Tredyffrin Easttown School District

T/E Taxpayers Draw Short Straw: School Board Approves $4.5 million maintenance building & 3.81% tax increase

Last night’s TE School Board meeting did not mark a good night for the District’s taxpayers!  Many of us left the meeting disheartened and feeling like the warm summer evening would have been better spent with a glass of Chardonnay.  Here are the highlights, or rather low-lights of the meeting.

New Maintenance & Storage Building:   $4.5 million, approved 8-1 (Liz Mercogliano dissenting vote)

The District’s Business Manager Art McDonnell and the architect Tom Daley from Daley & Jalboot presented a lengthy presentation on the proposed $4.5 million maintenance & storage building. Helping to convince that the project was necessary, photos of current overcrowded storage facilities, closets, etc. accompanied the presentation.  Taxpayers did not question that something needed to be done to improve the situation but did question the project’s escalating costs, the Old Lancaster Road location and the treatment of the neighbors. The fantasy architectural drawings indicate a tree-lined boulevard, not the realty of Old Lancaster Road … a narrow residential street of small homes sitting below grade to this new, large maintenance building.

2015-16 Budget: Approved deficit budget with a 3.81% tax increase, 8-1 (Liz Mercogliano dissenting vote).

The 3.81% tax increase marks the eleventh straight year that the TE School Board has raised taxes. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer from Sunday, June 14, the 3.81% tax increase for 2015-16 marks the largest tax increase in Chester County.

The last year the TESD saw no tax increase was 2004-05 as seen below:

• 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

Discretionary compensation increases above the 1.7% contract for Supervisors and Administrators:  Approved 7-2 (Liz Mercogliano and Scott Dorsey dissenting votes)

Valley Forge Middle School Fencing:  Board agreed to further discussion of hiring of a fencing safety consultant at the next Facilities Committee meeting.  An RFP for safety expert to be sent in the Fall.

TE School District Redistricting:  Based on the distribution of voters in the school district, there is under representation of elected officials in Tredyffrin, District 2.  It was suggested that the Board’s Legislative Committee would review the redistricting issue at their next meeting, in September. Disenfranchised voters are discussing a grassroots effort of their own re redistricting.

Reflecting on last night’s school board meeting, had me wondering why should I or other citizens bother to show up?  As some have often stated on Community Matters, the Board seemingly makes its decisions in advance and then delivers those decisions as a united front. Questions from the public are only marginally answered, if at all.  The Board views comments from residents as criticism and/or annoyances.

Election Day is November 3, 2015.  Five seats on the TE School Board are on the November ballot – Vote for Change!

Question: To fence or not to fence at Valley Forge Middle School? Answer: No for Election Year, but 2016 is another story!

 

I attended the TE School District Facilities Meeting on Friday.   Thinking that the fencing at Valley Forge Middle School discussion would be put to bed finally, the audience learned instead that the never-ending saga would continue…

After months and months of legal bills on the District’s side (i.e. taxpayers) and on the part of the Chesterbrook Civic Association and Green Hills residents, the Board has decided the District needs another school safety study, which will focus on fencing at VFMS, before they can make a decision. After TESD President Kris Graham read her statement proposing the hiring of a safety consultant for the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project, other Board members embraced the suggestion.  What?

As background regarding the school safety study – In January 2013, the District hired Andy Chambers (the former Tredyffrin Township Police Chief) as the safety consultant to review the safety of the eight schools.  Initially Chambers’ hiring was included on a school board consent agenda.  Facing claims of Sunshine Act violation, the District solicitor Ken Roos recommended the ‘reconsideration’ of Chambers at the following Board meeting.  Ultimately, Chambers was hired with a 7-2 vote with former school board members Anne Crowley and Rich Brake citing ‘lack of transparency’ in their dissenting votes.   The public was told that Chambers contract was ‘not to exceed’ $11,500.

The Board has repeatedly cited the safety report as the rationale for building fences around the schools – it certainly provided the basis for why the five elementary schools were fenced last summer. The public was not provided input for the safety study and we were not permitted to see the safety study when completed (the Board cited safety reasons).   The District has denied right-to-know requests for the study.

