TESD

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!

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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)

TE School District Avoids ACA Compliance Issue – Reduces Hours and Outsources Aides and Paras

We learned at last night’s school board meeting, that the TE School Board’s way around the Affordable Care Act compliance issue is to reduce employee hours. The ACA does not require the District to provide health insurance to those employees working less than 30 hours a week – so the District’s answer to the Federal law is simple … cut hours of the lowest paid employees.

The District’s quick and dirty solution to avoid ACA compliance issues for 73 full-time District aides and paraeducators is to give them two options – either the full-time employee agrees to work part-time (27 ½ hrs. or less) or they will see their District job outsourced, effective July 1.

Under the leadership of School Board President Kris Graham, the School Board approved the following resolution:

Aides and paras resolution

The Board vote to approve the resolution was 7 – 1.  Republicans Kris Graham, Jim Bruce, Virginia Lastner, Doug Carlson, Peter Motel and Democrats Karen Cruickshank and Kevin Buraks voted in favor of the resolution. Democrat Scott Dorsey opposed the resolution and Republican Liz Mercogliano was recused from voting because her daughter is a part-time aide in the District.  In addition to not voting, Mercogliano was not permitted to comment or ask any questions regarding the Affordable Care Act. Voting is one thing but it is unclear why District solicitor Ken Roos would not permit Mercogliano to ask questions regarding the Affordable Care Act.

The full-time District aides and paras did not receive notice that last night’s school board meeting would include a decision regarding their employment future. Nor was there any attempt to seek public comment or discussion on the ACA compliance issue.  Buried on page 4 of the meeting agenda was the seemingly innocuous ‘ACA Update’.  Other than school board directors and some administrators who would know that ‘ACA Update’ was actually code for outsource the District’s aides and paraeducators.  To be clear, the resolution did not appear in the online agenda materials or on the District website (it was only available to those attending the meeting).

The 73 full-time District aides and paraeducators learned their fate following the Board meeting, through a 10:30 PM email from Personnel Director Jeanne Pocalyko. The aides and the paras must make a decision by May 1 – they can opt to stay a District employee as a part-timer (with reduced hours) or their job is outsourced to an unnamed vendor.  No details about the selection process of a vendor – will the District solicit vendors through an RFP or has the unnamed vendor actually already been decided?

A key component in the computation of PSERS (retirement benefits) is the final average salary of the employee, which is calculated based on an average of earnings during their last three years of employment.  So … say one of these full-time District aides was 57 yrs. old and had planned to retire at age 60. Under the conditions of continued District employment, he or she has a substantial reduction in salary from full-time to part-time status. Because the PSERS calculation of retirement benefits is based on these final three years of employment – with earnings reduced by the District, the employee will see their retirement benefits reduced at time of retirement as a result.

Are there legalities with this resolution – the Board’s decision will affect the future retirement benefits of 73 District employees. Many of the District aides and paras have served the District’s children and their families for years; is this the way the Board rewards their loyalty?

Let’s review – the District can afford administrator bonuses, raises and a Cadillac health plan to the highest paid District employees but rather than provide insurance to the lowest paid employees, the School Board elects to cut the hours of 73 aides and paras, thus reducing their future retirement benefits.**

Ms. Graham’s term on the school board ends in 2015 but she plans to seek reelection.  Will her leadership in the outsourcing of aides and paras influence her endorsement by the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee?  More importantly, will Graham’s decision to outsource influence voters in November.  The terms of Jim Bruce, Liz Mercogliano and Pete Motel also end in 2015. I know that Bruce will not seek re-election but not certain of the plans of Motel and Mercogliano.

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** According to the PA state retirement system website, the formula for establishing retirement benefits states, “Your final average salary is the highest amount you earned during any “three non-overlapping periods of four consecutive calendar quarters. For most employees, it is the average of your last three years’ salary.”  

The key is that typically the highest paid three years would occur at the end of one’s career.  In the case of the TESD aides and the paraeducators who will go from full-time to part-time hours should they choose to stay employed in the District, their pension will be based on a prior 3-year period.

