Pattye Benson

Community Matters

TE School Board Meeting — A call for transparency and open communications

I attended last night’s School Board meeting and noted a common thread linking many of the resident’s comments. The words may have been slightly differently from residents Neal Colligan, Scott Dorsey, Peggy Layden, Michelle Berger and myself, but the message to the School Board was the same. We were all asking for transparency, public dialogue, open communication, etc. etc. between the Board, administration and the public.

In the first comment period, Neal Colligan asked the Board to detail the timeline and process for the TENIG and teacher contract negotiations. He referenced the ‘early bird’ contract negotiations that are underway and asked that the public have adequate time to review any proposed contract. The public understands that negotiations are private between the sides and we cannot be part of the process — however, once there is an agreement it would be appropriate that that there be adequate time for review. Disappointingly, the Board did not offer much in the way of a response, except to say that the discussions with TENIG are ongoing.

At the August Board meeting it was announced that the RFP was going out shortly which would seek outsourcing bids for the TENIG contract. (Both the TENIG contract and the teachers contract expire June 30, 2014.) It would seem to make practical sense for the Board (and TENIG) to have the cost analysis for outsourcing to use as a starting point to negotiate a contract. How else would the District know what (if any) savings would occur through outsourcing without the ‘real’ numbers? And for the TENIG members, how would they know ‘what’ they needed ‘to give’ back in salary and/or benefits if there was no comparative numbers from the outside? Last night it was entirely unclear if the RFP was sent out yet there’s rumblings of an agreement between the District and TENIG. If there is an agreement, it will be curious to see what TENIG members gave up to keep their jobs. If you recall the last time, only the custodians were in the position of giving back whereas this time it is the all of TENIG that is at risk. Whatever happens with TENIG is certain to have an effect on the teacher contrac negotations.

My comments last night related to Community Matters and the school district’s apparent ‘blocking’ of the website from their computers. I read a prepared statement which included asking for the reinstitution of the District’s ‘Public Information Committee’ . I spoke of the need for open communication and transparency and asked the Board to respectfully remove the ‘block’ of my sebsite. At least some members of the school board were not aware of the situation until I brought it to their attention. Dr. Waters told the Board that he would look into the matter and report back. Improving communication between the administration, Board and the public should be something that we all want to achieve.

As follow-up, I sent the following email to the Board, Waters and Robin McConnell:

Dear TE School Board Members,

This email is follow-up to my statement at last night’s school board meeting regarding the ‘blocking’ of Community Matters website from school district computers. It was my understanding from the Board’s response that none of you were aware of this situation until I brought it to your attention. For the record, I have had at least 15 people, including employees working in various District schools, support staff, substitute teachers and students to either call or send emails asking why they are receiving ‘this site is blocked’ notifications when they attempt to access Community Matters.
At the school board meeting, Dr. Waters stated that he would look into the matter and would check with Robin McConnell, who was not at the last night’s meeting. I respectfully asked last night that the ‘block’ be removed from my site and the access be restored. Can I expect that Board members will follow-up with the administration and correct this situation?
The community is looking for transparency and open communication from our elected officials; thank you all for supporting that goal.
Pattye Benson
I hope that the situation is resolved quickly and that Community Matters is ‘unblocked’ in the school district. To the employees and students who contacted me in this regard, thank you — please let me know if the situation is resolved.
During the second comment period, Neal Colligan once again addressed the Board, stating that they had not answered his earlier question about providing adequate public time to review and comment on any proposed union agreements. Again no response from the Board. Without a commitment from the Board on the process of public commentary in regards to any proposed union contracts, Colligan furthered his request. He stated there would be new leadership on the school board come January 1 and based on the outcome of the November election, that could mean either 2, 3 or possibly 4 new Board members. Colligan offered that it was not fair that new Board members would be saddled with the results of these ‘early bird’ contract negotiations and again suggested that there should be community input.

Recent history indicates that when there is public input, initial decisions of the Board can sometimes be changed — we saw this with the proposed outsourcing of the aides and paras and again with the tennis courts at Valley Forge Elementary School. When members of the community supports an issue, shows up at meetings and offers their opinion, it can make a difference. Transparency and open dicussion between the Board, administration and the public is critical.

