Tredyffrin Easttown School District

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.

Victory for Government Transparency: Citizen wins Open Records Case against TE School District

Neal Colligan wins in Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case!

Between November 2014 and February 2015, School Board president Kris Graham called five special Executive Sessions to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators. These meetings were held out of the light of the public eye and without benefit of public deliberation. The meetings were not a harmless error but rather, a deliberate attempt to be secretive.

In early 2015, the Board continued to discuss outsourcing of 73 full-times aides and paras as a budget strategy. Then in a surprise move at the February 3, 2015 TESD meeting, the Board approved a resolution to change their employment status.

Citing on-going transparency concerns in School Board deliberations, a small group of citizens (Neal Colligan, Ray Clarke, Peggy Layden, Barbara Jackson, Jerry Henige and myself) sent a certified letter to the Board, appealing to them to reopen the outsourcing discussion and allow public commentary.

In a response on behalf of the School Board, the District Solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine claimed that no Sunshine Act violation had occurred and that the Board was in full compliance with public discussion. Beyond Roos’ dismissive and trivializing response, it remained clear to many, that the District had not provided adequate notice to the public regarding the proposed policy changes nor specific reasons for each of the five Executive Session discussions of the Affordable Care Act.

Advocating for government transparency, Neal Colligan filed a Right to Know request with the District for TESD records related to the secret Executive Sessions.  The RTK request was denied, with the District Solicitor stating that the records pertained to “labor relations strategy and predecisional deliberations” of the District.

On March 28, 2015, Colligan filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Docket No.: AP 2015-0442. News came yesterday from Harrisburg that Roos had lost the case for the District.  PA Office of Open Records (OOR) attorney Jill Wolfe notified Neal (and Roos, Supt. Dan Waters and TESD Open Records officer Art McDonnell) of the Final Determination. In the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District case, Neal’s appeal was granted and the District is required to provide all requested Affordable Care Act records from the secret Executive Sessions within 30 days.   (Click here to read the OOR Final Determination).

In their legal analysis of the case, the OOR cited SWB Yankees LLC v Wintermantel, 45 A.3d1029, 1041 (PA 2012), “the objective of the Right to Know Law … is to empower citizens by affording them access to information concerning the activities of their government.”  The analysis further offered that in Bowling v. Office of Open Records, 990 A.d813,824 (Pa.Commw.Ct20140) the open-government law is “designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials and make public officials accountable for their actions.”

Touting the secret meetings as legal, the School Board hid behind the legal advice of the solicitor by holding secret meetings on the Affordable Care Act and deliberations regarding the future of the aides and paraeducators.  Believing that that they were within their rights to hold such meetings, Board member and attorney Kevin Buraks responded to residents at TESD meeting that although this [secret meetings] wasn’t normally how the Board operated, they did so because it was a “strategic decision”. According to the Final Determination of the OOR, the information discussed at the “secret” meetings was not “secret” after all.

I have learned that subsequent to the Board’s February vote to change the employment status of the aides and paras, that School Board president Kris Graham barred her fellow school board member Liz Mercogliano from attending any of the five secret ACA meetings. This information is very troubling; Liz is an elected official and has the same rights as the other eight members. How could the District solicitor and other Board members sanction this behavior and not speak out?

It just is enormously frustrating that citizens can’t access records that are open and have to fight for records that the School Board should have provided. How much taxpayer money has been spent on fighting public records requests? The School Board should encourage public participation in the democratic process by minimizing secrecy in public affairs.  Addressing public questions shows us that you have nothing to hide and that as elected officials, that you support transparency and open government.

Through his Right-to-Know request and his open records appeal, Neal Colligan asked for transparency and easily accessible information that should be public information.  He was not looking to unearth government secrets … simply asking for public information.  After receiving the Final Determination from the Office of Open Records, Neal emailed the Board, which read in part:

The real question is what will happen now … You could elect to finally provide the public with the information used in your Executive Meeting discussions regarding the fate of the Para’s and Aides in the District.  This would be the right thing to do in your continuing efforts to be a transparent government organization.  You had your Solicitor argue the matter to the Open Records Committee and they decided you/he did not meet the burden of proof that these records should continue to be shielded from the public.  I encourage you to direct the appropriate parties to take action and release these records immediately …. and not after another 30 days.

