Tredyffrin Easttown School District

TE School Board’s proposed fencing at VF Middle School costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, Tredyffrin Township Solicitor and Board of Supervisors now involved

legal feesThe legal bills to the taxpayers continue to mount because of the TE School Board’s fencing decision at Valley Forge Middle School.

Last week, residents of Green Hills in Chesterbrook sought a compromise at a meeting with members of the District’s Facilities Committee, (Pete Motel, Liz Mercogliano, Kevin Buraks and SB President Kris Graham), Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos, regarding the planned 6-ft. chain link fencing.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting. The meeting ended with no compromise to the proposed 6-foot chain link fencing.

Agreeing that proposed fencing violates the terms of the 2002 agreement with the Chesterbrook Civic Association, attorneys Nagle and Gill filed official Complaint letters with Tredyffrin Township yesterday on behalf of their respective clients.  The letters were sent to Tredyffrin Township’s solicitor Vince Donohue with copies to the Board of Supervisors and Township Manager. (Click here to read Nagle’s letter; click here to read Gill’s letter).

After reviewing the records, attorneys Nagle and Gill each concluded that the proposed fencing would violate a condition which Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board imposed on TESD in granting the 2002 Special Exception. The Special Exception does not permit the installation of a fence in the 250’ buffer area next to the Green Hills homes.  In his letter to Donohue, Gill states that “ … TESD’s present proposal to introduce an invasive and visually offensive fence into the agreed upon 250 foot buffer is a material change to the development to which our clients agreed and requires the Zoning Hearing Board’s approval.”  Gill further states that, “…the Township must not permit or otherwise allow that proposal to succeed.”

With this official Complaint letter, the School Board, under the leadership of Kris Graham, has caused additional costs to the taxpayers to defend their proposed Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. In addition to paying legal fees to the District’s attorney Ken Roos and to Saul Ewing attorney David Falcone, taxpayers can now add the legal fees of Tredyffrin Township solicitor Vince Donohue to the cost of fencing at VFMS. Plus, the TESD taxpayers of Green Hills in Chesterbrook must pay the legal costs of Nagle and Gill.

Here’s my question to the members of the TE School Board – when is this going to end? This isn’t YOUR money that you are using to defend your decisions, it’s OUR money – it’s the taxpayer’s money.  School Board, how many thousands more taxpayer dollars are you going to spend on legal defense of your decision?

Kris Graham, as President of the School Board, we challenge you to lead!

TE School Board’s idea of ‘compromise’ at Valley Forge Middle School … Green Hills homeowners to get 6-foot high chain link fences in their backyards instead of previously announced 4-foot fences

Green Hills residents met with TE School District representatives regarding the proposed Chesterbrook fencing project last night and learned that compromise isn’t in the school board’s vocabulary.

Representing the TE School District at the meeting were school board members Pete Motel, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano and Kris Graham in addition to Art McDonnell, Dr. Gusick, attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing, Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot Architects and the District attorney Ken Roos. Motel, Buraks and Mercogliano are all on the Facilities Committee and School Board President Kris Graham attended in the absence of Virginia Lastner, the fourth member of the Facilities Committee.

In addition to the homeowners, attorney Brian Nagle of MacElree & Harvey represented Chesterbrook Civic Association and Michael Gill of Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris represented Green Hills Homeowners Association at the meeting.

With the proposed chain link fencing planned extraordinarily close to the abutting properties, residents appealed to the school board for a reasonable discussion of the project. However, rather than finding common ground and understanding, the affected property owners learned that their backyard fencing would not be 4 feet high as previously stated at the District’s Facilities Meeting. No, in a surprise announcement, the Green Hills residents learned the District has changed the height of the chain link fencing in their backyards to six feet!

It seems to me that these homeowners are being targeted – the Valley Forge Middle School fence project calls for the two sections of fencing along Chesterbrook Boulevard and Valley Forge Road to have four foot high fencing whereas the Green Hills residents are facing 6 foot chain link fences in their backyards. I don’t’ think any of the other school fencing projects have 6-ft. high fences, do they? You have to wonder what the District uses as their criteria for 4 ft, 5 ft. or 6 ft. fencing.

I thought that you needed a variance for 6 foot fencing in Tredyffrin Twp and we know that that the District previously withdrew their variance request. However, the District sidesteps the ZHB application process by putting a 4-ft fence along Valley Forge Road, which is technically the front of the school. According to Tredyffrin Township Zoning Ordinance 208-119, the back and rear yards at Valley Forge Middle School (which includes the Green Hills-TESD property line) only requires a permit for the 6-ft. fence not a variance. (Note – as of late today, the township had not received a fence permit request from TESD).

Green Hills resident and abutting property owner Pete Stanton attended the meeting and provides his summary below.

Summary of meeting 3/25/15 with representatives of the TE School Board and concerned citizens of Green Hills and Chesterbrook regarding proposed VFMS Fencing project.

