Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Post-TE School Board Meeting: Saying No to “Sockpuppeteering’

The dust has begun to settle following the emotionally charged June meeting of the TE School District, a little over a week ago. I wasn’t sure how (or if) I was going to write another post about that evening, but yesterday on my way to Valley Forge Park I passed a white ribbon tied to a Chesterbrook street sign and took it as a ‘sign’.

The reality of the June 17th meeting, and the unanimous vote by the Board to decrease the weekly hours of District aides and paraeducators, has me wondering how the energy expended by so many, had so little influence in the outcome. At every District meeting, we hear the Board president encourage residents to attend meetings, and to participate in the decision-making process, but based on last week’s Board meeting, you really need to stop and ask yourself, why bother? The three hours of citizen commentary was reduced to a short paragraph in the District’s update of the meeting, stating that that all aides, paraeducators and paraprofessionals would be reduced to part-time, and that their work week would not exceed 27.5 hours.

Before an audience of residents and District employees, our elected leaders were unmoved by the comments and suggestions from the public. Passionate parents spoke of the relationships their children shared with aides and emotional statements from affected employees (many of them TESD residents) explained what the reduction in hours would mean to them personnally. Community members who had sought answers from healthcare experts, and thoughtfully offered their findings to the Board, were also unable to change minds. The outcome of the vote predetermined and the decision of the Board final, we are left puzzling why there’s such a disconnect between the public and our elected officials. The most troubling aspect was the Board’s total disregard for the residents and their opinions.

In the days since the Board meeting, some have suggested that the District aides and paras would have been better off had they been outsourced. Although criticized that I did the affected employees no favors with my ‘no to outsourcing’ stance, I maintain there was ‘middle ground’ between outsourcing District jobs and cutting employee hours … a dicussion the administration and school board was unwilling to have. One individual suggested that because our daughter did not attend TE schools that I have no business weighing in on school issues — implying that only those residents with children in the District are qualified to discuss. I disagree. To the 80% of the residents, who are not parents of children in the TE School District, decisions made by the school board do affect you, and your opinion does matter!

I have received criticism for allowing anonymous comments on Community Matters. Although I would prefer that people own their words under their own name, I understand that people may have personal reasons for remaining anonymous – including the fear of negative reprisal. As a result, I respect the preference of some genuine commenters to remain anonymous. However, during the 4 years of Community Matters, I have discovered a negative subset of some anonymous commenters – ‘sockpuppeteering’. This is a technique where an individual attempts to fool readers into believing that their comments originate by more than one person, while commenting with more than one screen name.

The New York Times explains the childish behavior of sockpuppeteering as, “the act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies, or company.” Recent comments on a Main Line Media News article had an individual masquerading as several different commenters, criticizing Community Matters and me. I cannot control the comment posting process of other sites, but going forward on Community Matters, please understand that if you attempt to post with more than one screen name, I will not post your comment. Just as I respect the need for anonymity, I ask that you respect and abide by this rule.

We understand that being an elected official is not an easy thing to do. I believe that most people, regardless of party affiliation, run for office usually for the right reasons. I think that most of them want to make a difference, most want to do the right thing and most of them want to help the people they represent. I’m not sure why the train sometimes goes off the track. Perhaps in the past, we have failed to hold our public officials accountable and as a result, they take on an attitude of indifference when we finally come to our senses and react to their actions. As a result, they proceed on doing as they please instead as some of us wish.

So, where do we go from here? For those that became engaged in the process during the outsourcing issue, now is not the time to give up and walk away. The continued success of the TE School District is too important and requires our attention. It takes a village to raise a child and … it takes the great teachers, aides, paras and support staff of the TE School District (plus supportive parents) to educate the child!

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  1. I think the real issue was the 30 hours a week cut off for Obama care. People just do not trust elected official or the folks who end up writing the regulations to support passed legislation. So perhaps write now a certain situation should cost the school district or the township or the state any money, but once the final regulations are all worked out, surprise, things have changed and the local government is now responsible to pay more money. Obama care will have far reaching effects (some “good” some not so good). Perhaps for District aides and paraeducators that not so good came early. But if you believe in something then you are willing to endure personal hardship so that good comes to be. If you don’t like and didn’t want Obama care and you are a District aides or paraeducators, then you must really be disappointed.

    1. Dont forget that windfall (small as it may be, but still a break for the board vis a vis budget spending) for the reduction in hrs paid to aides.. Still no answer as to where that found money will go.. Lets see.. no charges for outsourcing, no ACA… reduced hours, (reduced PSERS contribution because of reduced hrs?) adds to surplus if Im seeing this correctly.

      1. There is, almost certainly, no windfall from the reduction in hours paid to aides. There will be more aides each working fewer hours. The aggregate hours worked by all aides and the cost to the district will be the same. A special needs child still needs full time help during the 7.5 hours school day (37.5 hrs/wk). In the new system, one aide might work 3 days and another 2 days. Maybe the time is split between morning and afternoon. It’s not an ideal situation.

        1. It is my understanding that the District will need to hire 35 part-time aides/paras to make up the for loss of hours by current employees. In fact, before the final decision was made by the Board, Dr. Waters stated that the hiring of the additional 35 part-time employees as a reason that the District would not reduce full-time to part-time employees. Beyond the obvious scheduling issues, how is this situation going to affect the kids, especially those with one-on-one aides. And there has been no discussion as to where the District is getting the 35 additional employees — my guess is the jobs will be outsourced. If the jobs are outsourced to CCRES, what happens if the CCRES hourly rate is higher than the TESD hourly rate?

  2. Well, I learn something new every day! Sock Puppeteering, indeed. I support your posting policy and your plea for more ownership of responses which I think will lead to more reflective commentary.

    Some thoughts adapted from a comment I posted on MLM…….

    The MLM commentary was very disturbing, in its claim that raising questions about one plan caused not a reasoned explanation and an accepted (maybe improved) plan, but instead generated a worse outcome. What does that imply about the quality of decision-making in our District? We careen from guard rail to guard rail in some kind of spiteful manner?

    We still have no clear presentation of the quantified costs and risks on which the Board made their decision. Perhaps that’s one of Mr McDonnell’s many items “as we said in Finance in October/November/ whenever”…… Is the liability really such that not one of the Board members thought it would be prudent, with a $3 million surplus this year and a $20-30 million Fund Balance, to accept those risks for a year? Maybe a RTK would surface something.

    The School District’s way of doing business was developed over many years of successfully harnessing rising real estate assessments, transfer taxes and a relatively low tax burden that could absorb a 50% increase in a decade. Now growth is slower, and Act 1 constrains tax rates, while pension and other costs escalate. I believe that the task is much harder and requires a more collaborative approach to allow the difficult trade-offs to be made. The outsourcing debacle could have been avoided.

    There is indeed an interesting opportunity to make a statement at the polls in November. Two incumbents, very different, are up for re-election, against – again – very different challengers. Voters will have to decide whether to make a statement about change or to weigh the candidates’ qualifications, philosophies and commitment. Whatever the outcome, though, I think that the new Board must consider whether organizational changes are needed now to allow the District to adapt to the new normal.

    MLM commentators would like to leave decisions to the Board and vote on their performance every (staggered) four years. Well, maybe the internet in all its manifestations, and for better or worse, gives us an opportunity to help our representatives make better decisions along the way through those four years? There is a lot of expertise in our Township. I know Board members that have valued community ideas. Direct communication to the Board is good of course, but forums serve a great purpose for reporting developments and testing ideas. I for one am very grateful that Pattye puts in all the work necessary to maintain such a valuable resource for the Township.

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