Tredyffrin Easttown School District

Unionville-Chadds Ford School District Continues to Top Pennsylvania’s Rankings for PSSA Standardized Test Rankings  Whereas TE School District Drops to No. 7 on the List

At the TESD meeting on June 8, the public learned that in addition to a 2.6% tax increase and administration salary increases, the school board’s approval of the budget included the suspension of ERB testing for the 2020-21 school year.

Although the elimination of the ERB testing was cited as a budget strategy, its associated $85,000 price tag did little to move the budget dial. In addition, some school board members argued that the removal of the long-valued ERB testing was not a budget strategy but rather something that was previously discussed.

Arguments on both sides regarding standardized assessment testing (like ERBs) existed long before coronavirus, school closings and distance learning was part of the discussion. Proponents say that standardized testing is a fair and objective measure of student achievement – that the testing ensures that teachers and schools are accountable to taxpayers, and that the most relevant constituents – the parents, actually approve of testing. Opponents say that the tests are neither fair nor objective, stresses out the students and detracts from real learning time.

Faced with the uncertainty of school reopening during the continuing coronavirus crisis, it would seem that assessment testing would be essential in providing an objective view of student performance. The test results provide parents, school board and administrators insight into individual, grade-level, school and district student performance – a thermometer to check the effectiveness of curriculum and gather information on any learning gaps.

Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) is the annual standards-based assessment of what a student should know and be able to do at varying levels in reading, writing, science and math and identifies strengths and weakness of student achievement.  In the spring, PA Department of Education cancelled PSSA testing for the 2019-20 school year because of COVID-19.

For the last sixteen years, the Pittsburgh Business Times has analyzed the PSSA test data given to third through eighth graders and the Keystone exams to measure high school proficiency. The Business Times looks at performance on three years of state standardized tests taken by students and compiles its annual school rankings, which were released last week.

Between 2011 and 2014, I tracked the top 15 school districts in Pennsylvania as ranked by PSSA results. As indicated in the chart below, TESD dropped in the PSSA rankings each year during those four years. The District was second in 2011, third in 2012, fourth in 2013, fifth in 2014 and in seventh for 2015. Unionville Chadds Ford topped the list in 2014.

Although the data is missing for 2015-2017, I can now add the 2018, 2019 and 2020 standardized test ranking results (shown below) from Pittsburgh Business Times.

In comparing the two charts, it is remarkable to see that Unionville-Chadds Ford School District consistently remains at the top of the rankings. It makes you wonder what UCFSD is doing so differently than TESD?

The standing of TESD was seventh in 2014 (again unclear about 2015-2017), moved up to fourth in 2018 and 2019 but has slipped back to seventh in the latest results. The 2020 results show that Radnor School District slipped from second to third, Great Valley School District moved up to eleventh and Lower Merion School District remained the same at tenth.

To be clear, 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. However, the downward drop in TESD rankings on PSSA testing does makes you question if the ranking trend had anything to do with the District’s decision to eliminate ERB testing for 2020-21 school year. What’s that saying about “timing is everything”?

Could it be that the District knows more about the standardized testing report card than they are letting the parents and taxpayers know? Rather than viewing standardized testing as a helpful assessment tool and indicator of “need to improve” areas, perhaps the District would prefer to avoid the accountability that accompanies those test results.

It is apparent that many TESD parents differ with the District on assessment testing as a way to evaluate the teaching effectiveness and understand any learning gaps of their children, especially during COVID-19 and distance learning.  BUILD T/E has stepped forward, is offering an ERB testing option, and provides the following update:

Since the TESD school board voted to eliminate ERB-CTP testing for the 2020-21 school year, BUILD has had over 50 families with more than 70 children register to receive the registration information the BUILD’s ERB-CTP test. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive about this opportunity to ensure student learning is on track during this uncertain time. July testing dates will be released soon. If you are interested in signing up for testing or have more questions about ERB’s in TESD visit www.bit.ly/erbtesd

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TE School District – You Still Owe GEM Mechanical Services for Work Completed in August 2019! What does it take to Get Paid?

Last month I wrote about money owed GEM Mechanical Services, a TESD vendor for a boiler project work at Devon Elementary and Beaumont Elementary completed in August 2019.

