Tredyffrin Easttown School District

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

TE School District Business Manager Pleads Guilty to DUI, Sentencing Set for January

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District business manager has pled guilty to driving under the influence.

Chester County court documents say 51-year-old Arthur McDonnell of Chester Springs was charged with a DUI and other traffic violations, including careless driving, failure to notify police of accident, injury or death, failure to notify police of accident or damage to vehicle and high alcohol level stemming from an incident on July 13, 2014 in West Vincent Township, Chester County.

Arthur McDonnell is the current business manager for Tredyffrin Easttown School District.

On September 25, two of the charges against McDonnell – failure to notify police of accident, injury or death and failure to notify police of accident or damage to vehicle were withdrawn; the case was waived for Lower Court and moved to Chester County Court of Common Pleas. According to court documents, Chester County Deputy District Attorney Carlos Alberto Barraza and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Davis are representing the Commonwealth in the case.

McDonnell was formally arraigned on October 16 before Chester County Court of Pleas Judge Jacqueline Cody.  He was scheduled to appear in Court of Common Pleas in West Chester at 9:30 AM on December 15.

On December 15, with Judge Cody presiding, McDonnell entered a guilty plea to the most serious charge, PA statute 75§ 3802 (b) DUI High Rate Alcohol (BAC .10 to .16) and the careless driving charge was withdrawn.

Sentencing (IPP consideration*) in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v Arthur McDonnell is scheduled for January 22, 2015, 1:30 PM at the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, Courtroom 7, with Judge Jacqueline Cody presiding.

As a concerned taxpayer, I have followed McDonnell’s case for five months, since his arrest in July. Because of McDonnell’s important financial position with the TE School District, I sent an email to each of the TE School Board directors on December 1 to voice my concerns. To date, there has been no response to my email or public statement from the School Board regarding McDonnell’s arrest, subsequent guilty plea or upcoming sentencing.

——————————————————————————————————————

*IPP Intermediate Punishment Program

Shire moving Chesterbrook headquarters to Boston – 500 employees expected to leave Tredyffrin

Office Chair with a Box of SuppliesSadly, we learned this morning in Joe DiStefano’s Philadelphia Inquirer column that one of Tredyffrin Township’s largest employers is moving the company headquarters from Chesterbrook to Boston.

In the Fall of 2012, Shire announced a decision to build a new large office complex on Trammel Crow property at the intersection of Rt. 29 and Yellow Springs Road, moving their 1,500 employees out of Tredyffrin to neighboring East Whiteland.  Shire’s decision to relocate meant the vacancy of four large corporate buildings in Chesterbrook.

However, in May 2013, Shire reversed their decision to move their headquarters from Chesterbrook.  After analyzing its ‘global footprint and its real estate presence’, Shire’s new CEO Dr. Flemming Ornskov, concluded, “We feel fine where we are.”

However, eighteen months later, comes today’s announcement that Shire’s headquarters will not only leave the Philadelphia area, it will move to Massachusetts.  What is curious is the same Dr. Ornskov, now says, he prefers Boston (he has a graduate degree from Harvard) and a Shire spokesperson says, “Our strategy is to become a leading biotechnology company, and Boston is a biotech center”.

Mixed messages from Dr. Ornskov to his employees!  If the move had been a relocation to East Whiteland, as was his plan originally, Shire employees would have probably have retained their local jobs and their homes (many of whom no doubt are Tredyffrin residents with children in the TE School District).  Just when the Shire employees thought that they were staying put in the Chesterbrook location, they receive today’s relocation announcement.  According to DiStefano’s article, more than half of the Chesterbrook employees will make the move, “Shire plans to move 500 staff — executives, research and development staff and the gastrointestinal, internal medicine and neuroscience business groups — to Lexington, Mass., near the company’s infectious-disease unit.”

Shire plans to start moving its employees in phases, starting in the first quarter of 2015, with completion by the first quarter of 2016. The TE School District has forecasted a potential increase in student enrollment from current township development projects and has held discussion on how the District will meet the increase.  Inasmuch as the school board discusses potential increase in enrollment from District development projects, will they likewise discuss how the relocation of 500 Shire families out of the community may potentially decrease the District’s enrollment.

