Tredyffrin Easttown School District

House Tour, Hurricane Matthew, Fritz Lumber & T/E School District Finances!

Community Matters readers — I haven’t disappeared; it’s been a busy last month.  First there was the Trust’s 12th Annual Historic House Tour on Sept. 24 which I am delighted to report as extremely successful.  To the house tour guests and to the sponsors who support historic preservation and make the annual tour possible, we say thank you.  And a special thank you to the historic homeowners for opening their homes to the public – the historic homes really are the stars on house tour day!

Following the house tour, my husband and I went to our 100-yr. old house on Port Royal Island, SC for a few days.  On the intercostal waterways, the Sea Islands are located between Charlestown, SC and Savannah, GA, close to Beaufort, SC and Hilton Head.  We stayed on the island until Hurricane Matthew forced our evacuation and then spent the next 4 days wondering if our house survived. Although the area endured major destruction and many folks suffered great loss, I am happy to report that our house remained standing.  We did suffer some roof damage and are now maneuvering through the insurance process.

After returning from SC, my focus shifted to ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz … A Party in the Yard’ – a celebration of the Fritz family and the 153 years of the William H. Fritz Lumber Company in Berwyn on Saturday, Oct. 22, 7-11 PM. The property’s new owner Eadeh Enterprises is the presenting sponsor for the event — Company president Stacey Ballard has enthusiastically supported the event and the celebration of the Fritz family. On behalf of the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust, we are excited to honor the contributions of the Fritz family to the community.  Guests will enjoy great food, live music and live & silent auctions plus the opportunity to walk the property for one last time. It really will be an evening to remember, tickets are available at www.tredyffrinhistory.org .

Here’s another historic preservation update — John Zaharchuk, owner of Summit Realty Advisors invited me to a meeting a few weeks ago with himself and Heckendorn Shiles Architects.  Summit Realty is the developer for the CVS project at the Covered Wagon Inn site in Strafford. With restoration plans and drawings now in place, it was a privilege to see the PowerPoint presentation for the Covered Wagon Inn along with samples of proposed materials.  In a word – WOW.  I was truly impressed at their enthusiasm and with the level of preservation detail planned for the 18th century inn.  Yes, we will have a CVS pharmacy on the property but the Main Line landmark is saved (and restored!) in the process!  Thank you John Zaharchuk and Heckendorn Shiles!

Supervisor and school district meetings continue and I appreciate the diligence of  my friend Ray Clarke to attend, especially given my absence of late.

Ray reports that the TE School District finance meeting this week was particularly lively and offered the following three topics of note for me to share.  I hope that you will take the time to review Ray’s remarks and offer your own comments.  As always, thank you Ray —-

  1. Substitute teacher daily rates. TE is at the low end of the rates paid by our regional peers, and the fill rates for vacancies are down in the 80% decile from last year’s 90%.  This is a nationwide issue and reflective of lower teacher graduation numbers.  The Committee agreed to the Administration request to match the rate paid by Lower Merion (not the best comparison?), which would make our starting rate of $115/day higher than 10 of the 13 peers benchmarked.
  2. Bond advance refunding. Lots of technical issues here, but a notable bottom line: the Committee is recommending that the Board approve next Monday the parameters of a bond issuance, even though our long-time bond counsel, Saul Ewing, disagrees with the investment banker (not the district’s Fiduciary) about the IRS rules, the structuring of the issue and, as a consequence, the savings.   Between now and Monday the District is going to shop for a counsel to give a more favorable opinion to approve 10 year debt service savings of at least $500,000 and hopefully over $1 million.
  3. Budgeting. There was initial discussion of a proposal to replace the (now accepted, I guess) surplus budgeting of prior years with a specific “above-the-line” (ie: in the tax base) appropriation for capital expenditure.  At current capital spending levels of $6-7 million a year and 75% funding by borrowing this would phase in an expense item of over $1.5 million a year.  A number of assumptions in this:

a) that budgeting will henceforth be accurate

b) that current taxpayers should pay an assigned percentage (of whatever size) of capital expenditures benefiting future students

c) that current residents should pay anything while the General Fund Balance contains $32 million of current taxpayer money, including $5 million already committed for capital projects and over $9 million for PSERS (for which the district can and does tax every year).

