Pattye Benson

Community Matters


In a Show of Union Solidarity – Pennsylvania Teachers Unions Joining Forces with AFL-CIO

We have watched the Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker and his battles with state employees over legislation to take away collective bargaining rights. Walker’s actions hit a cord across the country; public employees are drawing the battleground in Ohio, Florida, from coast to coast. Now we see it in Pennsylvania.

The proposed $1 billion budget cut to public education by Gov. Tom Corbett has driven three teachers unions in the Lehigh Valley area to organize. Because of school district budget deficits and state funding cuts, hundreds of teacher jobs are on the chopping block in the Lehigh Valley . . . the teacher unions are fighting back. In a show of solidarity, 3,500 teachers in the Allentown, Bethlehem Area and Easton Area school districts have voted to unite with union members from the Lehigh Valley Labor Council and Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. The teachers are joining forces with their brothers and sisters in the manufacturing, building and service unions to fight Harrisburg. The AFL-CIO membership in Pennsylvania has 900,000 union workers. Together, the unions believe they need to take a stand for the working middle class family in Pennsylvania.

With organized labor getting behind the teachers, one could guess that means additional financial support to help fight Harrisburg. Union members believing that Corbett’s budget is an attempt to balance the budgets on the backs of the working class, these 1.1 million voices are saying ‘no’ to the Governor and his proposed budget cuts for public education.

Exactly what these ‘voices’ have in mind for Harrisburg is yet to be seen. And I wonder if the TESD teachers will decide on a similar path to the Lehigh Valley teachers as the school board works to balance the district budget and as the calendar moves closer to contract negotiations.

Tredyffrin Easttown School Board Meeting . . . Notes from Ray Clarke

We are very fortunate to have Ray Clarke not only attending the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board meetings but so generously willing to share his notes and thoughts with all us. Last night was no exception — and below are Ray’s notes from the meeting.

I am curious about the IT upgrade proposal. The School Board accepted the proposal from Teranet Consulting Services for Phase I – Part 1 of the IT upgrade, not to exceed $11,625. According to the information on the TESD website, “The consulting services are to survey the network, develop a project plan and establish specs for support and services needed to implement the upgrades recommended by the administration.”

Last week the 4 page proposal from Teranet Consulting Services was part of the agenda package but after last night’s school board meeting the proposal letter is no longer available online. I wish the proposal letter from regarding Teranet was not removed, as I was trying to track down the company ‘Teranet’ and could not find it — only a company out of Chicago. No conspiracy theory on my part, . . . just trying to get further information on this consulting group. If someone from the School Board is reading Community Matters, perhaps they could provide a link to the proposal or a copy of the proposal to me at . Thank you.

Here are some items that caught my eye and ear in Monday’s School Board meeting.

1. The administration reported on proposed changes to the high school schedule and staffing, to implement a 42 period cap for students and to increase teaching classes for teachers.

The cap would be subject to a few exceptions; for example, for co-curricular classes like orchestra and chorus that also meet outside the school day, and for academic support. Much discussion by the Board of whether studio art classes should also be exempt, although these seem to be just like music classes which would be in the cap. Reportedly the cap is highly favored by students. The middle school “advisory period” has proved really popular.

Eliminating the “professional period” for teachers would bring the number of teaching periods for T/E in line with neighboring districts, at the expense of activities that teachers elect to undertake, like “office hours”, club oversight, mentoring, etc.

Note that both these changes will in the long run bring financial benefit to the district, but only after the staff has reduced through attrition.

2. The high school musical will be Phantom of the Opera, for which the rights have just been released to schools. If this comes close to matching the stunning Les Miserables production of five or so years ago, tickets will be hard to come by. Big vocal and technical demands, though, especially for the radio-controlled boat….

3. Under Education, there was discussion of increasing the Highway Safety class size to 60 – maybe not so bad – and teaching AP World History in 9th Grade – a big stretch, it seems to me. Also the changes in World Languages look to be enabling deeper immersion in core languages like Spanish and French. A good development.

4. Under Facilities, the Board was presented with, and approved, only the first part of the consultant proposal for work on the data network upgrade. To me, this constraint is a step in the right direction. It would be nice to see an IT project that is actually driven by user/education requirements and a real business case rather than by the technical/facilities people! We should watch future Facilities Committee meetings closely for the justification of the likely multi-million dollar expenditure.