Multi-million T/E budget surplus (again) – $12.4 million surplus in 4 years! Property tax increases for 10 years in a row and still no health insurance for aides/paras!

budget surplusIn spite of $12.4 million in budget surplus the last four years, TESD residents have seen yearly tax increase and yet sadly, the District still does not provide health insurance coverage to their aides and paras.

I have regularly attended school board meetings and associated finance meetings the last 4 years and I have been amazed at the yearly District budget surplus. This week at the Finance Committee meeting, we learned that once again, the District has a multi-million budget surplus – yes, a review of the 2013-14 budget indicates a surplus of $2.2 million.

Thought it would be interesting to review the District’s budget surplus for the last four years. The surplus schedule is as follows:

2013-14: $2.2 million
2012-13: $5.0 million
2011-12: $3.9 million
2010-11: $1.3 million
Total: $12.4 million

Where exactly does the budget surplus go each year? We know that it does not go the cost to providing healthcare to all District employees. The aides and paras remain without health insurance, the residents continue to receive yearly tax increases and the surplus feeds the ever-increasing District’s fund balance. According to the District, as of July 1, the fund balance has grown to $32 million! Remember, the fund balance growth represents surplus from the District’s yearly budget. It would be surprising if this isn’t the largest fund balance of any school district in the state.

I truly struggle to understand how the District manages to add multi-million dollar budget surplus to the fund balance over the years but the residents continue to feel the sting of an annual tax increase. I recall the District’s business manager Art McDonnell’s explanation of the whopping $5 million surplus last year – primarily due to reduced health insurance premium costs for employees. Clearly, last year was not a fluke when you review the mega-millions in budget surplus over the years.

It would be easier to accept the yearly budget surplus if we did not also have a tax increase each year. In fact, you would have to go back a decade to 2004-05 to find the last time that there was no increase. A review of the District yearly tax increase since the last no-tax year is as follows:

• 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

Where exactly does the budget surplus go each year? (We know that it does not go the cost to providing affordable healthcare to all District employees.) The aides and paras remain without health insurance, the residents continue to receive yearly tax increases and the surplus feeds the District’s ever-increasing fund balance. According to the District, as of July 1, the fund balance has grown to $32+ million! Remember, the fund balance growth represents surplus from the District’s yearly budget. TESD’s fund balance could well represent the largest in the state.

I fully understand the impact of the pension crisis and that unless there is reform; all Pennsylvania school districts are going to fall over the cliff in the near future due to the ballooning costs. I do understand that the District must protect resources for the pension crisis but at what cost to the residents?

Other items of interest from the Finance Committee meeting included responses to Ray Clarke’s questions. By now, most of you have probably heard about the 24 Dell computers fraudulently purchased by someone using the District’s Dell account. This matter is an ongoing police investigation. Ray asked about the District’s ‘purchase process’ and Dr. Waters confirmed that it was actually the internal District controls that uncovered the purchase and there was no financial loss as a result.

Ray referenced Unionville Chadds Ford School District’s receipt of $582K in state grants for construction costs and asked if similar funding was possible for the District’s classroom expansions. Ray’s suggestion sadly was dismissed as requiring too much work for the benefit.

Ray’s comment to me regarding the 2013-14 audit is as follows:

The audited financials showed revenue of $112.9 million, expenses of $110.75 million, for a surplus of $2.15 million, compared to the budgeted deficit (before contingencies) of $1.7 million. Fully one third of the favorable variance to budget ($1.325 million of the $3.9 million) came from “breakage” – the replacement of retiring staff and approved leaves with lower cost staff. This is entirely predictable and we’ve asked for it to be included at budget time for the past several years, but every year the request is ignored and the property tax increase is 30% more than it need be, all other things being equal. There is now $31.7 million of taxpayer money squirreled away in the General Fund Balance and that’s after a $10 million transfer to the Capital Fund a couple of years ago. Perhaps since next year is an election year the Board might turn up their hearing aids.