- No agreement was reached over fencing. The status is that the School Board is still determined to place the fence at or near their property line. They plan to notify residents in the near future exactly where the line of the fencing will go.

- In a surprise turnaround, the Facilities Committee Chair Peter Motel announced the fence facing Green Hills homes would be 6 feet high. Previous Facilities Committee discussions that I attended had indicated the fence near our properties to be a four foot fence. No explanation for this change was offered. The Contractor is making an application for a fencing permit to Tredyffrin Township.

- The fencing architect from Daley and Jalboot reinforced the idea that the primary goal of the fencing on their property line was border identification. The School Board had evidently not considered any other option to fencing to “mark” their borders, such as signage.

- Attorneys for Green Hills, Chesterbrook Civic Assn and the School Board’s attorney as well as their outside Counsel were all present. There was some back and forth questioning, but nothing substantive at this time.

- The invited guests presented a wide variety of commentary … the excess expense of the fence in time of fiscal crunch for the school District, the security flaws inherent in their planned fence placement and deployment, and the general disruption to all residents in cutting off the continuous access to the Rural Conservation (RC) zoned areas and paths to the fields, St Isaac’s etc.

- An alternative fencing line was proposed by a citizen (non-Green Hills resident) as a “compromise” which places the fencing well out from the homes but still cuts off access to the paths. This proposed alternative is certainly an improvement to the District’s plan, but may wind up costing the District more (due to needed new path construction) and in my opinion does not go far enough in allowing unfettered access to the 20.7 acre RC zoned open area. I have color coded the 2 alternative proposals for consideration. Please see the attached map showing my desired fencing line, (the green line plan), the Citizen’s “compromise” fencing route (red line plan) along with the pathway needed for that plan (new path is blue line). Click here for map of VF Middle School Fencing Plan.

- Green Hills and local Chesterbrook residents and the 5 “abutter” families seem clear that they want unfettered access to the 20.7 acre open area behind their homes as they have for decades. By placing the fence as a continuation of the four foot fence already in place on the upper fields closest to the school, the School District will enhance student safety. By being able to visually monitor the entire fenced area directly from the School plant, continue to allow resident path access that they have utilized forever, and save the District thousands of dollars in fencing costs… All these arguments taken together are compelling for the District to alter their current plans and strongly consider the one that I am offering here. With the “green line plan”, everyone wins.

It would seem that supporting the District’s proposed chain link fencing project is not a particularly smart political move for anyone seeking reelection to the school board. Board President Kris Graham (the only incumbent seeking reelection) and her unfavorable position on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing plan could pose a political hurdle for her in November.

It is my understanding that some members of the school board have agreed to a walkabout at the Green Hills fencing location with the five affected homeowners. I still contend that if all the board members would take the time to walk the abutting neighbor’s property, they would agree to a compromise discussion.

Here’s hoping that there is still time for reasonable people to make reasonable decisions on the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project.

Valley Forge Middle School … Do Fences Make Good Neighbors?

The struggle between the Green Hills residents in Chesterbrook and the TE School District regarding the proposed chain link fencing project continues. As the last Community Matters post and many of the associated comments would suggest, residents are asking for an open, respectful dialogue and are not confident that the school board is listening.

Some people have asked about the agreement between Chesterbrook Civic Association and TESD. Click Here to read a portion of the 2002 Agreement TESD-CCA as presented in September 2002 by Stephen Aichele (with Saul Ewing and legal counsel to TESD at that time). This agreement from 13 years ago precludes the fence construction and provides for landscaping buffer. Also included in the agreement is the community use of the fields and nature trails – the fencing will cut off accessibility.

There appears to be some confusion regarding the ‘fence permit’ between the District and Tredyffrin Township. It was announced at last week’s Facility Committee by its chair Pete Motel, that the District had received the fence permit. However, when residents have inquired at the township, they were told that the township has not issued a permit and stranger yet, the residents were told that no permit application from TESD has been received. As an aside, there appears to be some question whether the District even needs a permit for the proposed fencing. Which is it? Does the District need a permit or can they just put the fencing up?

There is some encouraging news – at the school board meeting it was stated that only the 5 ‘abutter’ homeowners were permitted to attend the upcoming March 25 meeting with the District but now an additional three Green Hills homeowners have received invitations.

I continue to receive emails and phone calls from Green Hills residents, including Joel Greenberg. Dr. Greenberg attended the Facility Committee meeting and wanted the following included on Community Matters:

I live on Brandywine Lane in Chesterbrook, and although my property does not directly abut the school property, I do see that their plans will be detrimental to the community of Green Hills. And, as outlined, will NOT provide additional safety for the school children. Yesterday I posted on the Nextdoor site a few of my observations from attending several recent meetings: School Board, TESD Facilities Committee meetings, TESD Budget meeting, Supervisors meeting, and Township meeting.

