Pattye Benson

Community Matters


Kudos to Unionville-Chadds Ford School District . . . For Openness & Transparency on Teacher Contract Negotiations

I have previously written about Unionville-Chadds Ford School District (UCFSD) and the ongoing contract negotiations between their school board and the teachers’ union, Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Association (UCFEA). Although there has not been a definite agreement, both sides continue to meet and discuss.

A wide economic gap exists between what the UCFSD School Board is willing to offer and what the teachers union is willing to accept. The last round of discussion centered on an independent Fact-Finders Report from early February, which the UCFSD voted to accept, and the union rejected. The union’s rejection of the report ultimately derailed the proposed settlement and the three-year contract remained ‘up in the air’. The school district has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees and administrators time in the contract negotiation process.

However, post-Fact Finders Report, Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget cuts to public education has now forced UCFSD to reconsider and take their original offer “off the table” and replace it with a more affordable contract. However, since UCFEA had already rejected the Fact-Finders Report and UCFSD’s offer, it would seem highly unlikely that the teachers will accept the reduced contract offer from the district.

In my opinion, UCFSD School Board receives high marks on their openness and transparency in their contract negotiations with the teachers union and their willingness to share the process with the taxpayers. The UCFSD School Board has provided an updated contract negotiation statement, which presents an easy-to-understand 5-page document that includes a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section. An interesting fact – the entry-level salary for a teacher in UCFSD is $47,743; average teacher’s salary is $75,798 and maximum teacher’s salary is $101,427. Approximately 70 of the 330 teachers earn the maximum salary. If you add in the compensation package, the average teacher’s salary jumps to $97,092 and the highest paid teacher’s salary rises to $125K a year.

The UCFSD School Board believes that they have to protect the taxpayer’s money and object to the union’s contract requests for the following reasons:

1) The request is out-of-line due to the economic conditions – the teachers union is requesting a compensation increase of 4% -7%.

2) The requested contract is not economically sustainable due to Act 1 restrictions.

3) The district does not believe that they have to increase the contract to the level requested to attract excellent teachers.

The school board has determined that they cannot ignore these three objections because taxes will not sufficiently cover the contract. They do not think that given the economic climate, a special voter referendum would pass with voter support.

Interesting, that the UCFSD update includes TESD in their budget and teacher union contract discussion:

“One only need look a few miles north to Tredyffrin / Easttown School District (TESD) to see what happens when an economically unsustainable teacher contract is signed. The preliminary budget submitted by TESD reflects a 4.2% tax increase, which is the maximum they are allowed by law, and will result in drastic educational program cuts and still leave a budget shortfall of more that $8 million. The UCFSD School Board will not put our district in that predicament with an unaffordable contract.”

The current offer from UCFSD to the UCFEA for a three-year contract includes a salary freeze for Year 1, 1% increase, full step movement mid-year for Year 2 plus a 10% employee contribution for health care, 1% increase, full step movement mid-year for Year 3 plus a 15% employee contribution for health care. The gap between USCFSD and USFEA is obvious.

What impresses me about the USFSD School Board is their willingness to keep the community involved in the contract negotiation process. Because taxpayers are updated on the contract negotiations, there appears to be greater public dialogue during the process. I know in the past, contract negotiations have always occurred behind closed doors; I am hopeful that TESD School Board will similarly keep our community informed as the calendar moves ever closer to contract negotiation season.

T/E School Budget Discussion to Continue at Tonight’s Finance Committee Meeting . . . Salary Freeze & Demotion Considered as Possible Cost-Cutting Measure

The Finance Committee meeting will continue the budget discussion tonight, Monday, April 11 at 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School.

Following up on the Budget Workshop meeting held last month, the Finance Committee will continue to discuss various cost-cutting measures. Two new strategies introduced at the Budget Workshop will have further discussion tonight. The school board is suggesting a one-year salary freeze for the instructional and non-instructional union members. The school directors view the salary freeze as a form of shared sacrifice to show support for the district’s students. It is estimated that the pay waiver would net a cost savings to the school district of approximately $3 million.

The other new cost-saving suggestion that surfaced at the Budget Workshop was new to me . . . the option to demote or reduce full-time status of teachers for economic reasons. We learned from Dr. Waters that under Pennsylvania School Code that this action was permissible and apparently an option that more school districts are looking at as a strategy to maintain programming while providing a cost savings. I am looking forward to further discussion on this strategy at the Finance Committee. It is my understanding that the Superintendent is the one who ultimately makes the decision on where this demotion would take place in the school district.

