TESD

TE School District Submits VFMS Fencing Permit Application … Tredyffrin Township Denies Request!

No FencingValley Forge Middle School fencing was not on the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors April 20th meeting, but many Chesterbrook residents attended the meeting and spoke against the TE School Board’s project.  The supervisors deferred all questions/comments to the township’s solicitor Vince Donohue for response who told audience members that the township would not get involved until the District made either a “permit request or there was a shovel in the ground”.  Chesterbrook residents left the meeting hoping for a more proactive approach by township officials.

The ‘wait and see’ township attitude was quickly tested when the School District submitted a permit request  for the Valley Forge Middle School fencing this past week.  The township’s Planning and Zoning Director Matt Bauman denied the permit request on the spot and in a letter to the School District, stated

“Please be advised that the permit is hereby denied.  The issuance of the permit would violate the terms of that certain Zoning Hearing Board Decision in Appeal Number 64-02 issued December 17, 2002.”

The School Board’s action attempted to violate the legal agreement between TESD and the Chesterbrook Civic Association. Without an amendment to the Special Exception granted by Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board in 2002, how does the School Board think that they can move forward with their planned fencing project at VFMS?

Unless something has changed in the last couple of days, there has been no movement on part of the School Board or the District to resolve the VFMS fencing situation directly with the Green Hills residents or with the Chesterbrook Civic Association.  As David Miller, president of CCA told us at the supervisors meeting, there has been no return of phone calls or emails to either himself or to the Green Hills and CCA attorneys from the School Board or their attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing. Yet the District went ahead and made a permit application for the fencing!

I encourage Chesterbrook residents and Valley Forge Road neighbors to bring their chain link fencing opposition message to the TE School Board meeting on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School.  At some point, the School Board has to listen to those that they were elected to serve.

Victory for Government Transparency: Citizen wins Open Records Case against TE School District

Neal Colligan wins in Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case!

Between November 2014 and February 2015, School Board president Kris Graham called five special Executive Sessions to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators. These meetings were held out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation. The meetings were not a harmless error but rather, a deliberate attempt to be secretive.

In early 2015, the Board continued to discuss outsourcing of 73 full-times aides and paras as a budget strategy. Then in a surprise move at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting, the Board approved a resolution to change their employment status.

Citing on-going transparency concerns in School Board deliberations, a small group of citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Peggy Layden, Barbara Jackson, Jerry Henige and myself) sent a certified letter to the Board, appealing to them to reopen the outsourcing discussion and allow public commentary.

In a response on behalf of the School Board, the District Solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine claimed that no Sunshine Act violation had occurred and that the Board was in full compliance with public discussion. Beyond Roos’ dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear to many, that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act.

Advocating for government transparency, Neal Colligan filed a Right to Know request with the District for TESD records related to the secret Executive Sessions.  The RTK request was denied, with the District Solicitor stating that the records pertained to “labor relations strategy and predecisional deliberations” of the District.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No.: AP 2015-0442. News came yesterday from Harrisburg that Roos had lost the case for the District.  PA Office of Open Records (OOR) attorney Jill Wolfe notified Neal (and Roos, Supt. Dan Waters and TESD Open Records officer Art McDonnell) of the Final Determination. In the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case, Neal’s appeal was granted and the District is required to provide all requested Affordable Care Act records from the secret Executive Sessions within 30 days.   (Click here to read the OOR Final Determination).

In their legal analysis of the case, the OOR cited SWB Yankees LLC v Wintermantel, 45 A.3d1029, 1041 (PA 2012), “the objective of the Right to Know Law … is to empower citizens by affording them access to information concerning the activities of their government.”  The analysis further offered that in Bowling v. Office of Open Records, 990 A.d813,824 (Pa.Commw.Ct20140) the open-government law is “designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials and make public officials accountable for their actions.”

Touting the secret meetings as legal, the School Board hid behind the legal advice of the solicitor by holding secret meetings on the Affordable Care Act and deliberations regarding the future of the aides and paraeducators.  Believing that that they were within their rights to hold such meetings, Board member and attorney Kevin Buraks responded to residents at TESD meeting that although this [secret meetings] wasn’t normally how the Board operated, they did so because it was a “strategic decision”. According to the Final Determination of the OOR, the information discussed at the “secret” meetings was not “secret” after all.

I have learned that subsequent to the Board’s February vote to change the employment status of the aides and paras, that School Board president Kris Graham barred her fellow school board member Liz Mercogliano from attending any of the five secret ACA meetings. This information is very troubling; Liz is an elected official and has the same rights as the other eight members. How could the District solicitor and other Board members sanction this behavior and not speak out?

It just is enormously frustrating that citizens can’t access records that are open and have to fight for records that the School Board should have provided. How much taxpayer money has been spent on fighting public records requests? The School Board should encourage public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  Addressing public questions shows us that you have nothing to hide and that as elected officials, that you support transparency and open government.

Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan asked for transparency and easily accessible information that should be public information.  He was not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.  After receiving the Final Determination from the Office of Open Records, Neal emailed the Board, which read in part:

The real question is what will happen now … You could elect to finally provide the public with the information used in your Executive Meeting discussions regarding the fate of the Para’s and Aides in the District.  This would be the right thing to do in your continuing efforts to be a transparent government organization.  You had your Solicitor argue the matter to the Open Records Committee and they decided you/he did not meet the burden of proof that these records should continue to be shielded from the public.  I encourage you to direct the appropriate parties to take action and release these records immediately …. and not after another 30 days.

