TESD

TESD Administration reacts against Conestoga High School hazing with strong words and offers course for change

Hazing abuseIn the two weeks since Chester County DA Tom Hogan filed charges of assault, conspiracy, unlawful restraint and other crimes against three Conestoga football players, the hazing scandal has brought nationwide attention to the TE School District. Allegedly, the senior boys penetrated a freshman teammate with a broomstick after he refused to help other underclassmen clean the locker room while wearing just their underwear. According to Hogan, the “No Gay Thursdays” was a tradition started by the football team at least three or four years ago, in which behavior the team normally considered to be “gay” was considered “not gay” on Thursdays,

The hazing scandal has quickly gained national attention and continues to appear in articles from the New York Times to the Washington Post.  Locally the community appears divided between those students and parents suggesting that the October 15 incident never happened to others in the public who were outraged and wanted answers.

I have found myself caught in the middle of the two camps. I fully support ‘innocent until proven guilty” regarding the three Conestoga football players – the presumption of innocence is essential to the criminal process. We know of mistakes made by overzealous district attorneys and lawyers who were quick to judge – look at the Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape in 2006. The mishandling in that case cost that district attorney his job and his law license, not to mention the millions of dollars paid by Duke University for legal bills and lawsuits.  On the flip side, it is hard to believe that the highly respected Chester County DA Tom Hogan and his office were not thorough in their investigation. Regardless … the boys are innocent until proven guilty.

There are important issues at play here. One is the criminal charges filed against the football players for the alleged assault. On that score, it is up to the legal process to decide the fate of those accused not the school district or the residents.  But another important issue is this so-called “No Gay Thursday” weekly hazing tradition – and the expectation from many in the community (including myself) that the administration can (and should) institute a zero-tolerance hazing policy going forward.

On Thursday, TESD Supt. Dr. Richard Gusick and Conestoga HS Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger released a letter to school district families. (Click here to read letter). Although understandably unable to comment on the legal investigation, the letter provides an update on the District’s internal investigation and findings, including the following:

* Hazing activities occurred with some members of the football team over the past several years, including back slapping, horseplay, and obscene behaviors targeted toward underclassmen.

* These activities sometimes occurred under the label of “No Gay Thursday.”

* No interviews or other evidence indicated that any adult had knowledge of these activities.

* The locker rooms had an insufficient adult presence throughout the football season, creating an environment where hazing activities could occur.

Accepting responsibility that hazing had occurred at the high school, the letter went on to say, that the school “… does not accept any type of intolerance, hazing, bullying or intimidation within our school community. “No Gay Thursday” is ignorant, intolerant, and has no place in any school. Even though no gay students were specific targets of discrimination, the practice itself is an affront to us all. We are committed to eliminating these activities and providing a positive, respectful environment that is safe for all students.”

These are words that the community needed to hear – a statement containing a clear anti-hazing message and indication that the District is taking the hazing seriously and is taking strong action against it for the future.

We also learned from the letter that John Vogan, Conestoga’s head football coach, had resigned, effective immediately. And that the entire football coaching staff was relieved of all coaching responsibilities in all sports through the fall season. (Does this mean there’s an opportunity for the District to re-hire the coaching staff after the Fall season?)

The administration is recommending hiring a full-time Athletic Director for TESD middle school and high school sports programs. Creating a new position for oversight of the sports programs is a good suggestion – however, for me there’s one caveat, conduct a search and hire from the outside. The District athletic program needs a new start.

This tragedy has shaken all of us and the public needs assurance that the District will take every step to try to prevent this from happening again.  Although originally the stance was no public meetings on this topic, the District has changed course and is now encouraging residents to share their thoughts on Monday, March 28, 6 PM in the auditorium at Conestoga High School.  This meeting will occur before the regularly scheduled school board meeting which starts at 7:30 PM.

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TESD: Conestoga Senior Michael Zhang Awarded $75,000 in 2016 Intel Science Talent Search

Michael-Zhang-300x300

Exciting update —

Conestoga High School senior Michael Zhang, 18, of Berwyn, PA won the Second Place Medal of Distinction for Global Good in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search last night in Washington, DC. He engineered tiny virus-like particles to deliver gene-modifying proteins to target cells for medical therapy by altering the genome of those cells in a controlled way.