It appears that the Township feels that the problem is not theirs and that we should voice our objections with the TESD. The TESD appears to just want to erect the fence as they have already planned. Get it up quickly, realizing that once it is up, it will very, very difficult to get it moved (which would involve significant sums of money). Following is the text that I submitted to the Nextdoor site:

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed by Peter Stanton and others on the Nextdoor site. The facilities committee of the School Board of TE has shown absolutely no interest in listening to the opinions of the concerned residents.

They autocratically have made decisions to serve their own interests and specifically are trying to enact a plan for fencing the Valley Forge Middle School that is ill conceived with regard to safety, and is in violation of an agreement that they made in 2002 with regard to the land behind the Valley Forge Middle School that borders Green Hills.

The school board has obtained a permit and has a signed contract to erect a chain-link fence within several feet of houses bordering the school property. This was all done without consulting the affected neighbors. They consented to a meeting with ‘some’ of the neighbors of Chesterbrook only after many vocal complaints. Additionally, they unilaterally picked a date and time without consulting any of the neighbors and specifically said that only a few select neighbors could attend this meeting – those whose homes bordered the school property.

When asked if invited participants could send a representative if they were out of town and could not attend, the chairman of the Facilities Committee stated that he would absolutely not allow this because one of the representatives might be an attorney and he didn’t want any attorneys present. Considering that many people appoint a representative to attend closing on a house if they are unable to be present, it seems entirely out of place for this to be disallowed for a meeting with members of the School Board on issues that affect the tax-paying residents.

Joel Greenberg

One of the abutter homeowners, Pete Stanton took the following photos from his Green Hills neighborhood and overlaid the approximate proposed fencing onto the photos.  Looking at the photos certainly gives you a sense of the invasive fencing into the Green Hills community.

Chesterbrook fence 1 Miller-Stanton fence

The left side of the photo is Green Hills abutter properties and the right side is the school district’s property at Valley Forge Middle School. The proposed fencing is indicated on the photo.

View of proposed fencing from entrance to Green Hills train at Salomon.  Valley Forge Middle School is so far from this proposed fencing, it is not visible.

View of proposed fencing from entrance to Green Hills path at Salomon. Valley Forge Middle School is so far from this proposed fencing, it is not visible.

This is a photo of an abutter's home on Hancock in Green Hills indicating how close the proposed fencing is to the house!

This is a photo of an abutter’s home on Hancock in Green Hills indicating how close the proposed fencing is to the house!

Slate of Candidates Final for Tredyffrin Board of Supervisors and TE School District Races

If you are a candidate for the TE School Board or the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors, Tuesday, March 10 marked the last day to circulate and file nomination petitions at Chester County Voter Services for Pennsylvania’s May 19, 2015 Primary Election.

TE School Board candidates must file a petition signed by at least 10 qualified voters of the school district for the political party with which the petition will be filed. Generally, school board candidates cross-file. To cross-file in a primary election (that is, to run on both parties), a registered Democrat or Republican must circulate a proper petition for the other party. The petition must contain signatures as previously mentioned. If elected on both party ballots in the May primary, a candidate will appear on both party ballots in the general election in November.

Between the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors and the TE School Board, there are a total of nine seats available and of those nine seats there are only two incumbents seeking reelection. In addition, the current Tredyffrin Township Auditor Bryan Humbarger (R) is not seeking reelection. The candidates for Tredyffrin Township Auditor are Mary McCracken (D) and Lynn Shine (R).

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

• District 1 East: Paul Olson *
• Supervisor at Large: Sean Moir
• Supervisor at Large: Trip Lukens
• District 3 West: Heather Greenberg
* Incumbent

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

• District 1 East: Tory Snyder
• Supervisor at Large: Elva Bankins
• Supervisor at Large: Lou Horvath
• District 3 West: Yolanda Van de Krol

In a review of the slate of supervisor candidates, there are some familiar names and some not so familiar names among the list. The District 1 East supervisor race has a re-match between Tredyffrin Township Planning Commissioner Chair Tory Snyder (D) and long-serving Republican supervisor Paul Olson, president of ANA Laboratories, Inc. If you recall in 2011, this particular Tredyffrin supervisor race was extremely close with Olson (R) receiving 1,331 votes and Snyder (D) receiving 1,318 votes. Only 13 votes separated the two candidates four years ago, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2015.

Besides Snyder, there are two other Tredyffrin Township Planning Commissioners seeking elected office – At-Large supervisor candidate Trip Lukens (R) and TE School Board candidate Ed Sweeney (R). Lukens, a principal at Lukens & Wolf, a real estate appraisal and consulting company ran with current Chester County Commissioner Michele Kichline (R) as at-large supervisor candidates two years ago but lost the election to Democrats Mark Freed and Murph Wysocki.

