Unionville-Chadds Ford School District

Intimidation and Bullying Claims by Conestoga High School teacher – Official Complaint Filed with US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

This week in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, school board director Michael Rock resigned abruptly, citing bullying and intimidation in the school district.  According to an article in the Daily Local, Rock claims that the UCFSD “board is doing little to encourage diversity, and to discourage bullying and intimidation.”  He stated, “I cannot and will not serve on a board that does not have the common decency to comfort our minority parents in these trying times, especially since it is so easy and simple to do … There are times when it is important to stand up to racism and bigotry, even the quiet and unspoken kind that we are experiencing here, and say no.”

During the recent Conestoga football hazing scandal, some of us in the public learned for the first time about ‘No Gay Thursday’.  Although it does not appear that ‘No Gay Thursday’ actually targeted gays in the athletic department, it certainly would not make you feel welcomed or accepted if you were a member of the school district’s gay community.

The struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) not only affects students in our schools but that teachers can also find themselves bullied and intimidated. Some teachers fear their sexual orientation could color how staff and administration view their performance, skew their evaluations, or otherwise influence whether you stay hired or not.

I was contacted by the family of a Conestoga High School teacher wh, sadly reports their son has endured harassment and intimidation by District administrators.

According to the parent, certain administrators have singled out the teacher (who is not tenured) for extensive classroom observations.  I was told that teachers procedurally receive 4 classroom observations per school year but that their son has received 5-7 classroom visits per semester by various administrators.  The District’s mid-year review of this teacher in January 2016 indicated a ‘need for improvement’ rating but the final year-end report five months later, in June 2016, provided a ‘proficient’ rating for the teacher.

The intense classroom observations of this teacher continued during the fall of 2016 and shortly before winter break, the teacher was verbally told (by a District administrator) that he was in risk of receiving another ‘need for improvement’ rating in the mid-year evaluation to be held in January 2017. The administrator strongly suggested that the teacher resign in advance of the January review. This is a critical point – I was told by the parent of the teacher, that if a TESD teacher receives 2 ‘need for improvement’ performance reviews during their employment in the District, it is grounds for dismissal. The teacher was given 48 hours to respond to the District’s verbal offer to resign.  The offer to resign was later declined on advice from the teachers union.

Why were certain administrators using intimidation and bullying tactics to force this teacher out of the District? What was the provocation for the intensive classroom observations? Were there complaints from students, parents and/or other faculty members regarding this teacher and/or his performance?  Had students in this teacher’s class received low test scores?  This didn’t make sense to me.

We all know that there are at least two sides to every story and admittedly, in this case I only have the family’s side.  When I questioned the parent, I was told that there were no complaints from students or parents and that that the teacher was well-liked and respected by his peers at the high school. The teacher had provided additional student tutoring and in fact, had many grateful parents (and students) as a result of his efforts.   And further, the end-of-the-year 2016 test scores were high for the students of this teacher, one of the indicators of a successful teaching experience.  So what was motivating certain individuals to have this teacher removed from the District?

The teacher – himself a Conestoga High School graduate – happens to be gay.  His parents believe that certain administrators are targeting their son because of his sexual orientation. The teachers union, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the union representatives within the District are fully supporting the teacher (as are other teachers and staff).  According to the family, if the District terminates the teacher, PSEA is prepared to take the case to arbitration.

The teacher filed an official complaint this week with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for harassment and intimidation whereby they are trying to force him to resign or fire him for incompetence.  The EEOC thinks anti-gay discrimination in the workplace is sex discrimination.  In 2015, the EEOC concluded that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids sexual orientation discrimination on the job because it’s a form “sex” discrimination, which is explicitly forbidden.

I want to believe that in 2017, that the TE School District would not discriminate against a teacher because of his or her’s sexual orientation.  Falling on the heels of the football hazing scandal and the criminal investigation, the District really does not need the negative publicity that will come with an EEOC anti-gay discrimination case of a TESD teacher.

Three attorneys – Ed Sweeney, Kevin Buraks and Todd Kantorczyk – are current members of the TE School Board.  Although a personnel matter and therefore confidential, I would hope that they (and other members of the school board) take the time to fully investigate and make certain that all District policies and procedures were correctly followed in this matter. No employee of our school district should ever feel intimidation and bullying to such a level as to require intervention from the EEOC.