Following my May 2020 post, the District paid $24K of the $36K balance and presented GEM with a punch list (nine months after the completion of the work); withholding the remaining $11,850.  Sean Gaffney, the VP of Construction at GEM quickly scheduled the punch list work and it was completed on the morning of Friday, May 29.  He has subsequently spent countless hours in an attempt to collect the debt from the District.

Each of the many follow-up emails from GEM regarding payment has included copies to the District’s business manager Art McDonnell and facilities supervisor Colm Kelly, its architects at Heckendorn Shiles (HSA), TESD School Board and myself. Although the work is long completed, no payment was received.

Where is the TE School Board on its follow-up? Just like me, they received these numerous payment requests from Gem Mechanical Services. Why doesn’t Michele Burger, the School Board president or Roberta Hotinski, School Board VP and Finance Chair respond to the situation?  Where is the TESD Superintendent Rich Gusick on this matter? According to the District’s “org” chart, Dr. Gusick is in charge of the District and Art McDonnell, the business manager reports to him not the other way around. And Dr. Gusick reports to the TESD School Board. The lack of resolution is wrong on so many levels — Why doesn’t someone direct the final payment to GEM Mechanical Services?

It is no surprise that low bidder turnout continues on District projects, which compromises the competitive bid process and ultimately hurts the taxpayers. Simply put, why should a vendor work in a school district where you struggle to be paid? Is it any wonder that there is decreasing interest in District projects?

The TESD taxpayers received a 2.6% tax increase and the business manager received a raise in the midst of high unemployment, small business failures and an uncertain future, yet the school district cannot pay its bills. 

Our collective voices should have mattered regarding the tax increase, elimination of ERB testing and salary increases but as we saw, it didn’t.  And now we learn that paying a vendor for services rendered is not important either — what’s it going to take?

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Ignoring Community Outcry, TE School Board Approves 2.6% Tax Increase, the Elimination of ERB Testing & Salary Increases to Administrators

The voices of Tredyffrin Easttown School District residents were unified in their message to the school board.  It took the District solicitor 1-1/2 hours to read into public record over sixty well-written, meaningful comments from residents and far less time for the School Board to ignore!

Resident comments focused on the District’s proposed 2020-21 budget, the proposed 2.6% tax increase, the elimination of the ERB testing as a cost-savings measure and the administrator raises. One lone resident supported the proposed budget; the remainder of the comments loudly and eloquently opposed.

To the many residents who spoke out during the 2020-21 budget process, thank you.  Your collective voices do matter but, sadly, not to the TE School Board.  Although technically the budget vote occurred during the meeting, it could have easily occurred before the meeting even started! Elected to serve the residents of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District, the Board remained unmoved by the outcry from the community.

At midnight, the School Board approved the 2020-21 budget (7-2) with a 2.6% tax increase – the largest increase permitted this year, marking the 16th straight year of tax increases to T/E residents.  The Business Manager and some on the Board actually had the audacity to mention that it was the lowest tax increase in years – the truth is that 2.6% is the maximum tax increase permitted by Act 1, making those remarks ridiculous!

I would be remiss if I did not salute TE School Board director Scott Dorsey, the only real voice for the community. From the start of the budget discussion in January, Rev. Dorsey declared his opposition to any tax increase. Again, last night he highlighted the additional suffering in the community due to the pandemic – the increased unemployment, the struggling small businesses, etc. but gained no support for a zero tax increase. We heard you Rev. Dorsey and your words mattered to this community.

Although the proposed budget materials clearly listed that ERB testing (and associated $85K cost) as a cost-savings strategy, several Board members argued that the elimination was not a strategy to save money. To the viewing public, the remarks were ridiculous (and untrue). Nonetheless, with the approval of the budget, the District eliminated ERBs for the 2020-21 year.

In part, my comment to the School Board read, “Eliminating ERB testing is eliminating accountability…”  It was no surprise to hear that TEEA (the District’s teacher union) supported the removal of ERB testing. There was much talk that that the elimination of the ERBs was for the 2020-21 school year only, leaving open the possibility of the testing to return the following year. If anyone believes that there is a remote chance that ERBs will reappear in future budgets, I think there’s a Brooklyn Bridge for sale.

