Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Secret School Board Meetings Considered Strategic!

What’s that saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”? Well, when it comes to outsourcing the jobs of the aides and paraeducators in the TE School District, I think the fat lady sang two years ago and was confirmed again at last night’s School Board meeting.

We know that the Board members received many phone calls and emails regarding their February 3rd Affordable Care Act decision – 73 full-time District employees received a choice, either go part-time or your job is outsourced. Many of us in the community wanted a ‘do-over’ on the Board’s policy change. And there was hope that with a significant public pushback, that the Board would reconsider. But as we learned last night, no amount of public input was going to change their minds — the TE School Board isn’t a fan of do-overs. We got the message, loud and clear, ‘they’ make the decisions and it is up to ‘us’, the residents, to abide by them, like it or not.

Oh, many of the Board members lamented how hard the decision had been and how they wished there could have been a different outcome; repeatedly stating that they ‘had’ to do it, there just was no other way. However, no matter how many times they said it and no matter who said it, I just sat there thinking, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way”. Somehow, the Board finds money for a fancy LED sign at the high school, money for administrator raises, money for district-wide fencing projects and then money to pay legal fees defending the fencing projects, yet … there’s no money for health care benefits for the aides and paras.

Look, I had resigned myself two years ago to the fact that the Board was going to outsource this group of employees; clearly, the handwriting was on the wall then and nothing really changed since. The Affordable Care Act just gave the Board ‘cover’ … a Federal law to stand behind and something to point to as the reason for outsourcing.

No, what I found the most troubling on February 3, the intervening weeks since and then at last night’s Board meeting was the lack of transparency and disregard of the public by some of our elected officials. I am careful to say ‘some on the Board’ because I believe that not all of these Board members have agreed with the way this matter was handled. One highlight of the evening was Kevin Buraks’ diatribe defending the Board actions, referencing transparency and calling the decision of February 3rd ‘strategic’.

In addition to the many residents who reached out to the School Board over the last several weeks, special thanks go to Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Jerry Henige, Peggy Layden and Barb Jackson. These folks, who regularly attend committee and regular school board meetings, stepped up to the plate regarding the School Board’s February 3 decision. Like me, they believed that the policy change was a ‘wrong’ that needed ‘righting’ and sent a letter to the School Board stating the concerns. Unfortunately, rather than joining with us and the community in seeking a solution, the Board chose to stand behind the words of the District Solicitor. As I said last night, I really do believe that the individual School Board members are better than that letter from the solicitor and that we, and the many others who contacted them since their February 3 decision, deserved better.

Although viewed as an unfavorable School Board decision by many in the community, we will all move forward.

I’m really looking ahead to Spring!


For another take on last night’s School Board meeting, here’s Ray Clarke’s account:

I was surprised by the proceedings at last night’s Board meeting. On the positive side, the order of business was adjusted to allow airing of the two most pressing issues, the out-sourcing and fencing projects. The depth of resident concern has clearly got through. On the downside, though, there is no sign of that resident concern actually making a difference.

The fencing contract was still approved based on a specification that may or may not meet Township ordinances, and the apparently illegal ACA vote was not reconsidered. Indeed, the Board adopted the Rudy Guiliani approach: double down on the outrageousness. To paraphrase: “It was actually our considered strategy to have the meetings in secret and the vote unadvertised”. The reason given being a “threat of unionization”. That looks to me like a scheme to claim a legitimate exception to the Sunshine Act, which would be hard and expensive to disprove. Only we know full well that there have been no organization attempts for at least twelve months. I encourage everyone to review the meeting video for the unvarnished story.

Looking for a silver lining, there is a commitment to review the out-sourcing analysis at the upcoming March 9th Finance Committee/Budget workshop. Of course if this consists of showing us slides with the same numbers as given verbally on February 3rd, then our time will have been wasted. On the other hand, if there is a comprehensive analysis of:

  1. a) all the options based on realistic assumptions about the specific population of long-serving full-time employees, specific figures for penalties, laid out by year, and
  2. b) evaluation of the trade-off between those realistic options and other discretionary items like new maintenance buildings, fencing, floor refinishing, new kitchens, architect fees, etc., borrowing $24 million that costs $1 million a year while our $32 million Fund Balance sits idle, and so on then perhaps the public can be convinced that the plan does in fact represent the values and best interests of our community, and it is best to ask those employees and district residents to bear the full cost of this situation.