The taxpayers paid for the District’s safety study two years ago, which claims to suggest that all District schools need to be fenced.  Why is the 2013 safety study not applicable for VFMS?

Now many, many meetings and legal and architectural fees later, the Board has decided that the District needs to spend more money for a new safety study – this study to focus specifically on Valley Forge Middle School fencing.  It should be noted that the Board was quick to mention that this time the District will send out an RFP to find a safety consultant (something they admit was not done before they hired Chambers).

I’m sorry but I just don’t understand.  Why is the District going to spend more money on the VFMS fencing project by hiring another safety consultant?  The uncertainty for the neighbors continues, as the Board was quick to say that when this new study comes out in early 2016, it may still require fencing VFMS. Here’s a question for the Board — why not have Police Superintendent Anthony Giaimo and the Tredyffrin police conduct the safety study for the District?  Certainly Giaimo’s background and experience would make him an excellent choice to review school safety.

Three school board candidates attended the Facilities Meeting (Fran Reardon, Easttown, Region 3 and Tredyffrin West, Region 2 candidates Michele Burger and Ed Sweeney).  For the two open school board seats in Tredyffrin West, Region 2, the Primary election results had Burger (D) and Sweeney (R) receiving the highest number of votes respectfully – with TESD Board President Kris Graham in third place. There’s little doubt that the ongoing VFMS fencing issues cost Graham votes.  I wonder if she thinks that by spending taxpayer dollars for another safety study and delaying the fencing project until 2016, will translate to a higher vote count in November.

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The District’s mega-million proposed Maintenance & Storage Building received much discussion at Friday’s Facilities Meeting.  This proposed maintenance building and the adoption of the 2015/16 Final Budget are scheduled for Priority Discussion at the school board meeting on Monday, June 15. Board discussion and public comment opportunity. 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School

TESD Facility Meeting to discuss school fencing project and mega-million dollar maintenance building

The proposed middle school and high school fencing project and the mega-million dollar Maintenance Building are two of the agenda items for the District’s Facilities Meeting tomorrow, Friday, June 12 at 12 Noon.

The school fencing project, specifically at Valley Forge Middle School, has seen a lot of attention in recent months. The school property abuts the property of some of the Green Hills properties in Chesterbrook. and initially the plan had the fencing going directly behind the Green Hills homes. It now appears that the District has agreed to move the proposed fencing away from the homeowner’s back doors but unanswered questions remain.

Discussion (debate?) continues on the placement of the interior fencing, the height of the fence (4 ft, 5 ft. or 6 ft.), the type of fencing material, signage, etc. The five District elementary schools received chain link fencing but the Chesterbrook residents are asking for a material upgrade to white vinyl fencing to match existing fencing in the planned community.  There appears to be an agreement that any upgrade materials fee from chain link to white vinyl will be split between Chesterbrook residents and the District’s taxpayers.  The white vinyl fencing is to run along the side of VFMS property on Valley Forge Road (Rt. 252).  This upgrade fencing option would only ‘mark’ the District’s property and cannot be viewed as a safety feature.

The construction start date for school fencing at Valley Forge Middle, TE Middle and Conestoga is June 24 with a scheduled completion date of August 14.  Since there is a change order for the originally approved fencing at VFMS, the Facilities Committee will need to decide the next step – will it need to go back to the full Board on Monday, June 15?

Although the District has been unwilling to publically state how many residents have contacted the Board regarding the proposed fencing – I know that the number continues to rise.  Many residents have copied me on their correspondence with the District and then complained when they have received no response. To be clear, there may be residents who support the fencing project, but I have personally not received copies of any such correspondence.

Below is a copy of a recent email to the school board from Mr. Gary Wolf, a Chesterbrook resident.  This email is included below with his approval.

Dear School Board,

Our tax dollars are irresponsibly and continually misused by the T/E School Board.  One of my choices to address this concern, besides moving out of our Tredyffrin home that my wife and I have lived in for 27 years, was to exercise my right to vote … which I did.  I chose not to vote for Kris Graham on May 19th.  While my vote is only one in many, I’m fed up with our taxes being increased and our school board acting as though this district is a “money pit.”  Specifically, we don’t need fences at our schools to the tune of almost a quarter million dollars.