There are really important issues in all of this, and I hope that residents can find some time assess the pros and cons and let the Board know their opinion.

Judge Tells Lower Merion School District to Revoke Tax Hike — Could the same thing happen in T/E School District?

A significant decision in the Arthur Wolk vs Lower Merion School District (click on bolded link to read 17 pg. decision) case  was rendered by Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Smyth this week.  Judge Smyth ordered Lower Merion School District to revoke its tax hike, claiming that the school district could not increase taxes for 2016-17 by more than 2.4 percent. If a Lower Merion resident could take on his school district for over-taxing (and win), this decision has far-reaching ramifications for other school districts, including T/E School District. Not only front page news locally in the Philadelphia Inquirer but the Associated Press has picked up the story with articles appearing in the Washington Post, Boston Globe and beyond.

In his decision, Judge Smyth ruled that Lower Merion School District had consistently understated revenues and overstated expenses so it could falsely raise taxes when in fact it had huge surpluses. TE School District residents are you listening?  Our school district has raised taxes for the last 12 years (see chart below) and continues to build its fund balance. The TE School District fund balance as of June 2016 school board meeting is $32,381,047. Just like Lower Merion School District, our school district continues to raise taxes and increase the fund balance. Folks, that is $32+ millions of taxpayer dollars!

Taxpayers in TE School District have seen their taxes increased for the last twelve years as follows:

  • 2016-17: 3.6%
  • 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

Will the Court’s decision to revoke Lower Merion School District tax challenge the TE School Board to reconsider their budgeting approach?

Attending TESD Finance and School Board meetings over the years, we have witnessed knowledgeable, educated residents appeal to the District on this subject – Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Doug Anestad, etc. have repeatedly weighed in on financial issues with their comments and suggestions. The discussion of the TESD 2016-17 budget even had former Tredyffrin Township Supervisor Mike Heaberg  attempting to reason with the school board.  Sadly, the school board does not listen – but continues to increase our taxes, build its mountain of “fund balance” dollars and, for the most part, does so with a unanimous 9-0 vote.  Where does it end?

Having read the decision in the Lower Merion School District case, Neal Colligan (with input from Ray Clarke) provides the following economic analysis between LM and TE school districts.  Thank you both – and here’s hoping that the TE School Board reads it!

I know we’ve all been reading with great interest the results of the Lower Merion tax case which made its way to page 1 of the Inquirer today.  This is frighteningly similar to the operations of our School District and I thought it might be interesting to do some comparisons.

The resident case against the LMSD basically argued that they had District had entered into a pattern of projecting annual operating deficits during their budget (and tax rate increase) process and ended each year with large surpluses.  The lower Court judge agreed and ordered LMSD to rescind some of their current tax increase.  As you know; we’ve experienced the exact same pattern in T/E.  For each of the last 5 years; the District has projected a deficit in its budget deliberations; set an aggressive tax (sometimes the Max allowed in the Commonwealth) increase to “close the gap” ; and each year ended in a Surplus position.  It might be fun to dig deeper.