I know that representatives from the local teachers union, Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) attend school board meetings. I would encourage and welcome public comment from TEEA at tonight’s meeting. Some of the cost-cutting strategies discussed at the Budget Workshop, and that will be further discussed at the Finance Committee, speak directly to the teachers union. I think that the time has come for the teachers union to be drawn into the discussion – I know that I would like to hear a public statement from a union representative.

Corbett Calls for 4% Pay Cut for State Workers as Dark Shadow of Government Shutdown Hangs Over Capital Hill

Teachers in Pennsylvania may be the envy of the state’s public workers. Teachers unions were asked to consider a one-year pay freeze, but many state workers may not be so lucky. In fact, a pay freeze looks charitable when compared to the sacrifice asked of state workers in Pennsylvania’s largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

To help close the $4.2 billion budget deficit, Gov. Tom Corbett wants the 45,000 public employees to help by absorbing a 4 percent pay cut in the first year of a new three-year contract. Corbett’s administration suggests that the workers would be made ‘whole’ again within two years. AFSCME’s agreement usually provides the guidepost for pacts with other unions. Contracts with AFSCME and 16 other state employee unions will expire on June 30.

Some of the lowest-paid workers in the state, AFSCME workers are paid about $34,000 a year on average. The state custodians, nursing assistants, clerical workers and snowplow drivers would see their salary drop to $32,640 under Corbett’s plan. It is anticipated that the AMFSCME pay decrease would save the state more than $60 million. If my math is correct, the cost savings from the 4 percent pay cut would equate to approximately 1.5 percent of the state budget deficit or $6 million.

Many of the public workers are already living paycheck-to-paycheck. Question, is it fair to ask for this level of sacrifice from those already struggling to get by? AFSCME workers offered Corbett their willingness to take a salary freeze for one year but the Governor rejected their offer. After all, isn’t this what Corbett had proposed for the state’s teachers?

In Corbett’s budget address last month, he warned that he would be seeking concessions from public workers. His words spoke of the painful steps that would be required to close the budget gap but I don’t know that the state workers were prepared for the level of pain they may be forced to feel!

I certainly support the notion that these difficult economic times require all of us to sacrifice, but . . . . I also have to wonder if lawmakers and top-level state managers will be asked to share the same level of pain as the public workers. I have not heard mention of suggested pay cuts for our elected officials.

As I complete this post, there is a dark shadow hanging over Capital Hill as the federal government shutdown clock continues to tick down. Washington is scrambling as the clock counts down. Failure to reach a deal for the remaining six months of the fiscal year would trigger a government shutdown at midnight tonight, causing more than 800,000 nonessential employees to be furloughed without pay. It is interesting to note that our nations lawmakers would continue to receive their paycheck!

Here’s hoping for a last-minute agreement; a government shutdown is in no one’s best interest!

The Money is Running Out for Some Pennsylvania School Districts . . . Can they keep their doors open?

One school district in crisis . . . can others be far behind?

The Duquesne School District is located in Allegheny County, a suburb of Pittsburgh. A former steel mill town, Duquesne is no newcomer to hard times. The last couple of decades the population in this cash-strapped community has steadily declined.

In the age of Big Steel, towns like Duquesne, Pennsylvania were the backbone of America’s industrial might . . . a beacon for thousands of immigrants looking for a better life. But that was then . . . this is now. Once a booming steel mill town, Duquesne began its downward economic spiral in 1985 with the closure of a U.S. Steel facility. The largest employer in town, U.S. Steel provided a steady tax base and, more importantly, jobs for the hundreds of kids coming out of Duquesne High School each year. The plant closed and with its closure, so went the jobs. Unemployment figures soared, economic decline began and hope for the future has slowly disappeared.

In 2007, Duquesne’s only high school was forced to close . . . the school district can only afford to educate its young people in grades kindergarten through 8th grade. If you want a high school education, you must go to anther school district. The state declared the district financially distressed in 2000.

Fast forward to 2011 and Corbett’s proposed massive public education funding cuts; what does it mean for the future of Duquesne and its children? U.S. Steel decided it was no longer profitable to keep its doors open in Duquesne but the school district does not have that option. For the record, currently Duquesne School District relies on $11 million of its $14 million budget from state funding. Corbett’s proposed budget will mean a loss of $2,000 in state funding per student in the Duquesne School District where more than half of the students are from low-income families. Raising property taxes in this cash-strapped district is not an option.