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  1. I am happy to report that Robin McConnell, Director of Assessment and Educational Technology for the District, has confirmed that the ‘block’ of Community Matters has been lifted. Thank you to the District for your immediate response — much appreciated!

  2. With all due respect, there is absolutely no reason for anyone on the district payroll to need to access community blogs during their work day. The block may have been inadvertent or intentional, but it is common for people in industry to have little or no access to public sites due to the fact that the employer has complete access to anything disclosed or produced from a company computer. Let’s look at what just took place in Coatesville, and earlier in Lower Merion with home computers….and let’s not push to mix work with “pleasure.” The IT department can and does monitor work product. Working at your school computer should be for work.

    1. No one was suggesting that accessing blogs should be done during the work day, anymore than accessing Main Line Media News, Patch, CNN or the NY Times crossword puzzle should be accessed during the work day. Just trying to understand the policy for ‘blocking’ sites. As I stated in my comment to the post, the block was removed from Community Matters — within 12 hours of the school board meeting. I thanked Robin McConnell and appreciate that the ‘block’ was not intentional but rather a technology issue.

    2. I totally agree with you about no need to be on blogs during the workday while we are being paid by taxpayers. However, it appears that only CM was blocked, not shopping sites, news sites, etc. and in that case, it’s censorship. I would really like to know just who had the authority to block CM without any input, permission, etc. from the super, school board, etc. Did someone overstep their job description? That is an awful lot of power for one person to have control over. That seems to be the bigger issue and one that we will probably never get an answer to.

      1. I don’t think that it was deliberate but rather a technology filter issue. The situation was immediately addressed by Robin McConnell and the block removed. I assume that the District employees have a policy governing the use of the Internet during the workday — I support the District’s right to limit the use of the Internet during the workday but that policy should govern the usage of all sites — shopping, news, blogs, etc.

        1. I think you are being naive to think this was a “technology filter issue”. Most likely it was a “stupid” attempt to single out CM and limit access. It’s evidence that CM is influencing the district’s actions.

        2. I’d usually support the idea of a ‘stupid’ move on the district’s side, but my employer also recently blocked this site. It is categorized as ‘Web and Email spam’ according to the notice I get when attempting to navigate here.

          Pattye, I’m not sure how these things work but it seems that you somehow ended up on a list you don’t deserve to be on and IT departments use that list to blacklist specific sites. May be worth looking into.

      2. Not true. The blocking is done based on content…I once sent an email to the board and had a word in the subject line that apparently caused it to go into spam. So Keith — naïve is a possibility, but inadvertent also is.

        Having said that…wow.

    3. Side,

      You mentioned Coatsville. I am curious what you think about the fact that every single Board Member except one voted to allow the Supt. and assis. supt. to resign while hundreds of residents shouted at them to fire them so they would not qualify for a pension. The assistant is not old enough to qualify anyway but the supt. is old enough to draw a pension.

      Tom Hogan is investigating and I believe a criminal conviction would disqualify him for the benefit but why do you think the board voted this way? When hundreds of angry tax paying citizens were screaming at them not to.

      What do you think this demonstrates about the relationships between board members and administrators?

  3. Hello-

    I attended the school Board Meeting on Monday.

    To expand on the transparency theme, after Dr. Waters presented the proposed district level goals for the 2013 -2014 school year, Anne Crowley asked him if it would be possible to perhaps add a goal that addresses more collaboration and communication with community members. To his credit, I did hear him utter that he could do that but Betsy Fadem then jumped in to remind everyone that that is what committee meetings are for and that e-mails can be sent to the board for the directors to read. Many committee meetings are in the middle of the day making it difficult for citizens to attend and I don’t know about others but I have sent e-mails to the board without receiving a response.

    I like Anne Crowley’s idea and I appreciate that Dr. Waters offered to write a goal that addresses more transparency and collaboration with community members in the coming year.

    I look forward to seeing Dr. Waters at future meetings and I look forward to hearing what he has to say on the topic.

    I appreciate all the hard work and commitment to excellence from both the board and administrators and I look forward to a productive 2013 2014 year where we can all work together to achieve the high standards we have come to expect from each other.

