transparency

TE School Board & TENIG reach new 3-year contract deal — No outsourcing!

What a difference a week makes! At last Monday’s September 23rd T/E School Board meeting, several TESD residents including Peggy Layden, Neal Colligan and Scott Dorsey questioned the Board about the status of the TENIG negotiations. The public was told by Board President Kevin Buraks that contract discussions were moving along and that the Board would report on the process when there was information to report. And Betsy Fadem volunteered that once the responses from the TENIG RFP were received (and reviewed) there would be public discussion in January. The current TENIG contract as well as the TEEA (teacher) contract run through June 30, 2014. When questioned on public communication and transparency issues, Buraks was very specific that the public would be informed of the process although it was not clear how much notice there would be for public review of any proposed contracts.

Buraks (and Fadem) responses to residents was counter to the rumblings that some of us had heard regarding the ‘early bird’ contract discussions. Nonetheless, because there was an overt attempt by several Board members to suppress any resident complaints on lack of transparency or public discussion, it was my expectation that the Board leadership would make certain that the public was kept informed.

This evening I had a phone call from Mary Minicozzi, the TENIG president. (She agreed that her name could be used and that the information was public). Mary wanted me to hear the TENIG contract details directly from her so that the facts would be correct. According to Mary, TENIG presented a contract proposal to the school board 2 weeks ago and that sometime since that point (she was not certain of the exact date), the Board ‘voted’ to accept the proposal. At today’s TENIG meeting, members voted to ratify with 83 members accepting the contract and 5 members rejecting the contract.

This news surprised the heck out of me because at last week’s TESD meeting, President Buraks and Betsy Fadem were talking about keeping the public informed on the progress of negotiations – had they already accepted the TENIG contract offer?

The vendor bids were not due back to the District until October 11 so how could the Board know what the expected savings to the District would be. How would TENIG know how much they needed to ‘give back’? Was this not the point of sending the RFPs out to the vendors? In addition, this reasoning lined up with Betsy Fadem’s remark that the discussion would take place in January 2014 (allowing for adequate review of the vendor bids and public input). According to Mary, there were a number of vendors lined up to provide bids to the District – 13 vendors for janitorial, 3 vendors for security, 8 vendors for maintenance, 3 vendors for secretarial and 5 vendors for the cafeteria. Presumably, now the vendors will be immediately notified that the District has cancelled the RFP and has settled the contract.

The good news is that the 3-year TENIG contract, July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017, has no outsourcing of TENIG employees and no discussion of outsourcing to occur during the length of the contract. Any new employees hired will be part of the District (and TENIG) – those positions will not be outsourced. However, there will be wage restructuring for all new TENIG hires, equating to an average of $3/hr. less than current employees in that position.

All TENIG employees received a 4-1/2% raise for the final year of their current contract (which is July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014). In the new 3-year contract, the custodians will receive a 2% salary reduction and additionally will give back 1 week of their vacation. (The rationale is that the District has to hire subs when the custodians are on vacation). The other members of TENIG (security, kitchen, maintenance, and cafeteria) will receive a 4% salary reduction in the new contract but their vacation benefit remains intact.

On the benefit side, Mary explained that TENIG currently receives the best healthcare benefits of all District employees – paying an average of $300/yr. for a family health insurance plan. Under the new contract, TENIG member’s health insurance will be on par with TEEA (teachers) members. In the new contract, the TENIG employees will contribute approximately 6% for their health care benefits. For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees receive a freeze on their salary.

As an incentive for current employees to leave the District, there is an interesting caveat in the new contract. If any TENIG employee with 15 or more years of District service, voluntarily resigns prior to end of the first year of the contract (by June 30, 2015), they will receive a buyout bonus of 15% of their salary, up to $7K. The idea is to replace some of the higher-paid District employees with new lesser-paid employees, thus decreasing overhead budget costs.

So, how much is the new 3-year TENIG contract saving the District? The contract savings includes $400K from the healthcare benefit component, $207K with the employee salary reduction and $207K from the custodian 1-week vacation giveback for a grand total savings of $719K to the District.