All those who have rallied for open government have cracked the door open a little. Thank you and please keep pushing!

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  1. Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board confronts tough budget issues amid contention
    Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2015
    By Janit C. Gorka
    For Main Line Media News

    The agenda was full Monday night at Conestoga High School as the T/E School Board addressed several difficult issues for the district. The most contentious issue was not even an official agenda item, but an ongoing discussion about the future of 73 aides and paras in the district, and how deliberation on the topic has largely been carried out behind closed doors in executive committee meetings.

    On Feb. 3, the TESB voted to change the employment status of 73 aides and paras in the district from full to part-time to lower costs while complying with Affordable Care Act requirements. The ACA requires employers to offer insurance to full-time employees, so effective immediately after the Feb. 3 meeting the impacted workers were no longer scheduled for more than 27.5 hours a week.

    “We need to establish a measurement period to analyze the impact,” said T/E School Board Vice President Doug Carlson, referring to the immediate change although the official start date would be June 1. Employees have the option of staying with reduced hours, or resign by July 1 and their position outsourced to an outside vendor where the benefits are not the responsibility of the T/E School Board.

    The decision will impact not only the current income of the 73 employees, but will affect their pensions as well. The most common period a pension is based on is the final three years of employment, which for many of these affected workers will now be entirely part-time.

    If the sting of this decision was not enough, it was how it was carried out that enhanced the public outcry. Finance Committee meetings were held in November and December publicly with no mention of the issue, and when inquiry was made to former committee Chairwoman Karen Cruickshank, she gave the March 9 Finance Committee meeting as the public forum for ACA discussions. During the winter, several executive committee meetings were held to discuss the topic. On Feb. 3 (the weather-delayed the January meeting), the T/ESB announced the change without public discussion.

    “It was a strategic decision” [to handle the issue in private sessions], said board member Kevin Buraks.

    A letter written Feb. 13 from a community group stated that this type of policy change without public exposure not only lacks transparency for the sake of support and trust of local government, but is a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. The board was advised by legal counsel.

    Board members took public questions without direct response at Monday’s meeting, deferring until the March 9 finance committee meeting. Several board members made comments about how difficult the decision was, but that it comes down to the financial burden of offering insurance which, according to a statement read by Doug Carlson, could range from $1.3 million to $3.2 million annually depending on the addition of other flexible-hour workers. Board member Karen Cruickshank encouraged community members to attend the March 9 Finance Committee meeting.

    The T/ESB also unanimously approved a resolution urging legislative action on school employee pension reform. Key points made by the board on the resolution include that the mandated Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System contributions will rise to 25.84 percent in 2015-2016, a 20.74 percent increase from 2014-2015, and that employer contributions are projected to increase sharply over the next three years, reaching 30.62 percent by the 2017-2018 school year. This projected increase will cost the T/E School District and taxpayers $43,678,978 million between 2015 and 2019.

    House Bill 168, which eliminates Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement, was also unanimously supported. The Keystone Exams assess proficiency for seniors in Algebra, Language Arts and Biology. The approved resolution will be signed by Board President Kris Graham and forwarded to the Pennsylvania Assembly encouraging Representatives to support the Bill. Continued…


    Thank-you to JANIT C. GORKA of MAIN LINE MEDIA NEWS for writing and posting this article. I enjoy reading about Lower Merion and Radnor, always good to know what goes on around you, but there is plenty to learn from the operations in TE as well. I hope to read more about TE in Main Line Media News from Janit and others in the future.