If you do not make the choice above, you can continue to fight this citizen of the community by appealing the OOR decision to the Court of Common Pleas.  By choosing this path, you will continue to spend the taxpayer’s money in a continued effort to keep your Executive Session meetings regarding the paras and sides secret from the very community you were elected to serve.

How much taxpayer money has already been expended on legal maneuverings?  Do you want to continue this fight against the engaged citizens of your community by entering into the next level of legal action?  Who is in charge here/who is calling the shots?  We all await your reply.

As Neal says, we do await the Board’s response.  The outsourcing threat for the District’s aides and paraeducators has been omnipresent since 2013. Aides and paraeducators are the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status). Unfortunately, they have become the pawns of the School Board, the administration and the District solicitor causing some of us to question decisions of the Board’s leadership.  The Board voted in February to outsource full-time aides and paras yet no vendor selection as been made.  A decision is expected on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM TE School Board meeting at Conestoga High School.

Will the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District outcome have an effect on the Board’s decisions regarding the District’s aides and paras? Was the School Board’s avoidance of ACA compliance and outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators worth the price of an Open Records Law violation? Residents may never know the actual cost of the Board’s secret meetings or the District’s legal costs to keep public information from the public.

Tredyffrin BOS Meeting: Proposed Zoning Changes, Fee Schedule Agreement w/TESD, Wayne Glen Conditional Use Application, etc. etc.

The Board of Supervisors have a full agenda for tomorrow’s meeting at 7 PM. Following the regular supervisors meeting, the public hearing continues for the Arcadia/Wayne Glen conditional use application.

On the supervisors meeting agenda are a couple of important zoning proposals are announced for discussion at the May 21 Planning Commission meeting.  These proposed Zoning Text Amendments are substantial; and may significantly change a couple of areas of the township. Erickson Living is proposing an amendment to Tredyffrin Township’s PIP (Planned Industrial Park) district language to permit large campus-style communities of independent living, assisted living and nursing care at Atwater Corporate Park in the western Great Valley section.  A preliminary discussion of this project took place at last week’s Planning Commission meeting with township planning commissioners and Erickson Living representatives and their attorneys.

The other proposed Zoning Text Amendment petition is by Benson Companies, LLC to create a Historic/Conservation Cluster Overlay district  – this proposed zoning change is to be discussed at the May 21 meeting.  I attended a community homeowner meeting with Benson (no relation to me!) and saw his concept development plans (one plan is by-right and the other a cluster housing plan) that the developer has in mind for a 7+ acre site in Strafford.  Neither of these plans is acceptable in their present state for the historic property wedged between Homestead and West Valley Roads.  Many of the township’s most prized historic properties are located on these two roads, adjacent to this proposed development project, including eight homes that have been featured on the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust’s annual Historic House Tour.

Without question, I support preserving the township’s historic resources. However, any type of historic preservation zoning change must be thoughtful and carefully created … not designed to meet the ‘spot-zoning’ desires of a developer! More will be written on this topic and the proposed zoning change prior to May 21 Planning Commission.

Back to the agenda for the Supervisors Meeting – I am delighted to see the “Motion to approve staff to seek bids for repair/replacement of the front steps at the Township Municipal Complex”.  It’s about time!  The disrepair of the steps and walkway in front of the township building is deplorable and the condition has deteriorated for years.  Is it because the supervisors and township staff use the ‘back entrance’ that they don’t see what the public sees – It looks awful, not to mention the safety hazard!  I hope that there’s a timeline for repair along with this motion.

Another item on the agenda is the permit fee schedule between the township and TE School District. Given the planned school district construction projects (fencing, maintenance building, school additions, etc.) any agreement between the township and the school district should have significant discussion.  Ray Clarke is particularly interested in this agenda item and provided the following comments:

The current CM discussion about planning, zoning and permits for fencing in Chesterbrook and the Maintenance and Storage facility on Old Lancaster Road touches on an important matter that all Tredyffrin residents and taxpayers should be aware of before the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday.

At its March 23rd meeting, the School Board approved a Letter of Understanding with Easttown Township for a custom permit fee schedule – “$104 plus reimbursement of all associated time and material costs” for both renovation and new construction, but at the same time “permit fees for new construction projects shall be negotiated and agreed upon by the Township Manager and Superintendent”.  So that’s confusing, but anyway, the intent seems to be to give the School District a discounted rate.  The standard Easttown permit fee structure is generally $104 plus 2% of construction costs.

So now the Tredyffrin BOS agenda for Monday April 20th has the following agenda item: “Motion to approve the permit fee settlement agreement between Tredyffrin Township and Tredyffrin/Easttown School District”   

If this “settlement agreement” has the same form as the Eastown agreement, there are a number of questions beyond the confusing language.