  4. Pattye, Neal or Ray,
    I was at a TENIG meeting today and someone mentioned that they attended the August school board meeting and bonuses were awarded. !!!??? I was away on vacation at the time but watched the televised version later. I also looked through the minutes of that meeting and didn’t find anything about it. I believe they said 4 were awarded. Do you recall anything about this? Seems to me that if the district needs to make up 950k via the TENIG employees, they really don’t have money to be giving out more bonuses. I hope this was incorrect. Can you please shed some light on this?

    1. Hi Support,
      I was not there either as Doofus Neal went to the wrong building (it was at the HS). What that reference may have been was to the 1% Administration bonuses awarded per the terms of their contract…I remember they were enumerated in the Agenda. The Hawk Ray was there so he may be able to shed some additional light on your question.

    1. Thank you for the short and to the point answer to my question CHV. It seems that bikini boy’s pants might be a little too tight! :)

  5. SupportStaff,

    The administrators “Bonus” was a clever way to eliminate a constitutionally-guaranteed benefit that is a sabbatical, which is guaranteed to Act 93s. This is enshrined in the constitution much like your PSERS benefit you worked for. Before this concept, administrators could take a sabbatical at the twilight of their career, at half pay. The District would then have to hire ANOTHER administrator – at full price – and then the program would be disrupted. Afterwards, the Administrator could retire and get a “cash-out” of sick and unused personal or vacation days, much like you can as a TENIG member.
    When this policy was adopted, the “bonus” was created for years of continuous service – by which we mean not taking a sabbatical. PTO reimbursement was also eliminated. This was a clever way to incentivize principals to be there as much as possible, with minimal disruption to the main program, and by passing the “savings” onto the employee. And, yes, this “bonus” concept saves money. Its what’s called an opportunity cost.

    There are also market forces in play. Realize that this has been analyzed to death – high salaries does NOT correlate with student performance. High salaries are a “net” to retain quality employees, and that also includes the TENIG people that keep our buildings running great, which includes you. (Likewise, I am assuming you care deeply about your job and your community and you are worth keeping).

    Keeping the administrator salaries high is a result of the fact many administrator positions were eliminated over the past 10 years and combined. These administrator positions are required by law, TENIG positions are not, and are therefore out-sourcable.

    If Act 93 pay bothers you, try going back to school, get your teacher’s license, principal’s certificate, and possibly a PHD. Then, be prepared to work 12+ hours a day, 12 months a year, with enormous responsibilities from teachers, administrators, parents, and other duties. That is, they have a tough gig. They have no Union protection. If they do a poor job – they are out in a heartbeat. If you insists on comparing your pay to an administrator, be sure to compare your responsibilities, certifications, and qualifications to theirs.

    I sincerely want to make sure you service our schools and keep your job. You seem like a dedicated employee. But focusing on administrators will not help – and it may even hurt. There are market forces in play. If you are a custodian, and the market pays $15/hr, if you make $22/hr, understand what an Act 93 earns is absolutely irrelevant to your employment. Market forces are equated to what you are as an asset to the organization. That is, principals make more than teachers, who make more than custodians, because of the level of responsibility each position brings. This also makes a budgetary (operating expense) “surplus” irrelevant in terms of how one group is compensated versus another. The cost of keeping one good administrator is much different than the cost of keeping a group of people via a CBA.

    Likewise, the same argument goes with the kitchen workers. If they are outsourced, revenues will likely not change (assuming that the outsourcing company keeps prices the same). If expenses drop via outsourcing, than the District saves more money. The fact they make a “profit” now is 100% irrelevant. Revenues less expenses = Profit (Loss). 8-5 = 3, and 7-4 = 3. Just because the answer is the same doesn’t mean you got there the same way.

    I do not support outsourcing at all, I want the District to hire people in-house, but please understand the rules in play. If the plane is going to crash because it’s overweight, the last thing you’d throw overboard is the pilot.

    As a final note, I would strongly suggest to you and all TENIG members not to post on this website, or any public forum. You and TENIG have absolutely nothing to gain by doing so, and times are sensitive.

    1. BB–the 1% is not the same bonus you describe. The 1% is contractual for the admin to be protected from the public scrutiny of a wage freeze over the past 3+ years I think. The teachers got bonuses of a larger magnitude. Bonuses are not in the PSERS calculation and do not influence pension obligations.

  6. The market forces in play are created by the administration for the administration. There are plenty of teachers with certificates who would take the job and I’m betting at significantly less pay.

