Interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights under Act 195 and (2) Dominating or interfering with the formation, existence or administration of an employee organization.

We know that interference has occurred in the collective bargaining process of the aides and paraeducators of the TE School District. At the ninth hour, the collective bargaining process was derailed. Why would anyone risk the legal ramifications of tampering with the process?  Who is involved and why?  Did the president of TENIG act alone or was she coerced? Did the Superintendent, the School Board or the District Solicitor know what was going on?

For the record, as of Friday, June 6, an attorney at the PA Labor Relations Board reported that the aides and paras collective bargaining file remains open and their application active.  By exposing the interference in the collective bargaining process, maybe there is a chance that this situation can ‘right itself’ and continue to move forward with the June 18 conference call and a September election to join TENIG. The District aides and paras have earned this right.

The T/E School Board has a fiduciary responsibility to those who have elected them to serve as advocates and stewards of our school district. I do not want to believe that any member of the School Board was involved nor had any knowledge of the derailment of the collective bargaining process of the aides and paras.  With accusations of interference, tampering, collusion, misconduct, etc. swirling, the Board needs to act quickly.  I suggest an internal examination to figure out ‘who’ knew ‘what’ and ‘when’. The PA Labor Relations Board may deem there is sufficient evidence to conduct their own investigation and if I were T/E School Board directors, I would want to be out in front of such an investigation not behind it.

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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.

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