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Note:  I questioned why the parent contacted instead of the teacher himself.  I was told that although the teacher was aware that his parent had contacted me, that contractually he could not.  By request, the names of the teacher, administrators and PSEA representatives in the District are not included.

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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.”

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TESD Public Information Committee meeting tonight!

Tonight at 6:30 PM at the TESD Administration Building, is the first meeting of the T/E School District Public Information Committee, chaired by school board member Scott Dorsey —  click here for the agenda.  Dorsey is committed to improving communication with the public and encouraging open dialogue between the Board and residents.

Unfortunately, I am unable to attend tonight’s meeting but I have a personal ‘wish list’ for the Public Information Committee to consider and will send a copy to Mr. Dorsey for his consideration.

  • Change how residents ask questions at school board meetings. Residents should be able to ask their question and receive an answer not have to wait until all the questions are asked before receiving an answer.
  • Televise the School Board meetings live, as is down with the Board of Supervisors meetings. I advocate for Finance Committee meetings to be televised.
  • Coordinate regular School Board meetings and Board of Supervisors monthly meetings == too often they fall on the same Monday nights.
  • Encourage open dialogue between the residents and the School Board – an example took place at last week’s Finance Committee meeting where residents were encourage to ask questions and participate. Questions were answered immediately with no standing in line.  I would like to see that refreshing relationship continue at regular school board meetings.
  • Provide sufficient details and supporting documentation on the financials and budget so the public understands where the numbers come from – too often, the public is not provided with the necessary background for the numbers to make any sense.
  • Many school districts, including Unionville Chadds Ford School District have the email address of school board members listed on their website.  We don’t need to have their ‘personal’ emails, (like UCFSD) but I think that there should be a way for the public to communicate directly with the Board.  Currently all emails to the school board are filtered through Art McDonnell.  Why is Art McDonnell, the business manager, the filter for resident’s emails to the school board?  This does not seem like an appropriate use of time by one of the highest compensated TESD employees.
  •  I would like to see the end to the consent agenda.  Too many non-routine items ended up on the consent agenda – as examples in  2013, included on the consent agenda was the hiring of Andy Chambers and salary increase to the administrators. Other school districts (including UCFSD) do not use the consent agenda for that reason.
  • Respect and civility is a two-way street.  The Board members (plus District solicitor and staff) should be encouraged to respect the residents at meetings as should the residents to to the Board.
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Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board director resigns, claiming Board has transparency and communication issues

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in southern Chester County is a high-ranking school district and often enjoys the same elite national standing for student test scores, etc. as the T/E School District.  As an example, high schools from both school districts received gold level standing in the 2013 US News & World Report with Conestoga ranked #5 and UCF ranked #10 in Pennsylvania high schools.  Because of their similar academic achievement levels and their geographic proximity (both in Chester County) the two school districts are often compared on Community Matters.  Additionally, readers of CM may be familiar with regular commenter Keith Knauss, a member of the U-CF School Board, who often offers his experience and personal insight in our school district related discussions.

This week saw a surprise resignation of U-CF school board director Holly Manzone.  On the surface, Manzone’s decision is not significant for TESD residents, but in reading the resignation letter (that includes the reasons for her departure), her words contained an eerie familiarity.   During the recent League of Women Voters debate, most of the T/E school board candidates used buzzwords like trust, transparency, and open communication and morale issues. All but one candidate supported the need to improve the communication relationship between the Board and the residents.   TE School Board president Kevin Buraks, who is seeking re-election, disagreed with his fellow candidates and stated during the LWV debate that the Board already provides an open forum for the public and that there are no morale issues in the District.

In her resignation letter, Manzone acknowledges the excellent quality of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District but criticizes the U-CF School Board for what she says amounts to  ‘rubber stamping’ decisions of the Administration.  Claiming that the U-CF School Board is a model for ‘poor governance’, meetings ‘scripted’ and decisions ‘baked’,  Manzone states that she can, “no longer continue to participate on the Board on this basis without violating my principles and disturbing my conscience.  I cannot allow my continued presence on the Board to connote agreement with these practices.”    Manzone listed the following six issues in her resignation from the U-CF school board:

  • “Open discussion is frowned upon and dissent is squelched at both the public and executive meetings.
  • Meetings, especially public meetings, are often orchestrated, with many “pre-meetings” and phone calls behind the scenes to prevent genuine public discussion of contentious issues and avoid any embarrassment to the administration or the Board, i.e., “no dirty laundry.”
  • Executive sessions are over-used.  If there is a way to characterize a topic so that it can be discussed privately in executive session, it is.  Engineering topics in this way may allow the district to comply with the letter of the Sunshine Law, but it surely violates its spirit.
  • Community members raising issues are often themselves considered the problem.   Energy is expended complaining about these individuals rather than focusing on improvement.
  • Access to underlying data and original documents is withheld, even if it is not confidential.  “Confidentiality” is used as an excuse to withhold access to broad categories of data, without foundation.
  • Information is shared unequally, with not all Board members receiving the same background for deliberations.  Also, private “votes” are held without canvassing all members.”

