Tredyffrin Easttown School District

T/E School District’s $1.3 Million Accounting Error/Act 1 Violation discussion continues – Taxpayers facing large tax increase with less than 30 days until School Board’s final vote!

In addition to other residents, I attended the T/E School Board Finance Committee meeting last night. The meeting lasted nearly three hours but we stayed; hopeful for resolution on the District’s $1.3 million Act 1 accounting error and its impact on the proposed 6% tax increase. Sadly, the evening ended no closer to a solution than when it began.

With less than 30 days before the Board must take a vote on the final budget, much of the meeting was spent discussing budget strategies to reduce the District’s spending and increase revenue. Possible budget strategies ranged from increasing student parking and activity fees to delaying the new reading program.  All the discussion about cost-cutting measures was a bit like getting the cart before the horse since the large “elephant in the room” was the $1.3 million accounting error and its impact on the current budget process and the proposed tax increase.

Residents who had attended the finance committee meeting in April (including myself) expected answers from the auditor. School board member Tina Whitlow had asked Art McDonnell, the District’s business manager to have the auditor attend last night’s meeting but (according to McDonnell) he was not available. Actually the absence of the auditor was no surprise; as his responses to taxpayer questions would probably not have bolstered the business manager’s position on the District’s serious accounting mistake.

The most disturbing part of the meeting was the response by Todd Kantorczyk, the finance committee chair, to residents Doug Anestad and Mike Heaberg regarding the District’s erroneous accounting of $1.3 million Special Ed invoices to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education.

Both Doug and Mike cited the “Manual of Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pennsylvania Local Educational Agencies (LEAs)”, Principle 9 – Measurement Focus and Basis of Accounting in the Basic Financial Statements (pg. 15), which states, in part that “Revenues should be recognized in the accounting period in which they become available and measurable. Expenditures should be recognized in the accounting period in which the fund liability is incurred …” (Clearly, this means that the $1.3 million Special Ed invoices need to be accurately reported in the year in which the expenses occurred.)

Kantorczyk dismissed the state’s accounting practices as referenced by Doug and Mike, as if to suggest that somehow the T/E School District was exempt from these regulations!  A remarkable moment – he remained unmoved by the follow-up comments questioning the Board’s actual taxing authority, possible Act 1 violation, the prospect of legal action and pleas to “just do the right thing”.

The evening ended with a discussion by Board members about the proposed tax increase which; to be clear, is still 6%.  Certain Board members stated that they needed counsel by the District solicitor Ken Roos, regarding the accounting error and possible legal ramifications, before finalizing their thoughts on the proposed budget. Finance committee member Kate Murphy was particularly thoughtful; sharing her concerns and need for further information. Likewise, Heather Ward, also a member of the finance committee, shared those concerns.

Resident Neal Colligan attended the meeting and offers his notes on the Board members ideas regarding the final tax increase:

  • Todd Kantorczyk indicated that he was comfortable with the District’s taxing authority at 6% but did not want to see the entire amount imposed in one year; he did not offer another number but seemed inclined to a tax increase short of 5%.

  • Michelle Burger wanted to sleep on the discussion points but was quick to point out that “she heard what the community said in their comments”.

  • Kate Murphy acknowledged that there’s “too much noise” surrounding the Special Education Exception. She can only, at this point support a 2.32% tax increase (Act 1 allowance and the Special Exception for PSERS cost increases).  In the sanest approach of the evening (my opinion); she related that if she can’t explain it to the constituents she meets at the Acme; she’s not voting for it.

  • Heather Ward echoed those thoughts and again asked for a meeting with the District’s auditor (that Tina Whitlow requested a month ago). She seemed willing to possibly accept a 3.91% tax increase…maybe (this would be the full taxing authority of the District IF they had submitted correct Special Education spending amounts to the Department of Education).

  • Tina Whitlow again raised questions of the District’s taxing authority particularly related to the Special Education Exception and again mentioned in her comments a 3.91% possible tax increase.

  • Roberta Hotinski is in favor of a 4.72% tax increase; this number would include the 3.91% mentioned above AND .81% increase derived from a calculation of what Last Year’s Special Education exception would have been if the numbers submitted to the State were correct.

  • Scott Dorsey, ever the Board Member balancing the fairness of a tax increase vs. the needs of the schools, favors an increase of 3.91%…his position has not changed in some time.

  • Ed Sweeney leans towards the 2.3-2.5% tax increase range. He did point out that the Budget process is in dire need of change as only now, with a month to go, are we “getting into the brass tacks”.  He also mentioned that a Board needs to trust the numbers it is given when considering a budget … it is clear he has doubts.

  • Kyle Boyer was the last to weigh in … his support level is around the 3.91% range but may be convinced to go a little higher. He mentioned that he keeps a District tax increase chart on his phone and that in 2008 the District raised taxes at the highest level in the last 15 years … and he’d like to stay below that 4.3% figure.