Another interesting twist in the 2015 supervisor candidate race is at-large candidate Sean Moir (R). Owner of Western Heritage Mapping, a historical mapping service, Moir isn’t new to the local campaign circuit. Moir previously ran as a Tredyffrin at-large supervisor candidate six years ago but as a Democratic candidate. I was on the Democratic ballot as an at-large supervisor candidate with Sean but following our defeat in 2009, I changed my political party status back to Independent whereas Sean’s path took him to the Republican Party.

New names to the Tredyffrin Board of Supervisor races includes candidates Heather Greenberg (R), Elva Bankins (D), Lou Horvath (D) and Yolanda Van de Krol (D). A quick Google search indicates that Greenberg is a CPA working as Director of Finance and Administration at ModSolar; Bankins is management consultant and leadership development coach and speaker; Horvath is Director of graduate online health services at St. Joseph’s University and Van de Krol is Vice President, Relationship Manager at Customers Bank.

Looking at the TE School Board, there are five open seats available this election cycle – two for Tredyffrin Region 1, two for Tredyffrin Region 2 and one for Easttown Region 3.

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

• Tredyffrin, East – Region 1: Neal Colligan
• Tredyffrin, East – Region 1: George Anderson
• Tredyffrin, West – Region 2: Kris Graham*
• Tredyffrin, West – Region 2: Edward Sweeney
*Incumbent

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

• Tredyffrin, East – Region 1: Roberta Hotinski
• Tredyffrin, East – Region 1: Todd Kantorczyk
• Tredyffrin, West – Region 2: Michele Burger
• Tredyffrin, West – Region 2: Alan Yockey

In addition to the Region 1 and Region 2 seats in Tredyffrin Township, Region 3 in Easttown Township has one seat available. Currently serving school board director Dr. Pete Motel (R) is not seeking reelection. Republican candidate for Region 3 is Kate Murphy and the Democratic candidate is Francis Reardon, owner of a local construction company.

Democrats on the ballot for Tredyffrin East Region 1 are Dr. Roberta Hotinski, a geoscientist at Princeton Environmental Institute and environmental attorney Todd Kanatorczyk, a partner at Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox. Republicans opposing Hotinski and Kanatorscyk in Tredyffrin East Region 1 are Neal Colligan, a commercial mortgage banker at CKPP & Associates and Dr. George Anderson, Director of International Student Development at Valley Forge Military Academy. I am pleased that my friend Neal Colligan, a mainstay at regular school board meetings and finance committee meetings, is a candidate for the school board. A longstanding supporter of the District’s aides and paras, he has continually offered background and expertise on the District’s finances.

Currently serving as TE School Board President, Republican Kris Graham is seeking reelection to another term. Attorney with Wusinich & Brogan and current Tredyffrin Township Planning Commissioner Ed Sweeney (R) is running with Graham for Tredyffrin West Region 2. Opposing Graham and Sweeney are Democrats Michele Burger and Alan Yockey. You may recall, Michele Burger was front and center on the Valley Forge tennis court issue, helping to save them from demolition by the school district. Joining Berger for Region 2 is Alan Yockey, a retired IT consultant.

Here’s hoping that the focus of the local 2015 political campaign season is about the issues and the candidates that best represent the vision of the community. It’s important to know the person that you are voting for and whether or not the candidate best represents your views. It’s your school district and your township – make your vote count! Thank you to all of the candidates for stepping up to run for office!

Secret School Board Meetings Considered Strategic!

What’s that saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”? Well, when it comes to outsourcing the jobs of the aides and paraeducators in the TE School District, I think the fat lady sang two years ago and was confirmed again at last night’s School Board meeting.

We know that the Board members received many phone calls and emails regarding their February 3rd Affordable Care Act decision – 73 full-time District employees received a choice, either go part-time or your job is outsourced. Many of us in the community wanted a ‘do-over’ on the Board’s policy change. And there was hope that with a significant public pushback, that the Board would reconsider. But as we learned last night, no amount of public input was going to change their minds — the TE School Board isn’t a fan of do-overs. We got the message, loud and clear, ‘they’ make the decisions and it is up to ‘us’, the residents, to abide by them, like it or not.

Oh, many of the Board members lamented how hard the decision had been and how they wished there could have been a different outcome; repeatedly stating that they ‘had’ to do it, there just was no other way. However, no matter how many times they said it and no matter who said it, I just sat there thinking, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way”. Somehow, the Board finds money for a fancy LED sign at the high school, money for administrator raises, money for district-wide fencing projects and then money to pay legal fees defending the fencing projects, yet … there’s no money for health care benefits for the aides and paras.

Look, I had resigned myself two years ago to the fact that the Board was going to outsource this group of employees; clearly, the handwriting was on the wall then and nothing really changed since. The Affordable Care Act just gave the Board ‘cover’ … a Federal law to stand behind and something to point to as the reason for outsourcing.