If you do not make the choice above, you can continue to fight this citizen of the community by appealing the OOR decision to the Court of Common Pleas.  By choosing this path, you will continue to spend the taxpayer’s money in a continued effort to keep your Executive Session meetings regarding the paras and sides secret from the very community you were elected to serve.

How much taxpayer money has already been expended on legal maneuverings?  Do you want to continue this fight against the engaged citizens of your community by entering into the next level of legal action?  Who is in charge here/who is calling the shots?  We all await your reply.

As Neal says, we do await the Board’s response.  The outsourcing threat for the District’s aides and paraeducators has been omnipresent since 2013. Aides and paraeducators are the only group of District employees not covered by health insurance (and the only group of employees without collective bargaining status). Unfortunately, they have become the pawns of the School Board, the administration and the District solicitor causing some of us to question decisions of the Board’s leadership.  The Board voted in February to outsource full-time aides and paras yet no vendor selection as been made.  A decision is expected on Monday, April 27, 7:30 PM TE School Board meeting at Conestoga High School.

Will the Colligan v. Tredyffrin-Easttown School District outcome have an effect on the Board’s decisions regarding the District’s aides and paras? Was the School Board’s avoidance of ACA compliance and outsourcing of the District’s aides and paraeducators worth the price of an Open Records Law violation? Residents may never know the actual cost of the Board’s secret meetings or the District’s legal costs to keep public information from the public.

Tredyffrin BOS Meeting: Proposed Zoning Changes, Fee Schedule Agreement w/TESD, Wayne Glen Conditional Use Application, etc. etc.

The Board of Supervisors have a full agenda for tomorrow’s meeting at 7 PM. Following the regular supervisors meeting, the public hearing continues for the Arcadia/Wayne Glen conditional use application.

On the supervisors meeting agenda are a couple of important zoning proposals are announced for discussion at the May 21 Planning Commission meeting.  These proposed Zoning Text Amendments are substantial; and may significantly change a couple of areas of the township. Erickson Living is proposing an amendment to Tredyffrin Township’s PIP (Planned Industrial Park) district language to permit large campus-style communities of independent living, assisted living and nursing care at Atwater Corporate Park in the western Great Valley section.  A preliminary discussion of this project took place at last week’s Planning Commission meeting with township planning commissioners and Erickson Living representatives and their attorneys.

The other proposed Zoning Text Amendment petition is by Benson Companies, LLC to create a Historic/Conservation Cluster Overlay district  – this proposed zoning change is to be discussed at the May 21 meeting.  I attended a community homeowner meeting with Benson (no relation to me!) and saw his concept development plans (one plan is by-right and the other a cluster housing plan) that the developer has in mind for a 7+ acre site in Strafford.  Neither of these plans is acceptable in their present state for the historic property wedged between Homestead and West Valley Roads.  Many of the township’s most prized historic properties are located on these two roads, adjacent to this proposed development project, including eight homes that have been featured on the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust’s annual Historic House Tour.

Without question, I support preserving the township’s historic resources. However, any type of historic preservation zoning change must be thoughtful and carefully created … not designed to meet the ‘spot-zoning’ desires of a developer! More will be written on this topic and the proposed zoning change prior to May 21 Planning Commission.

Back to the agenda for the Supervisors Meeting – I am delighted to see the “Motion to approve staff to seek bids for repair/replacement of the front steps at the Township Municipal Complex”.  It’s about time!  The disrepair of the steps and walkway in front of the township building is deplorable and the condition has deteriorated for years.  Is it because the supervisors and township staff use the ‘back entrance’ that they don’t see what the public sees – It looks awful, not to mention the safety hazard!  I hope that there’s a timeline for repair along with this motion.

Another item on the agenda is the permit fee schedule between the township and TE School District. Given the planned school district construction projects (fencing, maintenance building, school additions, etc.) any agreement between the township and the school district should have significant discussion.  Ray Clarke is particularly interested in this agenda item and provided the following comments:

The current CM discussion about planning, zoning and permits for fencing in Chesterbrook and the Maintenance and Storage facility on Old Lancaster Road touches on an important matter that all Tredyffrin residents and taxpayers should be aware of before the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday.

