Tredyffrin Easttown School District

Conestoga High School Student Sexual Assault Case: Federal Lawsuit Filed — Lawsuit in Separate Case Pending

This is a follow-up post to my last post “TE School District served with another lawsuit” dated June 8. After posting the previous article, I was emailed a copy of the federal lawsuit and  press release from Ross Feller Casey, the Philadelphia law firm who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the parents of the 15-year-old victim in the case.

In the Ross Feller Casey press release, it states that the law firm, “filed a federal lawsuit against the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and the principal of Conestoga High School alleging administrators and teachers at the High School created and tolerated a culture that emboldened Arthur Phillips, a 67-year old instructional aide, to repeatedly sexually abuse a female student.”

Among other things, the federal lawsuit alleges that “Phillips, an instructional aide in the television production studio at Conestoga since 2006, engaged in a classic yet disturbing pattern of sexual grooming and assault against a student starting when she was only 15 years old.”

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan has criminally charged Arthur Phillips with over 100 counts, including 10 felony charges of statutory sexual assault and 10 felony charges of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. According to the lawsuit, the sexual assaults were daily between January and mid-April of this year and allegedly “took place in various locations at Conestoga High School, including the school’s TV studio, Phillips’ office, Conestoga’s parking lot and in Phillips’ automobile”.

According to Pennsylvania state law, “Statutory sexual assault becomes a first-degree felony offense in cases when the accused is 11 years, or older, than the minor. If convicted of this charge, a person could face a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Additionally, he or she may be fined up to $25,000.” The minor in this case is a 15-year old female and the accused is a 67-year old male, 52 years her senior.  And remember, the ten counts of statutory sexual assault is only one of the criminal charges against Phillips – if convicted, this man is going to prison for a very, very long time.

The lawsuit is against TE School District and Conestoga Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger, but numerous other CHS teachers and administrators are identified in the 36-page lawsuit.  The lawsuit is a public document but because 14 different CHS teachers or administrators (in addition to Meisinger) are identified by name, I will not upload it to Community Matters. To be clear, the only T/E School District administrator being sued in this lawsuit is Meisinger.

I have read the lawsuit several times. It contains many graphic and sexually explicit details that do not need to be repeated here. As the mother of a daughter, I cannot imagine the horror of this situation for the girl and her family.

What is remarkable is the level of detail contained in the lawsuit of places that Phillips took the student during school hours and after school including Berwyn Pizza, Handel’s Ice Cream and restaurants such as Estia (Radnor), Christopher’s in Wayne and City Works Eatery and Pour House (King of Prussia). Phillips and the student went to multiple Wawa convenience stores in the area including Malvern, Paoli, King of Prussia, Audubon and Norristown. Additionally, Phillips took her on shopping trips to the King of Prussia Mall and ice skating in Dilworth Park outside of City Hall in Philadelphia, and to the IFly Indoor Skydiving Center and to Valley Forge Casino.  Phillips gave the student numerous items, including gift cards.

My guess is there would be security cameras, date and time stamped credit card processing receipts, etc. from most of these locations. According to the lawsuit, “many of Phillips contacts with Plaintiff are documented on Conestoga’s video monitoring system, including those cameras used to observe school entrances and exits and around the bus drop-off/pickup location.”  The lawsuit claims that the school district “failed to review the camera footage and failed to intervene in the outwardly inappropriate and illegal behavior of Phillips” which therefore constitutes a “systematic violation of school district policies”.

To celebrate her birthday, Phillips and the student ‘double-dated’ with a Conestoga teacher and her husband at Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar in King of Prussia. According to the lawsuit, “numerous district officials and teachers were aware of Phillips’ inappropriate relationship with the girl but failed to take steps to investigate or halt the conduct”.  Further, the lawsuit alleges that Phillips’ office was decorated with homemade signs that included the girl’s initials, her first name and the word “love”.

The lawsuit alleges that Phillips continually wrote ‘hall passes’ for the student to miss class when school district policy only permits a teacher (not an aide) to write these passes.  It is alleged that “none of the teachers who received these ‘hall passes’ filled out by Phillips took any action to investigate, manage, question or stop said absences or tardiness”.  Between January and mid-April of this year, the student missed over 20 English classes yet the teacher (allegedly) never discussed the absences with the parents.

Ross Feller Casey is also representing the parent of the 17-year old male CHS student who was sexually abused by another Conestoga staff member, 26-year-old teacher’s aide Christine Towers. Towers was convicted earlier this year and is currently serving time for the crime. The law firm is investigating a separate federal lawsuit against TE School District in that case. In both the Towers case and the Phillips case, the parents of the two abused students are calling for the resignation of the Conestoga principal.

In the Ross Feller Casey press release, attorney Matt Casey stated, “The heartbroken parents I represent, and their children, are demanding accountability on the part of the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, something that has yet to be achieved despite repeated, shocking instances of sexual abuse at Conestoga High School. The already-known facts lay bare a school district custom of deliberately turning a blind eye to criminal acts in its midst.”  To support this claim, the lawsuit includes the middle school sexting scandal, the football hazing incident and the teacher’s aide who sexually abused the male student case prior to this latest criminal investigation – all occurring in the last couple of years.