No, what I found the most troubling on February 3, the intervening weeks since and then at last night’s Board meeting was the lack of transparency and disregard of the public by some of our elected officials. I am careful to say ‘some on the Board’ because I believe that not all of these Board members have agreed with the way this matter was handled. One highlight of the evening was Kevin Buraks’ diatribe defending the Board actions, referencing transparency and calling the decision of February 3rd ‘strategic’.

In addition to the many residents who reached out to the School Board over the last several weeks, special thanks go to Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Peggy Layden and Barb Jackson. These folks, who regularly attend committee and regular school board meetings, stepped up to the plate regarding the School Board’s February 3 decision. Like me, they believed that the policy change was a ‘wrong’ that needed ‘righting’ and sent a letter to the School Board stating the concerns. Unfortunately, rather than joining with us and the community in seeking a solution, the Board chose to stand behind the words of the District Solicitor. As I said last night, I really do believe that the individual School Board members are better than that letter from the solicitor and that we, and the many others who contacted them since their February 3 decision, deserved better.

Although viewed as an unfavorable School Board decision by many in the community, we will all move forward.

I’m really looking ahead to Spring!

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For another take on last night’s School Board meeting, here’s Ray Clarke’s account:

I was surprised by the proceedings at last night’s Board meeting.  On the positive side, the order of business was adjusted to allow airing of the two most pressing issues, the out-sourcing and fencing projects.  The depth of resident concern has clearly got through.  On the downside, though, there is no sign of that resident concern actually making a difference.

The fencing contract was still approved based on a specification that may or may not meet Township ordinances, and the apparently illegal ACA vote was not reconsidered.  Indeed, the Board adopted the Rudy Guiliani approach: double down on the outrageousness.  To paraphrase: “It was actually our considered strategy to have the meetings in secret and the vote unadvertised”.  The reason given being a “threat of unionization”.  That looks to me like a scheme to claim a legitimate exception to the Sunshine Act, which would be hard and expensive to disprove.  Only we know full well that there have been no organization attempts for at least twelve months.  I encourage everyone to review the meeting video for the unvarnished story.

Looking for a silver lining, there is a commitment to review the out-sourcing analysis at the upcoming March 9th Finance Committee/Budget workshop.  Of course if this consists of showing us slides with the same numbers as given verbally on February 3rd, then our time will have been wasted.  On the other hand, if there is a comprehensive analysis of:

  1. a) all the options based on realistic assumptions about the specific population of long-serving full-time employees, specific figures for penalties, laid out by year, and
  2. b) evaluation of the trade-off between those realistic options and other discretionary items like new maintenance buildings, fencing, floor refinishing, new kitchens, architect fees, etc., borrowing $24 million that costs $1 million a year while our $32 million Fund Balance sits idle, and so on then perhaps the public can be convinced that the plan does in fact represent the values and best interests of our community, and it is best to ask those employees and district residents to bear the full cost of this situation.

All those who have rallied for open government have cracked the door open a little.  Thank you and please keep pushing!

TESD: Here Comes the Sunshine Act and It’s Alright

After researching the issue and speaking with experts, a nonpartisan group of six residents (Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Barb Jackson, Peggy Layden and myself) believed the School Board deliberations at the TESD February 3, 2015 board meeting violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. On February 13, 2105 via Certified Mail, a thoughtfully written letter was sent to the School Board members (President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Scott Dorsey, Karen Cruickshank, Kevin Buraks, Liz Mercogliano, Jim Bruce and Pete Motel) stating our specific concerns regarding their process. (Click here to read February 13 letter to School Board).

As residents, we believed that with quick action at the next TE School Board meeting on February 23, the Board could remedy the process and maintain the trust of the community in the integrity of the District’s governance.

I received the following response from the School Board (via the District Solicitor Ken Roos), in an email Friday afternoon:

Dear Ms. Benson,

As District Solicitor, I respond on behalf of the School Board to the allegations of non-compliance with the Sunshine Act by the School Board contained in the letter you forwarded below. Please forward this response to the other signers of the letter.

At all times, the Board carefully considered its obligations under the Sunshine Act prior to each executive session and Board information meeting conducted with respect to the issue of benefits for District employees in light of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). At no time was the Sunshine Act violated. Moreover, the February 3, 2015 Board vote on this fully disclosed agenda item occurred after a lengthy public presentation, public Board discussion and public comment in full compliance with the Sunshine Act.

Kenneth A. Roos
Solicitor, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District

Although the reply is not surprising, I disagree and find it inadequate and dismissive as a response to the well-researched points that were raised in our letter of February 13 to members of the TE School Board.

My observations –

  • It’s unfortunate that these five separate Affordable Care Act discussions were held in private, out of the light of the public eye and the benefit of public deliberation.
  • It’s unfortunate that deliberation regarding an employment policy change for 73 full-time District employees occurred in private and that a resolution simply appeared at the end of the meeting with no advertisement or notification.
  • It’s unfortunate that the misleading ‘ACA Update’ listing on the meeting agenda is referenced [in the above response] as a “fully disclosed agenda item”.
  • It’s unfortunate that 73 dedicated full-time District employees are notified of the School Board’s policy change and outsource decision via a 10:30 PM email following the meeting.
  • It’s unfortunate that the public’s participation is not valued in important policy decisions.