5. And the Committee to be watched most closely, of course, is the Finance Committee. Kevin Mahoney previewed the December 13th meeting, which will set the stage for the Board’s big tax decision on January 3rd. That next meeting will unveil near term projections including:

  • Updated PSERS costs from Harrisburg’s parting “gift” of HB2497, (a slight reduction over the expected increase for 2011/12 and much bigger benefit for the following few years, as discussed here previously)
  • New estimates for key budget variables (eg interest rates, price increases, compensation increases)
  • Presumably some guess at the attrition-enabled impact of the Education programs
  • Any other budget strategies

An important date for anyone concerned with tax increases.

Sen. Dinniman Speaks out re State Teacher Union, Pennsylvania State Education Assocation (PSEA). . . Where’s the Cooperation . . . Is this an Indicator of the Future?

I think that we all agree that there is a looming pension funding problem in the Commonwealth. Knowing this, I read with interest of the Harrisburg meeting yesterday calling to attention ongoing issues between the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the State Education Committee. Sen. Dinniman is the minority chair of the Education Committee and is obviously frustrated and spoke out regarding the lack of cooperation on part of the teacher union. (Article on this subject appears in today’s PA Independent, see below).

For those that are interested, here is the link for the TESD teacher’s collective bargaining agreement, 2008-2012. I am not sure exactly when contract negotiations begin for the next contract but in review of the contract, I found the following which may indicate that discussions on the next contract would start in 2011. Is this correct? Tomorrow is the scheduled date for Methacton School District teacher’s strike . . . however, in an effort to ward off the strike there is a negotiation session scheduled for 8 PM tonight between the Methacton School District and teacher union representatives. I’m guessing that the Tredyffrin-Easttown teacher local president Peter DePiano will be closely watching Methacton.

Understanding that the demographics of the District will impact the matrix, the parties agree to a joint labor-management committee which will convene in the 4th year of the agreement to discuss possible strategies to keep increment costs down.

With our own school district beginning to have serious discussions about funding next year’s school budget, the article is timely. We know that the funding deficit in the school district for 2011-12 may be as high as $8.5 million, based on this week’s Finance Committee meeting. Understanding ways to handle the school district deficit . . . increasing property taxes, cutting school district programs and staff or imposing an Earned Income Tax (EIT); the upcoming School District meeting on Monday is important. The School Board has arranged a public EIT presentation by the Pennsylvania Economy League at Conestoga HS auditorium, 7:30 – 9 PM, Monday, October 18.

Education reform debate foreshadowed in Pa. legislative meeting
October 14, 2010
By Eric Boehm PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — If Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education Committee is any indication, education reform could be an explosive issue in Harrisburg next year.

During a day-long hearing on the potential expansion of school choice options in Pennsylvania, state Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester), told representatives from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) that reforms would only be possible with cooperation from the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Apparently, such cooperation has been difficult to come by. “We can’t engage in a dialogue with you guys,” said Dinniman, minority chairman of the committee. “Either we talk or we don’t talk. Because if we all pass in the night saying we care about kids, and we never come together to talk, then the kids of this commonwealth are going to suffer.”

Dinniman told PSEA Treasurer Jerry Oleksiak committee members were very frustrated at being stonewalled by the union for several months. He said repeated attempts to set up a meeting with union leaders have been cancelled or ignored, and lobbyists hired by PSEA have publically “made nasty comments” about himself and Senate Education Committee Chair Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), another supporter of school choice programs.

The PSEA opposes expanding school choice initiatives, including vouchers and charter schools, because the organization claims they put traditional public schools at a disadvantage for funding.

“We know what works,” said Oleksiak, who pointed to several successful public school districts in the state. “We need targeted, direct resources into what we know works. Long-term, bi-partisan commitment, put the ideology aside. We need to address public education as a key civil right for the students in our Commonwealth.”

Dinniman said it took him nine months to get a list of educational priorities from PSEA when he was working to craft legislation, which he said made him wonder if PSEA’s commitment to students was “only window dressing.”

Wednesday’s hearing was meant as a preview for what is likely to be a major policy issue next year. Both major gubernatorial candidates have signaled their intent to pursue school choice initiatives if elected. Piccola said the cost of public education has become too much for the state’s taxpayers to bear. On average, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student in the state’s public schools, and funding has increased by 40 percent over the last eight years. Despite the increase in spending, Piccola said student achievement has been flat statewide.

“We have to figure out how to spend the money we do have more efficiently. And it is quite clear to me, and I think it is quite clear to Sen. Williams and Sen. Dinniman, that the systems we have created called public schools are not performing,” said Piccola.

Piccola, Dinniman and state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) plan to introduce legislation in January to expand the number of charter schools in the state and create a voucher program to give more families access to alternative public schools.

Both major gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania have promised to make school choice a priority of their administrations.