The Top Answer to tax increase percentage was 3.91%.  At this level; the potential Final Budget would have an imbalance of a $2.662 MM of deficit that will need to be filled by Fund Balance Commitment.  No Budget Strategies have been offered that could fill that imbalance.  Board Members left the “hard analysis” behind and expressed their “feel” for the correct tax increase. The normal Budget process which could have looked delved into the need for a 5.5% spending increase OR at why the District habitually under-states revenues and over-states expenses in the Budget process has been hijacked by the Accounting Timing Error fiasco.  On this point, Ed Sweeney is clearly correct.  With a month to go … it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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T/E taxpayers Facing 6% Tax Increase, $1.2 million Accounting Error Remains Uncorrected & Concerned Citizens contact PA Department of Education

I attended the school board meeting on Monday night and waited until 9:30 PM for the budget discussion to begin.The majority of the meeting to that point was spent on the discussion and subsequent vote (7-2) for delayed school start times for 2019-20 school years. The approved plan moves the high school start time to 7:50 AM, middle school to 8:30 AM and elementary school to 9:10 AM. The financial cost to the District for the change in school start times is $610K (and not contained in the proposed final budget).

School start times is an important issue for many parents but with taxpayers facing the largest tax increase in decades, I was left wondering how does the District find the additional $610K in the 2019-20 budget which contains a projected operating deficit of almost $11 million.

The proposed final budget was approved (5-4) with a 6% tax increase; the public was told again that there is time to adjust that number. But the school board is running out of time – it’s the end of April and the 6% number has not moved since first announced in December.

The review and discussion of the budget was confusing to say the least. Remember folks, there is still the open issue about the $1.2 million accounting error caused by the delayed payment of a special ed invoice(s). This District’s accounting error has been discussed at two school board meetings, a finance committee meeting and a budget workshop over the course of 6 weeks yet the financial “can” continues to be kicked down the road with no resolution.

Residents and some school board members have repeatedly asked the business manager Art McDonnell for data on how correcting the accounting error impacts the budget … but he has yet to supply the corrected numbers.

The school district’s $1.2 million accounting error and lack of answers caused a group of concerned citizens (Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Mike Heaberg and myself) to send a formal complaint to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). For the record, the T/E School Board and Superintendent Gusick were copied on the letter. (Click on “formal complaint” link to read letter).

Although Art McDonnell maintains that the District’s accounting error is not a legal problem, apparently PDE does not agree with his assessment … as a result of our complaint, the matter is now under legal review at the Department of Education. The business manager also stated that the annual financial reports cannot be changed once submitted – again, not true. Art McDonnell, there is a “do-over” button! According to PDE, all you need to do is hit the revision button on their website to make the corrections!

It is absurd that citizens are now going to the Board of Education to get resolution — folks, this is not an insignificant problem. Where do we go from here?

I share with you Ray Clarke’s comments from the school board meeting:

Monday’s budget discussion and vote was a good illustration of the challenge facing even the most diligent of School Board members.  They learned more than a year after the fact that not only was there an error in the numbers submitted to the Department of Education (PDE) to authorize the allowable tax increase for next year, but also that the error could have been corrected in time for consideration of this year’s tax rate.  The arithmetic and PDE processes are a little complicated, so the most concerned of them request a full analysis from the Business Office.  After six weeks and two meetings they finally tease out that the maximum accurate increase for the coming year is 3.9%, and that the district forwent an opportunity for a 0.8% additional increase for the current year.  None of this is documented, and the Board and public have to wait until May 13th for whatever comes next.  In the meantime, the Proposed Final Budget contains the 6% tax increase and the Board has given the Administration no mandate to come up with any concrete plans to balance the budget with a lower tax increase.

Because the Board can not, for some reason, accept the fundamental argument that our School District should base its taxing decisions on calculations that are materially correct, they are left with a problem.  There are no experts in school district finances on the Board, so they tend (to a greater or lesser extent) to accept what is told them.  They are told that the auditor said the error was not material and the audit was “clean”, but we know the audit is unrelated to the Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) from which the tax increase is authorized by PDE.  They were told on Monday that the District does not complete a worksheet for the Exception, but we know that it does complete the AFRs which generate that worksheet.  They were told on Monday that the calculation is “locked down by PDE, you can’t change it, it is what it is”, when we know from PDE that there is in fact a “Start New Revision” Button on the on line AFR system!

The community members who have asked PDE to look into this are not experts in school district finances either, so how do we know what the Board does not?  We do know that there’s a problem with submitting incorrect numbers to the state and a problem with allowing the situation to fester, and we also know that it’s a good idea to get counsel from folks who do have the needed expertise and are not central to the problem themselves.

So I think it is past time for the Board to commission an independent review.  Completely independent unaffiliated with the Administration.  A good candidate for this would be the lawyer that has advised the Board in the past on financially complex contract matters, Jeffrey Sultanik of Fox Rothschild.  In the meantime, I guess the public has to wait for May 13th, take some comfort in the four No votes on the Budget and rely on our neighbors on the Board to eventually come to terms with the fact that a 6% tax increase based on inflated numbers is just not tenable.