  1.  All the TESD facilities are in Tredyffrin except for two elementary schools.  So a give-away that is immaterial for Easttown is significant for Tredyffrin.  We have seen the huge drain on resident and township time imposed by the District facilities.
  2.  “Time and materials” is usually code for variable direct costs; any agreement that included that language would leave all the management, HR, accounting, engineering, healthcare, pensions, information systems, vehicle, debt, etc. costs completely unreimbursed.  Permit fees should be set to cover full costs over the complete range of business cycles.
  3.  These expenses would be borne by the taxpayers of Tredyffrin to the benefit of the taxpayers of Easttown.  Every $1,000 discount means a transfer of $250 from Tredyffrin taxpayers, given the relative sizes of the tax base.  Moreover, that discount is at least six times more material to Tredyffrin, with its less than $20 million budget, than it is to TESD with its $124 million budget.
  4.  One third of those Tredyffrin taxpayers are commercial enterprises.  Patch just reported that Tredyffrin has just been lauded for its “overall business friendly tax environment”.  Does the Township want to discourage commercial developers by making them pay inflated permit fees to cover School district discounts?
  5.  Since permit fees are likely paid from the TESD Capital Fund (repaid over the life of the project), this subsidy is not only from one township to another, it’s from currentresidents tofutureresidents of that township.

Of course, we won’t know until Monday what this agreement actually contains, but it seems to me to be important for anyone concerned with keeping Tredyffrin’s value for both residents and businesses should attend Monday’s meeting, find out what’s being “settled and why the Township would entertain giving the School District special treatment, and then voice their opinion before any BOS vote.

It’s worth noting here that another agenda item is:

“Motion to adopt Resolution 2015-11 to approve paying agent to call the 2020- 2023 maturities of the 2009 General Obligation Bonds”

Once more we see prudent financial management from the Township to the benefit of taxpayers, paying down debt from fund balance and only borrowing against actual needs, such a contrast to the School District.  Which makes any agreement as an enabler of the unconstrained district spending all the more inexplicable – so let’s hope I’m jumping to conclusions.

2015 Pennsylvania School District Rankings based on PSSAs: Unionville Chadds Ford retains top spot, Radnor in 2nd and TE School District drops to 7th! Anti-Standardized testing movement gaining traction locally!

There is an opt-out movement against standardized testing in public schools playing out across the country. Opponents of the exams argue that too much time in public education is spent teaching to the test, stressing out students and teachers and detracting from real learning time. Locally, the anti-standardized testing is gaining traction among parents in Lower Merion, Radnor and Tredyffrin Easttown School Districts – just as the Pennsylvania school district PSSA standings for 2015 are released.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) formula ranks the school districts based on three years of state standardized test scores, giving the most weight to the current year. The PSSA is a standards-based assessment of what a student should know and be able to do at varying levels in reading, writing, science and math.  Reading and math is assessed in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11; writing is assessed in grades 5, 8 and 11 and science assessed in grades 4, 8 and 11. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which  students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud.   Proponents of standardized testing view PSSA scores as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provides useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and provide of measurement of how an overall class is performing. But some parents have chosen not to have their kids participate, claiming the tests cause undue stress for kids, and have no direct benefit.

The Pennsylvania school district’s PSSA rankings for 2015 are now available and reported in Pittsburgh Business Times. This is the fifth consecutive year that I have tracked the top 15 school districts in Pennsylvania as ranked by the PSSA results. Results reveal that Unionville Chadds Ford School  District (UCFSD) in Chester County is holding on to top placement.  The yellow highlighted line in the chart below indicates that T/E School District has fallen in PSSA rankings each year during the last five years.  The District was second in 2011, third in 2012, fourth in 2013, fifth place in 2014 and for 2015 dropped to seventh place in the PSSA rankings.

2015  2014   2013   2012   2011           School District (County)
8 4 1 1 1 Upper St. Clair (Allegheny)
5 2 2 5 6 Mt. Lebanon (Allegheny)
1 1 3 2 3 Unionville-Chadds Ford (Chester)
7 5 4 3 2 Tredyffrin-Easttown(Chester)
10 8 5 6 5 North Allegheny (Allegheny)
2 3 6 4 4 Radnor (Delaware)
4 6 7 7 9 Hampton Township (Allegheny)
3 7 8 10 12 South Fayette Township(Allegheny)
6 9 9 8 7 Lower Merion (Montgomery)
12 12 10 9 8 Central Bucks (Bucks)
9 10 11 13 15 Wallingford-Swarthmore (Delaware)
13 13 12 12 11 Fox Chapel Area  (Allegheny)
16 11 13 14 13 Great Valley (Chester)
15 15 14 11 11 Peters Township  (Washington)
11 14 15 19 19 Rose Tree Media (Delaware)

After UCFSD (Chester County) in the PSSA rankings, Radnor (Delaware County) moved up to second place, followed by South Fayette (Alleghany County) in third, Hampton Township (Alleghany County) in fourth, Mt. Lebanon (Alleghany County) in fifth and Lower Merion (Montgomery County) moved up from ninth to sixth.

Interesting to note that Radnor and Lower Merion School Districts advanced on the state-wide PSSA rankings; both districts ahead of TE, which dropped to seventh. The TE School District has continued a steady downward movement in the PSSA rankings during the same period that Radnor and Lower Merion school district improved their scores. The question is why are the PSSA rankings going down in TE rather than up. The only other local Chester County school district represented at the top of the PSSA rankings chart is the Great Valley School District, which dropped from eleventh to sixteenth in the 2015 list.

We know that Pennsylvania parents that oppose standardized testing is advancing. In 2012, only 260 Pennsylvania students opted out of the math and reading PSSAs.  In 2014, more than 1,000 of the 800,000+ eligible students opted not to take the tests according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It will be interesting to see if the PSSA rankings change substantially as the students opting out of the standardized testing increases.