Public Pension News Out of Harrisburg Today

Following up on the discussion from last night’s school board meeting, there was some interesting news out of Harrisburg today. The House lawmakers made a first stab at addressing the impending public pension crisis by voting to reduce pension benefits for future state and school district employees.

The House passed an amendment that, among other things, would raise the standard retirement age to 65 for both the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) and the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS). The retirement ages now are 62 and 60, respectively. It also extends the vesting period to be eligible for a pension from five years to 10 years. If I understand the components of the amendment correctly, it would offer the taxpayers short-term relief but also incorporate long-term reform.

The size of pensions for people who are hired in the future would be cut by one-fifth, unless the employees agree to have more money taken out of their paychecks. Retirees would no longer be able to withdraw their own contributions, plus interest, in a lump-sum cash payment upon retirement.

All the proposed changes would affect new employees only. The bill would have no effect on pension benefits for 200,000 current and retired state employees and 500,000 members of PSERS or change the format of both systems’ defined benefit pension plan, under which a retiree collects a percentage of his or her salary based on a formula that weighs age, years of employment and their own contributions. If enacted, the new pension rules would take effect January 1 for new state employees; July 2, 2011, for new school employees and December 1, 2011, for lawmakers who take office after the fall election.

The underlying bill — which could get a vote on final passage in the House as early as tomorrow — would add to the long-term cost of the pension systems by restructuring them financially but reduce the projected size of crippling payments due into both systems in two years. Should it pass, the bill would gradually limit the amount of a single year’s increase in costs to governments and school districts (taxpayers) to eventually reach no more than 4.5 percent of payroll.

It is my understanding that the prospects of passage in the House appear positive (given its wide support by both political parties). A positive vote will send it on to the state Senate.

Ray Clarke Provides Notes from TESD School Board Meeting & Budget Approval Process

My friend, Ray Clarke once again has not let us down with his detailed notes and commentary from the TESD School Board meeting. Posting the agenda from last night’s meeting, I noted its 101 pages so I have a feeling that last night was long and tedious. Which makes me all the more grateful that Ray attended, took notes and then provides us with his thoughtful remarks. Thanks Ray!

I was particularly interested to know that PSERS was discussed at the meeting. The large white elephant in the room, we’d all like to hope that PSERS goes away or somehow just self-corrects but we know that’s just wishful thinking. PA House Appropriations Chair Dwight Evan’s proposed legislation addresses PSERS, but appears to be a delay tactic where the major liability to the taxpayers remains. But I suppose one could say his bill is better than nothing . . . which is where we currently are on the subject.

At the end of Ray’s notes he asks for State House candidates Drucker and Kampf to weigh in, but my experience says that will be doubtful. Unfortunately, my discussions with politicians anymore seem to be laced with an ‘it’s off the record’ remark . . . but maybe these candidates will surprise us!

Read over Ray’s comments from the meeting and please provide your thoughts. Any other readers attend the meeting, if so, please weigh in with your comments.

The School Board passed:

  • The 2010/11 budget with a 2.9% property tax increase, as developed and communicated over the past six months
  • Issuance of $23.6 million of bonds at “record low interest rates” – but which will still cost $36.7 million to repay over the next 15 years. Part will be used to advance refund existing bonds, which will save $170,000 next year and have a total net present value savings of $377,000 over the next dozen years. Note that the savings are front-loaded, extra costs come in the out years (see later, re PSERS……)
  • A bid to demolish the ESC, leading to a total project cost of $450,000 – about half the working estimates, which is very good news. The work to take place at the end of the calendar year.
  • Modifications to the K-6 class sizing practice that will save three teaching positions next year and more later, while remaining in accordance with current staffing policy. The implementation enabled by more recent resignations than expected.
  • A bid for printing services to replace the print shop currently housed in the ESC. Important to note that the budget strategy to save $84,000 did not explicitly articulate the $52,000 cost for the outsourced services, although apparently that cost is included in the budget. There was an agonizing 15 minute discussion while the Board and Administration talked all around this without facing up to it.

Interesting update about PSERS: PA House Appropriations Chair Dwight Evans has introduced a bill to implement a Rendell plan to delay the increase in employer (= taxpayer) contributions to teacher and state employee pension plans. Basically this limits the rate of increase of contributions via “collars” on the percentage of payroll that the taxpayer would have to contribute. Here’s an analysis:
From some of the numbers floated, I guess this would provide TESD with at least a $5 million annual expense saving (vs the current forecast) in the problem years coming up.