It continues to be a struggle for residents to receive clear explanations. Materials provided often only offer partial information with many of the suggestions/questions of residents at the Finance Committee meeting dismissed or deferred. No argument that T/E School District is a great school district as all the school rankings indicate —  but is the price for the District’s success no public input allowed?

———————————————————

I attended Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors meeting in the last week, and the preliminary 2015 township budget was reviewed and discussed. In addition, the supervisors held a Budget Workshop this week.  The differences between school district and the administration and the supervisors, township manager and  staff are striking.  The next Community Matters post will provide an update.

Congratulations TE School District — Ranked 3rd in the Country!

Congratulations TE School District!  ‘Niche’ which measures neighborhoods and cities for livability, compares k-12 schools and reviews over 8,000 colleges and universities has released their 2015 national school district rankings..  The Niche K-12″ report, which compares 120,000 k-12 schools has been released. For those interested in rankings, Tredyffrin-Easttown School District was listed as third in the country and first in the state.

Here’s Niche’s ranking of the ‘Top 10′ school districts in the country:

  • Edgemont School District — Edgemont, New York
  • Jericho Union Free School District — Jericho, New York
  • Tredyffrin/Easttown School District — Tredyffrin Township, Pennsylvania
  • Lower Merion School District — Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
  • Scarsdale Union Free School District — Scarsdale, New York
  • Great Neck School District — Great Neck, New York
  • Pittsford Central School District — Pittsford Town, NY
  • Rye City School District — Rye, New York
  • North Allegheny School District — Wexford, Pennsylvania
  • Chappaqua Central School District — Chappaqua, New York

In addition to TESD (3rd) and Lower Merion School District (4th) Unionville Chaddsford School District and Radnor Township School District also made Niche’s national ranking of school districts, coming in at 15th and 52nd places, respectfully. In addition to the school districts, Niche ranked the 14,000+ public high schools.  On the national ranking of individual high schools, Conestoga HS was listed as 26th in the country and first in the state.

Further information about Niche and their rankings, can be found on their website, www.niche.com

TESD Agenda includes bonuses for administrators & 5-year contract for Business Manager; Tredyffrin Township Agenda includes new Finance Director and Police Department news

On Monday, there is a TE School Board meeting at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School. Rather than hitting the print button, I suggest that you read the agenda and accompanying materials online because it contains 450 pages.

On the fourth page of the agenda, under Section VII Other Recommended Action, these three items grabbed my attention.

A. 2014-2015 Supervisory and Confidential Employee Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments for 2-14-15 and June 2015 One Time Payment

B. 2014-2015 Administrator Compensation Plan, Compensation Adjustments and June 2015 One Time Payment

C. Business Manager Employee Agreement

In April, the School Board adopted a $120 million proposed final budget for the 2014-15 school year that includes a 3.2 percent tax increase. How is it that the District can increase our homeowner taxes for another year, but still manage to find available dollars for administrator and supervisor bonuses? Where is the fiscal watchdog looking out for the residents? (To find the current salaries and proposed bonuses on (A) and (B) in Section VII, you need to go to pgs. 435 and 436 of the agenda.)

Item (C) under Section VII, ‘Business Manager Employee Agreement’ refers to the proposed contract for Art McDonnell, the District’s current business manager. McDonnell’s salary for 2014-15 year is $163,220 although he is due to receive a one-time bonus of $1,632 as mentioned above.  Under his proposed employee agreement (see pgs. 438-441), McDonnell will enjoy a significant salary increase of $22,000/yr. or approximately an 14% yearly salary increase – if approved his salary becomes $185K/yr. rising to $186,632 with the addition of his bonus.

Under the position responsibilities in the proposed employee agreement, the terms state that McDonnell is “responsible for responding to all questions relating to the District business, financial and operation matters” and that he “will interpret the financial concerns of the District to the community”. Further responsibilities refer to an ‘Appendix A’, which is not included with the agenda – the business manager duties are vague and the job description without detail.