At its March 23rd meeting, the School Board approved a Letter of Understanding with Easttown Township for a custom permit fee schedule – “$104 plus reimbursement of all associated time and material costs” for both renovation and new construction, but at the same time “permit fees for new construction projects shall be negotiated and agreed upon by the Township Manager and Superintendent”.  So that’s confusing, but anyway, the intent seems to be to give the School District a discounted rate.  The standard Easttown permit fee structure is generally $104 plus 2% of construction costs.

So now the Tredyffrin BOS agenda for Monday April 20th has the following agenda item: “Motion to approve the permit fee settlement agreement between Tredyffrin Township and Tredyffrin/Easttown School District”   

If this “settlement agreement” has the same form as the Eastown agreement, there are a number of questions beyond the confusing language.

  1.  All the TESD facilities are in Tredyffrin except for two elementary schools.  So a give-away that is immaterial for Easttown is significant for Tredyffrin.  We have seen the huge drain on resident and township time imposed by the District facilities.
  2.  “Time and materials” is usually code for variable direct costs; any agreement that included that language would leave all the management, HR, accounting, engineering, healthcare, pensions, information systems, vehicle, debt, etc. costs completely unreimbursed.  Permit fees should be set to cover full costs over the complete range of business cycles.
  3.  These expenses would be borne by the taxpayers of Tredyffrin to the benefit of the taxpayers of Easttown.  Every $1,000 discount means a transfer of $250 from Tredyffrin taxpayers, given the relative sizes of the tax base.  Moreover, that discount is at least six times more material to Tredyffrin, with its less than $20 million budget, than it is to TESD with its $124 million budget.
  4.  One third of those Tredyffrin taxpayers are commercial enterprises.  Patch just reported that Tredyffrin has just been lauded for its “overall business friendly tax environment”.  Does the Township want to discourage commercial developers by making them pay inflated permit fees to cover School district discounts?
  5.  Since permit fees are likely paid from the TESD Capital Fund (repaid over the life of the project), this subsidy is not only from one township to another, it’s from currentresidents tofutureresidents of that township.

Of course, we won’t know until Monday what this agreement actually contains, but it seems to me to be important for anyone concerned with keeping Tredyffrin’s value for both residents and businesses should attend Monday’s meeting, find out what’s being “settled and why the Township would entertain giving the School District special treatment, and then voice their opinion before any BOS vote.

It’s worth noting here that another agenda item is:

“Motion to adopt Resolution 2015-11 to approve paying agent to call the 2020- 2023 maturities of the 2009 General Obligation Bonds”

Once more we see prudent financial management from the Township to the benefit of taxpayers, paying down debt from fund balance and only borrowing against actual needs, such a contrast to the School District.  Which makes any agreement as an enabler of the unconstrained district spending all the more inexplicable – so let’s hope I’m jumping to conclusions.

2015 Pennsylvania School District Rankings based on PSSAs: Unionville Chadds Ford retains top spot, Radnor in 2nd and TE School District drops to 7th! Anti-Standardized testing movement gaining traction locally!

There is an opt-out movement against standardized testing in public schools playing out across the country. Opponents of the exams argue that too much time in public education is spent teaching to the test, stressing out students and teachers and detracting from real learning time. Locally, the anti-standardized testing is gaining traction among parents in Lower Merion, Radnor and Tredyffrin Easttown School Districts – just as the Pennsylvania school district PSSA standings for 2015 are released.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) formula ranks the school districts based on three years of state standardized test scores, giving the most weight to the current year. The PSSA is a standards-based assessment of what a student should know and be able to do at varying levels in reading, writing, science and math.  Reading and math is assessed in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11; writing is assessed in grades 5, 8 and 11 and science assessed in grades 4, 8 and 11. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which  students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud.   Proponents of standardized testing view PSSA scores as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provides useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and provide of measurement of how an overall class is performing. But some parents have chosen not to have their kids participate, claiming the tests cause undue stress for kids, and have no direct benefit.

The Pennsylvania school district’s PSSA rankings for 2015 are now available and reported in Pittsburgh Business Times. This is the fifth consecutive year that I have tracked the top 15 school districts in Pennsylvania as ranked by the PSSA results. Results reveal that Unionville Chadds Ford School  District (UCFSD) in Chester County is holding on to top placement.  The yellow highlighted line in the chart below indicates that T/E School District has fallen in PSSA rankings each year during the last five years.  The District was second in 2011, third in 2012, fourth in 2013, fifth place in 2014 and for 2015 dropped to seventh place in the PSSA rankings.