Another consistent remark from residents was opposition to administration salary increases and bonuses for 2020-21, asking for fairness and shared sacrifice n the budget.  A number of residents cited the past failings of the Business Manager and called for his removal.  Not surprising there was no response from the School Board and Art McDonnell continues as the District’s Business Manager with a raise and bonus. All Administration, Supervisory and Confidential employees will receive salary increases for 2020-21.

Because of the Covid-19 crisis, we are all suffering.  Residents have lost their jobs, and every segment of our economy, including our local small businesses, are feeling the effects of the pandemic. Almost all of us are in worse financial shape and a tax increase under these conditions was wrong.

Our voices should have mattered — Shame on the TE School Board for ignoring the residents and shame on the School Board for approving the maximum tax increase of 2.6% and eliminating the ERBs.

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The Clock is Ticking Down to TESD Budget Vote, Monday, June 8:  Includes 2.6% Property Tax increase, Administration Salary Increases (Business Manager +3.1%) and Elimination of ERB Testing

T/E School Board votes on the 2020-21 final budget on Monday, June 8, 7:30 PM.  Due to Covid-19, the meeting is held virtually — to access the meeting visit the T/E School District website, www.tesd.net.

Last chance to have your voice heard as the clock ticks down – Send your public comment to the school board at virtualboardcomment@tesd.net If you sent a comment prior to the June 1 Finance Committee, I suggest that you send another comment! Comments must reference Priority Discussion topic Final Adoption of the 2020-21 Budget and must be received before 6 PM on Monday, June 8. Make sure you include your name and township of residence (Tredyffrin or Easttown).

As it now stands, the District budget includes a 2.6% tax increase – the largest increase permitted by Act 1 guideline. Should the School Board approve the 2020-21 budget with a tax increase, it will mark sixteen straight years of a tax increase to the District’s residents.  How does the School Board respond to raising property taxes to people who are losing their incomes?

At a time when residents have lost their jobs, and every segment of our economy, including our local small businesses, are feeling the effects of the pandemic, could the School Board at the very least ensure no increase in property taxes.  Most all of us are finding ourselves in worse financial shape — freezing property taxes for District residents should be more than a nice thought!

At the Finance Meeting on June 1 (click here for video), it was obvious that I was not alone in my concern about the proposed tax increase.  At the end of the meeting [and only stopping because of video time constraints] at least twenty-five resident comments were read — and all but a couple asked for no tax increase and/or no to the elimination of ERB testing.

To his credit, Scott Dorsey has remained a constant, the only school board director who echoed the words of residents and asked for a zero tax increase in the 2020-21 budget!  Thank you Rev. Dorsey for understanding that we are all suffering because of the Covid-19 crisis and that now is not the right time to raise our property taxes.   Two other board members, Michele Burger and Mary Garrett Itin, asked for a 2% tax increase with the remaining six members apparently in favor of a 2.6% tax increase.

As noted in the 2020-21 budget agenda materials (see pgs. 311- 314), the School Board will vote on salary increases and bonuses for the District’s administration, supervisory and confidential employees.  Thank you to resident Ray Clarke for providing commentary on the proposed employee increases:

Once again, the final fiscal year Board materials contain proposed salary increases and bonuses for Administration, Supervisory and Confidential employees.

And, as usual, there is no information provided to allow the Board to assess the appropriateness of the increases, and perhaps we now see the reason why.

Increases have moderated this year, but the increases for employees in all these categories still add $141,987 to the annual budget, moderated a little by the replacement of some Supervisory/Confidential personnel by lower paid employees.  The straight average of increases for personnel in place both last year and this is 2.25%.  Increases are mostly in the 2% to 2.5% range, with the maximum of the Act 1 Index 2.6% being received by a few.

Note that the total of Administration increases still exceeds the 1.7% stipulated in the Act 93 contract.  At a time when other school districts are freezing salaries, it seems unlikely that this exceptional increase is required by “the competitive job market”.

However, there is one exception to the Index limit, and that is listed only in the Employment Agreement section of the TESD website.  No increase comes close to Business Manager Art McDonnell’s 3.1% annual increase to $216,427/year, stipulated by contract, regardless of the Act 1 Index, inflation, or taxpayers’ ability to pay. This increase is worth $6,507, and amounts to 4.6% of all the salary increases.

These increases average at about $2,000 a year for Supervisory/confidential personnel and $3,500 for Administration.  I hope that the Board considers the appropriateness of these substantial additional payments at a time of such economic uncertainty.