My wife worked at VFES for 19 years, and saw the waste and misdirected funding of the T/E administration.  For example, the kids had a paltry allocation of $1.00/year/student for their first aid care while the principal bought new office furniture essentially every year, applying the “use or lose his budget” mentality.  If I managed my department for my employer in that manner, I’d be out of work.  And … we continue to pay for Dan Waters’ amenities and life style that even us reasonably blessed professionals will never realize.   Spend it on the kids!!  Enough is enough!

Gary C. Wolf

Another of the major discussion items on the agenda is agenda items is the new Maintenance & Storage Building.  As we learned at Monday’s Finance Committee meeting, the bids for this project were due in this week on June 9.  The project bid will not include any of the costs leading up to this point – the legal and architectural fees, traffic studies, township permits, eco soil testing, etc.

When the Business Manager was asked about a total of those pre-construction costs, Art McDonnell stated that he would provide a total of those costs as well as the construction bid costs at the Facilities Meeting. At this point, the District has already invested a lot of money on the maintenance building project. Because this project has greatly exceeded initial estimates, it would be fiscally responsible for the Board to thoroughly analyze the costs, and review all available options, before granting final approval. According to the District, the construction start date for the maintenance building is August 17, 2015 with a scheduled completion date of June 29, 2016.

Regarding this week’s Finance Meeting, the proposed tax increase has now edged up to 3.81% for the 2015-16 school year. Should this tax increase be approved, it will mark the eleventh year in a row that residents have seen their taxes go up — you would have to go back a decade to 2004-05 to find the last time that there was no real estate tax increase. Is this really the best time to spend $4-5 million for a maintenance & storage building?

There were a number of school board candidates at the Finance Meeting, it would be interesting to know their thoughts about the proposed budget. There was a brief mention about the District’s food service budget and something about a $400K loss but … that the department really didn’t have a loss but actually had a profit! I have no idea what this is about — is the District practicing a form of ‘new math’?  Perhaps my friend Ray Clarke can enlighten us!

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Update: Neal Colligan sent the following email to the T/E School Board Thursday evening regarding the District’s proposed Maintenance & Storage Building and provided a copy for posting on Community Matters.

Dear School Board,

Apologizes for not being able to join you at the Facilities Meeting tomorrow. I did want to take this opportunity to give you some thoughts on your maintenance building that you will be discussing tomorrow.

Much has been said on that project and I see know need to go into its history… You’ll already have reviews all that.  The choice you may make tomorrow is to recommend a contract for the construction of this 14,000 SF facility that has been in the planning stage for so long. At the last Facilities meeting, the revised estimate for the construction of the building is almost $4 MM. After you add the cost of land acquisition, planning and architects, legal, and other sunk costs… This facility could well coat almost $5 MM. On a price per square foot basis, this gets pretty close to $300/SF.

I work financing commercial real estate and I’d like to share some insights.  In a commercial loan scenario, a lender would give you only a portion of the value of a piece of real estate (typically 65-75%). This discipline is adhered to for obvious reasons..,. The lender would like to get paid back.  If they don’t get paid back frontmen owner, they’d like to see their way to get their money back through taking the real estate back and selling it. Why is the germane?  You’re a not for profit building for your own needs. Here’s why the above is important:  you are borrower inc the money. Further you’re borrowing it on the back of the taxpayers. You just completed a large bond offering.  You have a AAA rating based primarily on the ability of the citizens of our community to pay taxes. Indeed, WE; the taxpayer, are the security for this loan.

As THE security for your bond issue, I would appreciate it if you would apply the same discipline that you would see from a normal commercial real estate deal. If you had that building appraised… You would find out it’s worth about $1 MM. Don’t believe that?  Find out…have it appraised OR ask Tripp Lukens on the Planning Board…. He’s a commercial appraiser and would be happy to speak on value, likely for no charge. At least investigate it…please don’t pay 4x value for a non-strategic asset (one where no learning takes place).