2015  2014   2013   2012   2011           School District (County)
8 4 1 1 1 Upper St. Clair (Allegheny)
5 2 2 5 6 Mt. Lebanon (Allegheny)
1 1 3 2 3 Unionville-Chadds Ford (Chester)
7 5 4 3 2 Tredyffrin-Easttown(Chester)
10 8 5 6 5 North Allegheny (Allegheny)
2 3 6 4 4 Radnor (Delaware)
4 6 7 7 9 Hampton Township (Allegheny)
3 7 8 10 12 South Fayette Township(Allegheny)
6 9 9 8 7 Lower Merion (Montgomery)
12 12 10 9 8 Central Bucks (Bucks)
9 10 11 13 15 Wallingford-Swarthmore (Delaware)
13 13 12 12 11 Fox Chapel Area  (Allegheny)
16 11 13 14 13 Great Valley (Chester)
15 15 14 11 11 Peters Township  (Washington)
11 14 15 19 19 Rose Tree Media (Delaware)

After UCFSD (Chester County) in the PSSA rankings, Radnor (Delaware County) moved up to second place, followed by South Fayette (Alleghany County) in third, Hampton Township (Alleghany County) in fourth, Mt. Lebanon (Alleghany County) in fifth and Lower Merion (Montgomery County) moved up from ninth to sixth.

Interesting to note that Radnor and Lower Merion School Districts advanced on the state-wide PSSA rankings; both districts ahead of TE, which dropped to seventh. The TE School District has continued a steady downward movement in the PSSA rankings during the same period that Radnor and Lower Merion school district improved their scores. The question is why are the PSSA rankings going down in TE rather than up. The only other local Chester County school district represented at the top of the PSSA rankings chart is the Great Valley School District, which dropped from eleventh to sixteenth in the 2015 list.

We know that Pennsylvania parents that oppose standardized testing is advancing. In 2012, only 260 Pennsylvania students opted out of the math and reading PSSAs.  In 2014, more than 1,000 of the 800,000+ eligible students opted not to take the tests according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It will be interesting to see if the PSSA rankings change substantially as the students opting out of the standardized testing increases.

Parents in TE School District have arranged for the screening of the documentary, “Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education” created by a Berks County teacher is scheduled for the Saturday Club in Wayne on April 27 at 7 PM.  According to the film’s website, its purpose is to “shed light on the invalid nature of these tests, the terrible consequences of high-stakes testing, and the big money that’s involved.”

Fencing at Valley Forge Middle School is on the move: Plan now includes a “Zig Zag Fence to No Where”.

Chain_Link_FenceThe TESD Facilities Committee meeting was held on Friday, April 10 at 2 PM.  Although the agenda was available on the TESD website for a week, there was no mention of the Valley Forge Middle School fencing project. With the ongoing fencing discussions with the District, township and residents, it was odd that there was to be no discussion of the matter.  When we showed up for the meeting, we were surprised to learn that the VFMS fencing project was added to the agenda. No one was notified of the last minute addition – not even the adjacent Green Hills property owners most affected, the “abutters”.

When I asked about the last minute change in the agenda and lack of notification, Facilities Chair Pete Motel referred my question to Art McDonnell for the “policy” answer.  According to McDonnell, the Board can change the agenda has much as they want and anytime they want – that’s the policy. McDonnell added that the District was not sure if they would have a statement on the fencing (and apparently only decided minutes before the start of the meeting!).

Interesting that with 7 of the 9 school board members and Supt. Dan Waters all in attendance at the Facilities Meeting that it is the Business Manager who describes the District’s policy. Why do we need to pay for a Superintendent (and we currently have two – Drs. Waters and Gusick) or elect a School Board, when we have a Business Manager making so many of the District’s decisions?

Pete Stanton, Green Hills resident and abutter to VFMS property, was in attendance at the meeting and provided the following comments. (Pete, is the one who suggested the ‘green line’ location for the fencing at VFMS – click here to see the map of the project with the green line indicated.)

The Facilities Committee met on Friday April 10 and offered a counter proposal for the VFMS fencing project. As an affected homeowner, I was pleased to see at least some concessions made, but, in reality, I think there is much left to be desired in the new proposal.