Setting aside the salary, the pending employee agreement for Art McDonnell includes very surprising job security, especially given current economic times – a whopping 5-year contract with automatic renewals for additional five-year terms. How does someone get this kind of deal these days?

The length of the District superintendent’s contract is 3-years so why should the business manager receive a five-year contract. Who negotiated this contract with McDonnell?  With the retirement of Dan Waters in June 2015, the replacement will inherit the business manager for the entire length of his or her superintendent contract.  Having just launched the search for a new Superintendent, why would the school board agree to a five-year contract for McDonnell?  Why would the Board want to force prospective superintendent candidates into this type of situation?

According to the proposed employee agreement, the District is required to give McDonnell 6 months’ notice if they want to terminate his contract; otherwise, his five-year contract rolls over with automatic five-year renewals.  (With an unsatisfactory evaluation, termination notice is reduced to 60 days). Gratefully, McDonnell’s contract was not included in the consent agenda.  Does this mean that the residents expect a Board discussion and explanation (rationale) for the terms of the proposed contract? Again, I ask who on the school board ‘negotiated’ this contract?  It looks to me like Art McDonnell asked for “the moon, the stars and the sun” in this contract and he’s likely to get it – where’s the fiscal responsibility?

Also on Monday night is the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors meeting, 7:30 PM at Township Building.  I found a couple of items interesting on the agenda

(1)  The appointment of Finance Director

(2) Approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (2015-2018) with the Tredyffrin Township Police Association (TTPA)

If you recall, within a two-week period between February 10 and 25 of this year, the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors terminated Public Works Director Scott Cannon without public discussion or comment and agreed to accept the resignation of Finance Director Tim Klarich, also without explanation. Klarich was Tredyffrin Township Finance Director for nearly 4 years. I always found his analysis and preparation of the yearly township budget detailed and complete and his monthly financial updates to the board unfailingly thorough.  There was uneasiness with the departure of these two department heads four months ago and Klarich departure was particularly unsettling. I look forward to the announcement of the appointment of the township’s new Finance Director.

As for the other agenda item of interest — the residents are aware that the Tredyffrin Township Police Department has been working with an officer deficit during the last several years. If you recall, the supervisors approved the spending of $49K for a Police Department study that concluded hiring of additional police officers was needed.  I am interested to see if the needs of the police department will be addressed in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Will chain link fencing around the elementary schools make them safer?

fencing 2Like every other school district in America, the TE School District began talking about school security after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy where a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children.  If you recall, the School Board hired former Tredyffrin Township Police Chief Andy Chambers as the District’s safety consultant. The School Board announced the formation of a District Safety Committee; members to include Chambers, District staff and residents. The District Safety Coordinator is Conestoga High School Assistant Principal Andy Phillips. Other than Chambers and Phillips, I am not certain who else is on the District Safety Committee and I could not find the information on the school district website.

Sandy Hook and other shootings have pushed the issue of school security into the limelight … we all want our kids to be safe. One of the security upgrades recommended by the Safety Committee to the Facilities Committee is the construction of 5-foot high chain link fencing around each of the District’s five elementary schools – Beaumont, New Eagle, Valley Forge, Hillside and Devon.  The Facilities Committee acted on the Safety Committee’s recommendation sending out request for proposals for the fence construction. The capital project contract for site fencing at the elementary schools was approved by the school board on February 24, 2014 and the contract was awarded to the low bidder New Holland Chain Link, LLC for $220K.

I have received emails and phone calls from parents and neighbors associated with New Eagle, Valley Forge and Hillside schools, all opposing the school board’s decision to construct the chain link fencing. And the TE School District planned fencing project was on the local ABC Philadelphia news last week with residents explaining their opposition.  I have to say that other than the school board, I have not heard anyone speak in favor of the 5-foot chain link fencing.  