LM’s current budget allocates approximately $259 MM to District spending; T/E’s current budget is about $131 MM…just about half the size.  According to the press releases; LM accumulated $40 MM in Fund Balance over the last 6 years (16% of current budget); T/E has accumulated about $13 MM (10% of current budget).  In the prior six years LM taxes increases have been 21.01%; in T/E we’ve had 18.68%. (The Judge’s order states that since 2006 LMSD has increased its taxes by 53%; the increase in T/E has been 38%.  I used the more narrow, recent figure as LM’s increases were skewed in the early years).   LM’s accumulated Fund Balance is reported at over $57 MM (all Fund/Capital accounts included); T/E’s is about $42 MM (this includes Fund Balance and Capital Fund which was funded by Fund Balance transfer)…about 74% of LM.  Let’s go deeper: The Court commented in the LM suit that the District’s average overestimation of expenses was 5.5% and the average underestimation of revenues was 1.1%.  T/E has a similar history (I say it differently); in the last 10 years, our District has spent about 96% of its budgeted expenses (this budget drives the tax increase obviously) and collects about 101% of its budgeted revenue.  Does it all seem similar?

Some other interesting notes.  LM Enrollment growth in the last 4 years-9.03%; T/E Enrollment growth 1.46% (this statistic was used in the LM budget presentation to justify the tax increase).  Students (approximate): LM-8,200; T/E; 6,400.  Years in the last 6 that tax increase was in excess of Act 1: LM-6; T/E-5.  EIT in community: LM-No; T/E-No.  Special Education budget: LM-$46 MM; T/E-$20 MM.  Salaries: LM-$123 MM; T/E-$57 MM.

In many ways, we compare favorably to LM.  Remember that LM spends the highest amount on a per-student basis in the State.  Without getting too far into the weeds; the fact remains that we, like our neighbors in LM, have been given deficit budgets in each of the last 5 years followed by “necessary” aggressive tax increases.  Our results have been a production of SURPLUS in each of those years; just like LM.  That’s the fact pattern that this suit took to question.  The same fact pattern exists here…almost precisely.  It’s nothing new; we’ve talked about in the T/E Finance Committee meeting for years BUT now there’s a new finding from the Courts.

Come to your own conclusions…the facts are pretty easy to find.

TESD: Meetings tonight to discuss football team hazing, VF Middle School fencing, student computers and reapportionment

TE School District administrators and school board members are responding to the community on range of important topics tonight.

At 6 PM in the Conestoga High School auditorium, the District residents have an opportunity to comment on the recent events involving the football team.  My guess is that the administration will have little to say regarding the criminal charges filed against three senior players for their alleged assault of a freshman 14-yr. old student. Now a legal matter, the issue is in the hands of district attorney Tom Hogan and the courts. However, I would expect comment from the administration and school board regarding “No Gay Thursday”, the weekly hazing tradition in the locker room. The letter of March 17 from the District indicated hazing occurred. The implementation of a zero-tolerance hazing policy going forward is needed.

The administration has conducted its own internal investigation and the community should expect an update on their findings.  We know that Conestoga’s head football coach John Vogan resigned from his position and the other varsity and junior varsity football staff – five people – have been relieved of their coaching jobs in all sports through the fall season.

The regular meeting of the school board follows the public meeting regarding the football team – 7:30 PM in Conestoga High School cafeteria. Priority discussion topics on the agenda include the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project, one:one computing initiative, and reapportionment plan.

According to the agenda, the Valley Forge Middle School construction documents include options for 4 feet, 5 feet and 6 feet chain link fencing and 4 feet, 5 feet and 6 feet black estate fencing.  According to the agenda, “The base bid will be per the recommendation of the safety and security consultant of a 6 foot chain link fence with the other options being bid as alternatives”.  The $15,500 consultant’s report recommended a minimum of 5 feet fencing (and 6 feet fencing preferred), so why is 4 feet a consideration? I thought the public was told that 4 feet fencing does not meet school security standards. But more importantly, … where’s the ‘no fencing’ option?

“To fence or not to fence” was at Valley Forge Middle School was a  major campaign issue in the November TE School Board elections. Several candidates, now school board directors, used ‘no fencing’ as part of their campaign platform. In District 2, school board directors Michelle Burger and Ed Sweeney, were both extremely vocal in their fencing opposition; promising voters they would not support additional fencing at VFMS.  By some accounts, former school board president Kris Graham lost her bid for re-election over the VFMS issue and her support for the fencing. Tonight it looks like the fencing project may finally be coming to a head and it will be interesting to see how each school board member votes.  A vote for no fencing remains an option.