There is no doubt that members of the school board have received many emails and phone calls from residents since the February 3 School Board meeting and my guess is that virtually none of these contacts was in support of their actions.

I cannot imagine that the actions of the TE School Board were not a violation of the Sunshine Law, but I can guarantee that it is a violation of the public trust.

After forwarding the solicitor’s email to the other letter signers, they were asked if they wanted to include their reactions to the District’s response in this post. Here are those responses:

From Ray Clarke:
I am disappointed to receive this denial of a crystal-clear case of a Sunshine Law violation by the individuals on the School Board. However, I suppose it would be a rare lawyer that would advise acknowledging guilt before the proceedings have begun. I am more disappointed that there is no sign that the Board plans to do the right thing and address the community’s widespread concern, in Monday’s meeting or at any other time. Residents have been deliberately shut out of a matter of widespread concern and need to make their feelings clear to the Board.

From Barb Jackson:
Ken Roos is the solicitor in the Lower Merion School District as well as the TE School District. I understand that the Radnor School District has recently hired him. It is well documented that Lower Merion residents are frustrated and angry about transparency issues in their district. I am disappointed that when confronted with legitimate questions about transparency and open communication from community members, the board turns to the solicitor Ken Roos to write this letter, instead of making every attempt possible to be open and transparent and invite community participation and input.

From Neal Colligan:
Really surprised they sent such a short and dismissing response. Our challenge to the Sunshine Act centers on the 5 Exec Meetings concerning this topic…not covered by the list of items allowed in Exec Session. This response does not defend the reason for these meetings only that “the Board considered … at no time did they violate…”. Our challenge to the process in deciding this issue was well thought-out, supported by experts we consulted and well written. The response was a simple quickly written e-mail. The two communications say volumes in their structure.

This is a legal response saying the Board met the minimum technical standards of the Act. Until proven otherwise, it’s a plausible defense. That said, it’s hard for me to think that all members of this elected body agree with the handling of this issue. I’m hopeful at least one member objects to the process in light of the public challenge … whether it can be proved right or wrong. I’m surprised but not shocked … possibly someone elected to represent the community will address the process employed here by stepping out from behind the Solicitor. We’ll see.

I’ve made an Open Records Request asking for the details of these Exec. Sessions not previously disclosed in public communications. We’ll see what that brings. Maybe the process was a full vetting of all alternatives in a thoughtful and complete presentation over several meetings … maybe not. Maybe the decision had been made a long time ago regarding these employees and the ACA and the Exec. Sessions were based on creating a tightly scripted response and explanation to be given at the end of a long public meeting with questionable (although technically compliant) notice to the community. Likely, we may never know … I’ll share what I receive when/if I get a response to my request.

IMPORTANT: The next School Board Meeting is this Monday, February 23 at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High Schools. This is an important issue — please plan to attend the meeting and have your voice heard.

You can email your concerns/questions regarding this issue directly to the TE School Board at schoolboard@tesd.net

TE School Board, Let the Sunshine In …

At the TESD School Board meeting of February 3, the School Board voted on a resolution to change the employment status of 73 full-time aides and paras in the District. The action was taken without notice, other than listing ‘ACA Update’ on the meeting agenda, and after five secret executive session discussions.  Not only does the February 3 action of the School Board disrespect our expectation of good government, some residents are of the opinion that a violation of the Sunshine Act has occurred, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or by intention.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. The Act is a mechanism to increase public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  The School Board has had a “longstanding practice” of meeting in executive session before its regular meetings. In the case of their recent policy decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, it is unfortunate that these discussions were held in private, out of the light of the public eye and the benefit of public deliberation.

Legal proceedings are expensive for all parties and no one wants that burden. Seeking a remedy to the Sunshine Act violation, a small group of concerned citizens sent the letter below to the Board. The request is simple —  we are asking the School Board to re-open the discussion at their next meeting on Monday, February 23.  At the meeting, we ask for a thorough financial analysis of ACA options and strategies, an explanation of suggested policy changes and adequate time for resident’s comments.

If you too are concerned after reading the letter, you are encouraged to contact the School Board directly with your comments at schoolboard@tesd.net  as soon as possible.

February 13, 2015

Dear Members of the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board,

Re:  Pennsylvania Sunshine Act Violation

At the TE School Board meeting of February 3, 2015, under Agenda Item IX, B: Affordable Care Act Update, you directed the Administration to offer two employment options to full-time District aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals.  The resolution was distributed during the Board meeting and it was stated by School Board President Kris Graham that the Board in five Executive Sessions had previously discussed this matter.