Manzone is not seeking re-election; and decided that to take her issues with the UCFSD Board public in her resignation statement. I have read some of the comments to Manzone’s resignation letter — several Board members (including Keith Knauss) have come out strongly against Manzone’s allegations.  Conversely, Manzone does have her supporters, particuarly members of the public who have attended school board meetings.  (To read the comments in the Unionville Times, click here.)

Similar to the issues raised by Manzone, we have heard several T/E School Board candidates voice concerns and suggest the need to improve the communication, transparency and trust issues in the District.  My takeway — whether it is UCFSD, T/E or any other school board — open dialogue between school boards and the residents they serve is essential to building mutual trust; citizen input should be respected and welcomed.

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TESD ranks 4th in Pennsylvania for PSSA results but is it time to opt-out of standardized testing?

Spring is PSSA time for public schools in Pennsylvania and the results are in for 2013. The Pittsburgh Business Times has published their 2013 Guide of Western Pennsylvania Schools, which lists the rankings of all  school districts in Pennsylvania.  The analysis of the school district performance is based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Exam results.  According to their website, the formula for the ranking takes into account three years of PSSA test scores in math, reading, writing and science.   They look at three years of scores, with the current year given the most weight. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

In the ‘Top 15’ school districts category in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County was the number one county with six school districts represented followed by Chester County with three school districts (Unionville-Chadds Ford, T/E and Great Valley), Delaware County with three school districts (Radnor, Wallingford-Swarthmore and Rose Tree Media) and Montgomery County with one school district (Lower Merion).

For 2013 rankings, Upper St. Clair School Districts holds onto its first place title for the ninth year in a row, with another Allegheny County school district, Mt. Lebanon moving into second place.  This is the third year that I have tracked the top 15 school districts and in the chart below, you will note that Tredyffrin Easttown Township School District has dropped from its 2011 second place, to third place in 2012, to fourth place in 2013.  The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District dropped their ranking from second in 2012 to third in 2013. Other main line school districts, Radnor Township School District dropped from fourth to sixth for 2013,  Lower Merion dropped a level in rankings and Great Valley School District moved up from 14th to 13th place for 2013.  Looking at other area school districts, Downingtown School District improved their rankings, from 25th to 24th and Phoenixville School District continues to drop in rankings, for 2o13 listed as 98th.

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.   PSSA scores is viewed by many as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provide 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 how important are PSSA exams, beyond bragging rights of a school district.  Do children (and teachers) need this level of pressure to ‘measure up’?

Based on the varying socioeconomic advantages and disadvantages levels of school districts across the state, I don’t know how fair it is judge the work of entire school districts based on a series of standardized tests.  Although evaluation  is an important tool in learning, high-stakes tests, such as the PSSA exam, are being used to label students (as well as teachers and school districts).  It is no wonder that there is rebellion among some parents not to allow their children to participate in the PSSA testing process.

I did not know that in Pennsylvania, a parent has the right to have their children exempted from taking the PSSA exams under PA Code Title 22 Chapter 4, Section 4 (d)(5):

“If upon inspection of State assessments parents or guardians find the assessment in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

The grounds for the exemption are “religious” but the parents do not have to explain what their faith is, what about the testing is in violation of their faith, or anything else. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, if you believe that it is morally wrong to put your kids through the ordeal of a week of testing, that’s good enough.

Timothy Slekar, head of the Department of Education, Penn State-Altoona and his wife decided to opt out of the PSSA exam for their son.  Slekar included a copy of the letter in an article written for Huffington Post that can be used in Pennsylvania public schools by “people of most religious affiliations”.  Slekar encourages readers “to copy, to cut, and to paste any or all portions of this letter for your own use in freeing a child from the pain of high-stakes standardized testing.”  To read Slekar’s article and opt-out letter, click here.