Adding insult to the residents, who are struggling in the midst of an uncertain future and a proposed 2.6% tax increase, is that the School Board would consider salary increases that exceed the Act 93 contract for administration, supervisory and confidential employees.  And further, that TESD Business Manager Art McDonnell will receive the highest salary increase, +3.1%!

There are school districts in Pennsylvania that are freezing employee salaries as a cost-savings measure for 2020-21. Not only is TESD not freezing the salaries, the Board’s vote to approve will increase salaries above the contractual agreement. School Board, how is this possibly fair to the taxpayers?

The administration, supervisor and confidential employee increases will add $142K to the District 2020-21 budget with no discussion to freeze the salaries for one year. Yet on the other hand, the proposed budget includes the elimination of ERB testing to save $85K as a cost-savings measure. Budget savings should not come at a cost to our students!

A form of assessment to guide instruction and reading, ERB testing has been used in TESD for many years to measure students’ progress and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the District’s curriculum. TESD has no other tests that give grade level snapshots of students’ performance in reading and math – it is the only test of its kind!

ERBs are particularly important given the distance learning challenges faced by District families because of Covid-19. Parents need to know that their children are on track academically and many support the continuation of ERB testing as evidenced by the number of comments previously received by the District.

BUILD T/E, an advocacy organization in TESD for parents of children with learning differences, fully supports ERB testing in the District and opposes its elimination in the 2020-21 budget. Click here for BUILD’s latest blog post concerning the proposed elimination of ERBs in budget.

Do you have a comment for the School Board regarding the 2020-21 budget? Do you OPPOSE a 2.6% tax increase? Do you OPPOSE the elimination of ERB testing? Have a comment about employee salary increases in the proposed budget?

Send your comments to the School Board NOW — email the comments to Virtualboardcomment@tesd.net.  If you sent a comment prior to the June 1 Finance Committee meeting, I suggest that you send another comment!

Comments must reference Priority Discussion topic Final Adoption of the 2020-21 Budget and must be received before 6 PM on Monday, June 8. Make sure you include your name and township of residence (Tredyffrin or Easttown).

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In TESD, Say NO to 2.6% Tax Increase & Say NO To Eliminating ERB Testing in the 2020-21 Budget

There is a virtual TESD finance committee meeting tonight at 7 PM (click here for agenda).

Across the state, school districts are approving 2020-21 budgets with zero tax increase, why not TESD.  As it now stands, the District budget includes a 2.6% tax increase; the largest permitted by the Act 1 guideline. Should the school board move forward with this tax increase, it will mark the 16th straight year of a tax increase to the District’s residents!

School board, how can you raise property taxes to people who are losing their incomes?

The entire world has been turned upside down. Because of the Covid-19 crisis, we are all suffering; residents have lost their jobs, local businesses are “hanging on by their fingernails” and almost all of us are in worse financial shape. Now is not the right time to raise property taxes.

We understand that freezing property taxes at their current rate is challenging but now is not the time for a tax increase as our residents struggle in the midst of an uncertain future.  To avoid a tax increase in 2020-21 budgets, other PA school districts are utilizing a variety of savings solutions such as freezing wages for its employees for one year, scaling back or putting projects on hold or increasing its fund balance transfer amount.  What is TESD current fund balance … 40 million?

One of the cost savings contained in the proposed 2020-21 budget which I DO NOT support is to eliminate ERB CPT testing for a one year savings of $85,000.  A form of assessment to guide instruction and reading, ERB testing has been used in the District for many years to measure students’ progress.

With Covid-19 requiring the closure of schools and the launching of distance learning, ERB testing becomes MORE important as a consistent tool for families to review the progress of their children.  There has been much discussed about the District’s distance learning program during these last few months with the consensus not entirely positive, particularly in the lower grades.  Although it remains unclear what the TE schools will look like in September; there is a real possibility that some form of distance learning will need to continue.

Having the ability to measure the impact of Covid-19 on the District’s students is serious; making the ability to review and analyze the ERB testing data critical. With the continuance of distance learning a real possibility and to better prepare its students, now is not the time to eliminate ERB testing.  Budget savings should not come at a cost to our students.

