TESD

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.

Multi-million T/E budget surplus (again) – $12.4 million surplus in 4 years! Property tax increases for 10 years in a row and still no health insurance for aides/paras!

budget surplusIn spite of $12.4 million in budget surplus the last four years, TESD residents have seen yearly tax increase and yet sadly, the District still does not provide health insurance coverage to their aides and paras.

I have regularly attended school board meetings and associated finance meetings the last 4 years and I have been amazed at the yearly District budget surplus. This week at the Finance Committee meeting, we learned that once again, the District has a multi-million budget surplus – yes, a review of the 2013-14 budget indicates a surplus of $2.2 million.

Thought it would be interesting to review the District’s budget surplus for the last four years. The surplus schedule is as follows:

2013-14: $2.2 million
2012-13: $5.0 million
2011-12: $3.9 million
2010-11: $1.3 million
Total: $12.4 million

Where exactly does the budget surplus go each year? We know that it does not go the cost to providing healthcare to all District employees. The aides and paras remain without health insurance, the residents continue to receive yearly tax increases and the surplus feeds the ever-increasing District’s fund balance. According to the District, as of July 1, the fund balance has grown to $32 million! Remember, the fund balance growth represents surplus from the District’s yearly budget. It would be surprising if this isn’t the largest fund balance of any school district in the state.

I truly struggle to understand how the District manages to add multi-million dollar budget surplus to the fund balance over the years but the residents continue to feel the sting of an annual tax increase. I recall the District’s business manager Art McDonnell’s explanation of the whopping $5 million surplus last year – primarily due to reduced health insurance premium costs for employees. Clearly, last year was not a fluke when you review the mega-millions in budget surplus over the years.

It would be easier to accept the yearly budget surplus if we did not also have a tax increase each year. In fact, you would have to go back a decade to 2004-05 to find the last time that there was no increase. A review of the District yearly tax increase since the last no-tax year is as follows:

• 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

Where exactly does the budget surplus go each year? (We know that it does not go the cost to providing affordable healthcare to all District employees.) The aides and paras remain without health insurance, the residents continue to receive yearly tax increases and the surplus feeds the District’s ever-increasing fund balance. According to the District, as of July 1, the fund balance has grown to $32+ million! Remember, the fund balance growth represents surplus from the District’s yearly budget. TESD’s fund balance could well represent the largest in the state.

I fully understand the impact of the pension crisis and that unless there is reform; all Pennsylvania school districts are going to fall over the cliff in the near future due to the ballooning costs. I do understand that the District must protect resources for the pension crisis but at what cost to the residents?

Other items of interest from the Finance Committee meeting included responses to Ray Clarke’s questions. By now, most of you have probably heard about the 24 Dell computers fraudulently purchased by someone using the District’s Dell account. This matter is an ongoing police investigation. Ray asked about the District’s ‘purchase process’ and Dr. Waters confirmed that it was actually the internal District controls that uncovered the purchase and there was no financial loss as a result.

Ray referenced Unionville Chadds Ford School District’s receipt of $582K in state grants for construction costs and asked if similar funding was possible for the District’s classroom expansions. Ray’s suggestion sadly was dismissed as requiring too much work for the benefit.

Ray’s comment to me regarding the 2013-14 audit is as follows:

The audited financials showed revenue of $112.9 million, expenses of $110.75 million, for a surplus of $2.15 million, compared to the budgeted deficit (before contingencies) of $1.7 million. Fully one third of the favorable variance to budget ($1.325 million of the $3.9 million) came from “breakage” – the replacement of retiring staff and approved leaves with lower cost staff. This is entirely predictable and we’ve asked for it to be included at budget time for the past several years, but every year the request is ignored and the property tax increase is 30% more than it need be, all other things being equal. There is now $31.7 million of taxpayer money squirreled away in the General Fund Balance and that’s after a $10 million transfer to the Capital Fund a couple of years ago. Perhaps since next year is an election year the Board might turn up their hearing aids.

It continues to be a struggle for residents to receive clear explanations. Materials provided often only offer partial information with many of the suggestions/questions of residents at the Finance Committee meeting dismissed or deferred. No argument that T/E School District is a great school district as all the school rankings indicate —  but is the price for the District’s success no public input allowed?

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I attended Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors meeting in the last week, and the preliminary 2015 township budget was reviewed and discussed. In addition, the supervisors held a Budget Workshop this week.  The differences between school district and the administration and the supervisors, township manager and  staff are striking.  The next Community Matters post will provide an update.

TESD Agenda includes bonuses for administrators & 5-year contract for Business Manager; Tredyffrin Township Agenda includes new Finance Director and Police Department news

On Monday, there is a TE School Board meeting at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School. Rather than hitting the print button, I suggest that you read the agenda and accompanying materials online because it contains 450 pages.

On the fourth page of the agenda, under Section VII Other Recommended Action, these three items grabbed my attention.