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The school board meeting is tomorrow, Monday, June 12, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School and includes the adoption of the 2017-18 final budget. The meeting agenda continues to list the teachers’ contract (TEEA), the non-instructional contract (TENIG) and Act 93 Agreement (administrators) as ‘TBD’ in the proposed final budget. The contracts constitute 70% of the District budget yet the budget includes no contingencies.  However, it is noted that on page 293 of the agenda, we see that the school board will take a vote on giving administrators a 1.7% increase to their 2016-17 base salary plus a one-time bonus of 1% to be paid in June 2018.

Since the last regular meeting of the school board, there have been two lawsuits filed against the District … the agenda makes no mention of either.

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Election 2017: Candidates for Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors, TESD School Board & Magisterial District Judge, District 15-4-01

The 2017 Election campaign season is officially underway for Tredyffrin Township supervisor, TE School District directors and Magisterial District Judge candidates.

All candidates who wished to appear on the Democratic or Republican ballot in the Primary Election needed to have filed their “nomination petitions” along with a “statement of financial interests” with Chester County Voter Services. The nomination petition documents required the signature of registered voters, who are enrolled in the party of which the candidate sought nomination and reside in the electoral district of the office sought. The statement of financial interests requires the candidate to provide information regarding the filer’s source of income.

Below is the list of our local candidates for supervisor, school board and magisterial district judge – best of luck to all those taking the journey!  Regardless of party affiliation and stance on specific issues, we thank you for your time, effort and willingness to serve!

The last day for withdrawal by candidates who filed nomination petitions is March 22.  The Primary Election date is May 16.

Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors

There are three Tredyffrin Township supervisor positions available – two at-large and one in the middle district.  Currently serving at-large supervisor Mark Freed (D) and middle district supervisor Evelyn Richter (R) have chosen not to seek reelection.  At-large supervisor Murph Wysocki (D) is seeking a second term. Terms are four years.

Three attorneys, a physician, corporate CEO and real estate agent will vie for Tredyffrin Township’s three available supervisor seats.

For Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors, the Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidates:

  • Supervisor at Large: Raffi Terzian, MD
  • Supervisor at Large: Robin Bond, Attorney
  • District 2 (Middle): Beth Coppola, Real Estate Agent

For Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors, the Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee has announced the following candidates: (official endorsement meeting not yet held)

  • Supervisor at Large: Matthew Holt, Attorney
  • Supervisor at Large: Murph Wysocki, Attorney *
  • District 2 (Middle): Kevin O’Nell, CEO, Peoplelinx

* Incumbent

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TE School District School Board

For the 2017 election, there is a change to the election districts in the TE School District. The regional election districts in the TE School District were approved for realignment last year to address changes in population that had resulted in disparity among the voting regions. The new regional election districts take effect with the 2017 voting cycle. Terms on the school board are four years.

Voting Precincts: (Representatives will serve through December 31, 2017.)

Region 1- Tredyffrin E-1, E-2, E-3, E-4, E-5, M-1, M-5, M-6
Region 2- Tredyffrin  M-2, M-3, M-4, M-7, W-1, W-2, W-3, W-4, W-5
Region 3- Easttown 1-7

Voting Precincts Beginning with the 2017 Election: 

Region 1- Tredyffrin E-2, E-3, E-4, E-5, M-1, M-2, M-5, M-6, W-3, W-4,
Region 2- Tredyffrin M-3, M-4, M-7, W-1, W-2, W-5
Region 3- Tredyffrin E-1, Easttown 1-7

The Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has endorsed the following candidate for the office of Tredyffrin-Easttown School Director:

  • Region 2: Doug Anestad, Senior Technology Consultant

The Tredyffrin Township Democratic Committee has announced the following candidates for the office of Tredyffrin-Easttown School Director: (official endorsement meeting not yet held)

  • Region 1: Scott Dorsey, Pastor, Director of Children’s Services *
  • Region 2: Kyle Boyer, Educator

* Incumbent

Incumbent school board director Scott Dorsey (D) is seeking a second term on the TE School Board. The Tredyffrin Township Republican Committee has chosen not to oppose Rev. Dorsey in the Region 1 school board race.

Incumbent school board directors Doug Carlson (R) and Virginia Lastner (R) are seeking reelection for a second term in Region 3.  Carlson currently serves as the President of the TE School Board.

UPDATE: Candidates Tina Whitlow (D) and Heather Ward (D) have filed to run for TE School Board for Region 3.

The Region 2 school board race will be interesting.  Republican Doug Anestad, a computer consultant, attends many of the school district meetings and is an active resident participant – most notably outspoken in his opposition of the VF Middle School fencing project (which the current school board elected to install).  Anestad’s opponent in the school board race is candidate Kyle Boyer (D) who is a currently a TESD social studies teacher at VF Middle School.  I do not recall when we have had a candidate for the TE School Board, who was a current TE School District teacher.  This could prove to be a delicate balance for candidate Boyer – employed as a teacher in the school district where he seeks to serve on its school board.