For further information regarding Pennsylvania state pension, visit the website: http://sers.pa.gov/members-pension-formula.aspx

Security fencing for Valley Forge Middle School, TE Middle School and Conestoga High School – TE School District seeks variance to construct 6-foot fence

fencing 1During 2014, 5-foot high chain link fencing was installed around TESD’s five elementary schools – Beaumont, New Eagle, Valley Forge, Hillside and Devon. Sandy Hook and other school shootings pushed the issue of school security into the limelight and the elementary school fencing project was one of the security upgrades recommended by the District’s Safety Committee.

The construction of the elementary school security fencing project was not without controversy. Residents opposed the District’s decision to fence the elementary school for a variety of reasons. Some suggested that the fencing would make it more difficult for children to evacuate in emergencies — concern that they could become trapped inside the property by the fencing and that the fencing could slow emergency aid. Others cited inconvenience; aesthetics and monetary cost (approximately $220K) in their opposition to the fencing and some questioned if the District obtained the required building permits. In the end, the elementary schools received their security fencing last year.

Apparently, the District’s fencing project was not contained to the elementary schools. A surprise to some, security fencing is planned for Valley Forge Middle School, TE Middle School and Conestoga High School. At the October 27, 2014 TE School Board meeting, the school board approved Daley & Jalboot’s 2015 infrastructure implementation fee proposal on the consent agenda. Included in the architect’s project was Project #1405, the installation of perimeter site fencing at the three schools. Daley & Jalboot’s fee is $$8,600 and they estimate the construction costs at $236K.

The security-fencing project of the middle schools and high school is out for bid and construction is set to start June 24 with completion by the start of school in September.

Unlike the elementary school fencing project in 2014, the District has a hurdle to get over before they can move forward. The District’s plan to construct a 6-foot chain link fence at Valley Forge Middle School and TE Middle School requires a variance from the Zoning Hearing Board. Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board will hear these two appeals tonight at 7 PM and residents are encouraged to attend and provide comments.

The proposed chain link fencing at Valley Forge Middle School may be a challenge for the Zoning Hearing Board. The school is in Chesterbrook, a planned community of 28 villages, and each of the villages is independently managed by homeowners associations and governed by specific bylaws. The Chesterbrook village of Green Hills (single family homes) is adjacent to Valley Forge Middle School. The plan for VFMS fencing is along Valley Forge Road and on the shared property line with Green Hills. Because the proposed chain link fencing is not consistent with the homeowner association bylaws of Green Hills,  and an earlier agreement between these homeowners and the school board regarding development, the approval for the variance may not be a given for the school district.

Notes from TESD Finance Committee Meeting – Do we borrow $18 million or $24 million to pay for District capital projects?

I attended the first 2015 meeting of the TE School District’s Finance Committee this week that focused primarily on the preliminary 2015-16 budget.  According to the District’s capital sources and uses report, there is a projected capital need of $24 million over the next five years.  The Finance Committee discussed options to fund these planned facilities projects … either to borrow $18 million or $24 million. Citing the District’s stellar credit rating and the historically low-interest rates, the committee members supported this borrowing approach to help pay for the new construction and needed renovations to existing buildings. However, because TESD currently has a $32 million fund balance, some in attendance at the meeting questioned adding debt in this way.

Another topic that received some discussion from audience members was Dr. Gusick’s proposal to add a couple of new director positions in the District. Gusick explained that Robin McDonnell, Director of Assessment and Instructional Technology for the District, will be retiring in June and thinks that the job requirements are such that they now require two people, a Director of Technology and a Director of Assessment. I don’t know that anyone would question Gusick about the need for the positions, but may question the suggested salaries — $160k/yr. for each position.

Ray Clarke also attended the Finance Committee meeting. Following the meeting, he emailed comments to the school board and sent me a copy for Community Matters.  Below is an excerpt from those remarks:

First, I would like to thank you for the presentations at last night’s Finance Committee meeting proposing to restructure the Administration team and to make a $18 to $24 million bond issue.  We are at the stage in the budget process where many worthy proposals are on the table.  Dr Gusick’s idea for qualified Directors of Technology and of Assessment is one of them, but the compensation gives pause: salaries of $160,000, plus 30% PSERS, plus $20,000 healthcare, plus ……?  Unfortunately, accepting all of them – even with the maximum 3.7% tax increase – leaves the District with an unsustainable deficit approaching $2 million.