Although Mary stated that the Board had voted to accept the TENIG proposed 3-year contract and that the TENIG membership ratified the contract, I believe that the contract still has to be officially ‘voted on’ in public, doesn’t it? According to Mary, the Board will sign the contract at a special Board meeting that will be held in conjunction with the Finance Committee meeting. Looking at the upcoming District meetings, the Finance Committee is scheduled for Monday, October 14 – which interestingly is Columbus Day. (The offices in Tredyffrin Twp are closed on Columbus Day, but I guess not for TESD).

I want to be clear about something – I am pleased for the TENIG employees; glad they will not be outsourced and that they will not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract. However, last week’s School Board meeting has me troubled. After several residents asked for greater public input and communication, the public was assured that the Board was transparent, and that contract updates would be provided, and that simultaneously to early bird negotiations with TENIG that the Board would also review the results from the RFP. With agreement from the Board and TENIG on the new contract, there will be no vendor bids.

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Taxpayers deserve to know the bargaining framework in TE teacher negotiations

At the August school board meeting, the public learned at the District has entered into contract discussions with the teachers. We were told that there was agreement on both sides not to discuss the negotiation. Neither the ‘agreement’ not its specifics was made public. Resident Neal Colligan contacted the District with a right-to-know request — hoping to find out more about the agreement and the bargaining framework for the teacher negotiations. Neal sent me the following for Community Matters:

Pattye,

I wanted to let you know that I filed a Right to Know (RTK) request with the School District on August 27, 2013, specifically:

I would like a copy of any and all agreements related to the Early Bird TEEA contract negotiations particularly related to the “ground rules” for the Early Bird talks. I understand that this will not include any employer or employee contract offers, that is and should remain confidential.

Again, thanks to Ray Clarke and his reporting on the T/ESB Board meeting. I could tell he was trying to accurately portray the Board’s announcement of the Early Bird negotiations and the specific phrases he used led me to believe they may have been part of a written document.

Rather than grant or deny this request, I received a 30 day delay based on: Legal review required to determine whether record is a public record. This was quite an odd response. Possibly my follow-up communication to the Open Records officer will help make my thinking on their response more clear:

Thank you for your timely response to my request. You’ve indicated that the document(s) that I requested do indeed exist which is a great start and not something that I had known for sure. As they do exist, I am even more anxious to see them in the public domain. While I understand the potential need for legal review “to determine whether record is a public record; I do have an opinion as to the timing of that review which you have indicated will take 30 days (September 27, 2013). Certainly documents of this nature were constructed with legal review/input; meaning that the inside or outside legal team is already familiar with the nature and content of the documents. The delay here is only to determine if the documents in question are of public record. As they do not contain any actual negotiating points between the parties, I would think the determination of “public record” would be a quick call. To be fair, I am not an attorney so I do not offer this as a legal opinion but only one of common sense. 30 days seems awfully long for this review.

This contract which is being negotiated under a gag order is of paramount importance to the members of our community…it is the largest publicly funded workforce in our townships. Results of this contract will have a profound impact on taxing policy for years. The Board has stated its intention “To keep the public informed of the progress as it moves forward”. My request is simply to inform the public of the parameters involved in the formation of the “process that has been agreed to by the Board and each union” (both quotes form the 8/26/13 ActionLine posted on your website). Please consider expediting my request. In recent years, this Board’s actions related to (lack of) transparency have been brought into question several times on critical issues important to our citizens. The Board’s rhetoric is one of openness but there is an opinion among many taxpayers that this Board is not as open in communicating with the community as they have promised. Let’s turn the page on the past and start a process of inclusion with the citizens who are interested in these issues of local importance.

To date, I’ve received no follow-up communication from the District. A review of the District policy concerning Public Access to School District Records does allow for a maximum delay of up to 30 days for information requests. That’s what I was given but it doesn’t seem necessary in this case for the reasons I’ve cited above. I’ve also written to the members of the Board seeking their assistance in expediting this request.

Maybe your readers would have interest in this and you have my permission to print this if you see fit.

For the record, the District’s Business Manager Art McDonnell is the Open Records Officer — McDonnell is the one that responds to resident’s right-to-know requests. As follow-up, I note that Neal has contacted members of the school board in an attempt to expedite the right-to-know request. I am assuming that Board members have not responded to him.