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T/E Finance/Budget Workshop Results: 6% Tax Increase Continues & re District Accounting Error, the School Board Dismisses Community Financial Experts to Support Business Manager … Good Governance?

This post continues to follow the T/E School Board’s proposed 6% tax increase and what some in the community believe is a significant accounting error in the District.  I attended the Finance Committee meeting this week which was scheduled for 7 PM with the Budget Workshop to follow at 7:30 PM.

First off, let me say that this is not the post I want to write nor had hoped would be necessary!  The scheduled half-hour Finance Committee went on for two hours, with the first opportunity for the public to ask questions not coming until 9 PM. The Budget Workshop started at 9:30 PM and went until midnight.

At the end of the 5 hour meeting, the public knew no more than when the meeting started. The tax increase remains at 6% and for many school board members, there is reluctance for “doing what’s right” regarding the accounting error. Instead, there is a preference to “stand by our man” Art McDonnell, the District’s Business Manager.

I don’t claim to be a CPA or have a lengthy financial career but fortunate for us, there are many in this community that do – including residents Neal Colligan, Mike Heaberg and Ray Clarke.  Each attended the Finance Committee meeting and Mike and Ray stayed until midnight for the Budget Workshop.  In my world, you should always “play to your strengths”; it would have been extremely valuable to the public if the school board really listened to these community members, rather than choosing to negate, dismiss and at times insult them.

It was obvious from the first comment period following the Finance Committee meeting that this was not going to go well, when the chair interrupted my comments to say he didn’t like my “tone”.  Mind you, that is after the public had waited TWO HOURS to comment!

I found it incredulous that since the last school board meeting two weeks ago, the Business Manager had not found time to review the impact of the accounting error on this year’s tax increase!  But more shocking was that School Board director Heather Ward stated she had asked McDonnell several times for the information and the Board still had not received it. McDonnell’s response as to when he would have the information – by next Finance Committee meeting a month away!! It should be noted that Ray Clarke, Mike Heaberg and Neal Colligan have already done the analysis caused by this accounting error yet the business manager doesn’t have the time.

The public was told at the March 23 School Board meeting to come to the Finance Committee meeting for answers! The only answer that we now know is that the District’s accounting error occurred in Oct/Nov 2016 and that the School Board was not told about the situation until January 2019 – 14 months later. I actually told the school board that I felt sorry for them in this regard – guess the Administration didn’t think that a $1.2 million accounting error was all that important. I also stated that we elected them (the School Board) for District oversight, not Art McDonnell, the business manager.

The continuing to “kick the can” on the accounting error by the school board is not just frustrating but shows a lack of leadership and ability to govern even as some in the public make suggestions of possible legal action.

Although the Finance Committee meeting was not televised and it becomes a “he said, she said”, the public can see the video of the Budget Workshop.  You don’t have to watch the entire video but I beg you to PLEASE review the comments which starts at time stamp 1:34:45.  Click here for the video.

It is extremely important that you hear the comments of Mike Heaberg, former member and chair of Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors and a financial management executive. After waiting over four hours to make his remarks regarding the District’s serious accounting error, perceived impact on the tax increase, possible legal action, etc., Mike’s comments were thoughtful and important. After the public comments, continue to watch and hear the responses from the school board, in particular the Finance Committee chair’s response to Mr. Heaberg. Truly unbelievable and this from the man who told me hours earlier that he didn’t like my tone!

The public needs to wake up (although one School Board member would have you believe that those in the audience don’t represent the community!) Let me repeat, Mike Heaberg, Ray Clarke and Neal Colligan are financial experts and have done the accounting analysis (even though the District business manager has not found time!) All three come out at the same place with regards to the impact of the accounting error on the proposed 6% tax increase. Who on this School Board comes close to their financial backgrounds and depth of understanding?  However, for many on the school board, the choice is to dismiss the comments/suggestions of the community financial experts in favor of the business manager – even as the trust in their ability to govern is questioned.

The end result of five hours of Finance Committee/Budget Workshop meetings and where the public expected answers – there were none. The tax increase remains at 6% and with suggestions of legal action afloat regarding the District’s accounting error, many on the school board remain committed to Art McDonnell. Not my brand of governance or leadership!

Because I left following the Finance Committee meeting (I did however watch the Budget Workshop), Ray Clarke provides his remarks and commentary for us – and we thank him!

The combined Finance Committee/Budget Workshop on Monday was a five hour marathon, ending past midnight.  Unfortunately the audience, and possibly a few of the Board, came away as perplexed as before.

We heard a high level outline of the source and timeline of the error, pinned to a clerical mistake in the Department of Specialized Student Services that resulted in the CCIU invoices being recognized after the 2016-17 audit was complete in November 2017.  The auditor signed off on the incorrect financials for 2016-17 which then were submitted to the state.  A year later the auditor also signed off on the 2017-18 financials, and the two incorrect state reports then became the basis for the district-authorized Exception request to the state for next year’s Budget.  It appears that the Board learned of this sometime in 2019.