Residents oppose the chain link fences for a variety of reasons. Some of the arguments opposing the fencing include:

  1. The planned fencing will make it more difficult for children to evacuate in emergencies. Concern that children could be trapped inside the school property because of the fencing and that the fencing could hamper emergency aid from entering the school property.
  2. A limited number of gates in the fencing are planned making it difficult for children, teachers and staff to exit during emergencies.  Gates are to be placed in the fencing only where walks now exist.
  3. The fencing is on three sides of the property but full access on the front.
  4. Residents are required to obtain a building permit for fences in Tredyffrin Township, did the District file the necessary forms?
  5. Five foot high fencing is not a deterrent, especially given it is only on three sides.
  6. Monetary cost to the taxpayers – $220K
  7. The fencing gives an institutional appears to the schools.
  8. Inconvenience, children who have safely walked to school will now (in some cases) be forced to take the bus because of the fencing.
  9. Complaints about the aesthetics, especially given that the elementary schools are located in residential areas; citing other school districts that have used wrought iron fencing (rather than chain link) so that it blends with the neighborhood.

Aside from aesthetics and inconvenience that the fencing may cause to residents, the real question that we need to have answered is, “Will the chain link fencing make the schools safer?”   Rather than simply stating that the Safety Committee recommends the 5-foot high chain link fencing, did the school board receive background and research to support the committee’s position?

An update on the elementary school fencing project will be provided at on Friday, June 13, 2 PM, TE Administration Building at the Facilities Committee meeting.  According to the agenda online, the District’s architect Tom Daley of Daley & Jalboot will present the update on the fencing project.

The school board approved the fencing the five elementary schools and signed a  $220K contract for this capital project.  Now the question is, will the residents have a voice in this decision or will the Board stand behind their decision?

Call for Internal Investigation: Interference in Collective Bargaining Process of T/E Aides and Paraeducators … Was a Crime Committed?

Not all is equal.  In the T/E School District, some workers enjoy equitable treatment and benefits while others do not.  This is the story about the aides and paraeducators, the District’s lowest paid employees, their collective bargaining efforts and the questionable behavior of those trying to derail the process.

Most of you reading this post will have no idea what I am talking about or what has been going on with the District’s aides and paras since January of this year.  My association with the aides and paras began last year with the District’s outsourcing threat over the Affordable Care Act and has continued during the collective bargaining process of the last five months.

At the request of Ruthann Waldie, UniServe representative for PSEA (Pennsylvania State Educational Association), I have not written about this matter until today.  Early on, Ruthann told me that the collective bargaining process for the TE aides and paras was ‘fragile’ and if the effort were to succeed she suggested that I not write about it on Community Matters.  I trusted her experienced wisdom and complied. However, during the last 72 hours, circumstances have dramatically changed that make it no longer possible to remain silent.

Before explaining the recent actions in the collective bargaining process, it is important to understand the timeline and review the details.

In 2013, after a very loud public outcry, the jobs of the District aides and paraeducators were saved from outsourcing – however, for only one year, the 2013-14 school year.  At that time, there was talk among some of the aides and paras about forming a collective bargaining unit but once the school board agreed not to outsource (and to keep their hours intact), the discussion on the subject lessened.  However, things heated up again when these employees received a threatening, demeaning memo from Sue Tiede, (the former TESD Personnel Director), in January of this year. Her communication established the 7-minute check-in and check-out policy for the aides and paras, and detailed the progressive discipline measures for violation, including suspension.

Tiede’s message represented a continuing trend of disrespect and intimidation directed at the aides and paras.  Growing concern returned about possible outsourcing and … with that concern, a sense of urgency among the aides and paras developed. Unfortunately, many of the aides and paras continue to feel undervalued and unappreciated by the administration and references such as ‘disposable’ by at least one school board member have done little to improve their morale.

Without representation by a collective bargaining group, the District’s aides and paras are powerless; their continued employment is solely at the mercy of the T/E School District’s Superintendent and School Board.  As a result, a small group of determined, dedicated aides and paras came together in early February to discuss options and plot a course of action to improve their working conditions.