Declining tax bases in some areas of the state are forcing those school districts to the edge. As other school districts across Pennsylvania struggle to keep foreign languages and the arts in their curriculum, Duquesne School District fights just to keep their doors open. The Duquesne School District’s proposed ‘bare bones’ budget for 2011-12 includes the elimination of 35 teaching jobs, freezing salaries and increasing class sizes to 23-to-26 students per class. Their pared down program includes no academic coaches, no tutoring, no field trips, no sports teams or no extra-curricular activities. Is this skeleton programming a sufficient education?

If there is no change to the proposed state budget cuts to public education, Duquesne School District may have to close its remaining school doors. Duquesne School District is but an example of a Pennsylvania school district on the brink of complete failure. But it does beg the question, can others be far behind?

It is important to look beyond our own backyard as we focus on the finances of our own school district and its budget deficit.

Looks like Harrisburg Wants Local School Districts to solve their Own Budget Problems

Following-up on my post from yesterday concerning T/E School District’s financial outlook and the ongoing debate on how to close the $3.5 million+ budget gap, I don’t know how much help we can expect from Harrisburg.

Yesterday, at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, the Acting Education Secretary, Ronald Tomalis took a hard-line when it came to school district budgets, suggesting among other things, that they should have planned better with the federal stimulus money. He stood firm in his defense of Corbett’s proposed $1.2 billion buts to public and higher education.

Tomalis attitude towards successful public school education mirrored some of those that have commented on Community Matters. He suggests that success is not measured by how much school districts spend but rather there are other significant factors . . . quality of teachers, class size, etc. that make a difference. More money spent does not necessarily correlate to better education.

In reviewing the state’s public education funding in prior years, Tomalis noted that the budget has more than doubled over the last 10 years but that enrollment has dropped by 50,000 students, which translates to a higher per student cost. Interestingly, he suggests that the improvement in academic achievement has not increased as more money has been spent. Rather than looking at the money spent per child to educate as a tool to measure success, Tomalis’ theory is that graduation rates and test scores present a more accurate picture of individual school district success.

In looking at what has driven the upward spiral of spending in public education, Tomalis directed criticism at school district spending habits in recent years. He noted that $1.1 billion has gone toward teacher and administration raises rather than educational programming since the recession began in 2008, citing labor costs are determined at the local level. According to Tomalis, Corbett’s suggestion of a one-year salary freeze for public education employees was an attempt to help the school districts with their budget problems. In addition to saving school districts an estimated $400 million with this one-year freeze, Tomalis believes that as many as 4,000 public school jobs could be saved as a result of the salary freeze.

Many have commented on Community Matters that the fate of our local school district budget deficit needs to be addressed in Harrisburg but there seems an attitude from Tomalis that the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of local elected school board members. “We hire these leaders at the local levels to make the tough decisions,” Tomalis said. “And we don’t just hire them to lead in good budget times, but we hire them to lead in tough times, too”. Strong words from Harrisburg that sound a bit like a ‘you deal with it’ attitude towards the school boards. Interesting. I am hopeful that Tomalis’ remarks also include an expectation that local state representatives are to help their respective school districts manage their budget problems.

In discussing how school districts could find savings, Tomalis suggested that districts could share superintendents or share contracts for business operations. Another cost-saving suggestion was merging of school districts. There are currently 500 school districts in the state, and it is believed that state funding could be improved with fewer districts.

Much of the discussion at the committee meeting centered on what the state budget cuts will mean to the local school districts. How are the districts going to meet the demands of their budget? For many districts, the state funding cuts are going to force local property taxes to skyrocket. When questioned about the dramatic property tax increases for some residents violates Corbett’s pledge ‘not’ to raise taxes, Tomalis vehemently disagreed. I disagree with Tomalis disagreeing . . . if Pennsylvanians end up with a higher property tax bill because of state cuts in public education spending, that is a tax increase. I do not believe by pushing the increase down to the local level, removes the responsibility of the tax increase from our elected officials shoulders in Harrisburg. Is it fair for the governor’s budget to force school districts to raise property taxes?