The Chair of the Finance Committee relied almost exclusively on the auditor approval to support his conclusion that the issue is not material.  Others felt that even though the numbers are incorrect, that’s OK because in their view moving the expense from one year to another just changes when the Exception can be taken.  (Partially but not totally true: packing expenses into one year increases the amount that is above the Index; and even if an Exception were allowed last year, the Board might not have taken it – as they claim they so often do not!).  There were no numbers presented in support of this, although Ms Ward said that she had requested the information two weeks ago.  She obtained a commitment from Mr. McDonnell that the analysis (which in essence has already been seen here on Community Matters) would be presented at the next meeting in four weeks’ time.

In the Workshop, the Board spent a lot of useful time debating the merits of individual programs that could be used to balance the budget in the event of a lower than 6% tax increase, which seems to be the universal desire.  There are strongly diverging views on the merits of selective fee increases that increase the cost to families (who choose to move to T/E “for the school district”, remember) versus elimination of headcount additions for, say, security.  There are certainly opportunities not yet baked into the Budget – areas like staff retirements and use of up-to-date assessment information (here, as Ms. Ward said of the tax issue: “show your work“).  However the Board did not come close to meeting President Dorsey’s goal, and the Admin request, to set parameters for the tax increase and deficit.  The best we got was his own preference for a 3.8% tax increase (which would be roughly the rate with the right Exception), and general discussion that implied that a $1 to 1.5 million deficit would be livable.  On the latter, it’s important to note that District Policy does not allow Fund Balance to be used for operations, so it will be important to identify programs like the $300,000 cost of setting up a new reading program that are legitimately one-time expenses – IF the expense is taken out of future year’s budgets.

Those of us in the audience were chastised by Mr. Boyer for not actually representing the community. My own sense from the people in my orbit about this is very simple:

– Regardless of the impact, the Board should not endorse incorrect state reporting

– If the district is to be managed effectively going forward, correct numbers must be used to analyze trends and cost drivers

– The District should limit the 2019/20 tax increase to the allowable maximum

– There’s a real trust problem when:

    — A Board does not learn of an issue that impacts taxation for over a year

    — A Board member has to ask the Business Manager to “show your work”

     — That request for information is not complied with

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Taxpayers Facing 6% Tax Increase in T/E School District as Questions about Possible Accounting “Timing” Errors Remain Unanswered!  Finance Committee Meeting and Budget Workshop on Monday, April 8

This blog post is follow-up to my last article.  Upcoming on Monday, April 8, 7 PM at the high school is the TE School District Finance Committee meeting and Budget Workshop II. The agenda materials were released last evening – Click here for Finance Committee agenda and Budget Workshop materials.

Ever the optimist, I had high hopes that the agenda for the meeting would address budget and accounting questions from the last School Board meeting.  Residents raised serious issues at the Board meeting, including the  “timing error” of special education expenses. I found nothing in either the agenda for the Finance Committee or the Budget Workshop materials regarding these issues.

As was discussed in the last blog post, the T/E taxpayers are facing the largest tax increase in decades – 6%.  Although the school board has assured us since December that the tax increase would be coming down, the number has only moved from 6.1% in December to 6% in April.

As was suggested at the last School Board meeting, resident Ray Clarke believes that the District’s accounting mistake could reduce the proposed tax increase significantly – Ray goes as far as to suggest that the tax increase could be lowered by as much as 50%!  I personally asked at the School Board meeting for confirmation that the Board would review this situation – so why isn’t the accounting timing mistake on the Finance Committee or Budget Workshop agenda for discussion? When faced with a 6% tax increase, why wouldn’t the School Board want to look at every opportunity to possibly lower that number?

We elected our School Board directors to provide oversight; with independent thought and transparency. In a little over three weeks, on Monday, April 22, the Board will take a vote on the “Proposed Final Budget. Realistically speaking, how are they going to move the dial to a more acceptable increase in three weeks!? 

It is important that the School Board knows that the public finds a 6% tax increase (or 5% increase for that matter!) completely unacceptable! If the largest tax increase in decades troubles you, please contact the School Board at schoolboard@tesd.net and/or plan to attend the meeting on Monday. 

Ray Clarke reviewed the Finance Committee agenda and the Budget Workshop materials. Here are his comments; read carefully the unanswered questions at the end of his remarks:

There is little new in the materials, although the annual drama production continues to unfold.  We are heading to the second intermission, with a vote on the “Proposed Final Budget” on April 22nd.

For the current year: 

 – Investment income is already year-to-date nearly $1 million, or 3 times, over the full year budget

 – The projection for benefits expense has jumped from the budgeted $15.6 million, past last December’s estimate of $16.1 million, to $16.9 million now.  Still less than 2017-18’s $17.5 million.  A self-funded plan is certainly going to be variable and, given the capabilities of medical billing systems, likely another area subject to timing difficulty.  

 – “Other” expenses are exactly unchanged from the budget at $47.4 million,

 – So this year’s deficit is now projected at $2.28 million.

For next year:

 – The Special Education Exception tax increase remains at 3.642% for a total tax increase of 5.964%.