    Administrators have a great gig. They don’t work 24/7 and they have plenty of vacation time to recharge their batteries. They take off during the day for all kinds of reasons. I’m not complaining just stating the facts.

    It’s true they have no union protection but I have yet to see one administrator get fired. (not that they should in TE) As a matter of fact, in Coatsville, two are being criminally investigated for disparaging a large segment of the student body on district issued cell phones, and the school board still voted to allow them to resign while 1,000 screaming tax paying citizens told them to fire them so they wouldn’t qualify for pensions. I don’t know what it would take for an administrator in any district to be fired. They are well protected and well taken care of.

    Why should TENIG workers not post on this website. It is clearly what saved support staff.

  7. They don’t want us to post here because they DON’T want transparency (they know it all and what they think we’re worth) and more than anything, they DO NOT want 300 parents showing up at school board meetings to question them/ supporting the TENIG group. They have their plan already laid out and don’t want to deviate. Much like the Facilities master plan. To the community-please keep in mind in the weeks to come and all the talking that will start-TENIG is composed of Security, Maintenance, Secretaries and Clerks(school buildings and TEAO), Kitchen Staff and the Custodians. This is a large group of people-the very “face” of your schools.

  8. yes, I too am confused by bikini about not posting here. Times are sensitive? So what. The choice you espouse is to hide and cower in the face of sensitive negotiations? I say buck up, speak your piece and be a respectful advocate of your position. if you think you will be bullied because of it, remember, bullies can be defeated too. law of the playground.

  9. Right -o support staff but they remain eerily silent on the matter. Can’t help people who don’t ask for it or want it. Do you talk to any of them? what’s the story? Are they being told they will keep their jobs?

    I saw a post on Maeve’s petition from Mary M. the president of TENIG. She says she works at the district offices. Does that have something to do with the silence?

    1. Shining, Yup! Definitely it’s not that the help is not wanted-look what all of you were able to do for the aides/paras (at least for the time being) TENIG is just “over a barrel” right now, so to speak. Think of the tactics of this board in the past (re:bullying/retribution,etc.) and then you can begin to imagine what’s been going on.

  10. Hello-

    I recall a commenter at the meeting suggesting to the board that a Public Information Committee be formed in order to facilitate better communication with the community.

    It made me think that Betsy Fadem might think this a good idea since she is the newest member of the Easttown Community Citizens Advisory Committee. According to the article in the Patch, she has already helped Easttown Residents save hundreds by bringing her vast knowledge of financial matters to the table. I think a Public Information Committee for the School Board would be just as effective as the Easttown Citizens Advisory Committee (ECAC) is to Easttown Township.

    1. Nope, don’t think so….if you have a chance to watch the board meeting on tv, see how fast Besty Fadem shuts this down when it is brought up!

      1. Hi.

        Yes, I’ll have to watch the board meeting on T.V. I don’t recall Betsy shutting that down. I’m confused as to why she would do that because the school district budget dwarfs the township budget and it would stand to reason that she would see the benefit in citizen advisory committees for the school district when she so generously donates her time and expertise to the township with her participation on the Easttown Citizens Advisory Committee.

        I did get the distinct feeling that she felt uncomfortable when Sandy G. gave a comment about drug use in school districts – all school districts. Drug use among students is rampant everywhere. It’s not anyone’s fault and it certainly isn’t the district’s responsibility and I don’t think that was her point. I’m glad she addressed it at the board meeting and I think it’s a valid conversation to have – maybe in a citizens advisory committee.

        This was my first board meeting. Isn’t Kevin Buraks the President of the board? If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was Betsy. She controlled the flow and direction of the entire meeting.

        1. I know what you mean about the drug use portion of the comments-she was so quick to jump in and make clear that Sandy wasn’t just speaking about our schools. And yes, Kevin is the president. Betsy has been a past president as well as Pete Motel and Karen Cruikshank too. Sometimes last year it appeared that Pete was running the meeting. I think Kevin is more quiet and maybe because he is new he is letting the “old timers” take too much control of the meetings. He certainly doesn’t appear to be the one in charge.
          If you are interested in alcohol/drug use among our kids, ARCH is a great place for information. My kids are all grown now, but I used a lot of their information when mine were in middle/high school.They offer a lot of tips for hosting teens in your home and tips about when they go to other kids’ homes.
          You say this was your first board meeting, if you’re new to Berwyn, Welcome!!!