Sen. Andy Dinniman questioned that some groups are saying there is potential that the budget cuts could destroy public education. Tomalis denied that there would be an impact to the quality of education with the budget cuts; suggesting that the federal stimulus money was the cause for the cuts. The stimulus money was an intended one-time use and now with that money gone, the state is left with a budget hole to fill. Accordingly, Tomalis blamed the school districts for not better planning for the end of stimulus money. “If you were told again and again that this is a funding cliff that is coming in two years, and you were advised not to make an expenditure that is going to lock in for five or 10 years down the road, it does matter,” said Tomalis.

In reading the transcript from the meeting, other education topics were discussed, including voucher program (Tomalis is a supporter), teacher furloughing, charter schools, etc. In addition there was discussion at the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting centered on higher education and the severe funding cuts to state universities and colleges. For the purposes of this post, I decided to focus my comments on the local school district funding issue.

Tomalis takes his education platform to the House Appropriations committee today.

Looking at Local School Districts, Does the Buck Stop with Taxpayers?

As Tredyffrin-Easttown School District works through the 2011-12 budget, it is interesting to watch how other school districts are handling their budget shortfalls, particularly in light of the public education cuts in Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget.

This week the Radnor School District and the Radnor Township Education Association reached a tentative agreement for a new teacher contract. The collective bargaining negotiations between the school district and the teacher union have been going on for over a year. Details of the contract will not be released until after the teachers union presents the contract to its members for ratification early next week. As our school district neighbor, I wonder if their contract will have any influence on TESD teacher contract discussions.

Another neighbor to TESD, the Phoenixville Area School District (PASD) has major budget issues. As the dust settles from the cuts contained in Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget, a tax hike of 8.75% is needed to close the gap – twice as much as the district had anticipated. Previously, the school district budget included a 4.43% tax increase but with the loss of state funding, they will require an additional 4.32% . . . a tax hike of 8.75%!

At the Pottstown School District meeting this week, their school board took a stand with three interesting votes:

  1. The school board rejected the idea of “forward borrowing” of $23 million without voter approval. (The district has authorization for $28 million for work on the district’s elementary schools and the vote would have increased that borrowing amount by $23 million).
  2. The school board approved the extension of a contract for mid-level administrators and principals that freeze their salary for one-year. (Cost savings: $30K)
  3. The school board accepted an offer by the district’s three top administrators to freeze their salaries for one-year. (Cost savings: $15K)

Prior to the vote, the school district was considering a 4-year contract for administrators and principals to include a minimum 1.5% salary increase plus potential merit pay increases. According to the district superintendent, following the announced funding loss from the state was announced, these employees volunteered to take pay freezes for one-year. Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget will provide $3.1 million less state funding to the Pottstown School District.

For comparison sake, I checked on the salaries of administrators in the Pottstown School District. The top 10 highest paid administrators in the Pottstown School District earn in the range of $102K – $119K per year; their superintendent has a base salary of $152K.

The Pottstown school board hopes that the administration’s one-year pay freeze sends a message to the teacher union, Pottstown Federation of Teachers. According to Pottstown Mercury, , Pottstown School District president thanked the administrators for the one-year salary freeze, “I want to thank you for pulling your belts a little tighter for us, I hope some of the other school districts around here see what you’re doing for us, how you lead by example.” There is an unresolved contract between the district and the teachers union. The teachers are currently without contract and last month rejected the independent fact-finders report that the school board accepted unanimously. Sound familiar . . . Unionville-Chadds Ford School District currently have a similar situation with their teachers union.

I guess TESD can take solace in knowing that we are not alone. With school districts facing looming deficits in their budgets and increasing expenses, Corbett’s proposed budget does not offer much hope for help from the state.

Corbett’s campaign promises included no tax increase but it seems to me that he has just pushed that job down to the local school districts. School districts are expected to balance their school budgets, but how? Not much in the way of choices . . . school boards are forced to make education cuts or they raise taxes. Does no responsibility lie in the shoulders of our elected officials in Harrisburg? How can they expect citizens to pay more in property taxes than they can afford?

Or . . . does the buck just stop with the taxpayers?

Some Pennsylvania School Districts Look at Early Retirement Incentive Plans to Help Budget Deficits . . . Could this be a less-painful option?

It is interesting to note how other school districts are exploring different options internally to reduce expenses.

Apparently, Tredyffrin Easttown School District joins the ranks of Bucks County’s Morrisville School District to consider outsourcing custodial services in addition to an early retirement plan to its teachers.