 – The reported $4.5 million increase in purchased professional services from 2016-17 to 2018-19, on which the tax increase is largely based, remains unchanged.

 – Second look healthcare projections and prescription drug discounts have reduced budgeted expenses by $575,000.

 – With the 6% tax increase and the latest expenditure numbers, next year’s budget is now projected to have a slight surplus.

Key questions thus remain to be answered:

 — What expenditures were incurred for Special Education services provided by the CCIU in 2016-17 and 2017-18?

 — If those expenditures were different to those provided to the Department of Education to authorize the tax increase Exception, what action does the Board plan to take?

 — How should the community reconcile the county-certified assessment history of assessed value used by the Townships, showing a 1.2% increase in the past year, to the numbers submitted by the School district to PDE, showing a 2.5% increase?

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Proposed 6% Tax Increase in T/E School District – the Largest in Decades! Is It Possible that an Accounting “Timing” Error Could Change the Outcome for Homeowners?

Did you know that as T/E School District homeowners we are in line for the largest yearly tax increase for decades!

As it now stands, our school board has targeted us for a 6% tax increase! In December, as the preliminary budget for 2019-20 was in the early stages of preparation, the discussion indicated a possible tax increase of 6.1% but the Board assured us that they would work to bring down the increase. Three plus months later, the projected tax increase remains at 6% although at last night’s school board meeting, we were again told that the board is working to bring the number down.

The question is “why” the proposed staggering increase; the largest in decades! And to be clear, the proposed tax increase is not based on the Conestoga HS expansion plan – that capital project will be funded separately through new bond initiatives. Which brings me back to the question, WHY this looming large tax increase?

As we learned from Ray Clarke at the school board meeting last night, there appears to be an explanation (and suggested solution) for the proposed tax increase. And should the school board act on Mr. Clarke’s findings, it could reduce the proposed increase significantly. Taxpayers could see the proposed tax increase lowered by as much as 50%.

Mr. Clarke opened his remarks with the following:

  • There is ample public evidence that the allowable 6% tax increase presented in the preliminary budget is in error due to an accounting timing issue
  • The actual allowable tax increase is, most likely, much less
  • It would be in the best interests of the public, the Board and the Administration to address this issue in a prompt, transparent manner

( Click here to read complete Ray Clarke Special Ed statement)

According to information received at the District’s Finance Committee meeting of March 11, the accounting problem stems from unpaid invoice(s) of $1 million+ that were received in the 2016-17 year. The invoice(s) from the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) were paid, and more importantly accounted for, during the 2017-18 year.

The Special Ed exception for tax purposes is based on increases in annual expenditures; so getting the year correct is extremely important. By moving the Special Ed expense from 2016-17 to the following year (albeit by error/accident) causes a false reading by inaccurately inflating the expenses in 2017-18.

After Mr. Clarke read his statement, Neal Culligan continued with remarks imploring the board to seek further review before imposing a 6% tax increase.  I struggled to understand how the District can “miss” paying over a million dollars in invoice(s) and asked the Board for an explanation – how did this happen, whom was responsible and when did they find out? My questions were unanswered.

Mr. Clarke contacted Pennsylvania Department of Education and received copies of the District’s 2019-20 “Special Ed Expenditures” and signed “Summary of Referendum Expenditures filings. And although the District has known about the accounting “timing” issue since sometime before the March 11th Finance Committee meeting, the State has not been notified or the filings correctly updated.

As I stated at the meeting, we all make mistakes – but it’s all about owning your mistake when it’s identified, correcting it and moving on. Shouldn’t that apply to the School Board and the Administration – they knew there was an accounting “timing” issue; an error that could impact the proposed tax increase. Who is responsible and where is the accountability? Why don’t they do something?

Sadly, the takeaway from some School Board members re the accounting “timing” issue was simply to push back, become defensive and claim that they have been completely transparent.  What’s that line from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”?

So what does the man with the District’s oversight of the financials, Business Manager Art McDonnell, have to say on this accounting matter? Remarkably, he disregards the analysis by Mr. Clarke, indicating that the “timing” of the Special Ed expenses and subsequent payment was inconsequential and; therefore, making no difference in the end result.

When called upon to comment, McDonnell further stated that if anything, the taxpayers would simply have paid a larger tax increase last year if the Special Ed expense and payment had not been delayed to CCIU.

This is crazy talk – and certainly doesn’t sound like sound accounting practice! It seems to me that if the District erroneously missed Special Ed expenses and a million dollar plus payment to CCIU one year, plays catch up the next year, that this practice skews the resulting financials of those effected years and for future years.

As a very wise former school board director stated, “The legislature passed Act 1 of 2006 specifically to limit a school board’s power to tax the electorate unchecked.”  Our school board knew about this accounting error at the March 11th Finance Committee meeting and residents questioned them about the issue at last night’s School Board meeting – are they not required to do the right thing? At a minimum, this should require immediate financial review from an independent source and then take necessary action as required, including notifying the Pennsylvania Department of Education..

We elected our school board directors to provide oversight; with independent thought and transparency.