In you OPPOSE a 2.6% tax increase and/or if you OPPOSE the elimination of ERB testing in the TESD 2020-21 budget, you need to act now. Please send your comments with your name and town to Virtualfinancecomment@tesd.net by 6 PM tonight.

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What Does it Take for a Vendor to Get Paid in T/E School District … GEM Mechanical Services Owed $36K+ for Work Completed in August 2019

About three weeks ago, I was contacted by Sean Gaffney, VP of construction at GEM Mechanical Services regarding TE School District Renovations Project PO 19102724 and an unpaid balance of $36,295 (of a $700K contract). The boiler project work at Devon Elementary School and Beaumont Elementary work was completed in August 2019.

Before reaching out to me, either Sean or other employees of GEM had sent 30+ emails to Heckendorn Shiles Architects and the District during the past nine months seeking payment. To date, the final payment for the work remains unpaid.

As a result, I sent three emails to the District’s business manager Art McDonnell (with copies to the school board and superintendent) inquiring about the final payment due GEM. Mr. McDonnell’s response to the first two emails was dismissive and unsatisfactory.  My third and final email on this subject received no response from the business manager.

I naively assumed that there was a simple explanation – a misunderstanding – and that TESD would send GEM Mechanical Services its final payment.  Unfortunately, promises of the “check is in the mail” remain unfulfilled. Other than for me to publicize the situation, it is unclear what else I can do to move the matter forward although legal options are available to the construction vendor.

From the time last August when GEM completed the boiler project, a punch list was requested and final payment sought.  Months went by and GEM was only very recently presented with a punch list (long past its legal due date), which included installation of gauges. It makes me wonder if this a tactic by the District to delay payment on a project by waiting nine months post-completion and then come up with a punch list?  And for what purpose – what’s the endgame?

Although Heckendorn Shiles placed an associated value of $7500 for the gauges on the punch list (and without explanation increased the value last week to $11,850), it does not explain why the District is withholding the remainder of the $36,295 final payment. It is my understanding that there are legal ramifications for withholding payment to a vendor for services rendered. In addition, the District will owe interest to GEM on the unpaid balance.

GEM Mechanical Services has worked in many neighboring school districts and the Philadelphia School District but this was the company’s first experience in TESD. And, according to Sean Gaffney, it will be the last. What is that saying, the “more you know, the more you wish you didn’t know”? In speaking with him, I have learned a lot about the reputation that the District has with construction vendors.

In an email last week to Heckendorn Shiles Architects and TESD, Sean Gaffney wrote the following,

GEM went above and beyond to complete your project on-time and the job has been completed for nearly a year…There were multiple project delays caused by existing and faulty equipment in Devon Elementary and asbestos in Beaumont that was uncovered and not included in the ACM reports. GEM is also due interest for TESD’s repeated late payments. All said, if HSA and TESD truly want to close out this project then they should consider releasing GEM’s final payment immediately and contact me to schedule one day for GEM to come out and complete the two remaining punch list items.

Have you ever wondered why there are so few vendors bidding the construction jobs in T/E? As Sean Gaffney says, “Some people at TESD want to continue to play by their own set of rules. GEM (and many others) will not bid construction projects for TESD”.

Based on GEM Mechanical Services’ experience, it is no wonder that there is decreasing vendor interest in working in TESD.  The low bidder turnout on TE School District projects compromises the competitive bid process; which is ultimately damaging to TESD taxpayers. For competitive bidding to work successfully, outside vendors need to feel confident that they will be treated fairly if hired by the TE School District.

In the TE School District, all roads lead “to” or “through” the business manager which I believe is a problem and indicative of a far greater issue. This is the same business manager who has yet to satisfactorily explain the $1.2 million accounting error. And these are the folks in charge of the $35 million high school expansion project!

In closing, I would be remiss not to remind TESD residents that the 2020-21 preliminary budget includes a property tax increase of 2.6% – in the midst of high unemployment, small business failures and an uncertain future! For the record, the school board approved the preliminary budget 8-1 (Scott Dorsey was the sole dissenting vote). The final vote on the 2020-21 budget is June 8.

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Contested Primary on April 28: Five Candidates (3 D’s & 2 R’s) on Ballot for Sen. Andy Dinniman’s Seat in 19th Senate District

Democratic State Senator Andy Dinniman is not seeking re-election, announcing his retirement a couple of weeks ago. The Senator has represented Chester County’s 19th Senate District since 2006 and we learned that he has endorsed Don Vymazal (D), his governmental relations advisor to succeed him.