The second place medal comes with a $75,000 award! Congratulations Michael and the Zhang family!

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I previously posted the following on Community Matters (January 20, 2016) when Michael was listed as a 2016 Intel finalist:

The list of finalists in Intel’s 2016 Science Talent Search (Intel STS) was released today and Tredyffrin Easttown School District student, Conestoga senior Michael Zhang. is on the list! Michael’s impressive achievement was based on his ‘Design and Assembly of CRISPR/Cas9-based Virus-like Particles for Orthogonal and Programmable Genetic Engineering in Mammalian Cells’.  Congratulations Michael!

Run by the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public since 1942, the Science Talent Search is America’s oldest and most prestigious science competition for high school students. Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., has sponsored the competition since 1998. Intel STS recognizes 300 students as semifinalists each year.  From that group, 40 finalists receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. from March 1016, where they will compete for more than $1 million in awards.

As an Intel STS finalist, Zhang will participate in rigorous final judging sessions, display his work to the public, meet with notable scientists and compete for three Medal of Distinction awards awards of $150,000 each – one for basic research, one for global good and another for innovation. Additionally, there are three second-place awards of $75,000, and three third-place awards of $35,000.  Each Intel STS finalist receives at least $7,500.

According to Intel STS website, alumni of the competition have made extraordinary contributions to science and “hold more than 100 or the world’s most coveted science and math honors, including twelve Nobel Laureates, eleven National Medal of Science winners, two Fields Medalists, and eighteen MacArthur Foundation Fellows.” Intel STS 2016 finalists are from 38 schools in 18 states. Fifty-two percent of this year’s finalists are male, while 48 percent are female.

As one of the nation’s top high school researchers, congratulations and best wishes to Michael in Washington!

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Update on TE School District’s Finance Meeting

school-financeMy friend Ray Clarke attended the TESD Finance Meeting last night and kindly provides us with the following notes. Thanks Ray! Others in the community attended the meeting; I encourage you to offer your comments.
Some brief and arbitrary personal notes from last night’s TESD Finance Committee. There was fair community attendance and engagement, so hopefully others can supplement.
 
The attendance may have been encouraged by the prospect of “drilling down” into the expense Budget that requires the 4.3% tax increase, but once again we were left flat on our backs as Lucy pulled the football away.  For example, we learned that Special Education purchased services are slated to increase by $0.9 million, but have no idea why, beyond “unfunded mandates”.  Maybe someone can point out any new mandates, and indeed offer a quantitative analysis of how the $20+ million a year Special Education enterprise spends that money, where the increase is going next year, and why exactly the projection model has the expense increasing at 10% a year for the full five year length of the model.  Committee Chair Lastner again held out the prospect of sharing more with the public in future meetings.
 

The community is also struggling to understand the trajectory of health care costs.  Since the district went to the current self-funding model, experience has fluctuated considerably, $1 million or more ahead or less than budget.  Analysis of this is left to the insurance broker/administrator, so we have not seen the thinking that supports next year’s budget projection of a 5% increase and subsequent 8% annual increases.  If taxpayers are to be comfortable accepting perpetual tax increases to cover this benefit for our employees, it would be nice to see some “drilling down” here, too.  Let’s look at the five year trend, understand what’s driving that trend, including any change in the demographics of the covered population and the employee contribution, budget to that long term trend and use the $5 or $6 million of taxpayer money tucked away in the Fund Balance to systematically smooth out the inevitable fluctuations.

A comparison of budget to actual for the last three years was notable for one factor: in every year, actual employee compensation costs have been better than budget by at least $1 million and in 2013/14 more than $2 million to the good – because the impact of retirements and unpaid leaves of absence (both of which bring replacement with lower cost staff).  And a similar outcome is projected for the current year.  But we were told that this over-budgeting – which leads every year to a higher than needed tax increase – can not be budgeted for because the district only officially learns of retirements after the budget is completed.  Somehow we can estimate cost increases (eg: healthcare), but can not manage to deal with decreases?

More information to come re the laptop plan (hardware choice, roll-out timing, cost-sharing, etc.).  I gather the Education Committee approved the educational rationale, so maybe a good start for communicating that rationale to those of us who bought their own log tables and slide rules would be to provide a white paper documenting how educational outcomes will be improved.