Parents in TE School District have arranged for the screening of the documentary, “Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education” created by a Berks County teacher is scheduled for the Saturday Club in Wayne on April 27 at 7 PM.  According to the film’s website, its purpose is to “shed light on the invalid nature of these tests, the terrible consequences of high-stakes testing, and the big money that’s involved.”

Fencing at Valley Forge Middle School is on the move: Plan now includes a “Zig Zag Fence to No Where”.

Chain_Link_FenceThe TESD Facilities Committee meeting was held on Friday, April 10 at 2 PM.  Although the agenda was available on the TESD website for a week, there was no mention of the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. With the ongoing fencing discussions with the District, township and residents, it was odd that there was to be no discussion of the matter.  When we showed up for the meeting, we were surprised to learn that the VFMS fencing project was added to the agenda. No one was notified of the last minute addition – not even the adjacent Green Hills property owners most affected, the “abutters”.

When I asked about the last minute change in the agenda and lack of notification, Facilities Chair Pete Motel referred my question to Art McDonnell for the “policy” answer.  According to McDonnell, the Board can change the agenda has much as they want and anytime they want – that’s the policy. McDonnell added that the District was not sure if they would have a statement on the fencing (and apparently only decided minutes before the start of the meeting!).

Interesting that with 7 of the 9 school board members and Supt. Dan Waters all in attendance at the Facilities Meeting that it is the Business Manager who describes the District’s policy. Why do we need to pay for a Superintendent (and we currently have two – Drs. Waters and Gusick) or elect a School Board, when we have a Business Manager making so many of the District’s decisions?

Pete Stanton, Green Hills resident and abutter to VFMS property, was in attendance at the meeting and provided the following comments. (Pete, is the one who suggested the ‘green line’ location for the fencing at VFMS – click here to see the map of the project with the green line indicated.)

The Facilities Committee met on Friday April 10 and offered a counter proposal for the VFMS fencing project. As an affected homeowner, I was pleased to see at least some concessions made, but, in reality, I think there is much left to be desired in the new proposal.

Here is the quick version of the new proposal:

-no fencing in front of abutting homes; Instead, 6 foot chain link following green line plan on upper fields.

  • 4 foot fencing all along VF Rd. by track up to Walker (fence on school side of current sidewalk)
  • 4 foot fencing running down VF Rd extending to northern border woods.
  • 4 foot fencing extending into woods at northern border, zig zagging through trees, ending at a residents outer property line, well within view of their home.
  • “enhanced signage” at locations TBD on or near the school borders. Facilities Committee will meet with Abutting households at date TBD to get input on these signs.

More importantly perhaps, there was much that wasn’t addressed by the new proposal. For example:

-nothing in writing or indication that the 2002 agreement between CCA and TESD would be amended to reflect the new TESD proposal.

-A connector path is not being planned on the upper field after the rest room kiosk that allows easy pedestrian access to the sidewalk along VF Rd. The Facilities Committee chairman has repeatedly said that they “reserve the right” to lock the gates at some point in the future during school hours. I think this locking will be done sooner than later without a new accommodation, which is what the new connector path (approx. 80 yards long by 4 foot wide) will provide.

-under the revised plan, the woods will definitely not be “Undisturbed” as expressly promised in the 2002 agreement … so this would be a violation of the agreement, unless an addendum to the Special Exception is agreed upon.

In my opinion, Tredyffrin Township needs to realize that what is being proposed is far from a satisfactory outcome for the residents of Green Hills and Chesterbrook. The Township needs to actively intervene and disallow any potential violation of the 2002 Special Exception.

It’s imperative that as many residents as possible go to the Tredyffrin Townships Supervisors meeting on April 20th to express the position to them that the School District has to honor the 2002 agreement. Again, this requires the School District to get in in front of the Zoning Hearing Board to get an amendment to the 2002 Special Exception agreement that my homeowners associations can agree to. Until such agreement is reached, this is still an active issue. Please encourage anyone else in Chesterbrook that you know to attend as well … it isn’t just a Green Hills issue; it’s an issue for all the residents.

Did the School Board actually think that the concession stated to a handful of people at a Facilities Committee meeting to move the fence was somehow going to end the debate?

The Facilities Chair Pete Motel continues to state and re-state that the District does not have to go before the township’s Zoning Hearing Board – that VFMS is District property and that they can do what they want with it.

Unlike the fencing at the other District schools, the fencing at VFMS is unique – the property consists of two parcels with different zoning and a legal agreement with the adjacent community.  The 2002 Special Exception by the Zoning Hearing Board set the parameters for TESD with Chesterbrook Civic Association and Green Hills Association – it would seem that any changes to that agreement would require review and updating.

This ‘new’ plan from the District does have the fencing out of the backyards of the abutters and moves the 6-foot fencing to behind the fields. (This will be the first 6-foot fencing at any of the eight schools.) However, the fencing will run the length of Valley Forge Road in front of the VFMS and into the woods that is shared with Green Hills.  Rather than ending the fencing at the woods, the fencing goes through the woods and will turn into the Chesterbrook community.  I asked if the District intended to take trees down in the woods – the response was no, that the fence would zig zag around the trees!  To be clear, the zig-zagging of the fencing will abruptly stop at the end of the woods at an abutter’s property line.  The fence will not connect to another section of fencing … the “fence to nowhere”.