Top 15 School Districts in Pennsylvania for 2013

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

 

 

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What do the sidewalks at St. Davids and Former Police Chief Andy Chambers have in common?

What do the St. Davids sidewalks and former Police Chief Andy Chambers have in common? There is an eerie similarity between a vote of the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors on January 25, 2010 and a recent T/E School Board vote of January 7.

January 25, 2010 BOS Meeting:  Even though there was a signed land development agreement between Tredyffrin Township and St. Davids Golf Club requiring sidewalks, the Tredyffrin’s supervisors approved the return of $25K escrow money to the country club; removing the sidewalk agreement. Besides suggested Home Rule Charter violations surrounding the return of the escrow money, there was the procedural problem that the proposal had not appeared on the BOS meeting’agenda.  Against the objections of many residents and some of the supervisors, the motion carried 4-3.  For the record, Bob Lamina, Paul Olson, Warren Kampf and EJ Richter voted in favor of the motion and Michelle Kichline, Phil Donohue and John DiBuonaventuro voted against the motion.

After much media publicity, many letters to the editor, accusations of Home Rule Charter and Sunshine Act violations, claims of deal-making and general resident outrage, the supervisors reversed and rescinded their decision at the following Board of Supervisors meeting in March 2010.  Public comment is guaranteed by the Sunshine Act and the public’s rights were violated by the St. Davids sidewalk vote of January 25, 2010.

Fast forward to January 7, 2013:  Instead of the township failing to notify the public of an intended motion on its meeting agenda, it was the T/E School Board who failed to notify the public.  On January 7, the Board held a special meeting for the primary purpose to consider the 2013-14 preliminary budget proposal.  At the meeting, the School Board voted to apply for Act 1 exceptions beyond the 1.7% allowable tax cap.

A consent agenda listed on the January 7 meeting agenda included the approval of December 3 meeting minutes, monthly financial reports, routine personnel actions, etc. but made no mention of anything safety-related such as enhancements or the hiring of a District safety consultant. However, as we later learned, the hiring of former police chief Andy Chambers as the District Security Consultant (hourly rate – $125) was approved …  as it was ‘last-minute’ included along with the other items in the consent agenda. The agenda did not notify the public that the School Board would discuss anything safety-related at the special meeting, let alone the hiring of a ‘security consultant’.

Someone needs to explain to me how the actions of the School Board on January 7 are any different from the actions of the Board of Supervisors of January 25, 2010.  Both of these examples speak to the process of our government. The fact is that the Board of Supervisors vote of two years ago was not about sidewalks in the same way that the School Board’s vote of January 7 is not about the hiring of Andy Chambers as the District’s security consultant.  Rather, it is about transparency and open meetings; the basis for positive discussions between citizens and their elected officials.  Government decisions should not be made in secret.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. Executive closed meetings can only be called for the following six reasons:

  • Discussions of matters involving employment or performance of officers or employees of the agency, provided that any affected individual is given the opportunity to request, in writing, that the meeting be held in public.
  • Meetings involving collective bargaining, labor relations, and arbitration.
  • To consider the purchase or lease of real property.
  • matters falling under the attorney-client privilege regarding litigation or issues where an identifiable complaint is expected to be filed.
  • To discuss agency business which, if discussed in public, would lead to the disclosure of information protected by law, including ongoing investigations and information exempt under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know
  • To discuss matters of academic standing or admission at state schools

Responding to follow-up comments on the topic of the Sunshine Act, Keith Knauss, school board member of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District (UCF) offered this comment on Community Matters —

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires all public agencies to take all official actions and conduct all deliberations leading up to official actions at public meetings. If the board met in executive session and deliberated on hiring Mr. Chambers, then they probably violated the Sunshine Act even though the official vote was taken in open session. It doesn’t matter if it is a contract or not. We’re conjecturing that the board deliberated (illegally) in executive session and based on that deliberation, took an official action to disburse funds to Mr. Chambers. We, of course, can only conjecture since the meeting was closed to the public.
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The current Sunshine Act took effect on January 3, 1987. This law replaces the old Open Meetings Laws of 1957 and 1974, Under the old law, public agencies were required to hold open meetings only if votes were taken or official policy adopted. This led to the frequent abuse of discussing and deciding issues in so-called “workshop” sessions, with the official public meetings being relegated to conducting formal votes on issues already decided in advance. The current Act requires that any deliberations leading up to official actions also take place at public meetings. Municipal governing bodies have no authority, either under the municipal codes or the Sunshine Act, to conduct “workshop” sessions.’