Since the passage of the District’s preliminary budget last month which contains a 4.3% tax increase, it is not good news to read that there’s been no movement in the direction to decrease.  At the time the preliminary budget was passed, I recall that the Finance Committee Chair Virginia Lastner told the public that this only to “keep the options open”. Lastner stated that all expenses would be reviewed ‘line by line’. Maybe that discussion will happen at the budget workshops.

On Thursday, February 18. the Facilities Committee (with Virginia Lastner, chair) will return to the discussion of the fencing project at Valley Forge Middle School and the consultant’s report.  Interestingly, a review of the meeting agenda indicates a strict time schedule — public comment is from 5 PM – 5:05 PM. Five total minutes for public comment — what is that about?

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Police investigating ritual hazing involving Conestoga High School football team

FootballHearing reports on the news about Tredyffrin Township police and Chester County detectives investigating alleged hazing at Conestoga High School involving the school’s football team.

According to the report, teams of detectives are interviewing as many as 60 or 70 students about an alleged assault during hazing where one student was seriously injured.  The investigation is interviewing current football players and going back two years.

The report said that the investigation centers on ritual hazing by football players which occurred on the same day each week. Apparently some of the students were aware of the hazing going on and would deliberately avoided the high school gym at certain times.

The news report makes it sound like this was a routine weekly hazing … how is that no one knew what was going on? Where were the coaches, teachers, administrators?

All of this attention paid to fencing our schools for safety reasons but what about the safety of our children inside the schools?

Although at this point, the focus is on ‘alleged’ hazing, it’s hard to believe that Chester County DA Tom Hogan would have teams of detectives investigating if there wasn’t significant reason. According to the TE School District’s website, the District is not conducting their own investigation. From an administration standpoint, I would think that the District would want to conduct their own internal investigation and find out ‘who knew what and when’.

The following appears on the TE School District website:

Police Investigation into Alleged Hazing

We have been advised by Chester County law enforcement officials of a police investigation related to alleged hazing by Conestoga High School current and/or former football players. The District places the highest priority on student safety and, to that end, is cooperating in any way it can with law enforcement officials. As this is not currently a school district investigation, we are not in a position to answer any questions or provide more information at this time. However, if you or your child has any information pertinent to this matter, please contact the Chester County District Attorney’s Office or the Tredyffrin Township Police Department.

 

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To Fence or Not to Fence at VF Middle School? Safety Consultant Says Yes (plus a lot more!)

Fencing April 2015The TE School District saga of the fencing project at Valley Forge Middle School continues.  We learned on Thursday, through the District’s website, that the “Final Report on Fencing at Valley Forge Middle School’ was available to the public.  Or so we thought.

In September 2015, the District contracted with Ken Trump and his firm, National School Safety and Security Services to conduct a school safety assessment to evaluate fencing at VFMS.  A 3-day site visit was conducted on November 18-20.  On the final day of their site visit, Trump and his associate Charles Hibbert presented their preliminary findings at a District Facilities Committee meeting.  The long-awaited final report, dated January 8, 2016, was reviewed by the school board and administration and then uploaded to the District’s website on Thursday, January 28.

More about the final report in a minute but first, I need to explain that the consultant’s report mysteriously “disappeared without a trace” from the District’s website yesterday (Saturday) and then mysteriously “reappeared” late today without explanation. Word has it that there was some kind of computer glitch.  Interesting.

Much contained in the final VFMS fencing report was expected and very similar to the presentation by Trump at the Facilities Committee meeting in November.

Although hired to evaluate the fencing at VFMS, sadly the report also contains an unnecessary and offensive tone in regards to the community.  The report includes a negative critique of residents and their viewpoints and, in my opinion, comes across sounding very unprofessional. In describing the input from community members, Trump stated, “We found their opinions to be entrenched, their objectivity skewed, and the attacks by some of these individuals upon the consultants’ recommendations and intellect to be disingenuous.”  The report suggests that resident’s opposition to fencing had to do with “furthering entrenched personal and power struggles with select district board members and the administrators. “  Wow.

Bottom line is that Trump recommends fencing at Valley Forge Middle School.  According to the report, the fencing at VFMS provides “risk reduction benefits” which will ‘mark’ the school boundaries and deter deer, fox and dogs!

