Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Will Lower Merion School District’s handling of teacher’s contract play out similarly in TE School District — Some school board candidates weigh in

Last week a tentative agreement was reached between Lower Merion School District and their teachers. The deal between LM and the union was made in secret, with a process devoid of transparency. The proposed teacher’s contract and its terms were not published for public review.

There are rumors that the TE School District is currently in ‘Early Bird’ contract negotiations with the teacher’s union. Because of the existing situation in Lower Merion, rumors of early bird talks and five seats on the TE School Board up for grabs on Election Day, there was discussion as to where our candidates stand on this issue. The following email was sent to the ten Tredyffrin and Easttown school board candidates on Saturday.

To All TE School Board Candidates:

I know that you are all very busy campaigning in advance of Election Day. Tredyffrin resident Ray Clarke added a comment on Community Matters regarding the teacher contract, negotiations and keeping the public informed. He has spoken with several of you regarding his concerns, particularly given what is currently going on in Lower Merion School District. As a result, I am asking you to read the following and provide a very brief (100 words or less) response to me by 9 PM, Sunday, Nov. 1. The question and all candidate responses received will appear on Community Matters on Monday, Nov. 2.

Negotiating union contracts (teachers and support staff) will be important tasks for the new Board. In Lower Merion School District, a secret deal is playing out between their school board and the teachers union. Much to the chagrin of Lower Merion taxpayers, the union members get to review the contract before signing but the public is left in the dark and provided no information.

During the last teachers’ contract negotiations, the TE School Board moved in the correct direction with periodic updates to the public. Assuming that there are no secret “Early Bird” deals already in discussion between the current Board and the union, [if elected] where do you stand on publishing any proposed contracts to the public at the same time as the unions send it to their members? In addition to publishing the terms of the contract to the public before signing, to also include the full annual cost of the contract for each year (including PSERS, salaries, benefits, etc.) with an explanation of how the Board will pay the costs.

Again, I understand that you are pressed for time and I thank you in advance. Your responses may help get additional voters to the polls on Tuesday.

Pattye Benson

Because I know how busy the candidates are in the last days leading up to the election, their responses were to be brief – 100 words or less. One hundred words is very short; the second paragraph in the statement above (from “During … costs.”) is 109 words.

During this campaign season, most every school board candidate has used themes of transparency, public engagement and responsiveness to citizens in their campaigning literature, meet and greets with voters and during the Chester County League of Women Voters candidate forum. It is for that reason, that a brief response would allow each candidate the opportunity to restate and to reconfirm their transparency commitment to the voters before Election Day tomorrow (November 3).

Of the ten school board candidates, responses to the question were received by Kate Murphy (R) and Fran Reardon (D), Easttown, Region 3 candidates; Neill Kling (R) and Neal Colligan (R) Tredyffrin East, Region 1 candidates and Ed Sweeney (R) Tredyffrin West, Region 2. The responses from these five candidates appear below.

The four Democratic school board candidates from Tredyffrin (Alan Yockey, Michele Burger, Roberta Hotinski and Todd Kantorczyk) each sent similar emails; all declining to respond, citing time constraints due to the campaign and/or previous personal commitments. There was no response from Kris Graham. If, as rumored (and I do say if) there are early bird negotiations already underway between the TE School District and TEEA, the District teacher’s union, it would not be possible for Ms. Graham to respond.

The TE School Board candidate responses are as follows:

Neill Kling, Tredyffrin East, Region 1 candidate:

A cloak and dagger approach serves neither party. The union must understand throughout that what their members receive can be no more than what our tax base will reasonably be able to bear. The current PESERS situation resulted from disregard of that sound principle. Thus, I believe that the taxpayers should view the contracts when they are sent to the teachers for approval. I am also in favor of providing a public estimate of how we propose to meet the contractual obligations. The District must conduct negotiations with this estimate uppermost in mind. Publishing it when they are completed is responsible stewardship.

Neal Colligan, Tredyffrin East, Region 1 candidate:

Of course, the public should be informed as negotiations move forward….this is by far the largest municipal contract in our community. Start now by presenting the existing economics…total salary, benefits, pension contribution…show the history of these costs. This information, reviewed at an entity level, will not disclose any employees’ personal compensation package and will not violate the rules of new contract discussions. As the process advances, let the community know of the issues…I doubt the Union side would object. People here are pretty fair and can draw their own conclusions on what is just as negotiations move towards a new contract.