Question … At the upcoming January 28 School Board meeting, will the Board take responsibility for their January 7 action and reverse their decision to hire Andy Chambers as the District Security Consultant?

If the Board understands the Sunshine Act, and supports the importance of open meetings, the choice they make on January 28 will be simple.  The Board accepts responsibility for the situation and takes the necessary steps to correct the situation; reversing the decision and then appropriately advertising the matter for public discussion.

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T/E School District and Teachers Sign New 2-Year Contract

After 9 long months, the T/E School Board approved a new 2-year (2012-13 and 2013-14) contract between TESD and T/E Education Association last night.  To read the contract summary of the teacher’s contract, click here.  If you prefer to read the entire contract, click here.

Ray Clarke attended the Special Meeting of the School Board and the Finance Committee meeting which directly followed.  In his review of the teacher’s 2-year contract, I thank Ray for offering the following highlights and his personal commentary on the contract.  As expected the teacher’s healthcare benefits and salaries are the primary focus of the changes in the new contract.

  • The basic details are more or less exactly the same as the first 2 years of the District’s 3 year proposal (as Keith Knauss predicted here).  Salary freeze, no matrix movement, furlough days equivalent to 1% salary reduction in 2013/14, slightly higher contribution to healthcare premiums and prescription drugs, two new (lower cost?) health plans, capped tuition reimbursement, and one time $2,500 per employee bonus (a “legitimate” fund balance use?) in 2013/14.
  • Net saving vs status quo/budget of $400,000 for the current year (2012/13); 2013/14 cost increases from that by $400,000 plus the $1.1 million one time bonus (but presumably a cost saving vs the status quo model).
  • The rest of the contract structure basically unchanged
  • No demotions in either year of the contract, but specifically on the table for the next contract
  • No resolution of the 6 period CHS grievance (a ruling in favor of the TEEA would require the hiring of 12 additional FTE – say $1.5 million ongoing cost (salary, benefits, PSERS) plus one time payment of I think I recall $3 million?)
  • The President of the TEEA is allowed to speak at TESD Board meetings
  • Family health benefits available to same-sex domestic partners

My general sense is that both sides went about as far as they could go this round.  This contract is only for two years, at which point we’ll see how the economy and political landscapes have progressed, and the Board members Rich Brake, Kevin Buraks, Anne Crowley and Betsy Fadem will have had to choose their election platforms, if running in 2013.

Interesting that the standard bonus helps those at the lower end of the scale more than proportionately (my concern, if teaching is to remain attractive for the next generation in an environment of benefits slashed in favor of the currently tenured), and that lead negotiator Deb Ciamacca keeps her higher-end CHS constituency happy by keeping the grievance on the table.

Following the Special Meeting of the School Board, the regular Finance Committee meeting followed.  Ray offers the following notes from that meeting:

The Finance Committee reported on the Act 1 index for 2013/14 – 1.7%.  Slightly higher than expected – someone in the state bureaucracy (or government?) made a decision to change the calculation method (to include a longer period for averaging state weekly wage increases) that raises the index by 0.2%.  Shenanigans?

The Finance Committee spent some time discussing how to establish that parcels currently listed as tax-exempt conform with recent PA Supreme Court rulings that narrow the availability of tax exempt status.  More details remain to be gathered on exactly what these rulings are and what entities might be affected.  I was pleased to see that while Committee chair Fadem was advocating a 13 part, multi-point data request be sent to all tax exempt property owners (mainly the townships, federal government, schools, churches, right-of-way owners and land trusts), Board members Brake and Motel were at pains to avoid an “undue burden” on both volunteer charities and the district.

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TESD: Low Millage Rate … Does that Make it a Bargain?

Keith Knauss, a school board member in the Unionville-Chaddsford School District, and a frequent contributor on Community Matters has written an interesting article comparing the tax rates between UCFSD and TESD.  As Keith points out, T/E residents are paying a substantially less millage rate for school taxes than UCFSD — 24.53 versus 18.65.

The academics between the two districts are very similar; always appearing together at the top of any state test results.  So does this mean that for this community, we are getting a bargain when it comes to value of the school district.  Our students come in at the highest testing levels but yet we are not paying at the same taxing rate as an equivalent district.

Thanks Keith for this article … your analysis forces us to see the situation in a different light. He concludes that the milleage rate does not indicate tax fairness nor it have anything to do with the school district management … and therefore meaningless as a predictor.