The report recommends five foot minimum (six foot preferred) chain link fencing to enclose the upper field and track.  Along Valley Forge Road (Rt. 252), the consultant recommends five foot minimum (six foot preferred) chain link fencing.  It should be pointed out that a variance would be required by Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board as the recommendation exceeds the height restriction of fences.

Trump closed his report by stating that the “community convenience, as well as community individual or group specials interests, cannot continue to drag out what is an already over-extended process …” A rather judgmental comment  by the consultant on the community  and  remember that we paid $15,500 for this report.

So what’s the next step?  At the January Facilities Meeting, chair Virginia Lastner stated that the consultant’s fencing report would be discussed at the next meeting on Thursday, February 18, 5 PM at the Administration Building.  A full school board discussion with the public should happen at the regular school board meeting on Monday, February 22, 7:30 PM at the high school.

For the sake of transparency and public involvement, the VFMS fencing project deserves a place on the agenda at the regular school board meeting on February 22.  Before the school board makes a decision in this matter, all options or possible compromises need to be fully vetted in front of the public. Presumably the vote on fencing at VFMS will take place at the March 28 school board meeting.

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2016 brings new leadership to Tredyffrin Twp, 4.3% tax increase in preliminary TESD budget and a Chester County Substitute Teacher Job Fair

Belated Happy New Year!  Waking up to 23 degree temperatures today reminds us that we are not going to escape the winter after all. Having recently returned from holidays spent in South Carolina with balmy, sunny 83 temperatures makes the arctic cold even harder to take!

Since the start of the New Year, here are a couple of noteworthy items.  The 2016 reorganization of Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors came with two surprises – recently elected at-large supervisors Trip Lukens and  Sean Moir were elected chair and vice chair, respectively of the board.  Except for, also recently elected, supervisor Heather Greenberg, all other currently serving supervisors had served on the BOS longer than these two newly elected supervisors. But Lukens isn’t new to leadership roles in the township, having served previously as a member and chair of Tredyffrin’s Planning Commission. Congratulations to Lukens and Moir on the vote of confidence from their fellow supervisors and best wishes in their new positions!

The TE School District held their first school board meeting of 2016 last week.The Board unanimously adopted the 2016-17 preliminary budget which contains a 4.3% tax increase. The Board decided to “keep their options open” by approving a preliminary budget with the Act 1 index of 2.4% and allowable exceptions to Act 1 of 1.9% to close the project budget deficit of $4.75 million. It should be noted that Tredyffrin Township recently passed their 2016 budget with a zero percent tax increase.

The following chart shows TESD tax increases over the last twelve years.   2004-05 was the last zero tax increase year.

• 2015-16: 3.81%
• 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

Although the adoption of the 2016-17 preliminary budget does not commit the Board to a tax increase, I cannot remember the last time the Board passed a preliminary budget with a tax increase and then decreased the tax increase in the final approved budget. Because the District does not allow the archive of meeting minutes on the website beyond the current year, there is no way to access this type of information, short of a ‘right-to-know’ request.  (Here’s a suggestion/request for the Public Information committee – please keep the minutes for all school board meetings on the District website; a RTK should not be a requirement to access public information.)

I want to note that although the Board voted 9-0 to accept the preliminary budget, both Scott Dorsey (D) and Ed Sweeney (R) voiced their objection to the tax increase and do not want to see a 4.3% tax increase in the final budget.  It was refreshing that newly elected Board member Robert Hotinski (D) spoke up about the way the budget information is presented — asking for more details on the line items from the District’s business manager Art McDonnell. Finance and Facilities Chair Virginia Lastner (R) encouraged the public to attend upcoming finance meetings and budget workshops and to look for solutions together with the District. 2016 is a new year and maybe the tides are turning …

I received a request from the staff of the Chester County Intermediate Unit to advertise the Chester County Substitute Teacher Job Fair, Thursday, January 14, 4-7 PM.  The Job Fair will be held at the CCIU office, 455 Boot Road, Downingtown, PA.  Representatives for all the public school districts in Chester County will be on hand to discuss current substitute teacher job openings and to accept applications and resumes. The CCIU press release states, “… According to the PA Department of Education, the current supply of available teachers, including substitutes, is not keeping up with the growing demand.” 