If the handful of audience members who attended the Facilities Committee meeting are to believe what was stated – no further discussion is required with the township on the VFMS fencing, no approvals are required, no amendment to the 2002 Special Exception is needed. When asked if this decision to change the plans required a full TE School Board approval, the answer again was no.  In other words, the District can do whatever it wants at VFMS because the agreement was meaningless and implies that there are no deed-restrictions on the property.

———————————————————————————

Tonight the District has a Finance Meeting (6:30 PM) and a Budget Workshop (7:30 PM) at Conestoga High School.  Click here for the agenda. Although the outsourcing vendors for the District’s aides and paras was on the last Finance Meeting a and the last School Board Meeting agendas, it does not appear on tonight’s agenda.

How are the 73 full-time aides and paras supposed to make a decision by May 1 on whether to go part-time (to remain a District employee) or go with an outsourcing company when they don’t know who the outsourcing company is or the benefits … ? 

TE School Board’s proposed fencing at VF Middle School costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, Tredyffrin Township Solicitor and Board of Supervisors now involved

legal feesThe legal bills to the taxpayers continue to mount because of the TE School Board’s fencing decision at Valley Forge Middle School.

Last week, residents of Green Hills in Chesterbrook sought a compromise at a meeting with members of the District’s Facilities Committee, (Pete Motel, Liz Mercogliano, Kevin Buraks and SB President Kris Graham), Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos, regarding the planned 6-ft. chain link fencing.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting. The meeting ended with no compromise to the proposed 6-foot chain link fencing.

Agreeing that proposed fencing violates the terms of the 2002 agreement with the Chesterbrook Civic Association, attorneys Nagle and Gill filed official Complaint letters with Tredyffrin Township yesterday on behalf of their respective clients.  The letters were sent to Tredyffrin Township’s solicitor Vince Donohue with copies to the Board of Supervisors and Township Manager. (Click here to read Nagle’s letter; click here to read Gill’s letter).

After reviewing the records, attorneys Nagle and Gill each concluded that the proposed fencing would violate a condition which Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board imposed on TESD in granting the 2002 Special Exception. The Special Exception does not permit the installation of a fence in the 250’ buffer area next to the Green Hills homes.  In his letter to Donohue, Gill states that “ … TESD’s present proposal to introduce an invasive and visually offensive fence into the agreed upon 250 foot buffer is a material change to the development to which our clients agreed and requires the Zoning Hearing Board’s approval.”  Gill further states that, “…the Township must not permit or otherwise allow that proposal to succeed.”

With this official Complaint letter, the School Board, under the leadership of Kris Graham, has caused additional costs to the taxpayers to defend their proposed Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. In addition to paying legal fees to the District’s attorney Ken Roos and to Saul Ewing attorney David Falcone, taxpayers can now add the legal fees of Tredyffrin Township solicitor Vince Donohue to the cost of fencing at VFMS. Plus, the TESD taxpayers of Green Hills in Chesterbrook must pay the legal costs of Nagle and Gill.

Here’s my question to the members of the TE School Board – when is this going to end? This isn’t YOUR money that you are using to defend your decisions, it’s OUR money – it’s the taxpayer’s money.  School Board, how many thousands more taxpayer dollars are you going to spend on legal defense of your decision?

Kris Graham, as President of the School Board, we challenge you to lead!

TE School Board’s idea of ‘compromise’ at Valley Forge Middle School … Green Hills homeowners to get 6-foot high chain link fences in their backyards instead of previously announced 4-foot fences

Green Hills residents met with TE School District representatives regarding the proposed Chesterbrook fencing project last night and learned that compromise isn’t in the school board’s vocabulary.

Representing the TE School District at the meeting were school board members Pete Motel, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano and Kris Graham in addition to Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos. Motel, Buraks and Mercogliano are all on the Facilities Committee and School Board President Kris Graham attended in the absence of Virginia Lastner, the fourth member of the Facilities Committee.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting.

With the proposed chain link fencing planned extraordinarily close to the abutting properties, residents appealed to the school board for a reasonable discussion of the project. However, rather than finding common ground and understanding, the affected property owners learned that their backyard fencing would not be 4 feet high as previously stated at the District’s Facilities Meeting. No, in a surprise announcement, the Green Hills residents learned the District has changed the height of the chain link fencing in their backyards to six feet!

It seems to me that these homeowners are being targeted – the Valley Forge Middle School fence project calls for the two sections of fencing along Chesterbrook Boulevard and Valley Forge Road to have four foot high fencing whereas the Green Hills residents are facing 6 foot chain link fences in their backyards. I don’t’ think any of the other school fencing projects have 6-ft. high fences, do they? You have to wonder what the District uses as their criteria for 4 ft, 5 ft. or 6 ft. fencing.

I thought that you needed a variance for 6 foot fencing in Tredyffrin Twp and we know that that the District previously withdrew their variance request. However, the District sidesteps the ZHB application process by putting a 4-ft fence along Valley Forge Road, which is technically the front of the school. According to Tredyffrin Township Zoning Ordinance 208-119, the back and rear yards at Valley Forge Middle School (which includes the Green Hills-TESD property line) only requires a permit for the 6-ft. fence not a variance. (Note – as of late today, the township had not received a fence permit request from TESD).

Green Hills resident and abutting property owner Pete Stanton attended the meeting and provides his summary below.

Summary of meeting 3/25/15 with representatives of the TE School Board and concerned citizens of Green Hills and Chesterbrook regarding proposed VFMS Fencing project.