  2. The Sunshine Law Dena Lefkowitz, Senior Attorney, Office of Open Records
    Public Participation

    a reasonable opportunity shall be provided
    for residents or taxpayers to comment on
    matters of concern, official action or
    deliberation prior to official action

  3. As citizens, we cannot turn a blind eye to this action by the board. It will only open the door for them to continue to exclude residents on important decisions and breed a culture of acceptance for more “strategic decisions” to hold executive meetings behind closed doors with no public input.

    We have to let them know that we will not have an open mind about their closed door meetings.

  4. Because of the action of outsourcing of the aides and paras by the Board and other recent events, there has been continued discussion and questions around the topic of background checks for potential employees. As a follow up to the Coatsville School District story, Tom Hogan, D.A. in Chester County wrote a letter, published in the Unionville Times, Editor, Mike McGann.

    Backs federal legislation to enforce background checks, sharing of data across states

    By Thomas P. Hogan, Chester County District Attorney

    Last year, news broke that the Coatesville Area School District had hired multiple convicted felons and entrusted the safety and care of children to such criminals. For example, Victor Ford’s convictions for multiple state and federal felonies did not stop him from being hired as a special education classroom aide and coach. One year into his employment, Ford was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a young girl, and later was convicted of corruption of minors for his conduct.

    As prosecutors, we work day in and day out to protect our children from sexual predators in the classroom. But we cannot do it alone.

    Fortunately, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has acted and strengthened our state child protection laws. Specifically, the General Assembly passed a bill which bans the practice of “passing the trash” within state boundaries. “Passing the trash” is the reprehensible practice of quietly dismissing or allowing a school employee suspected of a sexual crime to resign, while still providing a letter of recommendation and failing to alert other schools to the employee’s misconduct.

    However, this legislation does nothing to stop other states from “passing their trash” to Pennsylvania. The only way to stop this is with federal legislation. Luckily, one of our own United States Senators, Pat Toomey, is leading the charge to add this protection for our children.

    Senator Toomey has introduced a bipartisan bill, the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act, to prevent abusers from reaching children

    in the first place. In addition to banning the dangerous practice of “passing the trash” from outside states into Pennsylvania, Senator Toomey’s bill requires any school receiving federal funds to perform background checks on all employees and contractors who have unsupervised access to children. Amazingly, 12 states do not require background checks for these coaches, teachers’ aides, and substitute teachers who are often hired as contractors and who have virtually unfettered access to vulnerable children. The background checks must be thorough, covering two state and two federal databases, and must be periodically updated. Many states do not check the FBI’s national database, and Pennsylvania’s background checks do not include the National Sex Offender Registry. Under Senator Toomey’s bipartisan legislation, a school may not hire a person if he or she has committed certain crimes, including any sexual or violent crime against a child.

    Senator Toomey’s bill directly reflects some of the recommendations that the Chester County District Attorney’s Office made in the Coatesville Area School District Grand Jury Report about preventing criminals from gaining access to our children. Moreover, these requirements are supported by prosecutors across Pennsylvania as a common sense way to protect kids from sexual predators and other criminals.

    Senator Toomey’s bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously during the last Congress. We urge the United States Senate to follow suit, and provide our children the protection they need and deserve.

    Our children deserve to be safe from sexual assault, whether they are at school or at home. Together, we can make it happen.

  5. An update on the outsourcing decision.

    Monday’s Finance Committee meeting regurgitated the information from the February 3rd Board meeting. The secret meetings were listed, but there was nothing to suggest that any more in depth discussions were held, or if more options or detailed assumptions were ever considered.

    (Reminds me of the NSA phone surveillance: we got “meta data” but no content. Not actually directly useful, but indicative of a pattern of behavior.)

    Anyway, we did learn that three existing suppliers have already responded to an RFP to supply full time aides and hire any current aides that wish to transition. Their proposals are to be reviewed at a special meeting of the Finance Committee, next Monday 16th at 7pm at the TEAO. Rev Dorsey requested that in addition to the operational and financial impact and safeguards to the District, information should be presented on the impact and safeguards to the individuals: details of salaries, healthcare and other benefits, pension plan, etc.

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