From Ed Sweeney, Tredyffrin West, Region 2 candidate:

I would strongly agree to the first proposal if it was consistent with current agreement between the School District and the Union and with the provisions of relevant labor law. As far as his other proposals, I need more information but I am a proponent of maximum disclosure at the appropriate time.

I agree with the principle of “MORE” . . . more transparency, more public disclosure, more committee meetings convenient to working parents, and more involvement of residents and stakeholders at an early stage of committee consideration of issues. In my view, more = better. More increases public confidence and protects the taxpayer.

From Kate Murphy, Easttown, Region 3 candidate:

In Pennsylvania, salaries and benefits make up the lion’s share of any school district’s budget, generally between 70% and 80%. Pension benefits (PSERS) are set legislatively by the General Assembly and the Governor, and are not negotiated by local school boards. All collective bargaining agreements must be available to the public for review and comment well in advance of the public vote to approve such agreements. Periodic updates during the negotiations can be a helpful tool to inform the public. District estimates of the full annual cost of the contract for each year should be available for timely public examination.

From Fran Reardon, Easttown, Region 3 candidate:

In negotiating contracts within the School District, we should maintain a high level of transparency for all parties involved. Periodic updates should be available to the taxpaying public and all other stakeholders. Current annual cost of contracts should clearly be given with the long term effects of PSERS obligations also laid out and presented to the TE community in a timely fashion before any vote by the school board.

As a member of the TE School Board, I will work with the full board to give the taxpayers value for their dollar and also maintain the excellence of our schools.

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  1. Many thanks to Pattye and the responding candidates for asking and answering this question. I think that these concise statements say a lot about the candidates and I am pleased to see their commitments to be open and honest with their constituents. Residents will be served well with a new Board that applies these principles to all their decisions.

    (And as an aside re Ms. Murphy’s comment: yes, the PSERS contribution is set in Harrisburg; how we respond to that (and other externalities) is a fundamental issue for the Board.)

  2. Does it really matter what they say pattye? Scott Dorsey swore up and down that he would oppose any privatization of the workforce. How’d that work out?

  3. Check with your State legislators!
    Under PA law, the “right to know” requester will be barred from obtaining any information (on terms and strategy) about the contract (before, after and during).
    PA ST 65 P.S. Section 67.708

    The predicted cost of a contract should be available and most likely in line with the Act 1 index of 2.4.
    The obvious beginning point of a contract will be in the old contract listed on under the HR tab.

    1. Liz,

      As a Board Member, it sounds like you don’t get the concept that it’s your responsibility to be open. Citizens have many roadblocks that are thrown in our way to keep from knowing what the few in charge are doing that will effect the community. This is another in a long line. As someone has said, you can voluntarily divulge the terms of the contract. I resent that you are using bad faith manipulations to hide behind a law as a reason to keep citizens in the dark. Hopefully, the person who takes your place will understand better their duty to be open and transparent with the public.

      And, nothing is obvious.

  4. My vote is for Ed Sweeney. Ed Sweeney will be the best representative of the taxpayer, the students and the District employees. He has common sense and a deep understanding of the law. Ed listens to all involved.
    Without hesitation, I know firsthand that Ed is already ahead of the pack because he already has an understanding of local government and PA law.

  5. I agree with your observation. However, it is important to get candidate’s responses on the record.

    For instance, during the televised debate, the candidates who did not respond to this question stated that they wanted to be included in the teacher’s contract negotiation process. Yet, when asked for SPECIFICS on the process–Nothing.

    The sound of silence is telling!

    Are they going to represent the union or are they going to represent the taxpayer???
    PS-For the record, I’m not anti-union. I’m pro taxpayer.

  6. There is a more serious issue with a lame duck school board enacting a large contract.

    It might be invalid.

    Please read

    One contract was invalidated. Another one was not. The one that was not largely had to due with the fact that the new school board took multiple months before trying to get the contract invalidated.

    The one that was invalidated was IAM Local 243 v Stewartstown Borough. 44 PPER 9 (2012)

  7. Liz,

    You seem to imply that the board is prohibited from disclosing proposed contract information (“barred from obtaining any information about the contract”). As a sitting board member I hope you are fully aware that the board may VOLUNTARILY divulge the terms of any proposed contract. The statute you quote just says that the board is not FORCED to divulge the terms via a right to know request.
    The board can choose to be open or the board can choose to be secretive about negotiations and contracts.

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