But of course, the liabilities are still out there, so, to quote another website:
“An actuarial note attached to the bill by PERC (the PA Public Employee Retirement Commission) estimates that the higher costs in later year will far outweigh the contribution reductions in earlier years – to the tune of an astonishing $52 billion over 30 years. That is an additional $52 billion that taxpayers – through higher state and school property taxes – will have to fork over to pay off the pension obligations, and this assumes an 8% annual return on investment.”

This bill is being compared to refinancing a mortgage, which is not a bad analogy. Continuing with that: the plan does of course completely fail to address the fact that the principal (the public sector pension liability) vastly exceeds the market value (= pensions valued at private sector levels). Not a thought being given to writing down that liability!

For how long will voters put up with the union stranglehold on the legislature? At some point the economic pain will become overwhelming. What do our current and would-be representatives think about this?

Mt. Pleasant Town Hall Meeting and TESD School Board Meeting Tonight!

The much anticipated Mt. Pleasant Town Hall meeting is tonight. This meeting has been a long time in the works; previously cancelled twice due to snow. The community meeting will be held at the First Baptist Church on Upper Gulph in Mt. Pleasant, 7 – 9 PM. Many of us have heard Christine Johnson at Board of Supervisors meeting speak passionately about issues facing her Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Tonight should present an opportunity for residents of this panhandle community to voice their opinions and concerns.

Tredyffrin Township Police Officer Larry Meoli has help to organize this meeting with Mt. Pleasant residents. Attending the meeting will be members of the Board of Supervisors and representatives from the township staff, zoning and police departments. Liaisons from the Board of Supervisors will be supervisors DiBuonaventuro, Kichline and Richter. Having just recently written about the Sunshine Law, I now understand that if more than three supervisors attended tonight’s town hall meeting, that would be viewed as a violation. I will be attending the Mt. Pleasant meeting and look forward to the exchange of information. I will provide an update tomorrow on Community Matters.

Tonight is also the Tredyffrin Easttown School District monthly school board meeting. Here is the TESD agenda.The agenda is very detailed (117 pages). In reviewing the agenda, I did note the resolution from the school district in regards to the Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS). Much has been written about PSERS and the escalating associated costs; I am pleased to see that TESD is supporting pension reform in the state! (I am hopeful that my friend Ray Clarke will be attend tonight’s TESD meeting and will provide his remarks.)

T/E School Board Meeting, 2/22/10 . . . Meeting Highlights from Malvern Resident Ray Clarke

In addition to the Board of Supervisors Meeting last night, at the same time there was a T/E School Board Meeting at Conestoga HS. As usual, my friend Ray Clarke kindly attended the School Board meeting and took notes. Here are the notes . . . thank you Ray!

Selected highlights from the School Board meeting, chaired last night with a light hand by Jim Bruce:

1. The extension of Dr Waters’ contract for a further 5 years. The last item on the Agenda, but given ample discussion. Strong support from the Board, led by Kevin Mahoney, and from community members. There is no salary increase for the full term, and it was emphasized that there are no “side deals” and that effort was made to ensure that this is a “clean contract” It will be available on the district web site soon.

This support seems to me well-deserved (taking the administration’s response ot the budget deficit elimination challenge as one recent example) and it says much about the Board’s commitment to transparency (a word much used last night) and to fiscal restraint, with its benchmark for future contracts of all types. One downside to leadership longevity (Dr Waters will have been the Superintendent for 16 years in 2015) is that you might miss the fresh ideas that an outsider can bring. That perspective can come in part from the Board, and it’s encouraging that we continue to see probing questions from Rich Brake.

2. Bill DeHaven reminded us of the times he climbed the fence at Teamer Field to play football, but more significantly spoke of the Citizen Soldier project that has compiled into a book the names of all T/E residents who served in all the nation’s conflicts up to World War II. The book, available at the CHS and township libraries, is dedicated to its prime mover and my good friend and open space visionary, the late Neil McAloon.

3. Nothing new on the budget, except that – per the Finance Committee discussion – the strategies are being regrouped to link related items, and this list will be available on the web site likely late this week. I had hoped we might hear about substantive discussions of the TEEA offers alluded to at the Finance Committee meeting, but it seems there is nothing to report. Kevin Mahoney emphasized that the Board is taking a 3-5 year perspective on the finances – clearly critical when one element of the near term solution is to use the fund balance, which can only go so far. The Board has recently met with local legislators about the PSERS problem

4. Three items related to our district going digital: a) On line course options will be increased for 2010/11 to 25 courses not currently offered at CHS; b) acknowledgment of the role of blogs like Community Matters as well as all community input (a long list of correspondence to the Board); and c) next year CHS will submit its part of the college application materials electronically – should be a big time-saver, quality improvement and stress-reducer!

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