According to Ruthann Waldie, PSEA representative, the aides and paras could not join the District’s teachers union because they were not considered ‘instructional’ employees. Furthermore, Ruthann explained that due to a law change five years ago, the aides and paras were prohibited from forming their own ‘new’ union when a qualifying union already existed. As explained, TENIG (Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group) the District’s qualifying union with non-instructional employees and therefore, the aides and paras would become part of that group.

Before the collective bargaining campaign was officially underway, I spoke with TENIG president, Mary Minicozzi to ask her opinion about adding the 176 District aides and paras to their union.  Her reaction was overwhelmingly supportive, stating that she was 110% in favor.  I invited her to attend the upcoming organizational meeting with all the District aides and paras and PSEA representatives. Mary confirmed that she would attend the meeting and that she would ask fellow TENIG members to also attend. However, something happened between that phone conversation and the organizational meeting a few days later. Mary did not attend the meeting nor did anyone else from TENIG attend. To my knowledge, she has had no further contact with any of the aides and paras since that point.

Over the course of the following four months, we learned through PSEA representatives, that Mary was no longer supporting the idea of the aides and paras joining TENIG, although it remained unclear as to why. However, the PSEA representatives continued to tell the aides and paras that it did not matter because the law required them to join TENIG.

The organizing campaign for the aides and paras continued to move forward. On February 21, the T/E School District and the School Board received official notification regarding the aides and paras interest in collective bargaining. Once notified of the organizing campaign, the PA Public Employee Relations Act 195 protected the aides and paras from any interference, threats, harassment, reprisals, etc. from the District during the process. (Or so we thought).

The T/E School Board hired solicitor Jeffrey Sultanik of Fox Rothschild, LLP to represent the District in the aides/paras collective bargaining process.  As an experienced labor relations attorney and school district contract negotiator, it is clear that Sultanik counseled school board members against interfering in any way with the aides and paras in the unionizing process. As their legal counsel, Sultanik would have explained the liability issues to the District if tampering occurred in the collective bargaining process.  Likewise, that same warning would have applied to all District administrators, including the superintendent.

Before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) in Harrisburg will schedule an election, there must be a suitable showing of interest by the employees in forming a union. PLRB requires a minimum of 30% of the effected bargaining unit employees to show interest by the signing of a ‘union assignment card’. The card does not indicate whether you would vote for or against a union – the signature simply signifies that you are in interested in moving the process forward and that you desire the appropriate local union (in this case the PSEA) to represent you for the purpose of collective bargaining. However, we learned that PSEA’s policy was to have at least 60% of the eligible employees sign the cards as an indicator of their commitment to the bargaining process.

As the campaign progressed, aides and paras from the eight District schools showed support for the collective bargaining process by signing the cards. (Due to years of intimidation and low morale issues in the District, the process however, was very slow.) In early May, after receiving 94 signed commitment cards, the PSEA representatives filed with the PA Labor Relations Board for an election for the aides and paras to join TENIG.

Upon approving the collective bargaining application, the PLRB was to set up a conference call between (1) the PSEA representatives, (2) the School District representatives and (3) the PA Labor Relations Board.  The purpose of the conference call determines all the rules and details around the election and sets the date for the actual election.

The aide and paras hoped that if the conference call occurred by early June, PLRB would schedule the election for before June 20, the last day of the 2013-14 school year. To vote in the election, you must be an eligible employee.  All 176 aides and paras are eligible to vote (whether they signed the commitment card or not). TENIG members are not eligible to vote. The PLRB requires that the union receive 50% + 1 votes of all employees who cast ballots. (Example: if only 10 eligible employees showed up to vote, the count needs to be six voting yes).

Unfortunately, the scheduled conference call between the Labor Relations Board, PSEA and the School District was delayed until June 18, which in turn pushed the election to September, after school starts. Although the aides and paras were disappointed to learn of the election delay, they had fought an uphill battle to come this far and remained committed to staying the course.

Then the unthinkable occurred this past Thursday, June 5 … the reason for this post.  A pre-selected group of 6-8 aides and paras received word in a PSEA conference call that their collective bargaining application would be withdrawn from the PA Labor Relations Board.  Why? Because Mary Minicozzi, president of TENIG, did not want the 176 aides and paras in her union. During the call, the PSEA representative further stated that the aides and paras would now need to start the campaign process all over again to form their ‘own’ union in the District.