I don’t understand why the agreement setting the negotiation ground rules between the District and the teachers union is not considered a public document. The negotiating ground rules were established and apparently both sides agreed — so why shouldn’t the public know the rules. We all want the negotiation situation to be productive but the community deserves transparency. The negotiating parties should provide the bargaining framework for the taxpayers.

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TE Teacher & TENIG contract discussions begin …

I was unable to attend the monthly TE school board meeting last night. But fortunately Ray Clarke was at the meeting and supplied the following notes:

Buraks read a statement to the effect that the Board has entered into discussions with both TENIG and the TEEA to explore the opportunity for “Early Bird” contracts. All parties have agreed to a “gag order” in order to “give the best odds of reaching agreement” (or words to that effect). The public will be kept informed as the process evolves. In response to my question (and after consulting with the solicitor (!)) Buraks stated that the Board representatives for TENIG are Brake, Bruce, Fadem, for TEEA are Cruickshank, Graham, Motel. There was no information provided as to new TEEA leadership.

The other item of note was the Priority Discussion on the Act 93 salary adjustments. Waters gave a lot of detail in an oral report that reiterated the general agreement from January, but of course, the only thing we had to follow was the table in the Agenda materials that kindly calculated 1% of each individual’s salary for the arithmetically challenged! Of course, we could go look up somewhere the 2012/13 salaries, but why not just put them in the table to help the Board and community get some perspective?

The Board reiterated its opposition to the Keystone exams. As a survivor of the UK’s “11 Plus” which determined our future at 10 years old, I’m not well qualified to comment on that!

The District’s collective bargaining agreements with TENIG (custodians, support staff and kitchen workers) and TEEA (the teachers union) expire on June 30, 2014. In addition, the District’s arrangement with the aides and paras for the 2013/14 school year also expires in June. Unless I’m missing something, it appears that the entire workforce of the TE School District is ‘under discussion’ with the exception of the administration. I am glad to see that school board members (Cruickshank, Graham, Motel) are sitting at the negotiation table this time around with the teachers union. (If you recall, this was not the case the last time).

I hope that the Board President Buraks is sincere about the School Board keeping the public informed during the the process as Ray notes suggested. It was the lack of transparency during the last teachers contract negotiations that troubled many of us — I re-read an old CM post on this topic from April 2012, ‘Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations’ which had a follow-up post on May 17, 2012, ‘TE Teachers Turn on Transparency Lights in Contract Negotiations’ . In re-reading these posts and the many comments, what was striking was the need for regular updates to the public by the Board. The lack of information and/or misinformation during the contract negotiations aggravated an already difficult situation. In the CM post of May 17, 2012, I wrote,

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

I remain hopeful that the contract negotiations between the District and TEEA (and TENIG) will be open, honest and as transparent as possible. To clarify — representing the teachers union, is TEEA president Dr. Bob DeSipio, Conestoga HS science teacher. TENIG president is Mary Minicozzi.

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Easttown Region III School Board Members Betsy Fadem and Anne Crowley decide not to seek re-election to TESD

As a follow-up to my last post on Tredyffrin Township supervisor candidates and TESD School Board candidates, I have updated information on the two Easttown, Region III positions on the T/E School Board. The two current Region III Board members Betsy Fadem (R) and Anne Crowley (D) are not seeking re-election.

Exceeded in longevity only by Pete Motel, who is in his fourth term on the School Board, Ms. Fadem has decided that three terms on the Board is her limit. Ms. Fadem was elected to the Board in 2001 and 2013 marks her twelfth year in office — she will finish her third term this December. Currently Ms. Fadem chairs the Finance Committee and serves on the Facilities and Policy Committees.

When I asked Ms. Fadem if there was a reason behind her decision not to seek re-election, she responded with the following:

I have decided not to seek re-election for a fourth term as a T/E School Director and will complete twelve years on the Board in December 2013. I believe it is time for a new generation of members to serve.

I am proud of the work and accomplishments of the Board and the District during my tenure and I look forward to other opportunities to serve the community.