A. 2014-2015 Supervisory and Confidential Employee Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments for 2-14-15 and June 2015 One Time Payment

B. 2014-2015 Administrator Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments and June 2015 One Time Payment

C. Business Manager Employee Agreement

In April, the School Board adopted a $120 million proposed final budget for the 2014-15 school year that includes a 3.2 percent tax increase. How is it that the District can increase our homeowner taxes for another year, but still manage to find available dollars for administrator and supervisor bonuses? Where is the fiscal watchdog looking out for the residents? (To find the current salaries and proposed bonuses on (A) and (B) in Section VII, you need to go to pgs. 435 and 436 of the agenda.)

Item (C) under Section VII, ‘Business Manager Employee Agreement’ refers to the proposed contract for Art McDonnell, the District’s current business manager. McDonnell’s salary for 2014-15 year is $163,220 although he is due to receive a one-time bonus of $1,632 as mentioned above.  Under his proposed employee agreement (see pgs. 438-441), McDonnell will enjoy a significant salary increase of $22,000/yr. or approximately an 14% yearly salary increase – if approved his salary becomes $185K/yr. rising to $186,632 with the addition of his bonus.

Under the position responsibilities in the proposed employee agreement, the terms state that McDonnell is “responsible for responding to all questions relating to the District business, financial and operation matters” and that he “will interpret the financial concerns of the District to the community”. Further responsibilities refer to an ‘Appendix A’, which is not included with the agenda – the business manager duties are vague and the job description without detail.

Setting aside the salary, the pending employee agreement for Art McDonnell includes very surprising job security, especially given current economic times – a whopping 5-year contract with automatic renewals for additional five-year terms. How does someone get this kind of deal these days?

The length of the District superintendent’s contract is 3-years so why should the business manager receive a five-year contract. Who negotiated this contract with McDonnell?  With the retirement of Dan Waters in June 2015, the replacement will inherit the business manager for the entire length of his or her superintendent contract.  Having just launched the search for a new Superintendent, why would the school board agree to a five-year contract for McDonnell?  Why would the Board want to force prospective superintendent candidates into this type of situation?

According to the proposed employee agreement, the District is required to give McDonnell 6 months’ notice if they want to terminate his contract; otherwise, his five-year contract rolls over with automatic five-year renewals.  (With an unsatisfactory evaluation, termination notice is reduced to 60 days). Gratefully, McDonnell’s contract was not included in the consent agenda.  Does this mean that the residents expect a Board discussion and explanation (rationale) for the terms of the proposed contract? Again, I ask who on the school board ‘negotiated’ this contract?  It looks to me like Art McDonnell asked for “the moon, the stars and the sun” in this contract and he’s likely to get it – where’s the fiscal responsibility?

Also on Monday night is the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors meeting, 7:30 PM at Township Building.  I found a couple of items interesting on the agenda

(1)  The appointment of Finance Director

(2) Approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (2015-2018) with the Tredyffrin Township Police Association (TTPA)

If you recall, within a two-week period between February 10 and 25 of this year, the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors terminated Public Works Director Scott Cannon without public discussion or comment and agreed to accept the resignation of Finance Director Tim Klarich, also without explanation. Klarich was Tredyffrin Township Finance Director for nearly 4 years. I always found his analysis and preparation of the yearly township budget detailed and complete and his monthly financial updates to the board unfailingly thorough.  There was uneasiness with the departure of these two department heads four months ago and Klarich departure was particularly unsettling. I look forward to the announcement of the appointment of the township’s new Finance Director.

As for the other agenda item of interest — the residents are aware that the Tredyffrin Township Police Department has been working with an officer deficit during the last several years. If you recall, the supervisors approved the spending of $49K for a Police Department study that concluded hiring of additional police officers was needed.  I am interested to see if the needs of the police department will be addressed in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Will chain link fencing around the elementary schools make them safer?

fencing 2Like every other school district in America, the TE School District began talking about school security after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy where a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children.  If you recall, the School Board hired former Tredyffrin Township Police Chief Andy Chambers as the District’s safety consultant. The School Board announced the formation of a District Safety Committee; members to include Chambers, District staff and residents. The District Safety Coordinator is Conestoga High School Assistant Principal Andy Phillips. Other than Chambers and Phillips, I am not certain who else is on the District Safety Committee and I could not find the information on the school district website.

Sandy Hook and other shootings have pushed the issue of school security into the limelight … we all want our kids to be safe. One of the security upgrades recommended by the Safety Committee to the Facilities Committee is the construction of 5-foot high chain link fencing around each of the District’s five elementary schools – Beaumont, New Eagle, Valley Forge, Hillside and Devon.  The Facilities Committee acted on the Safety Committee’s recommendation sending out request for proposals for the fence construction. The capital project contract for site fencing at the elementary schools was approved by the school board on February 24, 2014 and the contract was awarded to the low bidder New Holland Chain Link, LLC for $220K.

I have received emails and phone calls from parents and neighbors associated with New Eagle, Valley Forge and Hillside schools, all opposing the school board’s decision to construct the chain link fencing. And the TE School District planned fencing project was on the local ABC Philadelphia news last week with residents explaining their opposition.  I have to say that other than the school board, I have not heard anyone speak in favor of the 5-foot chain link fencing.  