I know you’ve spent considerable time on THIS plan but now it’s costs have far out-stripped it’s utility/value….my opinion. And my opinion should matter; I guaranteed the bond issue by being a citizen of this community. You should not pay anywhere near the amounts recently released by Facility for this asset. There ARE other alternatives….lease/buy an older building/etc. At $4-$5 MM of money borrowed on the credit of this community; you must go look at new alternatives.

Thank you-and I apologize for any miss-spellings; writing on my handheld without glasses.

Neal Colligan

Questions continue regarding VF Middle School fencing — still no resolution!

No FencingThe TE School Board approved the 2015 graduating class of Conestoga HS at Wednesday, May 27  school board meeting.  Commencement will take place on June 2, 7 PM at Villanova University.

Although the infamous Valley Forge Middle School fencing project was not on the Board’s agenda, Green Hills (Chesterbrook) resident Doug Anestad utilized the public comment period with a list of questions to the Board.  His statement and questions –

Doug Anestad, Green Hills

First, I would like to say congratulations to the class of 2015.

This school board has heard from many residents both in person an in email about the proposed fencing project. Not one person has spoken out in support of the fencing project.

Here is my first question

How can the school board continue to hear from the residents in person, in email, and in the voting booths and continue to be deaf to them?

My second question is how many emails have you received so far from residents in the past couple of weeks asking you to stop the fencing project.

I would like to conclude with an observation

The residents in TE Region 2 are really starting to get upset with the under representation that we have on this school board. TE Region 2 has almost as many people living in it as TE Regions 1 and 3 combined. That means that we have half the representation per person.

Perhaps this is why you feel that you can keep shoving this fence project down the throats of the parents of students and residents who live here.

This situation feels like TE Region 1 and 3 coming in like a bunch of carpetbaggers and ignoring the opinions of the people in TE Region 2.

Here is my third and last question

How many more residents do you need to hear from before you halt the current fencing plan and reconsider the scope and placement of proposed fences, this time with actual community input?

I will conclude with the same request that I made at the last school board meeting. I would really like for someone on the board to please make a motion to table the fencing project for further cost benefit analysis and someone else second that motion.

While you are at it, it would be likewise helpful to have someone make a motion to table the new facilities building until a cost benefit analysis is done. That is another project where the school board needs to step in and give guidance as it is running way over the original budget.

Thank you.

For the record, Doug Anestad reports that not one Board member answered any of his questions. Why doesn’t the Board respond to resident questions?

For example, all emails addressed to the school board filter through the Public Information Officer Art McDonnell, who then in turn forward them to the individual Board members. There is no question that residents have contacted the Board with their opposition to school fencing and the use of taxpayer money for fencing.  I have heard from several residents who tell me that they have sent emails regarding the fencing but received no response from the District.  Resident’s emails to the Board are private but there is no reason that the ‘number’ of emails received on an issue is not public.  Not every resident question should require him or her to file a right-to-know with the District to receive an answer!

Doug Anestad is the frustrated District taxpayer who mailed (at his expense) an anti-school fencing postcard (below) to all residents residing in TE School District Region 2.   Timed to arrive days before Primary Election Day, Doug suggested that voters support Michele Burger (D) and Ed Sweeney (R) versus incumbent school board president Kris Graham (R) for the two Board openings.

No one can say if it was the power of Anestad’s campaign strategy or simply coincidental but the election results had Burger and Sweeney receiving the highest number of votes with Graham in third place.

Stop Spending pg 1

Stop Spending pg 2

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Anestad is representative of a growing concern on a number of issues, including the District’s use of taxpayer dollars for fencing projects and an overpriced maintenance building while continuing to raise taxes. The overall lack of public input and communication between the Board and the residents seems to be the core of the problem.

Regarding the VF Middle School fence project, residents have received mixed messages from Board members resulting in a ‘he said-she said’ conflict rather than resolution.  If the debate continues over District spending on fencing and the multi-million dollar maintenance building, the November election results may not be what School Board President Kris Graham wants.

Discussion regarding the school fencing project and the District’s $4 million++ maintenance (“Taj Mahal”) building will continue at the Friday, June 12 Facilities Committee meeting.  It is my understanding that if the committee does not reach consensus, the issues go to the full Board on Monday, June 15.