The Low Millage Rate Myth

Tax Capitalization, Tax Rates and School District Management

Common wisdom has it that a school district with a low millage rate is doing a better job of managing their finances than a district with a high millage rate.  In fact, sometimes the low millage rate myth is used by school directors to justify large tax increases – “We’ve kept tax rates well below other comparable districts for years so a large increase this year shouldn’t bother you.”  Sometimes the low millage rate myth is used by union leaders to justify large salary increases – “The district has one of the lowest tax rates in the state, so there is plenty of room to raise tax rates to pay for our salary demands.”  A corollary to this myth is that residents in a high millage rate district are unfairly burdened with higher taxes relative to residents in a low millage rate district.  Sometimes common wisdom is unwise.

Let’s compare two districts – Tredyffrin Easttown and Unionville Chadds Ford.  I’ve chosen UCF and TE because they are very similar demographically and very similar academically.  Both have excellent schools and similar academic results.  The only striking difference is the millage rate.  TE’s rate is 18.65; UCF’s is 24.53.  Is TE doing a better job?  Are TE residents getting an educational “bargain”?  Is there room to raise TE’s rates to pay for teacher increases?  Are UCF residents saddled with an unfair tax burden?

Let’s do a mental exercise.  Let’s suppose there is a street that runs along the border of UCF and TE.  A developer builds 20 new houses that are exactly the same. Ten are on the UCF side of the street; ten are on the TE side of the street. The builder prices them all exactly the same at $750K. The builder quickly sells five of the houses at the asking price of $750K and notices all five are on the same side of the street – the TE side. Why? It’s not the schools – they’re the same. It’s the taxes, of course. People are wise consumers and take into consideration not only the purchase price, but also the tax burden.  The owner of the house on the TE side pays $2,425 less each year in taxes.  (see calculation details below)

How much does the developer have to reduce the selling price on the UCF side to make the houses equally attractive? That requires the builder to capitalize the tax difference into the selling price. The present value of 25 years of $2,425 dollar payments is about $40,000. Thus, the developer has to reduce the selling price of the UCF homes by $40,000 to $710,000 so all the houses are equally attractive.

A year later, all 20 owners are at a block party. One of the TE residents says to a UCF resident, “Our school district is managed better because our millage rate is lower and we pay $2,425 less in RE taxes.” The UCF resident replies, “Not true; I’m getting the same great education for my kids and paying the exact same monthly amount to live here; you may pay $2,425 less in RE taxes, but I pay $2,425 less in mortgage (P&I) payments because of the lower purchase price”. Thus, taxes are capitalized into the selling price of homes and millage rates are a meaningless indicator of school district management and tax fairness.

Market Value:               $750,000
Assessed value:           $412,500 (based on the7/1/10CLR of 0.55)
TE School Tax:             $7,695
UCFSchoolTax:           $10,119

Notes:
1. The builder has another way to make houses on both sides of the street equally attractive.  Instead of reducing the selling price by $40,000, the builder could keep the selling price the same at $750K, but add $40,000 worth of upgrades (kitchen, patio, landscaping, etc.)  to the UCF houses.  Thus, you’ll find that the buyer, for the same selling price, can get “more” house in a high tax rate district.  (yes, I know this seems counter intuitive)

2. For an interesting study of the effect of taxation and school quality on home prices see:
Homes, Taxes, and Schools: The Effects of School District Rankings and Property Tax Rates on Property Valuations in Richmond Heights,Missouri
http://showmeinstitute.org/document-repository/doc_download/299-full-case-study-pdf.html

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TE School District … Teacher Contract Costing

Keith Knauss, Unionville-Chadds Ford School District school board member, and regular contributor to Community Matters, has written ‘TE Contract Costing’ that may help us all better understand the teacher-school board contract negotiations process and the reasons for certain decisions. I thank Keith for his research and for sharing the information with us.  I have provided an overview below along with my comments. (If you have a problem reading the numbers in the tables, click on the graphic and a larger version will open in a new window.)

In his opening remarks, Knauss states …

“ … Understanding contracts has taken on new importance since Act 1 of 2006. Previous to Act 1, school boards could negotiate contracts and raise taxes to whatever level was necessary to balance the budget. Since Act 1, many districts have had to, with great reluctance, reduce staff and programs to keep budgets within the limits of the ‘cap’.”