Walk-ins are welcome at the job fair, but interested individuals are invited to preregister for the event online:   help.thesubservice.com/chester

Although the Chester County Substitute Teacher Job Fair is for candidates seeking positions in all the Chester County public school districts, I post this notice in hopes of helping some of the experienced and educated aides and paraeducators whose jobs were outsourced by Tredyffrin Easttown School District.

Chester County Substitute Teacher Job Fair flyer

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To fence or not to fence — Valley Forge Middle School fencing saga continues

Fencing April 2015

On Wednesday, Nov. 18 the public was invited to attend a community meeting at Valley Forge Middle School with the District’s safety consultant from National School Safety and Security Services (consultation fee: $15,500).

Chesterbrook resident Doug Anestad attended the fencing meeting and provided the following update of the meeting for Community Matters:

The Valley Forge Middle School fence safety consultant meeting was quite an event with a very large turnout with over one hundred in attendance.

The meeting started at 7pm and the safety consultant said that he wanted to finish by 9pm. There was a line of people talking the whole two hours at the two microphones that were set up. Each person had a maximum of 5 minutes to speak with many not using their allotted time.

The message was consistent, loud, and clear: the audience did not think that the proposed fencing would increase student safety, are ugly, and the money would be better spent on the students.

The audience seemed to be much more worried about the daily traffic jams at Valley Forge Middle School during drop off and pick up than any supposed safety the fences would add.

It was not just parents of Valley Forge Middle School students that spoke out against the proposed fences. Valley Forge Elementary parents not only spoke out against the proposed fencing at Valley Forge Middle but also stated that they didn’t see the benefit of the fences that have already been installed at Valley Forge Elementary.

Valley Forge Middle School PTO members, including the PTO President Sarah Culbert, spoke out against the proposed fences.

Speaking of the PTO, a parent mentioned that he got a letter from the PTO trying to get raise money to purchase iPads for the students. He pointed out that the $80,000 budgeted for the fences would not only complete the fundraising, but go way beyond it.  I just looked it up, and for $80,000 we could purchase 200 iPads for the students at retail cost. The school district gets an educational discount so they could get even more.

The point wasn’t really about buying iPads. The point was that the money could be better spent on the students. The audience wholeheartedly agreed.

In addition to the PTO president, there were presidents of quite a few homeowner associations including David Miller, president of the Chesterbrook Civic Association. They stated that in their communities, everyone they talked to was against the proposed fences and people didn’t see how they helped student safety and were a waste of money.

One of the most telling things that happened was when one person speaking at the end stated that she was uncomfortable publicly speaking and commented that many other people felt the same way and therefore wouldn’t speak. She asked if there could be a show of hands for people who were against the fence. It looked as if every hand in the audience went up. When the safety consultant asked who was in favor of the fences, only one hand from the Tredyffrin community went up.

The bottom line is that the community came out in force yet again to give their input. The input was loud and clear. The community knows fences will not increase student safety.  Fences are an eyesore and a waste of money.

If the school board goes ahead with the fences, one has to ask what the point was of even asking the community for their input. The community wants the money spent on students – not useless fences.

As part of the District’s agreement with the safety consultant, a preliminary oral presentation is tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 20, 2 PM at the District’s Facilities Meeting. The safety consultant will provide written report with recommendations following the site visit.

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Tredyffrin Township Police Department brings multiple pornography charges against middle school students in the TE School District

Today the Tredyffrin Township Police Department filed multiple pornography charges against three middle school students at TE Middle School and Valley Forge Middle School for allegedly creating and sending sexually explicit images.  According to the police report the images included nudity and child pornography.  The ages of those charged range from 11 – 15 years old. Suspects viewed and shared the images while in school.  The investigation by the Tredyffrin Township Police began in April 2015.

An excerpt from the Tredyffrin Township Police Department press release of November 3, 2015 is as follows:

The Tredyffrin Township Police Department has announced that Juvenile Allegations have been filed against three (3) juveniles, for different incidents related to the creation and distribution of intimate images and harassment.  The distribution of intimate images can range from a charge grading of a summary offense to a felony, depending on the age of the participants, the age of the receiver of the image and circumstances involved in the viewing, storage and distribution of the intimate image.