T/E School District to Build the ‘Taj Mahal’ or … Otherwise Known as the New ‘Maintenance & Storage Building’!

The school district’s planned maintenance and storage building on Old Lancaster Avenue, next to TE Middle School, has mushroomed into a major multi-million dollar project!

The District’s plan is to demolish and replace the existing maintenance and storage building on the site with a new 12,000 square ft. building with 29 parking spaces.  If you recall, the District purchase purchased an adjacent property, 892 Old Lancaster Avenue in August 2012, for $265K and paid to have the house demolished to have it in the ready for the new maintenance building.

According to the District’s ‘Capital Sources & Usage Report’ in October 2013, the estimated building costs for the new maintenance and storage building was $2.7 million. During 2014, the proposed construction cost escalated another $500K to and an estimate of $3,177,500.  Fast-forward to the last District Facilities Meeting and the Taj Mahal (sorry maintenance and storage building) construction estimates has soared again.  The new estimate for the building is $3,966 … nearly $4 million to store tractors, snowplows and extra paper towels. Wow.

Why the significant increase? In two years, the building costs have escalated from $2.7 to $4 million!  According to the Facilities Committee documents, some of the additional costs of the nearly $1 million increase is for site work, including the mitigation of unsuitable soil.  Soil testing has revealed that the soil on the site is fill.  Up to 8 feet of soil has to be removed and then replaced in one foot ‘lifts’, each one being compacted.

Other reasons for the increase are related to the final design of the storm water system (particularly given that this large building is going in to a residential neighborhood), the replacement of the retaining wall, final design of foundations, and landscaping.

It really is inaccurate to say that the District’s new maintenance and storage building is a $4 million project.  You have to add in the purchase of the neighbor’s property, District studies, township fees, geotechnical soil survey, traffic study, Chester Valley engineering, legal and architectural fees, etc. etc. which make the final cost more likely $5 million than the current estimate of $4 million!

The Facilities Committee documents also contained the following language concerning the maintenance and storage building:

As we develop the construction documents, we will continue to make the building as economical as possible. But the scope of the site development is established.  In our experience Becker & Frondorf is a conservative estimator, so we would expect some movement in the number, but I do not expect a significant reduction.

For anyone that has been involved in a construction project of even the smallest scope, there’s never a ‘reduction’ from the original estimate.  From personal experience, construction projects always end up with unexpected ‘add-ons’!

In a comment from Ray Clarke on the subject of the maintenance and storage building, he states, “That $4 million purchases 11,600 square feet ground level, 3,300 square feet “mezzanine”:  $270 per square foot cost.  Google tells me “a typical 20,000-square-foot warehouse will cost you about $35 a square foot”.    How, or rather ‘why’ should the school board allocate $270/square foot cost if a typical warehouse space should cost $35/square ft.  Even if Ray’s Google search is off by an order of magnitude, how can this building cost this much money!

The District’s planned Taj Mahal of a maintenance building is on Tredyffrin Township’s Planning Comission’s agenda tomorrow night for Final Land Development approval. The meeting is at the township building at 7 PM. On May 7, the District released a RFP requesting sealed bids for the new maintenance and storage building listing a deadline of 1 PM on Friday, June 5.  If all goes well at the Planning Commission meeting, my guess is that this project is on a fast track for a summer start date!

How can the District possibly afford a $5 million maintenance and storage building? Seriously, spending $5 million on a maintenance building does not benefit the kids or the quality of the education in the school district. Taxes go up year after year, yet the Board tells us that they are continuing to look at ways to reduce spending.  If that is true, why not look at other solutions to the District’s storage problem that don’t include spending mega-million dollars for a maintenance building.

The Board wants us to believe that they must outsource the aides and paraeducators because the District cannot afford to pay health care but … somehow; there is money for a $5 million maintenance and storage building.  Anyone else but me think that there’s something wrong with this picture?

Sometimes Do Overs are possible …T/E School District Union Votes to Save Aides from Outsourcing!

What is the saying about no do-overs in life?  For approximately 25 non-instructional aides in the TE School District, they learned yesterday that do-overs are possible!

To the surprise of many, you may recall on April 30, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) voted against including the small group of “non-instructional” TESD aides into their union.  The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.