As residents of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District, we believe that the Board violated both the spirit and letter of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

  • The General Assembly states that the public has the right to be present at all meetings to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies. Secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.  The five closed meetings and the non-descriptive language on the agenda (“Affordable Care Update”) violate the spirit of the Sunshine Act.
  • Commonwealth Court has ruled that a specific reason must be given for each Executive Session so the public can “determine from the reason given whether they are being properly excluded from the session”. The Board violated the Sunshine Act as no specific reason was given for any of the five executive sessions and, in fact, we cannot determine from the record (as no meeting dates were given) whether these meetings were announced at all.
  • As no agenda exists for the five Executive Sessions, it is difficult to determine whether other sections of the Sunshine Act were violated. It may be that the Board justifies the Executive Sessions using either the “personnel” exception or the “negotiations” exception but neither exception is valid for the current situation as the discussion centered around a group of employees not subject to a CBA.

We suggest that these Executive Sessions constitute a violation of the Sunshine Act. We ask you to review your procedures and reasons behind these closed meetings. If a violation of the Act has occurred, we would suggest it be remedied by a full and transparent airing of the matter. A public challenge to a violation of the Sunshine Act could only result in individual penalties determined through the appropriate courts. We prefer the Board hold a duly advertised public meeting (preferably at its next scheduled meeting on February 23) at which the full spectrum of strategic options in response to the ACA is analyzed, presented and discussed, and at which a resolution is developed and voted upon.  By so doing, the Board can assure all employees and residents that its decision is based on a thorough examination and on the values of the community.

In reading the Act and interfacing with the PA FOIC, we are strongly of the opinion that a violation of the Sunshine Act has occurred, whether by misinterpretation or misapplication of the language of the Act, or by intention. We ask each of you to consider this seriously. This matter is of widespread concern in the community and time is pressing for the affected employees and for the legal process.  We trust that we will receive a responsive plan from you no later than close of business on February 20, 2015.

Please feel free to contact any one of the undersigned.

Sincerely,

(Letter signed by Pattye Benson, Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Barbara Jackson and Margaret Layden)

Security fencing for Valley Forge Middle School, TE Middle School and Conestoga High School – TE School District seeks variance to construct 6-foot fence

fencing 1During 2014, 5-foot high chain link fencing was installed around TESD’s five elementary schools – Beaumont, New Eagle, Valley Forge, Hillside and Devon. Sandy Hook and other school shootings pushed the issue of school security into the limelight and the elementary school fencing project was one of the security upgrades recommended by the District’s Safety Committee.

The construction of the elementary school security fencing project was not without controversy. Residents opposed the District’s decision to fence the elementary school for a variety of reasons. Some suggested that the fencing would make it more difficult for children to evacuate in emergencies — concern that they could become trapped inside the property by the fencing and that the fencing could slow emergency aid. Others cited inconvenience; aesthetics and monetary cost (approximately $220K) in their opposition to the fencing and some questioned if the District obtained the required building permits. In the end, the elementary schools received their security fencing last year.

Apparently, the District’s fencing project was not contained to the elementary schools. A surprise to some, security fencing is planned for Valley Forge Middle School, TE Middle School and Conestoga High School. At the October 27, 2014 TE School Board meeting, the school board approved Daley & Jalboot’s 2015 infrastructure implementation fee proposal on the consent agenda. Included in the architect’s project was Project #1405, the installation of perimeter site fencing at the three schools. Daley & Jalboot’s fee is $$8,600 and they estimate the construction costs at $236K.

The security-fencing project of the middle schools and high school is out for bid and construction is set to start June 24 with completion by the start of school in September.

Unlike the elementary school fencing project in 2014, the District has a hurdle to get over before they can move forward. The District’s plan to construct a 6-foot chain link fence at Valley Forge Middle School and TE Middle School requires a variance from the Zoning Hearing Board. Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board will hear these two appeals tonight at 7 PM and residents are encouraged to attend and provide comments.

The proposed chain link fencing at Valley Forge Middle School may be a challenge for the Zoning Hearing Board. The school is in Chesterbrook, a planned community of 28 villages, and each of the villages is independently managed by homeowners associations and governed by specific bylaws. The Chesterbrook village of Green Hills (single family homes) is adjacent to Valley Forge Middle School. The plan for VFMS fencing is along Valley Forge Road and on the shared property line with Green Hills. Because the proposed chain link fencing is not consistent with the homeowner association bylaws of Green Hills,  and an earlier agreement between these homeowners and the school board regarding development, the approval for the variance may not be a given for the school district.

Notes from TESD Finance Committee Meeting – Do we borrow $18 million or $24 million to pay for District capital projects?