Employee compensation is the major factor determining the size of a school district budget and, subsequently the real estate tax rate increase. If the District budget is to be balanced under the restrictions of Act 1, close attention must be paid to the terms of the contracts.

In the following table, Knauss presents the TE offer summary – the initial 1/9/12 offer by TEEA, the TE School Board 2/9/12 offer and TEEA 6/18/12 offer. The table indicates the average teacher compensation and taxpayer impact.  According to Knauss, “The percentage increase in Average Teacher Compensation is more than the percentage increase of Local Tax Impact for 2 reasons … state subsidies and attrition.”

The following table reviews the salary and benefit packages of TE teachers.  Krauss provides the approximate compensation (salary and benefits) for the average T/E teacher using the current teachers contract.  The numbers are supplied by the District or are multiplications of the salary and the appropriate rate (PSERS and FICA).

Knauss presents the following Salary and Benefit table, offering that the “… Total Teacher Compensation is a straightforward multiplication of the Average Teacher Compensation and the number of Employees. Total Teacher Compensation is the money taken from the taxpayers (local and statewide) for the services provided by TE teachers.”

Here is an interesting graphic from Knauss, indicating the funding sources for teacher compensation.  The major source of funding – local taxes and a secondary source of funding is from state and sales tax for half of PSERS and half of FICA.

Krauss looks at the effect of any contract settlement on the T/E taxpayers, and whether it can be financed within the Act 1 limits.  He looks at two different costing methods – “One method looks at the total cost of the contract to all taxpayers, local and statewide; the other method looks at the cost of the contract to the local taxpayers to reflect the local tax impact of any other offer by ‘backing out’ the statement reimbursement for PSERS and FICA.”

The Local Tax Impact is calculated by “backing out” the state contributions to FICA and PSERS.  Notice that the state contributes $3.0M in subsidies to lessen the Local Tax Impact.

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When reviewing a teacher contract offer, Knauss supports the use of the following criteria:

  • Is the offer economically sustainable under Act 1 limits?
  • Are the compensation increases of the offer in line with the current economic climate?
  • Is the compensation appropriate to attract and retain employees of quality?

Knauss answers a question that many have wondered … what happens if the teachers and the school board cannot reach a settlement? Due to substantial differences between TEEA and TE School Board, the union requested fact-finding by the PA Labor Relations Board.  The independent fact finder will review both TEEA and TESD proposals and then make recommendations … however, remember the recommendations are non-binding.

The current teachers’ contract ends on Saturday, June 30.  If an agreement is not reached, the teachers enter the “status quo” period, meaning that they continue to teach … to the expired contract.  The teacher’s benefits and salary remain the same as in the expired contract.  It is obvious that the School Board would not want an extended ‘status quo’ status for the teachers because it precludes any change to heath care benefits, compensation, etc. Knauss points out, that although the teacher compensation is frozen at its current level in ‘status quo’, legally the District must absorb any increases due to PSERS contributions or healthcare.

However, the situation is different from the teachers’ standpoint.  During better economic times, the teachers would not want their contract settlement in ‘status quo’ state because working under the expired contract would mean that they would receive no additional compensation for years of service increase. But what choice do the teachers have?

According to TEEA website, the teacher’s last offer included a reduction in health care benefits and  salary freeze for the first year. In their rejection of the union’s offer, the School Board instead asked the teachers to take a compensation reduction of $8,000 per teacher – which equates to as much as 13% for some teachers.  There is little surprise that TEEA rejected that District’s offer, opting instead to go to the PA Labor Board.  Why would the teachers want a new contract … status quo also keeps their current salary intact and preserves their current benefit package intact.

Knauss provides a multi-year analysis, assuming status quo and average compensation.  He presents his analysis in several slides, giving us an idea of what certain scenarios would mean to the average taxpayer.  To read Keith’s full report, click here.

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T/E School Board Passes 3.3% Tax Increase; Highest Percent Increase in the Area

The T/E School Board meeting on Thursday night was rather anticlimactic.  Most of us who have been following the budget process were not surprised by the 3.3% tax increase (1.7% Act 1 Index, 1.6% referendum exceptions) for the 2012-13 school year.  Based on the District’s average residential assessment of $252,601, this translates to an average increase of $155 per homeowner in their tax bill.