– No agreement was reached over fencing. The status is that the School Board is still determined to place the fence at or near their property line. They plan to notify residents in the near future exactly where the line of the fencing will go.

– In a surprise turnaround, the Facilities Committee Chair Peter Motel announced the fence facing Green Hills homes would be 6 feet high. Previous Facilities Committee discussions that I attended had indicated the fence near our properties to be a four foot fence. No explanation for this change was offered. The Contractor is making an application for a fencing permit to Tredyffrin Township.

– The fencing architect from Daley and Jalboot reinforced the idea that the primary goal of the fencing on their property line was border identification. The School Board had evidently not considered any other option to fencing to “mark” their borders, such as signage.

– Attorneys for Green Hills, Chesterbrook Civic Assn and the School Board’s attorney as well as their outside Counsel were all present. There was some back and forth questioning, but nothing substantive at this time.

– The invited guests presented a wide variety of commentary … the excess expense of the fence in time of fiscal crunch for the school District, the security flaws inherent in their planned fence placement and deployment, and the general disruption to all residents in cutting off the continuous access to the Rural Conservation (RC) zoned areas and paths to the fields, St Isaac’s etc.

– An alternative fencing line was proposed by a citizen (non-Green Hills resident) as a “compromise” which places the fencing well out from the homes but still cuts off access to the paths. This proposed alternative is certainly an improvement to the District’s plan, but may wind up costing the District more (due to needed new path construction) and in my opinion does not go far enough in allowing unfettered access to the 20.7 acre RC zoned open area. I have color coded the 2 alternative proposals for consideration. Please see the attached map showing my desired fencing line, (the green line plan), the Citizen’s “compromise” fencing route (red line plan) along with the pathway needed for that plan (new path is blue line). Click here for map of VF Middle School Fencing Plan.

– Green Hills and local Chesterbrook residents and the 5 “abutter” families seem clear that they want unfettered access to the 20.7 acre open area behind their homes as they have for decades. By placing the fence as a continuation of the four foot fence already in place on the upper fields closest to the school, the School District will enhance student safety. By being able to visually monitor the entire fenced area directly from the School plant, continue to allow resident path access that they have utilized forever, and save the District thousands of dollars in fencing costs… All these arguments taken together are compelling for the District to alter their current plans and strongly consider the one that I am offering here. With the “green line plan”, everyone wins.

It would seem that supporting the District’s proposed chain link fencing project is not a particularly smart political move for anyone seeking reelection to the school board. Board President Kris Graham (the only incumbent seeking reelection) and her unfavorable position on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing plan could pose a political hurdle for her in November.

It is my understanding that some members of the school board have agreed to a walkabout at the Green Hills fencing location with the five affected homeowners. I still contend that if all the board members would take the time to walk the abutting neighbor’s property, they would agree to a compromise discussion.

Here’s hoping that there is still time for reasonable people to make reasonable decisions on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project.

Secret School Board Meetings Considered Strategic!

What’s that saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”? Well, when it comes to outsourcing the jobs of the aides and paraeducators in the TE School District, I think the fat lady sang two years ago and was confirmed again at last night’s School Board meeting.

We know that the Board members received many phone calls and emails regarding their February 3rd Affordable Care Act decision – 73 full-time District employees received a choice, either go part-time or your job is outsourced. Many of us in the community wanted a ‘do-over’ on the Board’s policy change. And there was hope that with a significant public pushback, that the Board would reconsider. But as we learned last night, no amount of public input was going to change their minds — the TE School Board isn’t a fan of do-overs. We got the message, loud and clear, ‘they’ make the decisions and it is up to ‘us’, the residents, to abide by them, like it or not.

Oh, many of the Board members lamented how hard the decision had been and how they wished there could have been a different outcome; repeatedly stating that they ‘had’ to do it, there just was no other way. However, no matter how many times they said it and no matter who said it, I just sat there thinking, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way”. Somehow, the Board finds money for a fancy LED sign at the high school, money for administrator raises, money for district-wide fencing projects and then money to pay legal fees defending the fencing projects, yet … there’s no money for health care benefits for the aides and paras.

Look, I had resigned myself two years ago to the fact that the Board was going to outsource this group of employees; clearly, the handwriting was on the wall then and nothing really changed since. The Affordable Care Act just gave the Board ‘cover’ … a Federal law to stand behind and something to point to as the reason for outsourcing.

No, what I found the most troubling on February 3, the intervening weeks since and then at last night’s Board meeting was the lack of transparency and disregard of the public by some of our elected officials. I am careful to say ‘some on the Board’ because I believe that not all of these Board members have agreed with the way this matter was handled. One highlight of the evening was Kevin Buraks’ diatribe defending the Board actions, referencing transparency and calling the decision of February 3rd ‘strategic’.

In addition to the many residents who reached out to the School Board over the last several weeks, special thanks go to Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Peggy Layden and Barb Jackson. These folks, who regularly attend committee and regular school board meetings, stepped up to the plate regarding the School Board’s February 3 decision. Like me, they believed that the policy change was a ‘wrong’ that needed ‘righting’ and sent a letter to the School Board stating the concerns. Unfortunately, rather than joining with us and the community in seeking a solution, the Board chose to stand behind the words of the District Solicitor. As I said last night, I really do believe that the individual School Board members are better than that letter from the solicitor and that we, and the many others who contacted them since their February 3 decision, deserved better.

Although viewed as an unfavorable School Board decision by many in the community, we will all move forward.