In the aftermath of the April 30 vote, some members of TENIG rallied behind their fellow District employees and mounted a campaign for another vote; a vote that would include absentee votes. The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast.  The election results are in and the TENIG vote count to include the 20+ District aides is 53 Yes – 13 No.  The results indicate an overwhelming majority of the TENIG union members want their fellow District employees!

With the District’s deadline of May 15 (tomorrow) to outsource the full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES, this news for the non-instructional aides could not come at a better time.  The saga of the District’s full-time aides and paraeducators and the threat of outsourcing have gone on for the last two years.

Faced with offering health care benefits to all District employees under Affordable Care Act or paying penalties for non-compliance, the School Board had made the decision earlier this year to outsource. The 73 full-time aides and paraeducators were given the option of either working for the outsourcing company to keep their full-time hours or reducing their hours to part-time (27.5 hr. and below) and remain a District employee.  The District employees had until May 15 to make their decision.

Although the outsourcing of the District’s full-time aides and paraeducators would have avoided the cost of providing health care and PSERS, the Board’s plan has a new wrinkle.  The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) provides for health care benefits for all employees working 25 hours or more per week and as District employees, they receive PSERS.  Approximately 25 of the District’s non-instructional aides destined for outsourcing now will have a new home in the TENIG and enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining group, which includes health care!

Although some steps remain in the process to formally add the non-instructional aides in to TENIG, the hard work has been done.  Congratulations to John Brooks, TENIG president and to the many TENIG members, who supported their fellow District employees, appreciated their value and fought to save their District jobs!

US News releases ‘Best High Schools in America’ list but where’s Conestoga High School?

Conestoga High SchoolEach year the US News and World Report releases ‘Best High Schools in America’ list of the top 500 public high school in America.  More than 21,000 public high schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia. Schools were awarded gold, silver or bronze medals based on their performance on state assessments and how well they prepare students for college.

Anxious to see how our award-winning high school compared with others based on the 2015 US News ranking criteria, I was very disappointed.  When I searched for Conestoga High School on the US News website, instead of a ranking number, I found the following for our high school:

  • Medal Awarded: None
  • National Rank: Unranked

Why is Conestoga High School not on the Best High Schools in America list?  

For several years, I have reported on the US News rankings and Conestoga’s standing in the state and nationally.  In 2012, Conestoga was ranked #3 in Pennsylvania and #279 nationally.  For 2013, Conestoga  was ranked #5 in Pennsylvania and #313 nationally and for 2014, Conestoga was ranked #5 in Pennsylvania and #341 nationally.  Radnor, Great Valley, Lower Merion, Unionville Chadds Ford high schools are all on US News 2015 ranking list for the state and nationally – so what happened to Conestoga High School?

US News standings of the top 10 high schools nationally:

  1. School for the Talented and Gifted (Dallas, TX)
  2. BASIS Scottsdale (Scottsdale, AZ)
  3. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (Alexandria, VA)
  4. Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science & Technology (Lawrenceville, GA)
  5. School of Science & Engineering Magnet (Dallas, TX)
  6. Carnegie Vanguard High School (Houston, TX)
  7. Academic Magnet High School (North Charleston, SC)
  8. University High School (Tolleson, AZ)
  9. Lamar Academy (McAllen, TX)
  10. Gilbert Classical Academy High School (Gilbert, AZ)

US News standings of the top 10 high schools in Pennsylvania:

  1. Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School (Philadelphia)
  2. New Hope-Solebury High School (New Hope)
  3. Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy (Erie)
  4. Upper St. Clair High School (Pittsburgh)
  5. Radnor High School (Radnor)
  6. Quaker Valley High School (Leetsdale)
  7. Great Valley High School (Malvern)
  8. Unionville High School (Kennett Square)
  9. Strath Haven High School (Wallingford)
  10. Mt. Lebanon High School (Pittsburgh)

There has been much discussion, including on Community Matters, in regards to the quality of our T/E school district.  Repeatedly, people have affirmed that the quality of our school district is helping to sustain our property values.  If that is correct, why shouldn’t TESD taxpayers expect the same ‘bragging rights’ as the other school districts?