By early Friday morning, as aides and paras learned the news, accusations of impropriety, collusion and tampering in the collective bargaining process began to surface. Interestingly, members of TENIG were also seeking answers.  Evidentially there was no official discussion with the TENIG members about the aides and the paras joining their union nor was a vote taken by the TENIG members. It would appear that the president of TENIG, Mary Minicozzi made this unilateral decision on her own to exclude the aides and paras from joining TENIG.  (Remember, this same individual personally told me four months before that she “110 percent supported” their inclusion!)

Many TENIG members have worked together with the aides and paras in the T/E School District for years.  The aides and the paras are their fellow District employees and TENIG workers know all too well, what it is like to be the target of the school districts’ outsourcing ax.  It seems highly unlikely that if the issue had come to a vote, that the TENIG members would have voted against including the aides and paras.  Why would they? Adding 176 more employees to TENIG would increase their collective bargaining group to over 300 members.

And let’s not forget that PSEA’s Ruthann Waldie told the aides and paras from the start that ‘legally’ they had to be in TENIG – as she explained, it was their only option.  She had further indicated that because it was the law, it did not matter whether TENIG wanted them or not.

The PA Labor Relations Board has already fielded calls from the District aides, paras and even TENIG members demanding answers – and some have already reached out to attorneys.

How is it possible that the TENIG president can control the future of 176 aides and paras in the T/E School District?   If Mary didn’t involve her fellow TENIG members in the decision-making process, exactly who was involved. I find it impossible to believe that she acted completely on her own.  It makes no sense — Why would you not include 176 additional workers in a union; adding the aides and paras would increase TENIG’s collective bargaining group to over 300 members strong!

We know that Mary’s decision was not based on an impending TENIG contract. If you recall, Mary signed a new TENIG contract in September 2013, 9 months before the existing contract was set to expire. The new 3-year TENIG contract begins July 1, 2014 and goes to June 30, 2017. I will not believe that Mary Minicozzi made this decision on her own – what did she have to gain? Was there a promise of something in exchange?

Why did Ruthann Waldie repeatedly tell the aides and paras that the law required them to join TENIG when this week the story changes and now are told they must form their own union? Things just don’t add up.  It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Somethings rotten in Denmark”.

Section 1201, Article XII, Unfair Practices of the Public Employee Relations Act states that public employers, their agents or representatives are prohibited from engaging in ‘unfair labor practices’. As defined by Public Employee Relations Act, unfair labor practices include a couple of relevant sections: (1) Interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights under Act 195 and (2) Dominating or interfering with the formation, existence or administration of an employee organization.

We know that interference has occurred in the collective bargaining process of the aides and paraeducators of the TE School District. At the ninth hour, the collective bargaining process was derailed. Why would anyone risk the legal ramifications of tampering with the process?  Who is involved and why?  Did the president of TENIG act alone or was she coerced? Did the Superintendent, the School Board or the District Solicitor know what was going on?

For the record, as of Friday, June 6, an attorney at the PA Labor Relations Board reported that the aides and paras collective bargaining file remains open and their application active.  By exposing the interference in the collective bargaining process, maybe there is a chance that this situation can ‘right itself’ and continue to move forward with the June 18 conference call and a September election to join TENIG. The District aides and paras have earned this right.

The T/E School Board has a fiduciary responsibility to those who have elected them to serve as advocates and stewards of our school district. I do not want to believe that any member of the School Board was involved nor had any knowledge of the derailment of the collective bargaining process of the aides and paras.  With accusations of interference, tampering, collusion, misconduct, etc. swirling, the Board needs to act quickly.  I suggest an internal examination to figure out ‘who’ knew ‘what’ and ‘when’. The PA Labor Relations Board may deem there is sufficient evidence to conduct their own investigation and if I were T/E School Board directors, I would want to be out in front of such an investigation not behind it.

Community Matters © 2015 Frontier Theme