This makes it all the more important for you to critically examine the one discretionary spending item that defies understanding – raising $18 million that the District does not need, and will cost taxpayers over $28 million to repay.  Further, you propose to eliminate the annual $300,000 savings from last Fall’s bond re-financing rather than giving taxpayers some offset to the otherwise continual expense increases.

The proposed financing is driven by a capital plan for the four years from 2015/16 to 2018/19 that calls for spending $30.7 million, while only $6.9 million will remain in the Capital Project Fund at the beginning of the year.  The assumption is that the $24 million gap has to be filled by 75% bond funding because “that’s the way we have always done it”.  However, we have not always had a General Fund Balance of $32 million earning negligible interest.

Instead of contriving financial schemes to defer interest on the new borrowing beyond the $300,000 of lost savings (and increase total borrowing costs), I believe that it is your fiduciary duty to present and analyze other options that show some fiscal restraint.

For example, a transfer of $16 million from the General Fund to the Capital Fund would take the District through 2017/18 and even through 2018/19 – if just $2 million of capital spending was deferred.  At that point the 2014 bonds are repaid and there is leeway for bond financing without a premium for a convoluted structure that defers interest and principal repayments.  You avoid the three quarter of a million dollar annual expense (loaded on future generations) for the unneeded 4% bond money sitting under the District mattress.  And there is still $16 million in the General Fund for contingencies that you can not tax for (contrary to the $10 million “committed” to PSERS, which you can and do raise taxes for).  There is already over $5 million “committed” to Capital Projects.

In the last five years, TESD taxes have risen at twice the rate of inflation and this is forecast to continue in the preliminary Budget.  Radnor is finding a way to limit next year’s tax increase to the State Index 1.9%.  There is great risk to the value proposition that brought many of us to Tredyffrin.  As taxes rise relative to our neighbors, the more likely that existing communities and new ones like Wayne Glen will be unaffordable to those without families, the more children will enter the school system and the worse your problem will get.

TE School District proposes 3.68 percent tax increase in 2015-16 budget

For taxpayers living in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships, they saw no municipal real estate tax increase in 2014 or 2015. In the Tredyffrin Township 2015 budget presentation, it was announced that real estate tax assessments continue to grow and that the township saw “increased construction of both residential and commercial properties which are a major cause for the increased assessment.” No real estate tax increase in Tredyffrin for 2015 follows a no real estate tax increase in 2014. Similarly, Easttown Township taxpayers received no real estate tax increase for the period.

In neighboring Radnor School District, taxpayers did not receive a real estate tax increase for 2014-15 whereas the taxpayers of TE School District saw their real estate tax bill increase 3.2 percent during the same period. Looking ahead to the 2015-16 budget for the two school districts, Radnor School Board announced this week that they will not seek exceptions and the proposed tax increase will not be greater than the 1.9 percent permitted by Act 1. TE School Board has voted to seek exceptions and the preliminary budget currently in discussion for 2015-16 includes a 3.68 percent tax increase.

During the last four years, TE School District has shown a budget surplus of over $12 million (2013-14: $2.2M, 2012-13: $5M, 2011-12: $3.9M and 2010-11: $1.3M). Although the District benefited from the budget surplus, you would have to go back a decade to 2004-05 to find the last time that there was no real estate tax increase. A review of the District yearly tax increase since the last no-tax year is as follows:

• 2015-16: 3.68% *
• 2014-15: 3.4%
• 2013-14: 1.7%
• 2012-13: 3.3%
• 2011-12: 3.77%
• 2010-11: 2.9%
• 2009-10: 2.95%
• 2008-09: 4.37%
• 2007-08: 3.37%
• 2006-07: 3.90%
• 2005-06: 1.40%
• 2004-05: Zero Tax Increase
* Proposed Increase

TE School District Business Manager Pleads Guilty to DUI, Sentencing Set for January

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District business manager has pled guilty to driving under the influence.

Chester County court documents say 51-year-old Arthur McDonnell of Chester Springs was charged with a DUI and other traffic violations, including careless driving, failure to notify police of accident, injury or death, failure to notify police of accident or damage to vehicle and high alcohol level stemming from an incident on July 13, 2014 in West Vincent Township, Chester County.

Arthur McDonnell is the current business manager for Tredyffrin Easttown School District.