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14th Annual Historic House Tour – Saturday Sept. 29, 12 Noon – 5 PM

To those who have sent me emails, text or phone messages that may have gone unanswered, it has been a very busy several months. Between a family reunion, an out-of-town wedding, a first birthday party for granddaughter Audrey in Seattle and a trip to our Port Royal Island, SC house (for those that have asked, Hurricane Florence did miss our 100 yr old ‘little pink house’ in SC) in addition to the management of the Jones Log Barn rebuilding project in Chesterbrook, it’s been crazy!

Squeezed in between all of the activities has been the ‘care and feeding’ of my annual historic house tour. Hard to believe but the 14th Annual Historic House Tour is almost upon us — it’s next Saturday, Sept. 29, noon – 5 PM (tickets available at www.tredyffrinhistory.org) The preview party was held last Sunday at Duportail House and was a wonderful turnout of the historic homeowners, sponsors and community members.  The countdown to the house tour  is on — fingers-crossed, we will have perfect weather for the fourteenth year in a row!  Weather gods, are you listening!?

There’s much going on in the township and the school district and I have a list of issues and topics to discuss as soon as the house tour is over.

Without a historic preservation ordinance in Tredyffrin Township to protect our beautiful historic properties, the annual historic house tour is all the more important!  Local history and its preservation does matter!  Please purchase a house tour and join us as we celebrate historic preservation — another important reason that makes this community special. In addition to Trust Board members and other adult volunteer docents, there will be nearly 20 Conestoga High School volunteers assisting at the house tour. In addition, there will be CHS students playing the piano at Tredyffrin Library for ticket pick-up!

Below is the 14th Annual Historic House Tour poster and the final list of our wonderful house tour sponsors — individuals and companies who make historic preservation a priority!  As president of Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust and chair of the 14th Annual Historic Preservation Trust, we thank them and the generous homeowners who make the annual historic house tour possible.  All proceeds from the house tour go toward the completion of the Jones Log Barn as the Living History Center.

Thank you 14th Annual Historic House Tour sponsors!

 

 

 

 

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Regular T/E School Board meeting tonight + T/E Finance Committee Update

The School Board will meet in regular session on May 21, 2018 at 7:30 pm at Conestoga High School, 200 Irish Road in Berwyn. There are no priority discussion topics on the agenda. Click here for the meeting agenda.

There is no mention of the latest anti-Semitic threat (by a 12 year old student at TE Middle School) on the meeting agenda. There is a comment period at the beginning of the school board meeting but “the Board requests that each public comment made during this first opportunity be limited to items on the agenda.”   Therefore, parents and community members cannot speak about the recent threat at the middle school during this comment period (because it is not listed on the agenda).  The other comment period for ‘non-agenda items’ comes at the end of the meeting — for those willing to stay until the end of the meeting you would have an opportunity to address the school board with your questions and/or concerns on this topic.  Below is the only response that I have seen regarding threats which I previously posted and do so again —

Response Protocols to Reported Threats

Since the February event at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the District has received some questions about how TESD responds when information about a potential threat is shared with school officials.  The following is a short summary.

All reports involving threats are taken seriously. Once a report is received, the school opens an investigation.  Depending upon what is learned, District responses may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Application of discipline consistent with District policy and school law
  • Police notification
  • Enhanced supervision and monitoring measures
  • Administration of risk assessment protocols involving mental health professionals to determine whether or not a student is a threat to self or others
  • Appropriate supports for involved students

Parents and students are encouraged to report potential threats to school administrators so the school may begin to investigate and implement appropriate measures.

Ray Clarke attended the District’s Finance Committee last week and offered the following notes from the meeting — thanks Ray and there certainly are several very costly items under consideration by the school board.

Last Thursday’s TESD Facilities Committee meeting was notable for a couple of items with multi-million dollar financial impact to the District.  They will come up on Monday’s full Board agenda, so your readers might want to weigh in.

Of most import: the Administration has modeled classroom utilization at Conestoga given student enrollment projections based essentially on students currently in lower grades – so there’s a high degree of certainty.  Science labs would be at full capacity by 2020/21 and regular class rooms and other room types would reach that by 2023/24.  Solutions include another high school and grade level realignment and construction, but these seem much inferior to the concept of expanding Conestoga, which would also allow the addition of desirable space for, say, engineering labs.  The Committee seemed surprisingly uninterested in whether this is even feasible and how it might be done (an option we elicited was to expand towards Old State Road) but gave the OK to study this (how many classrooms, what types, what other common facilities, what approach, costs, etc.) over the course of the next year.

[This of course would have no impact on today’s parking issues – apparently now three quarters of all seniors (up from half a few years ago) request parking permits, and there is no space left.  The preferred option looks like allowing each student to park for (a different) 4 days out of 5.]