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Magisterial District Judge, District 15-4-01

Incumbent Analisa Sondergaard (D), an attorney is seeking her second 6-year term for Magisterial District Judge, District 15-4-01.  Opposing Sondergaard is Liz Mercogliano(R), attorney, realtor and RN.

Unlike the school board and supervisor candidates, where only 10 signatures are required on the nomination petitions, the magisterial district judge candidates are required to have 100 signatures. As is the case with school board candidates, those seeking district judge position, can cross-file and appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots.  To appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots, a school board candidate would need to have a minimum of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats signatures and a magisterial district judge candidate would need a minimum of 100 signatures from each political party.

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Intimidation and Bullying Claims by Conestoga High School teacher – Official Complaint Filed with US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

This week in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, school board director Michael Rock resigned abruptly, citing bullying and intimidation in the school district.  According to an article in the Daily Local, Rock claims that the UCFSD “board is doing little to encourage diversity, and to discourage bullying and intimidation.”  He stated, “I cannot and will not serve on a board that does not have the common decency to comfort our minority parents in these trying times, especially since it is so easy and simple to do … There are times when it is important to stand up to racism and bigotry, even the quiet and unspoken kind that we are experiencing here, and say no.”

During the recent Conestoga football hazing scandal, some of us in the public learned for the first time about ‘No Gay Thursday’.  Although it does not appear that ‘No Gay Thursday’ actually targeted gays in the athletic department, it certainly would not make you feel welcomed or accepted if you were a member of the school district’s gay community.

The struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) not only affects students in our schools but that teachers can also find themselves bullied and intimidated. Some teachers fear their sexual orientation could color how staff and administration view their performance, skew their evaluations, or otherwise influence whether you stay hired or not.

I was contacted by the family of a Conestoga High School teacher wh, sadly reports their son has endured harassment and intimidation by District administrators.

According to the parent, certain administrators have singled out the teacher (who is not tenured) for extensive classroom observations.  I was told that teachers procedurally receive 4 classroom observations per school year but that their son has received 5-7 classroom visits per semester by various administrators.  The District’s mid-year review of this teacher in January 2016 indicated a ‘need for improvement’ rating but the final year-end report five months later, in June 2016, provided a ‘proficient’ rating for the teacher.

The intense classroom observations of this teacher continued during the fall of 2016 and shortly before winter break, the teacher was verbally told (by a District administrator) that he was in risk of receiving another ‘need for improvement’ rating in the mid-year evaluation to be held in January 2017. The administrator strongly suggested that the teacher resign in advance of the January review. This is a critical point – I was told by the parent of the teacher, that if a TESD teacher receives 2 ‘need for improvement’ performance reviews during their employment in the District, it is grounds for dismissal. The teacher was given 48 hours to respond to the District’s verbal offer to resign.  The offer to resign was later declined on advice from the teachers union.

Why were certain administrators using intimidation and bullying tactics to force this teacher out of the District? What was the provocation for the intensive classroom observations? Were there complaints from students, parents and/or other faculty members regarding this teacher and/or his performance?  Had students in this teacher’s class received low test scores?  This didn’t make sense to me.

We all know that there are at least two sides to every story and admittedly, in this case I only have the family’s side.  When I questioned the parent, I was told that there were no complaints from students or parents and that that the teacher was well-liked and respected by his peers at the high school. The teacher had provided additional student tutoring and in fact, had many grateful parents (and students) as a result of his efforts.   And further, the end-of-the-year 2016 test scores were high for the students of this teacher, one of the indicators of a successful teaching experience.  So what was motivating certain individuals to have this teacher removed from the District?

The teacher – himself a Conestoga High School graduate – happens to be gay.  His parents believe that certain administrators are targeting their son because of his sexual orientation. The teachers union, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the union representatives within the District are fully supporting the teacher (as are other teachers and staff).  According to the family, if the District terminates the teacher, PSEA is prepared to take the case to arbitration.

The teacher filed an official complaint this week with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for harassment and intimidation whereby they are trying to force him to resign or fire him for incompetence.  The EEOC thinks anti-gay discrimination in the workplace is sex discrimination.  In 2015, the EEOC concluded that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids sexual orientation discrimination on the job because it’s a form “sex” discrimination, which is explicitly forbidden.

I want to believe that in 2017, that the TE School District would not discriminate against a teacher because of his or her’s sexual orientation.  Falling on the heels of the football hazing scandal and the criminal investigation, the District really does not need the negative publicity that will come with an EEOC anti-gay discrimination case of a TESD teacher.

Three attorneys – Ed Sweeney, Kevin Buraks and Todd Kantorczyk – are current members of the TE School Board.  Although a personnel matter and therefore confidential, I would hope that they (and other members of the school board) take the time to fully investigate and make certain that all District policies and procedures were correctly followed in this matter. No employee of our school district should ever feel intimidation and bullying to such a level as to require intervention from the EEOC.

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Note:  I questioned why the parent contacted instead of the teacher himself.  I was told that although the teacher was aware that his parent had contacted me, that contractually he could not.  By request, the names of the teacher, administrators and PSEA representatives in the District are not included.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael-Zhang-300x300

Exciting update —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update on TE School District’s Finance Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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