In this case, those intimate images consisted of pictures or videos of students who attend Tredyffrin-Easttown School District middle schools; Valley Forge Middle School and T/E Middle School, as well as images retrieved from the internet.  The age of the juveniles charged ranged from age 11 – 15 at the time the incidents occurred.  Additional juveniles are likely to be charged in the near future.

The allegations were a result of investigations which were begun in April of 2015 by Tredyffrin Township Police Department and are continuing.  During the investigation it was reported by both victims and participants, that intimate images consisting of child erotica, nudity, child pornography and pornography were created, sent, stored, and viewed by a number of students both at their homes and while at school.

In most cases the images and videos were sent voluntarily by the juveniles to other minors.  In some cases intimate images were sent to unknown persons who were met in Cyber Chats conducted with various social networking applications.  In another case, a student offered to sell an intimate image of a classmate to another student. The charges connected to this were, Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, Section 6321 (a)(1), Transmission of Sexually Explicit Images by a Minor, a summary offense and a Misdemeanor of the 3rd.

In one case, an intimate image of a sex act was taken off of the World Wide Web by a juvenile male, then distributed and portrayed as being that of a juvenile female student to her class mates.  The resulting harassment lead to an assault at the T/E Middle School.

The charges related to this incident, from Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Crime Code included the following: Section 5903, Obscene and other Sexual Materials and Performances, a Felony of the 3rd degree; Section 7512, Criminal Use of a Communications Facility, a Felony of the 3rd degree; Section 6318, Unlawful Contact with a Minor, a Felony of the 3rd degree and Section 2709, Harassment, a Misdemeanor of the 3rd degree. Also charged was Section 3126 Indecent Assault, a Misdemeanor of the 2nd degree; Section 2709.1, Stalking, a Misdemeanor of the 1st degree.

During the investigation the majority of the parents whose children were involved were very concerned and cooperated fully with the investigation. One parent who routinely checked their child’s cell phone and computer usage was surprised to learn that his child was using a cloud based storage service to store and retrieve intimate images and avoid detection by his parents.

Many of the intimate images were found to have been created by the juveniles taking selfies, in their own homes with the location services setting on their phones activated.  This action would allow for viewers of the images, including child predators to locate the homes of the juveniles via Meta data stored in the picture file.

Following the release of the Tredyffrin Township Police Department special juvenile report today, the TE School District released the following statement:

The T/E School District has been cooperating with a police investigation related to alleged misconduct by middle school students. We take these matters very seriously and follow up with procedures that promote safety for all students. The incident may also carry school-based discipline. As such, the District cannot comment on specific student discipline matters, as we must do all we can to preserve the privacy rights of all students.

The District has cooperated fully with law enforcement agencies throughout this investigation and will continue to do so. We join with the police and the entire community to emphasize responsible use of technology and to affirm the rights of all individuals to live and thrive in an environment free from harassment. This message is central to our mission and our daily work with students.

Mark Cataldi
Director of Assessment and Accountability
District Safety Coordinator

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School fencing is important school safety issue to TE School Board — Why not same level of safety concern for 5th grader?

stopped school bus

 During one of the two comment periods of the TE School Board meeting on September 21, District residents Mr. and Mrs. John Alexander asked the school board directors for assistance with a busing situation pertaining to their son Jackson. The Alexander’s, who live on Valley Forge Mountain, had previously attempted resolution through email and phone calls to the District but were unsuccessful. After their passionate appeal at the school board meeting, the District’s business manager Art McDonnell intervened to say that this was a bus schedule matter and any school bus policy changes need to go to the Policy Committee the following month. The Board concurred with no further discussion.

Although I may not have fully known the specifics of the situation, it was obvious that McDonnell understood the Alexander’s request.  A couple of days after the school board meeting, John Alexander called me.  After speaking with him, I asked that he provide me with a summary of the situation for Community Matters —

Our son, Jackson, is taking a school district shuttle bus from VFMS to VFES to ride the elementary school bus home two days a week, so that he can participate in 5th grade band and chorus as after school extracurricular activities since both my wife and I work outside of the home. The problem is that even though the elementary school bus passes right by our house twice on its route, the school district’s procedure is to only stop at the closest current elementary school stops. This means that Jackson has to get off almost a half a mile away at the nearest established elementary school stop and walk back to our house which unnecessarily increases his risk of being hurt or otherwise harmed, especially since there are no sidewalks on Valley Forge Mountain.