Here is the quick version of the new proposal:

-no fencing in front of abutting homes; Instead, 6 foot chain link following green line plan on upper fields.

  • 4 foot fencing all along VF Rd. by track up to Walker (fence on school side of current sidewalk)
  • 4 foot fencing running down VF Rd extending to northern border woods.
  • 4 foot fencing extending into woods at northern border, zig zagging through trees, ending at a residents outer property line, well within view of their home.
  • “enhanced signage” at locations TBD on or near the school borders. Facilities Committee will meet with Abutting households at date TBD to get input on these signs.

More importantly perhaps, there was much that wasn’t addressed by the new proposal. For example:

-nothing in writing or indication that the 2002 agreement between CCA and TESD would be amended to reflect the new TESD proposal.

-A connector path is not being planned on the upper field after the rest room kiosk that allows easy pedestrian access to the sidewalk along VF Rd. The Facilities Committee chairman has repeatedly said that they “reserve the right” to lock the gates at some point in the future during school hours. I think this locking will be done sooner than later without a new accommodation, which is what the new connector path (approx. 80 yards long by 4 foot wide) will provide.

-under the revised plan, the woods will definitely not be “Undisturbed” as expressly promised in the 2002 agreement … so this would be a violation of the agreement, unless an addendum to the Special Exception is agreed upon.

In my opinion, Tredyffrin Township needs to realize that what is being proposed is far from a satisfactory outcome for the residents of Green Hills and Chesterbrook. The Township needs to actively intervene and disallow any potential violation of the 2002 Special Exception.

It’s imperative that as many residents as possible go to the Tredyffrin Townships Supervisors meeting on April 20th to express the position to them that the School District has to honor the 2002 agreement. Again, this requires the School District to get in in front of the Zoning Hearing Board to get an amendment to the 2002 Special Exception agreement that my homeowners associations can agree to. Until such agreement is reached, this is still an active issue. Please encourage anyone else in Chesterbrook that you know to attend as well … it isn’t just a Green Hills issue; it’s an issue for all the residents.

Did the School Board actually think that the concession stated to a handful of people at a Facilities Committee meeting to move the fence was somehow going to end the debate?

The Facilities Chair Pete Motel continues to state and re-state that the District does not have to go before the township’s Zoning Hearing Board – that VFMS is District property and that they can do what they want with it.

Unlike the fencing at the other District schools, the fencing at VFMS is unique – the property consists of two parcels with different zoning and a legal agreement with the adjacent community.  The 2002 Special Exception by the Zoning Hearing Board set the parameters for TESD with Chesterbrook Civic Association and Green Hills Association – it would seem that any changes to that agreement would require review and updating.

This ‘new’ plan from the District does have the fencing out of the backyards of the abutters and moves the 6-foot fencing to behind the fields. (This will be the first 6-foot fencing at any of the eight schools.) However, the fencing will run the length of Valley Forge Road in front of the VFMS and into the woods that is shared with Green Hills.  Rather than ending the fencing at the woods, the fencing goes through the woods and will turn into the Chesterbrook community.  I asked if the District intended to take trees down in the woods – the response was no, that the fence would zig zag around the trees!  To be clear, the zig-zagging of the fencing will abruptly stop at the end of the woods at an abutter’s property line.  The fence will not connect to another section of fencing … the “fence to nowhere”.

If the handful of audience members who attended the Facilities Committee meeting are to believe what was stated – no further discussion is required with the township on the VFMS fencing, no approvals are required, no amendment to the 2002 Special Exception is needed. When asked if this decision to change the plans required a full TE School Board approval, the answer again was no.  In other words, the District can do whatever it wants at VFMS because the agreement was meaningless and implies that there are no deed-restrictions on the property.

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Tonight the District has a Finance Meeting (6:30 PM) and a Budget Workshop (7:30 PM) at Conestoga High School.  Click here for the agenda. Although the outsourcing vendors for the District’s aides and paras was on the last Finance Meeting a and the last School Board Meeting agendas, it does not appear on tonight’s agenda.

How are the 73 full-time aides and paras supposed to make a decision by May 1 on whether to go part-time (to remain a District employee) or go with an outsourcing company when they don’t know who the outsourcing company is or the benefits … ? 

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