I’m really looking ahead to Spring!

—————————————————————

For another take on last night’s School Board meeting, here’s Ray Clarke’s account:

I was surprised by the proceedings at last night’s Board meeting.  On the positive side, the order of business was adjusted to allow airing of the two most pressing issues, the out-sourcing and fencing projects.  The depth of resident concern has clearly got through.  On the downside, though, there is no sign of that resident concern actually making a difference.

The fencing contract was still approved based on a specification that may or may not meet Township ordinances, and the apparently illegal ACA vote was not reconsidered.  Indeed, the Board adopted the Rudy Guiliani approach: double down on the outrageousness.  To paraphrase: “It was actually our considered strategy to have the meetings in secret and the vote unadvertised”.  The reason given being a “threat of unionization”.  That looks to me like a scheme to claim a legitimate exception to the Sunshine Act, which would be hard and expensive to disprove.  Only we know full well that there have been no organization attempts for at least twelve months.  I encourage everyone to review the meeting video for the unvarnished story.

Looking for a silver lining, there is a commitment to review the out-sourcing analysis at the upcoming March 9th Finance Committee/Budget workshop.  Of course if this consists of showing us slides with the same numbers as given verbally on February 3rd, then our time will have been wasted.  On the other hand, if there is a comprehensive analysis of:

  1. a) all the options based on realistic assumptions about the specific population of long-serving full-time employees, specific figures for penalties, laid out by year, and
  2. b) evaluation of the trade-off between those realistic options and other discretionary items like new maintenance buildings, fencing, floor refinishing, new kitchens, architect fees, etc., borrowing $24 million that costs $1 million a year while our $32 million Fund Balance sits idle, and so on then perhaps the public can be convinced that the plan does in fact represent the values and best interests of our community, and it is best to ask those employees and district residents to bear the full cost of this situation.

All those who have rallied for open government have cracked the door open a little.  Thank you and please keep pushing!

TESD: Here Comes the Sunshine Act and It’s Alright

After researching the issue and speaking with experts, a nonpartisan group of six residents (Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Barb Jackson, Peggy Layden and myself) believed the School Board deliberations at the TESD February 3, 2015 board meeting violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. On February 13, 2105 via Certified Mail, a thoughtfully written letter was sent to the School Board members (President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Scott Dorsey, Karen Cruickshank, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano, Jim Bruce and Pete Motel) stating our specific concerns regarding their process. (Click here to read February 13 letter to School Board).

As residents, we believed that with quick action at the next TE School Board meeting on February 23, the Board could remedy the process and maintain the trust of the community in the integrity of the District’s governance.

I received the following response from the School Board (via the District Solicitor Ken Roos), in an email Friday afternoon:

Dear Ms. Benson,

As District Solicitor, I respond on behalf of the School Board to the allegations of non-compliance with the Sunshine Act by the School Board contained in the letter you forwarded below. Please forward this response to the other signers of the letter.

At all times, the Board carefully considered its obligations under the Sunshine Act prior to each executive session and Board information meeting conducted with respect to the issue of benefits for District employees in light of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). At no time was the Sunshine Act violated. Moreover, the February 3, 2015 Board vote on this fully disclosed agenda item occurred after a lengthy public presentation, public Board discussion and public comment in full compliance with the Sunshine Act.

Kenneth A. Roos
Solicitor, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District

Although the reply is not surprising, I disagree and find it inadequate and dismissive as a response to the well-researched points that were raised in our letter of February 13 to members of the TE School Board.

My observations —

  • It’s unfortunate that these five separate Affordable Care Act discussions were held in private, out of the light of the public eye and the benefit of public deliberation.
  • It’s unfortunate that deliberation regarding an employment policy change for 73 full-time District employees occurred in private and that a resolution simply appeared at the end of the meeting with no advertisement or notification.
  • It’s unfortunate that the misleading ‘ACA Update’ listing on the meeting agenda is referenced [in the above response] as a “fully disclosed agenda item”.
  • It’s unfortunate that 73 dedicated full-time District employees are notified of the School Board’s policy change and outsource decision via a 10:30 PM email following the meeting.
  • It’s unfortunate that the public’s participation is not valued in important policy decisions.

There is no doubt that members of the school board have received many emails and phone calls from residents since the February 3 School Board meeting and my guess is that virtually none of these contacts was in support of their actions.

I cannot imagine that the actions of the TE School Board were not a violation of the Sunshine Law, but I can guarantee that it is a violation of the public trust.

After forwarding the solicitor’s email to the other letter signers, they were asked if they wanted to include their reactions to the District’s response in this post. Here are those responses:

From Ray Clarke:
I am disappointed to receive this denial of a crystal-clear case of a Sunshine Law violation by the individuals on the School Board. However, I suppose it would be a rare lawyer that would advise acknowledging guilt before the proceedings have begun. I am more disappointed that there is no sign that the Board plans to do the right thing and address the community’s widespread concern, in Monday’s meeting or at any other time. Residents have been deliberately shut out of a matter of widespread concern and need to make their feelings clear to the Board.

From Barb Jackson:
Ken Roos is the solicitor in the Lower Merion School District as well as the TE School District. I understand that the Radnor School District has recently hired him. It is well documented that Lower Merion residents are frustrated and angry about transparency issues in their district. I am disappointed that when confronted with legitimate questions about transparency and open communication from community members, the board turns to the solicitor Ken Roos to write this letter, instead of making every attempt possible to be open and transparent and invite community participation and input.