We had hoped that a simple phone call and/or e-mail requesting the bus to let him off at his old elementary school bus stop from last year would settle the issue and be a Win-Win situation since there would be less risk of danger to our son and the School District wins because there is less risk of an incident for which they would be liable while not impacting other students & families in any material way.

Our bottom line – It seems like the school district is more concerned with minimizing disruptions in their bureaucratic process & procedures rather than taking simple & reasonable steps to increase the safety of a child in returning to their home from school. Shouldn’t student safety be paramount and outweigh bureaucratic processes when reasonable alternatives exist? Now, we are faced with waiting for the Policy Committee to review this in the middle of next month with no guarantee of a favorable decision/ruling.

John Alexander

Over the last couple of years, the school board has focused much attention on school safety, including trying to convince residents that ‘fencing schools’ is the answer to keeping our children safe.  Yet, here we have a 10 year old boy walking ½ mile from the school bus on Valley Forge Mountain to his home, after the bus passes his house twice on the route.

The District is endangering a child and risking liability to allow this child to walk this distance and on roads without sidewalks! This makes no ‘safety sense’ whatsoever! The Alexander’s have been told that to change the bus route for them could mean that other families may want similar changes. However, when Alexander pressed McDonnell on how many ‘other’ families have ever had a bus schedule situation which required a change, he was given no response. The bus route included a stop at the Alexander’s house for the 2014-15 school year. As Alexander states, “Shouldn’t student safety be paramount and outweigh bureaucratic processes when reasonable alternatives exist?”

Beyond the obvious safety aspects of this situation, where is the open communication between the Board and this TE School District family.  Jackson is the youngest of the Alexander’s four children, so the parents fully understand how the school district works and are not seeking preferential treatment.  According to John Alexander, he had previously inquired about the existing “bus policy” cited by Art McDonnell; however, it was not provided. Rather than showing leadership and finding a reasonable solution, the school board accepted the business manager’s approach to “kick the can” to the Policy Committee meeting next month.

The Alexander’s have to wait a month to take their reasonable request (and simple solution) to the Policy Committee. To be clear, the Policy Committee can only hear the policy request and make recommendations. At best, the Alexander’s will have to wait until the next school board meeting for full board discussion. However, most policy changes, take more than one Policy Committee for recommendations so who knows how long this “simple family request” will take for resolution?

I do not understand “why” all school district roads seem to lead to Art McDonnell, the business manager. Beyond the expected business/financial related aspects of his job description, McDonnell is the keeper of the gate for the District’s communications and the Board’s emails from residents, the Public Information officer and the Right-to-Know request recipient. We learned at the last school board meeting that McDonnell ‘hand-picked’ the school safety consultant (without issuing an RFP) and now we find that apparently he is in charge of the District’s bus schedule!

I have sat through many regular and committee meetings of the District and have witnessed an alarming trend…many of the Board’s discussions/decisions seem to defer to Art McDonnell!  In my opinion, the decision making powers of Art McDonnell seems to extend well beyond the normal and expected business manager boundaries.  As of July 1, the District hired a new Superintendent; so where’s Dr. Gusick’s voice on these issues?

As residents, we didn’t elect Art McDonnell to govern the District – we elected the School Board. Plan to support those school board candidates in the upcoming election on November 3rd who will do their homework and govern with independent thought! We need effective leadership!

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Next round on Valley Forge Middle School fencing project: TE School Board hires safety consultant

Fencing April 2015

What’s that proverb about a “bad penny always coming back”?  After last week’s TE School Board meeting, that could be a fair description of the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project.

Residents who attended the District’s June 12th Facilities Meeting expected the fencing discussion at Valley Forge Middle School to finally end.  But instead, the public learned that after many, many meetings and months of legal bills for the District (i.e. taxpayers), the Chesterbrook Civic Association and Green Hills homeowners, Board President Kris Graham’s proposed hiring a safety consultant for the Valley Forge Middle School.