On September 25, two of the charges against McDonnell – failure to notify police of accident, injury or death and failure to notify police of accident or damage to vehicle were withdrawn; the case was waived for Lower Court and moved to Chester County Court of Common Pleas. According to court documents, Chester County Deputy District Attorney Carlos Alberto Barraza and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Davis are representing the Commonwealth in the case.

McDonnell was formally arraigned on October 16 before Chester County Court of Pleas Judge Jacqueline Cody.  He was scheduled to appear in Court of Common Pleas in West Chester at 9:30 AM on December 15.

On December 15, with Judge Cody presiding, McDonnell entered a guilty plea to the most serious charge, PA statute 75§ 3802 (b) DUI High Rate Alcohol (BAC .10 to .16) and the careless driving charge was withdrawn.

Sentencing (IPP consideration*) in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v Arthur McDonnell is scheduled for January 22, 2015, 1:30 PM at the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, Courtroom 7, with Judge Jacqueline Cody presiding.

As a concerned taxpayer, I have followed McDonnell’s case for five months, since his arrest in July. Because of McDonnell’s important financial position with the TE School District, I sent an email to each of the TE School Board directors on December 1 to voice my concerns. To date, there has been no response to my email or public statement from the School Board regarding McDonnell’s arrest, subsequent guilty plea or upcoming sentencing.

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*IPP Intermediate Punishment Program

Good news for Tredyffrin Township residents — 2015 proposed preliminary budget indicates no tax increase!

This post is follow-up to Tredyffrin Township’s preliminary 2015 budget discussion, at both the Board of Supervisors meeting and the recent budget workshop. At the November 5 supervisors meeting, Township manager Bill Martin presented an overview of the 2014 to date and the 2015 preliminary budget presentation included updates from each of the department heads.

Martin presented a positive financial picture for the township – his forecast indicates that 2014 includes $416K more in general fund operating revenue than anticipated; suggesting that the increase is due to better than expected permit revenue from commercial land development projects. Additionally, the general fund expenditures are expected to be $30K under budget for 2014 – the explanation was that salary and budgetary savings offset the 2014 winter expenses. The budget surplus was $6,265 and when added to the operating results, Martin expects the township to finish out the year with a $450K surplus.

Tredyffrin Township has not raised taxes since 2012 and the preliminary 2015 budget includes no tax increase. While acknowledging the improving economic signs (real estate transfers and permit revenues are up), Martin did temper his remarks with some caution. The 2015 budget, to be approved at the December Board of Supervisors meeting, is still a draft and can be changed. An annual budget workshop was held on November 13 which allowed residents the opportunity to sit down with township manager, staff and supervisors to discuss the proposed budget in greater detail, ask questions, etc.

I was unable to attend the budget workshop; however, Ray Clarke attended and contributes the following details from the November 13 meeting:

First, though, many thanks to Supervisors Heaberg and Wysocki, and staff Bill Martin, Joe DiRocco (especially) and Matt Baumann for their time and for a completely frank and straightforward discussion. Anyone with an interest in Township affairs should make a point to attend this meeting every year.

Operating Budget
– The 2014 surplus will be significantly higher than the $450,000 projected last week, due to additional permit revenue and transfer tax receipts beyond the earlier forecast. (Note that the surplus was not driven by a tax increase).
– In general, changes in state law in 2012 have meant that it is harder for commercial transfers to be structured to avoid the transfer tax
– 2014 permit revenue benefited from one-time large projects particularly at Vanguard. Although this revenue will not recur and other big projects such as Chesterbrook and Wayne Glen are moving at a modest pace, there is a good level of economy-driven construction activity in the Township that will keep residential and commercial permit revenue at a healthy, albeit lower, level in 2015.
– The result, then, with no property tax increase, will give 2015 budgeted revenue – before transfers – down half a million dollars or more to about $17.3 million. Expenses, though, will increase by $0.8 million of contractually driven compensation increases to a budgeted $18.2 million. The gap to be filled from $0.9 million of general fund reserves.
– Since that’s about the likely surplus this year, since there is the newly adopted reserve policy in place, and since reserves are by my estimate as much as $10 million over the target level of 30-35% of general fund expenditures, that does not seem too alarming. However, it’s not sustainable in the long run to fund cost increases from a declining fund balance, I estimate that contractually driven compensation costs will be increasing by half a million dollars a year. The Administration and BOS seem suitably alert to the need to manage this very carefully. In the Township’s favor, too, the current debt repayment schedule will have the township debt free by 2020, which will free up $2 million a year of principal and interest. (TESD, take notice!!)
– An important final point: the Township is now funding the post-employment benefits fund with $25,000 for each new officer. Assuming that and a regular commitment of $500,000 from the operating budget, we are getting closer to recognizing the true cost of employing a police officer for a year. As it is, in 2015 retiree health costs charged to the general fund are forecast to increase 14% to over $900,000.