On a more dispiriting note, the Cadillac CCTV system is back on the radar, and the Committee recommended the spending of up to $100,000 to flesh out the design of a system which in the best case is projected to cost $2 million.  The provided materials lacked any statement of project objectives and presented no priorities or alternative solutions.  There was no explanation of how this time around the video can be streamed right through the current data network, whereas last time we saw this project an entire separate network was required.  The best support offered was “the cameras and technology are old”, “the police would like better quality” and “other schools have better systems”.  The District has selected WITH NO BID long term personal consultant Peter Heverin who in turn picked security consultant Kteck Engineering.  Of course there will be protestations that this first $100,000 spending is not a commitment for the $2 million, but note that the district is about to authorize the design of a very specific system by a very specific supplier of that system.

(I should just say here, that Open Land Conservancy and Tredyffrin Police work together very effectively to catch culprits in our Nature Preserves using $100 trail cameras.)

(And another kind-of-related-to-video side note re the discrimination incidents in the district discussed on CM: these are of course not isolated to T/E, and we are seeing more and more captured on cell phones.  Activist Shaun King has a strategy: identify and bring public pressure on the bigots (eg Haverford School alum and NYC lawyer Aaron Schlossberg).  Perhaps if students and parents were very aware of public consequences there might be more civility?)

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TE Middle School Student the Target of Anti-Semitic ‘Dirty Jew’ Attacks by Classmate

Image result for anti-semitismI was sent an Associated Press news article about a middle school student accused of anti-Semitic bullying and of making threats to a fellow student and asked if I was going to write about the situation.  I opened the article, expecting to read about this latest horror story occurring in some faraway place – only to discover that the incident occurred in our own school district at TE Middle School in Berwyn.

According to the story, which the family shared with news media, the bully’s target was their 12 year old daughter who told him she was no longer interested in him.  His response was to retaliate by texting images of Adolph Hitler and ‘dirty Jew’ remarks.  He reportedly also threated to bring a gun to school and go after 33 classmates, including the female student who ‘broke up’ with him.

Although the male student faces criminal charges for his actions, the article states that he returned to school within a week.  The female student was so afraid when the boy returned to school, that the family has removed her from the school for the remainder of the year.

I understand that the administration has to balance the safety of the female student and her classmates with the right to an education of the male student but personally it seems unfair that the alleged victim is the one not attending TE Middle School! According to 6ABC News, “the 12-year-old was charged with harassment and marking terroristic threats. He was suspended from school for five days.”

Chester County DA Tom Hogan was contacted for comment and the AP news article states that “ … he could not comment on pending cases but added he had no reason to think the girl’s parents would give an inaccurate account.”

Since the news article first surfaced, I have heard that the death threat against the 33 fellow classmates was investigated and dismissed by the school.  I have no idea whether that the threat was real or not or if it was dismissed. However, what I do know is that anti-Semitic bullying is not simply a ‘cyber incident’ or a ‘boys will be boys’ situation.   These are scary times we are living in – if a kid makes ‘dirty Jew’ comments and texts Adolph Hitler images at 12 years old, a simple “I’m sorry” does not cut it for me.

Besides the seriousness of the actual incident, in my opinion there is a significant problem with the fact that the other parents at the school were not notified by the school district.  Instead, the parents and the community learn about the anti-Semitic act from the Associated Press!  According to the news article, “School officials made no public announcement about the case, and other parents know only what they heard around town.”   Subsequent to the AP news release, various versions of the story are appearing on the major TV networks.

Why does it take the anti-Semitic story working its way through to AP news channels and publically broadcast coast to coast for us to learn about it?  To my knowledge and unless someone tells me differently, no letters were sent to the TE Middle School parents regarding the anti-Semitic situation.

The following statement is now on the TE School District website – I do not know when it first appeared or it it was specifically added as a result of this anti-Semitic incident as it is undated:

Response Protocol for Reported Threats

Since the February event at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the District has received some questions about how TESD responds when information about a potential threat is shared with school officials.  The following is a short summary.

All reports involving threats are taken seriously. Once a report is received, the school opens an investigation.  Depending upon what is learned, District responses may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Application of discipline consistent with District policy and school law
  • Police notification
  • Enhanced supervision and monitoring measures
  • Administration of risk assessment protocols involving mental health professionals to determine whether or not a student is a threat to self or others
  • Appropriate supports for involved students

Parents and students are encouraged to report potential threats to school administrators so the school may begin to investigate and implement appropriate measures.

It seems to me in the last few years we are hearing more and more of these anti-Semitic incidents.  A little investigation and I found that for the last 39 years, the Anti-Defamation League has conducted a yearly audit of anti-Semitic incidents. The 2017 survey reported there were nearly 2,000 anti-Semitic incidents – the highest number recorded since conducting the first survey in 1979 and an increase by 57% over the previous year. The annual audit tracks incidents of vandalism, harassment or assault reported to the Anti-Defamation League by police, media and victims. Only verifiable incidents are included in the survey.

In previous audits, the majority of reported anti-Semitic incidents occurred in public areas, like parks. However, the most frightening statistic to emerge from the 2017 report indicates that 457 incidents occurred in K-12 schools – an increase of 94 percent from the previous year!  And it is not geographic based – the anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2017 occurred in each of the 50 states, with Pennsylvania having the sixth highest number of incidents behind New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida.