  11. So support staff, are you saying TENIG workers are being bullied and threatened with retribution if they speak out?

    Mary said on the petition that she is a purchasing agent in the west valley district offices. Does that mean she works in close proximity to the Supt. and business manager? Does she speak with them regularly? Is she telling TENIG members not to speak to anyone about negotiations?

    1. Pretty sure Mary is one of the finest employee’s in the te schools.She was moved because she cared more about children and less about rotten staff she worked with.
      She’s silenced in a cubicle until retirement.
      If she bumps elbows with a few top administrators she can’t speak even if she wants. Mary VFE lost the most precious heart the day you had to go.

  12. As much as I don’t approve of some members of this school board, I can say that not one of them has told TENIG not to speak out. I’m sorry if my earlier post was misleading. I just meant “bullied” in the fact that everyone is fearful that they might lose their jobs. (Just like the paras and aides were last year). It really is not a nice environment to work in. Everyone is stressed out. Custodians have been dealing with the outsourcing threat going on (I think) 8 years now. Enough is enough Let’s all hope for the best.

  13. Neal,

    Can you tell us if you received an answer from the district about the “right to know” you filed for the document that set up the early negotiations that were gag ordered. I know you received a 30 day delay for a decision on your request. (Does anyone know why Neal received a 30 day delay? What is the purpose of a 30 day delay?)

    I believe you said the delay ended last Friday. Is it a community document?

  14. Request DENIED. Specifically, “…exempt from disclosure because they pertain to strategy or negotiations relating to labor relations or collective bargaining.” Not sure this is right, the documents should have spelled out something called “Early Bird” discussions which would have had to be defined by the two parties. Formal “Negotiations” is a defined term in labor negotiations in the Commonwealth I would assume. Early Bird discussions would be something else entirely. I can appeal the decision and, likely, will…if I can find the time this week.

    Don’t know that spent a lot of legal time/effort on this….simple denial.

    1. Is anyone surprised? Thanks for all the time and effort you put in Neal. This group makes everyone jump through hoops and makes it difficult so people will give up. I can’t wait until election time!

      1. Election time to run someone out … Be careful about well intended replacements…ask them what IDEAS they bring…no platitudes about an excellent education at an affordable cost with lots of transparency….know the numbers and demand information. It takes effort, not just enthusiasm. For all of Neal’s efforts here, he was honest that he did not have the time to serve on the board.

  15. Neal
    You can appeal it through the state, but the district will spend $200+ an hour responding. And “early bird” if not a legally defined term is a term of art used specifically in PA if not elsewhere. So any comments on an early bird plan would almost by definition be relating to labor relations and collective bargaining. Ironically, Sultanik wrote a piece on the pros and cons a few years ago. Presumably since he did the last TESD contract, the minutiae of the contract was addressed, so the early bird is likely to be focused on wages and benefits…which is what they all come down to. An early bird really does nothing different than regular negotiations except that there is an intention to limit the issues and get it done without a timeline hanging over both sides.

  16. So essentially, you would be paying the $200+ an hour out of your own pocket (your taxpayer dollars!) Stinks!
    S/L-there kinda is a “timeline”hanging over TENIG- the RFP’s have already been sent out.

  17. SL,

    You’re right and thanks for the article. The reason I have not yet appealed..other then a million other things to do…is that I don’t want the District to crank up the legal bill dealing with this citizen request. Maybe it dies here…. Couple of interesting quotes from Sultanik piece:

    “Often, the early bird process does not result in the best deal for either side (particularly, management).

    Unions like to go to an early bird process because it decreases the likelihood of public exposure to what is contained in their collective bargaining agreement and will often force a school entity to come up with more dollars than they would otherwise do if they do a lengthy study of the collective bargaining agreement.

    On balance, I believe that unless a school entity has an extremely good working relationship with its union and unless a school entity is prepared to spend a few more dollars than it otherwise would have to spend in conventional negotiations and limits its issues significantly, the process, particularly in the current economy, is a problematic one.”

    Maybe that second point above applies to both sides….. Thank you again!

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