The Act 1 Index increase will produce projected revenue of $1.5 million and the exceptions increase projected revenue of $1,498,916. The total revenue produced by the 3.3% tax increase is $2,998,916.  The 2012-13 tax will be levied at the rate of 19.2628 mills, on the assessed valuation at a rate of $19.2628 per $1,000 assessment; an increase of .6154 mills from the 2011-12 tax rate.

How does TESD tax increase of 3.3% increase for 2012-13 school year stack up against neighboring school districts?  The following local school districts have approved their budgets for 2012-13 and  needed to include the following tax increases:

  • Radnor School District: 3.21% tax increase
  • Great Valley School District: 3% tax increase
  • Haverford School District: 2.73% tax increase
  • Lower Merion School District: 1.99% tax increase
  • West Chester School District: 1.7% tax increase
  • Downingtown Area School District: 1.7% tax increase
  • Phoenixville School District: 1.66% tax increase
  • Unionville-Chadds Ford School District: proposed 2.65% tax increase in Chester County and a 1.74% decrease in Delaware County (the difference comes changes in the gross property valuation of the two counties) to be approved at UCFSD meeting on Monday, June 18.

Following the final budget summary, discussion and resident commentary, the school board members were presented the opportunity to weigh-in on why they were voted for or against the 2012-13 budget.  The 2012-13 budget passed 7-2 with school board members Liz Mercogliano and Rich Brake providing the dissenting votes.  Brake provided a lengthy 30-minute oration, which offered historical details of what brings the District to this point and his reasoning for voting against the 2012-13 budget.

Ray Clarke also attended the school board meeting and offers his thoughts on last night’s School Board meeting. Thanks Ray!

Comments from Ray Clarke … 

1.  Karen Cruickshank reported that the tone in the TEEA negotiations is “increasingly positive”.  One small signal of this is the memorandum of understanding that removes the requirement for the district to pay for “advanced studies assistance”, in return for dropping the demotion idea for 2012/13.  Amazingly, this saves $360,000 – and it’s not even all the tuition that is paid!  (Payments are continuing for those on the lowest Bachelors steps).

 2.  The General Fund Balance debacle continues.  At its root is the fact that the Board treats this as a completely discretionary slush fund, with absolutely no rules about how it is to be used.  I believe that it is completely unacceptable for $30 million of taxpayer money be be treated so cavalierly.  Just one example: last year the “commitment” for PSERS “stabilization” was $15.4 million, this year it’s $3.6 million.  It’s not that the difference has been used to stabilize PSERS, it’s just that the number is a plug for when other things have been accounted for.  Ridiculous.  Why even have that item in the first place – we plan to raise taxes for it anyway.

Having said that, the changes in this year’s commitments do move us in the right direction.  $10.4 million will be moved into the Capital Fund, where it will be used for the one time expenses that we’ve discussed here are the appropriate uses for the Fund Balance.

Also worthy of mention is the commitment for the liability for vested employee services.  This went up by $0.8 million.  The actual payment was $0.3 million;  It’s interesting that the actual employment expense was therefore $0.5 million higher than was recognized in the operating statement, another problem deferred for future taxpayers.

3.  Which gets me to Dr Brake.  He treated us to a half hour analysis of the school district’s finances and the changes over the last decade or so, with desktop slides.  I encourage all to look for the video.  He voted against the tax increase, and argued for “an entirely new status quo” for the school employees.  Here are some notes I took with my commentary:

– The drop in revenues from assessment appeals offsets the increase from increasing the tax rate for the exceptions.  He used this to suggest we have reached taxing capacity.

– Special education is a “ticking time bomb” and the increased costs of autism “threaten public education”.  Relatedly, we heard in the Policy Committee how parents of non-residents, shopping for schools, want the right to come into classrooms to observe TE”s special education programs.

– All entities (governments/households, US/Europe, etc) have a “pathological addiction to spending beyond our means”.  [An OT comment: In a long run he’s right that this is unsustainable, but in the short run, national governments able to determine monetary policy can have a stabilizing role when consumers all of a sudden come to that unsustainable realization.  The problem in the US is that the political actors cannot agree on the long run plan to get the house in order, and in Europe, they have a completely crazy monetary union without a fiscal union].

– For TE routinely taxing to the max is unsustainable and not the solution.  I note that the agreed 3.3% tax increase this year, and the subsequent annual 3% increases in the 4 year projection model accumulate to an increased tax bill of $600 per year for the average residential assessment.  And there’s still a $4 million deficit in 2016/16.

– He is now going to pay more attention to the Fund Balance.  Good!

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