Not that this answer will be OK for some of the District’s parents, but I think I know why Conestoga High School is not on US News Best High Schools in America list.  Similar to US News rankings, Newsweek does an annual ranking of the top 500 public high schools in America.  When Newsweek released their 2011 rankings Conestoga High School was not listed. As a result of questions on this topic, the District released a statement regarding Newsweek’s 2011 rankings, which read in part:

For the T/E community members who follow Newsweek magazine’s annual America’s Best High Schools story, you are aware that Conestoga High School (CHS) has been included in the list for the past several years, yet was absent from the list this year. Since the criteria Newsweek uses to determine rankings did not significantly change, we inquired about our status. We learned that Newsweek changed the way in which they collect data about high schools. Newsweek responded that they sent an email earlier in the year to all secondary schools requesting information. According to Newsweek, the email was sent to a CHS counselor. The counselor, however, reported that the email was not received. We subsequently sent our data to Newsweek, and were informed by the Newsweek staff that CHS would have ranked competitively based upon our students’ performance and Newsweek’s calculations.

In 2011, the local community was assured that the error would be corrected and that T/E would participate in the Newsweek high school survey going forward.  T/E has award-winning schools so there’s little doubt that Conestoga High School should have been on the 2015 rankings of best high schools.  So, I’m left wondering if the same thing happened four years later – was the District’s clerical error of 2011 repeated in 2015 and that US News did not receive the required ranking materials from TE School District?

TENIG Union votes against includingTE School District’s non-instructional aides — Why??

To the surprise of many, members of the Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) took a vote yesterday on whether to accept approximately 20 ‘non-instructional’ TESD aides into their union.  Falling close on the heels of Monday’s TESD meeting where the School Board voted to outsource the full-time jobs of 73 aides to CCRES (Chester County Regional Education Services), TENIG offer was seen by these aides as a lifeline to save some of the District jobs.

The bid to create a subset group within the TENIG union for the District’s non-instructional aides failed with a vote of 23-21. Although there are approximately 170+ TENIG employees, only 44 members attended the meeting to vote.  The collective bargaining rules require a simple majority — a vote of fifty percent plus one of the votes cast. With 44 TENIG members voting, the target number was 23 votes.  Unfortunately, for the small group of non-instructional aides, the 23 votes were against accepting them as new TENIG members.

If you recall, the TENIG collective bargaining members battled themselves against District outsourcing during the last couple of contract negotiation rounds. The current 3-year TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017) was settled under the threat of outsource vendor bids by the School Board.  To avoid outsourcing, the current TENIG contract required the custodians to accept a 2% salary reduction and give back one week of vacation. The other TENIG members (security, kitchen, maintenance and cafeteria) all received a 4% salary reduction but their vacation benefits remained intact.  For year 2 and 3 of the 3-year contract, TENIG employees received a freeze on their salary.

Ultimately, the TENIG contract saved the District $400K in healthcare, $207K with employee salary reduction and $207K with the custodian vacation giveback – a total savings of $719K to the District.

Under the current contract, the TENIG employees did not have to worry about outsourcing for the duration of their 3-year contract, which runs for another two years, until June 30, 2017.  So the question is, why did the TENIG members vote against their fellow employees yesterday?  After the Board’s vote at the Monday’s School Board meeting, the TENIG vote only added insult to injury to this small group of District employees.

Were the actions of TENIG employees just paranoia or a real fear of repercussion from the District? There is no doubt that some of the TENIG members were fearful of retaliation and either did not show up for yesterday’s vote or voted against the inclusion of the non-instructional aides into their collective bargaining unit.

TE School Board Votes to Outsource Aides & Paraeducators and Makes Records Public from Secret Executive Sessions

After two long years of battling to save their District jobs, it is now official – the TE School Board voted to outsource the jobs of 73 full-time aides and paraeducators to CCRES (Chester County Regional Educational Services).

In a School Board meeting that went until midnight, the School Board listened to a nearly endless stream of resident comments, which supported the aides and paraeducators, opposed the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project and those who called for Board transparency and public input on District matters.