The Board has repeatedly cited the 2013 safety report by Andy Chambers (the former Tredyffrin Township Police Chief) as the rationale for building fences around the District’s eight schools. However the public was not provided input for the safety study and the Board, citing safety reasons, never permitted the public to see the report.

Although District residents have not read the Chambers’ safety report, the Board claimed that its safety suggestions included fencing all schools. Taxpayers paid (“not to exceed $11,500”) for the safety report two years ago, so did the Board decide to spend more money on another study (to focus specifically on VFMS).  During the Facilities Committee meeting the Board was quick to point out that the District would send out a RFP for the VFMS safety consultant, which they admit was not done before they hired Chambers in 2013.

During the committee reports at the June 15 regular school board meeting, Dr. Motel (chair of the Facilities Committee) presented the following update,

The Facilities Committee met Friday, June 12 at the district offices on West Valley Road and the meeting was open to the public.

We discussed again the possible installation of additional fencing at Valley Forge Middle School. The committee has decided after many meetings of which this issue was discussed to obtain a second opinion from an additional safety consultant who will review the Valley Forge Middle School site specifically and make recommendations as to whether or not additional fencing at the site is advisable and if so what it should look like and where it should be placed.

The process will be an RFP will go out this summer for a school safety consultant. The selection of the safety consultant will begin at the next committee meeting in public with public input. I want to clarify that this means no new fencing will be installed at Valley Forge Middle School this summer.

Fast forward three months to last week’s school board meeting and the safety consultant discussion – a discussion which was troubling on many levels:

  1. Initially the hiring of the safety consultant appeared as part of the school board’s consent agenda but was later removed to allow for discussion.
  2. Contrary to what the Board previously stated on at the Facilities Committee meeting on June 12 and at the June 15 School Board meeting, no RFP was released.
  3. The Business manager Art McDonnell contacted three safety security companies and asked them for a proposal.
  4. McDonnell ‘picked’ the company, National School Safety & Security Service at a cost of $15,500.
  5. No District signed contract for National School Safety’s services. Responding to Board and resident questions, McDonnell suggested that a contract was not necessary and pointed to the company’s proposal on the TESD website. (The proposal is found on pg. 177 of the Sept. 21 school board agenda}.
  6. Residents asked the cost of the other 2 safety security companies. McDonnell did not have the exact figures but thought one was around $4,000 and the other $20K.
  7. National School Safety’s proposal contains no dates for the deliverables. Their consulting fee of $15,500 is for pre-visit phone calls and review of existing documents, 3 day visit which includes 1-1/2 days of interviews and site visits, 1/2 day of debriefing and presentation to committee and written report of recommendations.
  8. No public meeting on this topic is included in the company’s proposal.
  9. McDonnell stated that earlier fencing correspondence, emails, etc. would be given to the consultant. However, when further questioned on this topic, McDonnell acknowledged he was not sure how long the District kept emails!  (What is the policy on email retention?)
  10. When pressed on the need for the safety consultant to receive public input on fencing, etc., McDonnell referenced a proposed public meeting for Thursday, Nov. 19 with a preliminary safety report from the consultant to be given on Friday, Nov. 20 at the 2 PM Facilities Committee meeting.
  11. What is the value of resident input if the public meeting is held less than 24 hrs. before National School Safety delivers their preliminary report at the Facilities Committee meeting.
  12. Several residents and Board members questioned McDonnell regarding the ‘scope’ of the consultant’s work without the benefit of an RFP. How would the company know the District’s expectations?
  13. In the end, the Board offered that residents could send emails about the fencing project to schoolboard@tesd.net and they would forward to the safety consultant. For the record, Art McDonnell is the public information person and all emails to the school board must go through him first.

I have attended many school board and committee meetings but the discussion to hire a safety consultant for Valley Forge Middle School had to be one of the most troubling I have ever witnessed.  The decision to hire the safety consultant lacked process …there was no RFP outlining the District’s expectations as the Board previously stated  – no dates for deliverables – no contract – no resident input provision, etc.  Even with all the questions and uncertainty the Valley Forge Middle School security consultant, the Board voted 9-0 to hire National School Safety & Security Services at a cost of $15,500.

Where’s the P.R.O.C.E.S.S.?  The public is repeatedly told that the ‘real work’ goes on at committee meetings. Really?

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