The other currently serving Easttown, Region III Board member, Anne Crowley, has also decided not to seek re-election. Ms. Crowley was elected to the Board in 2009 and currently serves on the Policy and Legislative Committees. Behind Ms. Crowley’s decision not to seek a second term on the Board, is the idea of giving others in the community an opportunity to serve.

Since the first of the year, there have been two particularly important votes taken by the Board – the vote to hire former police chief Andy Chambers as the District security expert and the vote to approve a consent agenda that included administrator raises (therefore not allowing for public discussion). In both of these important votes, Ms. Crowley cast a dissenting vote. Lack of Board transparency was her stated reason in both of these votes. Transparency in our government’s actions is very important; thank you Anne for also making it a priority. I would be remiss if I did not also say that Rich Brake, like Ms. Crowley, cast dissenting votes on these two issues, stating lack of transparency as his reason.

There are four Easttown, Region III candidates for the School Board. Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner and Maryann Piccioni are cross filed, Republican and Democrat and Jean Kim has filed as a Democrat only. The Tredyffrin, Region I candidates for the School Board, incumbent Kevin Buraks (D) and Peter Connors (R) are cross-filed, Republican and Democrat and Tredyffrin, Region II candidates for the Board, incumbent Rich Brake (R) and Scott Dorsey (D) are also cross-filed Republican and Democrat.

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Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations

As a bit of history for those that are new readers to Community Matters. When I started this journey 2-1/2 years ago, it was without a personal agenda except to engage the community on important issues and to encourage greater transparency from our elected officials.

Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability; a metaphorical extension of the meaning a “transparent” object is one that can be seen through. In government, transparency is vital to a healthy democracy. Public scrutiny helps ensure that government works for the people and spends their tax dollars wisely.

As far as the teacher contract negotiations are concerned, I suggest that both sides ‘open the door’ that in the past has been closed. We have seen how in the last few days, the ‘cloaked in secrecy’ approach to the negotiations is not working and is showing signs of cracking. Discussion is turning to conjecture, as in the ‘he said, she said’ world; which is never good. Letting the sunlight shine in on the negotiations, would help the parents, taxpayers (and employees) better understand the process and the District’s priorities.

My assumption is that if negotiations were public and everyone could see the negotiations, it would help us (the taxpayers) to further understand the positions of the teachers and the District. If all that the community hears is a partial or half-truth from either side, the misinformation is perpetuated and the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. The teachers’ contract accounts for a significant part of the budget and strongly influences the bottom line of the District’s financial picture. The negotiating period is the only time when informed public opinion can have any possible effect on the decisions of elected officials, but how can the public reasonably weigh in on the proposals without having all the facts. A mandatory public comment period on the yearly budget seems a bit like an empty exercise if we do not have updated contract negotiation information.

The early disclosure of each side’s proposed contract terms would reduce the incentive to open negotiations with extreme proposals made merely for bargaining purposes. Extreme proposals from TEEA or the school board are bound to create hard feelings as we have recently seen and the potential to prolong negotiation, thereby making compromise more difficult. Conversely, an open and public process (transparency) would lead to proposals that are more realistic from both sides and narrow the range of disagreement in the process.

In the last few days, we heard from several teachers who alluded to a less than satisfactory proposal from the school district in regards to insurance and reduced salary. Add the possibility of demotion for economic reasons to the plate of the teachers, and it is no surprise that they are concerned. Do we have the entire story from TEEA on the subject of benefits and salary, probably not? On the other hand, what have the teachers proposed to the District and what was the school board’s response. Don’t know; the public doesn’t have any of those answers.

How about the negotiating parties work to make the process transparent for the public – posting the bargaining framework, their proposals and counter-proposals on the TESD website, as they become available. This kind of transparency would help the TESD parents and community members understand how children will be taught and how the tax dollars will be invested. The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes public schools. There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract process. The teachers are public employees, so why shouldn’t the union negotiations be public.

As a community, we should call on our elected school board members and teachers union to put the needs of students and families first and honor the public investment of taxpayers. I ask for both sides to be more open about the negotiation process – talk truths to each other and to the public. It’s time to turn on the lights, open the windows and the doors.

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