Following the news of Sen Dinniman’s retirement on February 7, and subsequent endorsement of Vymazal, two other democrats added their names to the list of candidates seeking the position  … Rep. Carolyn Comitta, former two-term West Chester mayor and currently serving state representative of the 156th District and Kyle Boyer, a first-term member of the T/E School Board and chair of its Policy Committee. Whereas Vymazal received the endorsement of Sen. Dinniman for his seat, Rep. Comitta (D-156) received the endorsement of Gov. Wolf for the position.

At the Chester County Democratic Committee held a couple of weeks ago, Don Vymazal garnered the most votes and received the party’s endorsement.  The endorsement process requires a 65% threshold and voting was as followed:

First Ballot:
Carolyn Comitta – 25%
Kyle Boyer – 27 %
Don Vymazal – 47%
(Rep. Comitta Eliminated)

Second Ballot:
Kyle Boyer – 36 %
Don Vymazal – 63 %

Final Ballot:
Kyle Boyer – 31%
Don Vymazal — 69%

Once Chester County Democratic Committee make their endorsements, often times the other candidates will drop out of the race before the primary election. But not this time; both Boyer and Rep. Comitta are staying in the race for Chester County’s 19th Senate District and will appear on the April 28 primary ballot.

It should be noted that  incumbent Rep. Comitta (D-156) did receive Chester County Democratic Committee’s endorsement for state representative. My assumption is that should Comitta win the primary election as her party’s choice in both the senatorial race and the state representative race, she would need to make a choice.  I am not completely certain about how the process works, but presumably Rep. Comitta cannot be listed as a candidate for both races in the November general election.

After nearly thirty years in public office, replacing Sen. Dinniman is no easy task.  And given the number of important issues facing Chester County – education, pipelines, environment and land development, etc. – where  Sen. Dinniman has been front and center for the community, the selection of his replacement is all the more important.

For instance, as minority chair of PA State Education Committee, Sen. Dinniman has led various initiatives to ensure quality education programs and reduce the cost of education. Although he has championed many causes during his tenure as an elected official, advocating for our children and their education has remained a high priority.

As most of us know, T/E School District has recently received massive national (and international) attention regarding its policy decision that involved the police in the recent threat assessment of a kindergartner with Down Syndrome.  As soon as the matter surfaced, Sen. Dinniman weighed in with a lengthy letter to the T/E School Board, questioning how the threat policy is being carried out. Although his statement is now widely shared, the reading of the letter by an audience member was not permitted at the last Policy Committee meeting. (Click here to read Sen. Dinniman’s letter).

T/E School Board director and chair of its Policy Committee Kyle Boyer is a candidate for Dinniman’s senate seat. Should the school district’s threat assessment policy and the police involvement in the handling of the 6-year old with Down Syndrome impact Boyer’s chances in the primary election? For the record, T/E School District Policy 5401 Student Discipline remains under review by the school board.

In addition to the three democrats on the ballot for the contested 19th Senate District seat held by retiring Sen. Andy Dinniman are two republicans. Republicans Kevin Runey and Amber Little-Turner also filed petitions to run in the 19th district. Runey is in the healthcare industry and is a Supervisor in the London Grove Township. Little-Turner from Coatesville is a real estate investment professional.

With five candidates (three Ds and two Rs) vying for the seat of retiring Sen. Andy Dinniman, the contested primary race will be interesting.

In another local race, State Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D-157) is seeking reelection. Rep. Shusterman is running unopposed on her party’s ticket and has no counterpart on the Republican ballot for the April 28 primary election. In addition to Rep. Shusterman, the Chester County Democratic Committee also endorsed Tredyffrin Township resident Chrissy Houlahan, incumbent for the 6th Congressional District.

For further information on all the local candidates, please check their social media sites.

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With Major Headlines Across the Country — Should the TE School District Have Called the Police on a Special Needs Kindergartner?

The headlines about the kindergartner with Down Syndrome who was reported to the police for pointing a finger gun continue to roll in with no end in sight. There are countless articles in major newspapers, on network TV stations, Facebook groups, website and blogs on the issue all touting shock and disbelief that this has happened.