From Neal Colligan:
Really surprised they sent such a short and dismissing response. Our challenge to the Sunshine Act centers on the 5 Exec Meetings concerning this topic…not covered by the list of items allowed in Exec Session. This response does not defend the reason for these meetings only that “the Board considered … at no time did they violate…”. Our challenge to the process in deciding this issue was well thought-out, supported by experts we consulted and well written. The response was a simple quickly written e-mail. The two communications say volumes in their structure.

This is a legal response saying the Board met the minimum technical standards of the Act. Until proven otherwise, it’s a plausible defense. That said, it’s hard for me to think that all members of this elected body agree with the handling of this issue. I’m hopeful at least one member objects to the process in light of the public challenge … whether it can be proved right or wrong. I’m surprised but not shocked … possibly someone elected to represent the community will address the process employed here by stepping out from behind the Solicitor. We’ll see.

I’ve made an Open Records Request asking for the details of these Exec. Sessions not previously disclosed in public communications. We’ll see what that brings. Maybe the process was a full vetting of all alternatives in a thoughtful and complete presentation over several meetings … maybe not. Maybe the decision had been made a long time ago regarding these employees and the ACA and the Exec. Sessions were based on creating a tightly scripted response and explanation to be given at the end of a long public meeting with questionable (although technically compliant) notice to the community. Likely, we may never know … I’ll share what I receive when/if I get a response to my request.

IMPORTANT: The next School Board Meeting is this Monday, February 23 at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High Schools. This is an important issue — please plan to attend the meeting and have your voice heard.

You can email your concerns/questions regarding this issue directly to the TE School Board at schoolboard@tesd.net

TE School Board, Let the Sunshine In …

At the TESD School Board meeting of February 3, the School Board voted on a resolution to change the employment status of 73 full-time aides and paras in the District. The action was taken without notice, other than listing ‘ACA Update’ on the meeting agenda, and after five secret executive session discussions.  Not only does the February 3 action of the School Board disrespect our expectation of good government, some residents are of the opinion that a violation of the Sunshine Act has occurred, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or by intention.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. The Act is a mechanism to increase public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  The School Board has had a “longstanding practice” of meeting in executive session before its regular meetings. In the case of their recent policy decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, it is unfortunate that these discussions were held in private, out of the light of the public eye and the benefit of public deliberation.

Legal proceedings are expensive for all parties and no one wants that burden. Seeking a remedy to the Sunshine Act violation, a small group of concerned citizens sent the letter below to the Board. The request is simple —  we are asking the School Board to re-open the discussion at their next meeting on Monday, February 23.  At the meeting, we ask for a thorough financial analysis of ACA options and strategies, an explanation of suggested policy changes and adequate time for resident’s comments.

If you too are concerned after reading the letter, you are encouraged to contact the School Board directly with your comments at schoolboard@tesd.net  as soon as possible.

February 13, 2015

Dear Members of the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board,

Re:  Pennsylvania Sunshine Act Violation

At the TE School Board meeting of February 3, 2015, under Agenda Item IX, B: Affordable Care Act Update, you directed the Administration to offer two employment options to full-time District aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The resolution was distributed during the Board meeting and it was stated by School Board President Kris Graham that the Board in five Executive Sessions had previously discussed this matter.

As residents of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District, we believe that the Board violated both the spirit and letter of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

  • The General Assembly states that the public has the right to be present at all meetings to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies. Secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.  The five closed meetings and the non-descriptive language on the agenda (“Affordable Care Update”) violate the spirit of the Sunshine Act.
  • Commonwealth Court has ruled that a specific reason must be given for each Executive Session so the public can “determine from the reason given whether they are being properly excluded from the session”. The Board violated the Sunshine Act as no specific reason was given for any of the five executive sessions and, in fact, we cannot determine from the record (as no meeting dates were given) whether these meetings were announced at all.
  • As no agenda exists for the five Executive Sessions, it is difficult to determine whether other sections of the Sunshine Act were violated. It may be that the Board justifies the Executive Sessions using either the “personnel” exception or the “negotiations” exception but neither exception is valid for the current situation as the discussion centered around a group of employees not subject to a CBA.

We suggest that these Executive Sessions constitute a violation of the Sunshine Act. We ask you to review your procedures and reasons behind these closed meetings. If a violation of the Act has occurred, we would suggest it be remedied by a full and transparent airing of the matter. A public challenge to a violation of the Sunshine Act could only result in individual penalties determined through the appropriate courts. We prefer the Board hold a duly advertised public meeting (preferably at its next scheduled meeting on February 23) at which the full spectrum of strategic options in response to the ACA is analyzed, presented and discussed, and at which a resolution is developed and voted upon.  By so doing, the Board can assure all employees and residents that its decision is based on a thorough examination and on the values of the community.

In reading the Act and interfacing with the PA FOIC, we are strongly of the opinion that a violation of the Sunshine Act has occurred, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or by intention. We ask each of you to consider this seriously. This matter is of widespread concern in the community and time is pressing for the affected employees and for the legal process.  We trust that we will receive a responsive plan from you no later than close of business on February 20, 2015.

Please feel free to contact any one of the undersigned.

Sincerely,

(Letter signed by Pattye Benson, Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Barbara Jackson and Margaret Layden)

Community Matters © 2015 Frontier Theme