On the plan to outfit students with District computers, not everyone in the community shares the administrations’ interest in the student computer initiative — for a variety of reasons, product choice, leasing vs purchase, privacy issues, costs, etc.  Has the proposed one:one computing initiative been thoroughly vetted? The taxpayers are facing a significant tax increase for 2016-17, is the school board satisfied that they should move forward to implement this computer plan?

A reminder that in January, the school board unanimously adopted the 2016-17 preliminary budget, which contains a 4.3% tax increase.  At that time,  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.  If the 2016-17 budget passes with a tax increase, it will mark the 12th straight year of a tax increase. Some of the school board members publicly voiced concern over the proposed tax increase, vowing to work to lower the increase in the final budget.

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.

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!

————————————————————————————

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!

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?

The Valley Forge Middle School fencing debate continues … And now the local Tredyffrin Republican Committee has joined the mix!

Fencing April 2015The Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee is taking a formal position opposing the proposed fencing next to Valley Forge Middle School, along Valley Forge Road.

In addition to serving as chair of the Tredyffrin Republicans, attorney Neill Kling is chair of Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board and was a candidate in the last school board race. At last night’s TTRC meeting, Kling proposed the motion to oppose the 5-6 ft. fencing at Valley Forge Middle School on Valley Forge Road – the resolution passed.

Recently elected TE School Board member Republican Ed Sweeney, who serves as Area 7 Republican Chair and committee person for the TTRC, continues to oppose the fencing project. During his campaign, Sweeney was a strong voice against the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. Pleased with the stand his political party is taking, Sweeney took to social media, saying in part,

I view this vote and opposition to the fences as reflective of the will of Tredyffrin’s citizens and it is certainly the will of many Tredyffrin Republicans as well as many of my Region 2 constituents. There are various reasons for opposition, including it does not add significantly to safety and has nothing to do with violent attacks, the cost, and it will injure the appearance of the neighborhood on what for all practical purposes if a front yard in a gateway to the historic Valley Forge Park.

The rationale appears as explained by the consultant to be to mainly prevent the deer coming on the property and to prevent “runners” from leaving along Valley Forge Road. These rationales are weak. Historically, neither issue has been a big one and the local police chose not to weigh in on the expert’s report. I find the report subject to severe criticism because of its tone and attack on the numerous people who gave input. An ad hominem attack is not a good example for our children on how to professionally analyze and support an issue.

Sweeney is the only currently serving Republican school board director from Tredyffrin Township. Will the actions of the local Republican Committee have any bearing on the outcome of the fencing project? And what about the Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee … will they now feel any pressure to follow the actions of the local Republicans with a public statement of opposition. The Democrats hold a majority on the school board and all five are from Tredyffrin Township (Kevin Buraks, Scott Dorsey, Michele Burger, Roberta Hotinski and Todd Kantorczyk).

Kudos go to Ed Sweeney for taking a public stand on the Valley Forge fencing issue as an elected official. In the past, there has been much control (or at least perceived control) placed on the use of social media by school board members. Regardless of what happens on the fencing issue, I’m glad to see that at least one member of the Board is breaking with tradition!

The Valley Forge Middle School fencing project and the safety consultant’s report will be discussed at the upcoming Facilities Committee meeting, Thursday, Feb. 18, 5 PM. The recommendation from the Facilities Committee could determine the future of the fencing project.

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.

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

TE School District reorganization meeting: Election of Board president and vice president; plus update on Facilities Meeting

The five newly elected TESD school board members (Michelle Burger, Ed Sweeney, Roberta  Hotinski, Todd Kantorczyk and Kate Murphy) take office on Monday, December 10, at 7:30 PM.  The District’s reorganization meeting includes the nomination and election of school board president and vice president.