From the New York Daily News, Washington Post, Education Week, The Daily Mail (UK), ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN and on and on, including the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer today, the story of the 6-year-old Valley Forge Elementary School student has garnered much attention.

I have remained troubled since attending the school district policy meeting on February 4 and listened to Maggie and Mark Gaines, the parents of the special needs kindergartner caught in the middle of the debate, and to others referencing behavior problems that went unreported to the police. From school district parents, it is unclear which student behaviors constitute a requirement to “consult” with  police – the inconsistencies were glaring.

I simply do not understand how a middle school child can suffer a concussion at the hands of another student and there is no investigation from the school district yet on the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a special needs kindergartner who is reported to the police for pointing her finger like a gun.  If perceived “threats” require police involvement, then my question is what does it take to get attention for serious physical assaults in the District?

Was contacting the police the appropriate handling of a special needs child with specific behavioral issues? Late this afternoon, an editorial written by Dr. Kim Doan, a professor in the Special Education Department at West Chester University appeared in the Daily Local and helps answer that question.

A special education educator for 23+ years and a parent, Dr. Doan attended the TESD policy meeting and suggests that the District’s student behavior policy is in violation of Federal legislation,

The Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to individualize the education of children with special needs and that includes in discipline. A district policy cannot supersede federal legislation. Applying a policy in a “one size fits all” manner is tantamount to the violation of IDEA.

In assessing the student behavior policy of TESD, Dr. Doan states the following:

A policy, legislation, or assessment tool can be well written and thoughtfully designed but if the adults involved are not trained or consistent, then error is inevitable. Common sense should take precedence over all written policy. Let’s not criminalize our kindergartners before they’ve even learned their ABCs and 123s. The next time a similar event arises, consider the child for who he/she is as a whole person and think about why this little one made the statement to the teacher. We must remember that behavior is communication.

But rather than updating the student behavior policy to address special needs children as suggested by Dr. Doan, the school board is digging in its heels. At the policy meeting, all but two school board directors  (Scott Dorsey and Todd Kantorczyk) in attendance support the current policy, which includes reporting a six-year-old with Down Syndrome to the police.

Calling the police for a little kindergartner with Down Syndrome has become a public relations nightmare for the school district —  adverse media attention is problematic.  And touting the high performance test scores of our school district is not going to work this time; the problem is not going away. As the entire country (and beyond!) looks at the situation in disbelief, the District doubles down on the policy.

To be clear, the Valley Forge Elementary School teacher and the principal were doing their jobs when they called the police. The Tredyffrin Police in turn were doing their job. The problem is the District policy – we all want our children to be safe at school but the current policy goes too far.

Where does the school district go from here … ?

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State Senator “Andy” Dinniman (D-Chester) Announces Retirement, Endorses His Aide Don Vymazal

Late today we learned that state senator for Pennsylvania’s 19th District, “Andy” Dinniman (D) has announced his retirement.

A tireless champion for Chester County and its residents for thirty years, Senator Dinniman is a one of a kind.  He is everyone’s Senator. If you’ve ever observed him walk down the street. Or cross a crowded restaurant on his way to a table. Or appear at a parade or fair or other public gathering. The congenial legislator can’t make it more than a few steps without someone stopping him for a greeting, a friendly word or a handshake.

The news of the Senator’s retirement is bittersweet.  While I extend my best wishes for his much earned retirement, please know that you will be missed. Thank you for your many years of service and for making Chester County first but now is the time for your family. Best wishes for a speedy recovery for your wife.

According to www.politicspa.com, Senator Dinniman has endorsed Don Vymazal, his longtime Director of Government Relations and Policy, stating “Don, who is well-known in Phoenixville, is the most qualified, experienced, knowledgeable, and well-respected person to lead the 19th Senatorial District.” Vymazal experience includes 16+ years with the PA State Senate.

Vymazal will face a primary challenge from Kyle Boyer, first term TE School Board director. On Thursday, February 13, the Chester County Democratic Party will hold its endorsement meeting.

Below is Senator Dinniman’s announcement of retirement:

“For nearly 30 years, as your Chester County Commissioner and State Senator, I have had the privilege of building a close relationship with the people of Chester County. Now, I have a responsibility to explain why I will not be seeking reelection.