Residents oppose the chain link fences for a variety of reasons. Some of the arguments opposing the fencing include:

  1. The planned fencing will make it more difficult for children to evacuate in emergencies. Concern that children could be trapped inside the school property because of the fencing and that the fencing could hamper emergency aid from entering the school property.
  2. A limited number of gates in the fencing are planned making it difficult for children, teachers and staff to exit during emergencies.  Gates are to be placed in the fencing only where walks now exist.
  3. The fencing is on three sides of the property but full access on the front.
  4. Residents are required to obtain a building permit for fences in Tredyffrin Township, did the District file the necessary forms?
  5. Five foot high fencing is not a deterrent, especially given it is only on three sides.
  6. Monetary cost to the taxpayers – $220K
  7. The fencing gives an institutional appears to the schools.
  8. Inconvenience, children who have safely walked to school will now (in some cases) be forced to take the bus because of the fencing.
  9. Complaints about the aesthetics, especially given that the elementary schools are located in residential areas; citing other school districts that have used wrought iron fencing (rather than chain link) so that it blends with the neighborhood.

Aside from aesthetics and inconvenience that the fencing may cause to residents, the real question that we need to have answered is, “Will the chain link fencing make the schools safer?”   Rather than simply stating that the Safety Committee recommends the 5-foot high chain link fencing, did the school board receive background and research to support the committee’s position?

An update on the elementary school fencing project will be provided at on Friday, June 13, 2 PM, TE Administration Building at the Facilities Committee meeting.  According to the agenda online, the District’s architect Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot will present the update on the fencing project.

The school board approved the fencing the five elementary schools and signed a  $220K contract for this capital project.  Now the question is, will the residents have a voice in this decision or will the Board stand behind their decision?

Superintendent Search underway in T/E School District – Residents invited to assist in finding replacement

Next SuperThe T/E school board has launched a search for a new superintendent and is seeking input from the public through an anonymous survey, “Stakeholder Survey – Superintendent Succession Planning”, available online through noon on Tuesday, June 10.  Participants can weigh in on the qualifications and experiences that they think are most important in a superintendent as well as the strengths and needs in the district.

Public input is important throughout the superintendent process and this online survey allows stakeholders (District residents, parents, students and employees) to provide comments that are a valuable part of the search for the next superintendent. The answers should help guide the school board in the superintendent search to replace current TESD Superintendent Dr. Dan Waters, who will retire from the school district on June 30, 2015.

The following seven questions are on the survey, each with a pick list of responses.

  1. Please select the stakeholder group(s) that best describes you.
  2. Gender
  3. Age Group
  4. Please select the top 5 traits you believe are most important for Tredyffrin/Easttown School District’s new Superintendent.
  5. Please select the top 5 strengths of the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District that the new Superintendent should be expected to maintain or enhance.
  6. Please select the top 5 qualifications which you believe are most important for Tredyffrin/Easttown School District’s new Superintendent.
  7. Please select the top 3 opportunities and challenges you believe our new Superintendent will face. Select at least 3 and no more than 3.

According to the District’s website, the survey results are to be made public.  However, beyond making the survey public, will the results of the survey affect the Board’s selection process?  The feedback reflects the unique needs of the community … how will the results be used by the Board.

Having the community, parents, school district employees and students involved in the superintendent search process provides support for the school board and will lead to a more favorable public perception and build trust.  Sharing the survey results and the search progress in an open, transparent atmosphere makes us, the stakeholders, feel appreciated that we were consulted in the selection process and therefore, more inclined to getting the new superintendent off to a successful start. If the superintendent search is conducted behind closed doors, the new superintendent becomes promoted as the Board’s superintendent, not the community’s superintendent.

Some school board members believe that owing to their election by the community, that they have the right to make all decisions, start to finish, which effectively leaves the residents in the dark about the affairs of the school district.  Taking that stance puts the District in a “no need to know” mode – which may lead the Board to conduct the superintendent search in secret or mostly behind closed doors.  I have attended many school district committee and board meetings and often a prevailing attitude of “we know best” by some Board members and administrators exists.

Frequently attendance at T/E school district meetings is low unless there is an issue of personal concern to residents.  Unfortunately, some Board members (certainly not all) equate minimal citizen participation at meetings as a stamp of approval for their governance; believing that the small group that regularly attends meetings (and is vocal) is not representative of the community.  Regardless if five or five hundred people attend meetings, this community owns the schools and should be involved and kept fully informed regarding its investment.

Don’t get me wrong, I support the survey (and the inclusion of all stakeholders views in the process) but the survey results need to actually ‘count’ and not serve merely as window-dressing for the Board in the selection of the next superintendent.  Most of the questions on the list are standard and the pick-list of responses to be expected.  Some of the questions asked of survey participants appear to be designed to generate an intended result whereas one question ignores important issues facing the District.  As an example, the #7 question completely overlooks significant concerns in the District, such as school safety concerns, drug and alcohol usage by students and low morale of employees —  just some examples of important challenges facing the future superintendent.

Please take the time to fill out the District survey on the superintendent search. The final decision on the superintendent choice is ultimately up to the school board but the community’s involvement in the process is critical.

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