Some have suggested that former school president Kris Graham’s re-election defeat last month was a message for change from the community – a call for transparency and improved public engagement. Will that message influence the reorganization results?

School board vice president under Kris Graham was Easttown resident Doug Carlson and he looks to want to step up to the board president position.  Also seeking the president role on the board is Tredyffrin resident Scott Dorsey.

For the first time in TE School District history, the school board of nine members now has a Democratic majority (5 D’s, 4 R’s). Presumably this should give Dorsey (D) an edge over Carlson (R) but … it is unlikely that all D’s will support Dorsey. However, Dorsey does have the public endorsement of newly elected school board member, Republican Ed Sweeney.

Committed to honoring his campaign promise of improving public information and citizen involvement, Sweeney posted the following on his Facebook page today, “I endorse Scott Dorsey for TE School Board President. My district elected me to fulfill their expectations. Mr. Dorsey is very concerned about the issues that I think Tredyffrin and my district care most about and is well qualified to be President. I was impressed with his ability to outreach in his campaign for Board President. Mr. Dorsey will partner with fellow members, residents, and stakeholders to bring a new spirit of cooperative government to our area.”   Here’s hoping that all newly elected school board members will likewise honor their campaign commitments!

For those in the community that are paying attention, the first meeting of the new school board and the nomination/election process for board president should be interesting.

On another note, the final meeting of the ‘old’ school board was held on Friday, December 7.  Ray Clarke attended the Facilities Meeting and provided the following update for Community Matters:

The last Facilities Committee meeting of 2015 and of Dr Motel’s 16 year tenure was held on Friday.  The meeting was generally routine:  discussion of minor change orders, an update on the ongoing New Eagle and Maintenance Building projects with helpful status photos, and an outline of the timetable for bidding next year’s projects.  A few items caught my attention:

– Dr. Motel stated that the original rationale for the fences was for “the specific purpose of making sure students do not leave”, “nothing to do with active shooters” and “you can put that on the blog”.  So here it is.  Others may have different recollections.

– Resident Cindy Marturano tried to engage the Committee in a discussion of protocols for communication to all residents of facilities projects that impact the community, linked with the possibility of extending West Walker Road to Chesterbrook Boulevard to ease the traffic congestion at VFMS.  The response to both points came down to: “if it’s a road matter talk to the Township”.  However, Tredyffrin Township records show that West Walker Road is “Private”, and the Chester County GIS has the property line between the school and church running right down the middle of the road.  On the other hand, the Township included West Walker Road on its list of roads to pave in 2015.  Are the maps incorrect?  Is Tredyffrin subsidizing the School District?  Or is there more opportunity here for the School District to improve the daily nightmare than the District knows about or would like to accept?

– The outgoing Committee spent some time discussing the goals for the 2016 Committee.  Since that Committee will have a different composition with likely some newly elected Directors, this seemed rather presumptuous, but the Committee did not take kindly to the idea of including even a “Recommended” modifier, noting that the new Committee can always repeat the same exercise.

– This last point may be related to a gift to the Committee from Daley and Jalboot of a life size “Flat Pete”, with the request that it be used as a reminder of Dr. Motel for future Committees.

Dr. Motel noted that when his parents came to Easttown in the last century it was because TE was a highly rated school district.  I think that the Board and staff are fortunate to serve a community that continues to be driven by this value.

Ray proFlat Petevided the following photo of the cardboard cutout of Flat Pete, as presented by the District’s architects, Daley & Jalboot. When asked about the bulls-eye on Dr. Motel’s chest, Ray explained that the necklace had a gold star one side and a bulls-eye on the other, presumably to represent Motel as a target.

I wasn’t at the meeting, but I found this gift rather bizarre. It was unclear if the Flat Pete cutout went home with Dr. Motel after the meeting or if it will continue to haunt the Facilities meetings going forward.

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