Although I am not an educator, I am a parent and we are living in angry times. I know that there are two sides to every story and maybe I do not have all the facts but I know one thing for certain – hate-filled anti-Semitism has no place in our schools. The world should never forget that under Hitler’s leadership, some 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II.

All children need to feel safe at school. The school district went to great effort and expense to install fences around the schools. However, reflecting over the last several years, the threat has not come from outsiders (not to say that the District should not be prepared!) but rather internally – repeated assault of a female Conestoga student by a male District aide and assault of a learning disabled male student by a Conestoga aide and coach to name a couple.

Don’t sweep anti-Semitism under the carpet and turn a blind eye … use this as a teachable moment.

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$25 Million Gift to Abington School District — Where’s Public Input and Transparency?

A gift of $25 million from Blackstone CEO and co-founder Stephen Schwarzman recently made news as the largest donation ever given to a US public school. But did the gift to Abington School District by its billionaire alum come with “strings attached”?  At the very least, the gift was poorly handled by the Abington school board; giving new meaning to ‘lack of transparency’.

Although I had read about the Schwarzman multi-million dollar gift, I didn’t know the spider web of secrecy until I received the following email from Ray Clarke:

I’m sure that you are aware of the news around the $25 million donation to his alma mater by Abington alumnus and private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman.  At first sight, this gift was nothing but good news for the community, but has become highly controversial for the many conditions around the gift (including both an original requirement to rename the high school and also curriculum changes) and for the lack of transparency in the process.  Abington is taking steps to address its issues, but today’s news brings the issue home to T/E.

It turns out that T/E solicitor Ken Roos is not only on the Board of a secret foundation set up a year ago to receive the gift, but also is the solicitor for the Abington district that did not release any details of the agreement with Schwarzman until the day it was voted on, and is now refusing to release the agreement in response to Right-to-Know requests because it “needs legal review”.

This is the same solicitor who in 2015 fought TE community member Neal Colligan all the way to the PA Office of Open Records, who then ordered the District to release all records of the secret meetings relating to the actions taken in response to the Affordable Care Act.

It appears that Mr. Roos took nothing from that 2015 experience, and the community should have little faith that, should TESD ever have the good fortune to receive a large donation from a billionaire with an agenda, he will be the one that will help the district uphold its responsibilities to the community.  Instead, I’m hopeful that we can rely on the values of transparency and engagement that many on this forum have worked with the district to build.

And if anyone knows billionaire TE alum, they should be encouraged to chip in here, but – perhaps as important – to use their resources and position to support equitable funding for all our public schools.

Ray

As thanks for Schwarzman’s donation, Abington school board directors decided to rename the Abington Senior High School to Abington Schwarzman High School – outraging parents.  Sadly, the Abington School Board directors never sought public comment and didn’t give the community advance notice about the vote. After a backlash over the billionaire’s naming rights, the vote was rescinded.  With apologies and a promise to involve the community in the process, a new agreement is to be signed by Schwarzman and the school district.

As wonderful as the Schwarzman gift is, unfortunately it is mired in the darkness swirling over the re-naming of the high school, secret foundation, etc.

And Ray is quite right to point out that Abington School District’s solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine is also the solicitor for T/E.  In addition, Roos serves as solicitor for Lower Merion, Upper Perkiomen, Upper Dublin and Cheltenham school districts.  With the level of activity in Abington School District and the multiple lawsuits in Lower Merion and Tredyffrin-Easttown school districts, where is the ‘good counsel’ that these districts should expect from its solicitor?

Transparency and public input should be a hallmark for school districts – why isn’t Ken Roos delivering this counsel to his clients?

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The “N”-Word has No Place in T/E Schools — Or in Any Schools!

I received several copies of the recent live social media post by two Conestoga High School girls with racial slurs. The ‘white’ girls use the “N”-word multiple times in the racially offensive video which has since gone viral.

For African-American students living in some parts of the country, the use of the N-word by their white peers may be routine. But I admit that in 2018, living in the T/E School District, I found the racial vitriol  of the video shocking and extremely disturbing. Am I naive to think that this video by a couple of Conestoga High School students is an isolated situation or … is it symptomatic of a bigger problem in the school district?

Following the video going viral, the T/E School District families received a letter from Superintendent Gusick which contained the following message, “T/E School District strongly condemns this and all forms of racist language. Although this video was not made during school, it has hurt and offended many in our school community. This is unacceptable behavior, and it will not be tolerated. The school will investigate fully and apply consequences as appropriate. T/E School District will continue to stand for respect and inclusion, with schools where all are welcomed to learn and grow.”

I totally agree that the incident needs to be taken seriously as a type of expression of hate and an immediate investigation with consequences as appropriate. And would like to hope that the use of the N-word hurt and offends ALL in our school community. Please let this situation not be viewed as just a couple of teenagers fooling around or that it falls into “gray area” because the video was not made at school.

Leadership by the school board and administration is needed to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” Our children need to be safe in our schools — and that includes safe from racial discrimination.

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