There were many residents asking for the District to provide health care benefits but the Board was not moved by the appeals.  Kevin Buraks insisted that this was not a financial decision but that rather related to the District’s possible penalty of ACA compliance issues.  What is interesting is that the contract with CCRES includes the caveat that should CCRES be fined for ACA noncompliance, the penalty will be passed to the District (taxpayers).

When time finally came to vote to outsource the District’s aides and paras, School Board member Jim Bruce recused himself, for financial reasons – stating that he is on the CCRES Board of Directors, implying that this was a paid position.  (With an obvious conflict of interest, it is noted that Mr. Bruce has never recused himself from other previous CCRES-related issues and decisions).  During the outsourcing discussion, Liz Mercogliano stated her opposition on the issue but at the time of the vote, she abstained. Although she did not publically offer a reason, perhaps it is because her daughter is a part-time aide.  In a roll call vote, the other seven School Board members all voted for the CCRES as the vendor. The Republicans School Board members President Kris Graham, VP Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner, Peter Motel and Democratic School Board members Kevin Buraks, Karen Cruickshank and Scott Dorsey voted together in favor of outsourcing the full-time employees to CCRES.

At midnight last night, the District’s aides and paras received the following email notifying them of the outsourcing decision.

To All District Aides, Paraprofessionals and Paraeducators who work more than 27.5 hours per week:

This evening CCRES was approved as the vendor for aides and paras who choose to remain working more than 27.5 hours per week.  The vote occurred during the regularly scheduled meeting of the School Board of Directors. We understand that you may have many questions, so we will be setting up meetings with CCRES and District representatives in the very near future. We will notify you of those meeting dates and times later this week. The decision deadline has been extended to Friday, May 15.

Best regards,

Jeanne Pocalyko
Personnel Director

Related to the outsourcing decision, Neal Colligan was notified at 4 PM yesterday by Art McDonnell, the District’s Open Records Officer and Business Manager, that the School Board had approved the release of information from the five secret Executive Sessions regarding the discussion of the aides and paraeducator employment change and the Affordable Care Act.  Various related records from the secret meetings were made public and are now available on the District website at ACA/Support Materials .

At the School Board meeting, District Solicitor Ken Roos explained that the Board waived their attorney-client privilege by making the records public.  With this latest action of the  District, I assume that the School Board has decided against an appeal to the Chester County Court of Common Pleas in the case of Neal Colligan vs Tredyffrin-Easttown School District and that the matter goes no further.

TE School District Submits VFMS Fencing Permit Application … Tredyffrin Township Denies Request!

No FencingValley Forge Middle School fencing was not on the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors April 20th meeting, but many Chesterbrook residents attended the meeting and spoke against the TE School Board’s project.  The supervisors deferred all questions/comments to the township’s solicitor Vince Donohue for response who told audience members that the township would not get involved until the District made either a “permit request or there was a shovel in the ground”.  Chesterbrook residents left the meeting hoping for a more proactive approach by township officials.

The ‘wait and see’ township attitude was quickly tested when the School District submitted a permit request  for the Valley Forge Middle School fencing this past week.  The township’s Planning and Zoning Director Matt Bauman denied the permit request on the spot and in a letter to the School District, stated

“Please be advised that the permit is hereby denied.  The issuance of the permit would violate the terms of that certain Zoning Hearing Board Decision in Appeal Number 64-02 issued December 17, 2002.”

The School Board’s action attempted to violate the legal agreement between TESD and the Chesterbrook Civic Association. Without an amendment to the Special Exception granted by Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board in 2002, how does the School Board think that they can move forward with their planned fencing project at VFMS?

Unless something has changed in the last couple of days, there has been no movement on part of the School Board or the District to resolve the VFMS fencing situation directly with the Green Hills residents or with the Chesterbrook Civic Association.  As David Miller, president of CCA told us at the supervisors meeting, there has been no return of phone calls or emails to either himself or to the Green Hills and CCA attorneys from the School Board or their attorney David Falcone of Saul Ewing. Yet the District went ahead and made a permit application for the fencing!

I encourage Chesterbrook residents and Valley Forge Road neighbors to bring their chain link fencing opposition message to the TE School Board meeting on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School.  At some point, the School Board has to listen to those that they were elected to serve.

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