Capital Budget
– This includes $1 million a year for road repaving. Here, the recent PA Transportation Bill is a huge benefit to the Township. $0.725 million (53%) of this year’s $1.375 million came from Township funds. In 2015, the Township will fund $0.3 million of the $1 million, in 2016 $0.2 million, in 2017 $0.1 million, and in 2018 $0.05 million. A cumulative four year saving to the Township of $1.35 million versus a 50/50 split. Our gas tax dollars at work saving property taxes!
– The 2015 budget includes $130,000 to “oversee/review/bid” a stormwater project in Crabby Creek and $60,000 for one stormwater basin retrofit. I completely agree with an impassioned plea to the meeting from Bill Bellew that it’s time to do more – or actually to do SOMETHING, since there seems to be no firm plan for any shovels in the ground on anything.

In general, it’s time for the Township to take recent surpluses and invest in tangible improvements that residents have asked for, and been promised, for years. Prudent management and fortunate circumstances have put the Township in a good position. Residents need to see some benefit.

Thanks Ray for your comments from the meeting. An interactive meeting between elected officials, township staff and taxpayers is refreshing. Seemingly, no questions were considered ‘off limits’ and thoughtful responses given.  Following up on the use of the budget surplus in the township — can we get the front steps of the township building adequately repaired.  Beyond the appearance, the uneven and cracked steps and walkway pose a safety hazard.

Shire moving Chesterbrook headquarters to Boston – 500 employees expected to leave Tredyffrin

Office Chair with a Box of SuppliesSadly, we learned this morning in Joe DiStefano’s Philadelphia Inquirer column that one of Tredyffrin Township’s largest employers is moving the company headquarters from Chesterbrook to Boston.

In the Fall of 2012, Shire announced a decision to build a new large office complex on Trammel Crow property at the intersection of Rt. 29 and Yellow Springs Road, moving their 1,500 employees out of Tredyffrin to neighboring East Whiteland.  Shire’s decision to relocate meant the vacancy of four large corporate buildings in Chesterbrook.

However, in May 2013, Shire reversed their decision to move their headquarters from Chesterbrook.  After analyzing its ‘global footprint and its real estate presence’, Shire’s new CEO Dr. Flemming Ornskov, concluded, “We feel fine where we are.”

However, eighteen months later, comes today’s announcement that Shire’s headquarters will not only leave the Philadelphia area, it will move to Massachusetts.  What is curious is the same Dr. Ornskov, now says, he prefers Boston (he has a graduate degree from Harvard) and a Shire spokesperson says, “Our strategy is to become a leading biotechnology company, and Boston is a biotech center”.

Mixed messages from Dr. Ornskov to his employees!  If the move had been a relocation to East Whiteland, as was his plan originally, Shire employees would have probably have retained their local jobs and their homes (many of whom no doubt are Tredyffrin residents with children in the TE School District).  Just when the Shire employees thought that they were staying put in the Chesterbrook location, they receive today’s relocation announcement.  According to DiStefano’s article, more than half of the Chesterbrook employees will make the move, “Shire plans to move 500 staff — executives, research and development staff and the gastrointestinal, internal medicine and neuroscience business groups — to Lexington, Mass., near the company’s infectious-disease unit.”

Shire plans to start moving its employees in phases, starting in the first quarter of 2015, with completion by the first quarter of 2016. The TE School District has forecasted a potential increase in student enrollment from current township development projects and has held discussion on how the District will meet the increase.  Inasmuch as the school board discusses potential increase in enrollment from District development projects, will they likewise discuss how the relocation of 500 Shire families out of the community may potentially decrease the District’s enrollment.

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