This was a very tough decision, especially knowing just how many of you have faithfully and tirelessly supported my work over the years. However, as I sit at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center with my wife, Margo, who is now recovering from surgery, we both came to the sudden realization this was not the time to run again.

Anyone who seeks public office understands that it’s a family decision. Despite enduring a series of health challenges in recent years, Margo has always supported me. Over 51 years of marriage, she always said “yes” when I wanted to run. Even after a three-month stay at the hospital and Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation, she remained my biggest cheerleader, my most astute advisor, my rock. I remember times during her long hospitalization that I would go to Harrisburg, come home to walk and feed the dog, and then head back to the hospital to spend the night at her bedside. Margo and I have faced some long days and tough battles together, but that is what a real, loving relationship is about — and it only gets better with time.

Even after all of this, Margo again, out of steadfast love and devotion, agreed to support my plans to run in this year’s election. But now it is my turn to be there for her and lovingly support her as we focus on her recovery from a procedure that will allow her to again walk freely and live without constant pain for the first time in years.

Again, as I write this, sitting beside my wife and family, I cannot help but be overwhelmed by feelings of both gratitude and hope. I cannot help but reflect on my own career and marriage and the idea that “love is love.” I have been blessed to not only serve as your representative, but even more so, to share my life and all it’s ups and downs with a strong, supportive, and committed partner who I love. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

In closing, please know that I will continue to work hard for you until the very last day of my term. And Margo thanks all of you for the cards and well wishes.”

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TE Policy Committee Update: Public Wants Answers from School Board About Police Record for 6-Year-Old & State Senator Andy Dinniman Weighs In

I attended the District’s Policy Meeting last night. For nearly two hours of public comment, it was remarkable as parent after parent spoke out – all on the topic of Policy 5401 student discipline and the need for clarification. Many of the comments and discussion centered on which student behavioral situations constitute a requirement to “consult” with  police. As an audience member, it appears to be much confusion as to how Policy 5401 was intended to work vs the reality of what actually happens. In addition, concern for the handling (or mishandling) of special needs children and their specific behavioral issues.

It was troubling to learn from parents that the District appears more focused on students who make threats (including the 6-year-old Down Syndrome kindergartner) versus the students involved in physical altercations. Threats appear to escalate quickly to the police level yet on the flip side parents told stories about children who have been physically bulled and even beaten (yes, that word was used) without any police notification. These stories were difficult to hear – with one coming from a 12-year-old from Chesterbrook.

One of most poignant stories came from Tredyffrin Township supervisor Sharon Humble who reported that just yesterday her middle school son was bullied and pushed at school causing his head to hit the concrete. And although Mrs. Humble reported that her son was at home with a concussion, the District did not contact the police. This is crazy – how is that a kindergartner with Down Syndrome now has a police report but there’s no investigation into a significant physical alteration. I simply do not understand.

Throughout the two hours, CBS channel 3 was taping the meeting as was a T/E parent. Once the video from the parent is available, I will post. During the time that I was at the meeting, the members of the school board had little to say. But there was one remarkable moment between the Policy Chair Kyle Boyer and a District parent.

A parent attempts to read a letter from PA State Senator Andy Dinniman (D-19) regarding Policy 5401 which was sent to TE Superintendent Gusick and the school board prior to the meeting. Boyer interrupts the parent, saying “we’re not allowing you to read the letter” and refuses to allow her to continue. The parent then responds “Why, because you’re running against him?”  At which point, there were audible gasps from the audience.

In the comments on the last post on Community Matters, I provided an image from the public Facebook page of Sen Dinniman. The Senator was informed of the handling of the kindergartner with Down Syndrome; and states he has contacted the District and will post the letter shortly.  The letter was subsequently released on his Facebook page and a copy is at the end of this post.

To clarify, according to the Chester County Democratic Committee website, www.chescodems.org  first term T/E school board director Kyle Boyer is opposing incumbent  Senator Andy Dinniman, (who has served in the state senate since 2006). The two democrats will face off for the Pennsylvania Senate, District 19 seat.

In closing, it is my understanding that a draft of changes to Policy 5401 was presented by the Policy Committee (after I left) although a copy was not part of the meeting agenda. No final decision and the matter will continue to be discussed at a future Policy Committee meeting. It was a uncomfortable and troubling meeting without a clear path forward.

Senator Dinniman delivers a powerful message to TE School District in his letter below — please read.

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