I attended the first 2015 meeting of the TE School District’s Finance Committee this week that focused primarily on the preliminary 2015-16 budget.  According to the District’s capital sources and uses report, there is a projected capital need of $24 million over the next five years.  The Finance Committee discussed options to fund these planned facilities projects … either to borrow $18 million or $24 million. Citing the District’s stellar credit rating and the historically low-interest rates, the committee members supported this borrowing approach to help pay for the new construction and needed renovations to existing buildings. However, because TESD currently has a $32 million fund balance, some in attendance at the meeting questioned adding debt in this way.

Another topic that received some discussion from audience members was Dr. Gusick’s proposal to add a couple of new director positions in the District. Gusick explained that Robin McDonnell, Director of Assessment and Instructional Technology for the District, will be retiring in June and thinks that the job requirements are such that they now require two people, a Director of Technology and a Director of Assessment. I don’t know that anyone would question Gusick about the need for the positions, but may question the suggested salaries — $160k/yr. for each position.

Ray Clarke also attended the Finance Committee meeting. Following the meeting, he emailed comments to the school board and sent me a copy for Community Matters.  Below is an excerpt from those remarks:

First, I would like to thank you for the presentations at last night’s Finance Committee meeting proposing to restructure the Administration team and to make a $18 to $24 million bond issue.  We are at the stage in the budget process where many worthy proposals are on the table.  Dr Gusick’s idea for qualified Directors of Technology and of Assessment is one of them, but the compensation gives pause: salaries of $160,000, plus 30% PSERS, plus $20,000 healthcare, plus ……?  Unfortunately, accepting all of them – even with the maximum 3.7% tax increase – leaves the District with an unsustainable deficit approaching $2 million.

This makes it all the more important for you to critically examine the one discretionary spending item that defies understanding – raising $18 million that the District does not need, and will cost taxpayers over $28 million to repay.  Further, you propose to eliminate the annual $300,000 savings from last Fall’s bond re-financing rather than giving taxpayers some offset to the otherwise continual expense increases.

The proposed financing is driven by a capital plan for the four years from 2015/16 to 2018/19 that calls for spending $30.7 million, while only $6.9 million will remain in the Capital Project Fund at the beginning of the year.  The assumption is that the $24 million gap has to be filled by 75% bond funding because “that’s the way we have always done it”.  However, we have not always had a General Fund Balance of $32 million earning negligible interest.

Instead of contriving financial schemes to defer interest on the new borrowing beyond the $300,000 of lost savings (and increase total borrowing costs), I believe that it is your fiduciary duty to present and analyze other options that show some fiscal restraint.

For example, a transfer of $16 million from the General Fund to the Capital Fund would take the District through 2017/18 and even through 2018/19 – if just $2 million of capital spending was deferred.  At that point the 2014 bonds are repaid and there is leeway for bond financing without a premium for a convoluted structure that defers interest and principal repayments.  You avoid the three quarter of a million dollar annual expense (loaded on future generations) for the unneeded 4% bond money sitting under the District mattress.  And there is still $16 million in the General Fund for contingencies that you can not tax for (contrary to the $10 million “committed” to PSERS, which you can and do raise taxes for).  There is already over $5 million “committed” to Capital Projects.

In the last five years, TESD taxes have risen at twice the rate of inflation and this is forecast to continue in the preliminary Budget.  Radnor is finding a way to limit next year’s tax increase to the State Index 1.9%.  There is great risk to the value proposition that brought many of us to Tredyffrin.  As taxes rise relative to our neighbors, the more likely that existing communities and new ones like Wayne Glen will be unaffordable to those without families, the more children will enter the school system and the worse your problem will get.

TE School District proposes 3.68 percent tax increase in 2015-16 budget

For taxpayers living in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships, they saw no municipal real estate tax increase in 2014 or 2015. In the Tredyffrin Township 2015 budget presentation, it was announced that real estate tax assessments continue to grow and that the township saw “increased construction of both residential and commercial properties which are a major cause for the increased assessment.” No real estate tax increase in Tredyffrin for 2015 follows a no real estate tax increase in 2014. Similarly, Easttown Township taxpayers received no real estate tax increase for the period.

In neighboring Radnor School District, taxpayers did not receive a real estate tax increase for 2014-15 whereas the taxpayers of TE School District saw their real estate tax bill increase 3.2 percent during the same period. Looking ahead to the 2015-16 budget for the two school districts, Radnor School Board announced this week that they will not seek exceptions and the proposed tax increase will not be greater than the 1.9 percent permitted by Act 1. TE School Board has voted to seek exceptions and the preliminary budget currently in discussion for 2015-16 includes a 3.68 percent tax increase.

During the last four years, TE School District has shown a budget surplus of over $12 million (2013-14: $2.2M, 2012-13: $5M, 2011-12: $3.9M and 2010-11: $1.3M). Although the District benefited from the budget surplus, you would have to go back a decade to 2004-05 to find the last time that there was no real estate tax increase. A review of the District yearly tax increase since the last no-tax year is as follows:

• 2015-16: 3.68% *
• 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
* Proposed Increase

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