According to a recent article in Morrisville School District’s school board suggests that these measures are required due to “out of control spending due to increases in salaries, benefits and pensions.”

Although Morrisville School District is ‘only’ facing a $2.5 million deficit, they are facing some of the same problems as TESD. This district is offering a special ‘early retirement incentive plan’ to teachers as a way to reduce costs. Teachers have until March 31 to decide whether to take this option.

Has TESD considered some form of an early retirement incentive plan for teachers? It is possible that I missed this discussion in school district. For those that have followed the school district closely, any information on this topic is appreciated. As school districts across the state are struggling to balance their budget deficits, I find it of interest to look at options that other school districts have explored.

Looking beyond Morrisville School District, I wondered if other school districts were exploring an early retirement incentive option as a cost-saving measure. Middletown Area School District (MASD) in Dauphine County, (10 miles from Harrisburg) is also offering a retirement incentive plan to teachers in an effort to reduce their gaping deficit. For those teachers that qualify, they have until March 21 to decide on this option.

The MASD early retirement incentive is available to full-time employees covered by the teacher union collective bargaining agreement who have at least 30 years of district service by June 30, 2011 and incur no more than one additional year of service under the state employees retirement system (PSER) after retiring from the district. Employees 55 or older with 20 years of service by June 30 also can retire under the same conditions.

Benefits of MASD’s retirement incentive include a $20K one-time contribution into employees’ 403(b) accounts that won’t be included when computing their annual salaries for retirement benefits. Health care benefits under terms of their current teacher union contract which expires June 30, 2012 will also be made available if a “sufficient number” of eligible employees retire under the incentive.

Could an early retirement incentive plan be a ‘less-painful’ way of reductions of costs for school districts in budget crisis? In Morrisville School District and Middletown Area School District, their 2011-12 budgets will be ‘tweeked’ based on how many teachers take advantage of the retirement incentive. These kind of early retirement incentive plans are similar to models often seen in private industry for employees. Understandably, it is too late to enact an early retirement incentive plan for the 2011-12 school district budget in TESD, but what about for the following year’s budget?

Any discussion of an early retirement incentive plan would take cooperation between school districts and teacher unions. However, with talk swirling in Harrisburg of teacher furlough legislation, I would think the conversation of early retirement incentive plans would be a conversation that teacher union leaders might welcome.

Continuing Tuition Voucher Discussion . . . What’s the next step for SB1?

Continuing the discussion of the tuition voucher program, a Community Matters asked for a list of the 144 low-performing schools cited in the proposed SB1 legislation. The plan would allow the parents of a needy child to take the state subsidy that would have been directed to their home school district and apply it to the public, private or parochial school of their choice. For the Harrisburg School District, for example, that amount would equal approx. $9,000/yr. Here is a link to the schools; listed in the order of performance, #1 is the lowest performing school.

The five lowest-performing schools in Pennsylvania are:

#1: Learning Academy North, Philadelphia City School District (0.00)
#2: University City High School, Philadelphia City School District (5.12)
#3: Washington Education Center, Ephrata Area School District ((7.69)
#4: West Philadelphia High School, Philadelphia City High School (9.64)
#5: Simon Gratz High School, Philadelphia City High School (10.54)

The number in parenthesis following the school represents the combined reading and math proficiency level in percentages. There is no other explanation but I read this to mean that Simon Gratz HS averages 10.54% of students performing at the required reading/math level. Assuming that the ‘0.00’ attributed to Learning Academy North is not a misprint, and if I understand the statistic correctly, it would seem as though no students at this school are effectively performing at the required reading/math level. Could this be possible? It would seem unbelievable . . . where is the accountability?

I decided to see if I could find any information about Learning Academy North, the lowest-performing school in Pennsylvania. It is a new school, only opened its doors 4 years ago. The district-run high school is small with only approximately 100 students and is a “nurturing alternative for expelled students” according to one article I read. Learning Academy North is located on N. Front St., in Philadelphia and is listed as one of the eight ‘Philadelphia Accelerated Schools’ (thought that an interesting category, given it’s english/math proficiency level). These specific schools offer full-time academic programs, for students, ages 16-21, who have earned fewer than 8 high school credits and who wish to return to school.

The school accommodates students who have been expelled from the District or are waiting for their expulsion hearing. Students at Learning Academy North can earn an official Student District diploma. In theory, this type of school looks like a good alternative for the older, returning students. However, based on the performance level, that does not appear to the case.

The Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) is mounting a major anti-voucher campaign to oppose any tuition voucher plan and is asking public school officials to join the effort by contact their legislators. No doubt caving to public requests, the PSBA has now added the survey charts from Opinion Research to their website. The summary presents the findings of a survey of 805 Pennsylvania adults conducted Aug. 25 – Sept. 24, 2010. Ten questions were asked in the survey (click here for survey questions and responses).

The Berks-Mont newspaper ( reviewed the survey and offered the following observations on January 31:

  • About two out of three Pennsylvanians (67%) oppose giving public money to parents so they can send their children to a private school. Only a small minority (13.7%) of Pennsylvanians strongly favor taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. Most older Pennsylvanians, aged 55 or older, oppose taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers and, in fact, 51% strongly oppose them. Over 70% of individuals surveyed under the age of 34, strongly or somewhat oppose tuition vouchers, more so than any other respondent age group.
  • For respondents declaring a political affiliation, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans indicate opposition to taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. Democrats more so than Republicans, however, oppose taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers 69% to 58%, respectively. Independents also do not embrace tuition vouchers with 68% of them indicating that they either somewhat or strongly oppose them.
  • Regardless of zip code, opposition to tuition vouchers is universally held across all Pennsylvania regions. More than two-thirds of Pennsylvanians oppose tuition vouchers in all areas of the state except in the northeast (61% oppose tuition vouchers) and the southwest (64% oppose tuition vouchers).
  • Strong opposition to tuition vouchers is almost equally shared by whites and non-whites alike. More than two-thirds (69%) of non-white individuals indicated that they somewhat or strongly oppose taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. This is slightly more than whites where 66% said the same. Only 10% of non-white respondents said they strongly favor taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers.
  • Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians (66%) oppose state law that requires school districts to pay the tuition of students attending privately operated charter and cyber charter schools. Like the issue of vouchers, Pennsylvanians hold very strong opinions on charter school tuition. Respondents holding opinions of strong opposition against charter tuition payment by school districts (44%) is almost four times greater than those strongly favoring tuition payments to charters by districts (11%).

The PSBA conducted a call-in program on Feb. 3 about taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. Click here for the link to the 47 PowerPoint slides that were used during the call to PSBA members.

What is the next step for the tuition voucher plan . . . proposed SB1 legislation will be subject of a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 16. PSBA will present testimony at that meeting. Gov. Corbett’s budget proposal on March 8 will probably include the voucher plan. Following the budget address, the General Assembly will recess for a few weeks in order for the Appropriations Committees in the Senate and House to hold hearings and discuss various components of Corbett’s budget. The voucher bill will not move until mid to late spring.

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

I wonder if the school voucher discussion is going to threaten the position of teacher unions, especially during contract negotiations. Gov. Tom Corbett is planning to make good on his campaign promise to move forward toward school vouchers for Pennsylvania parents. Contained in his inaugural address were the words, “Our education system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition, and choice in our education system.” Corbett issued a commitment to a voucher program, stating “Today’s Pennsylvania’s tradition of character and courage carries on in the single mother who works an extra job so she can send her children to a better school.”

However, pushing a school voucher program is not strictly a Republican initiative. Senators Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat and Republican Jeffrey Piccola from Daphin County have co-sponsored legislation that would give state money to poor students who want to transfer to a private school or another public school. In its current design, the Senate Bill 1 initially will only affect the 144 poorest-performing Pennsylvania schools. (101 of the schools are located in either Philadelphia or Delaware counties.) After two years, the program would expand to include all low-income students in the state. In the current budget year, the state is spending more than $9 billion on education, with more than $5.1 billion on basic education alone. This year the state is spending more than $14,000 per student in the public school system, though the amount per student fluctuates from district to district.

Sen. Williams believes that school choice is a civil rights issue. In a statement accompanying the introduction of the voucher bill, he states “Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue to the segregation of the ’60s. Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? … Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

Not surprising, the powerful state teacher unions and their supporters are not fans of a school voucher plan, claiming that this type of legislation amounts to abandonment of public school education. Can one argue that this type of school voucher plan actually removes financial support from the public school that need more support rather than less? Teacher unions worry about accountability for private and religious schools, which are not held to the same governance standard as public schools. What happens if school choice passes and a student leaves a failing school and does not improve at a charter or private school? Whose fault is it then?

Former Gov. Tom Ridge failed with his school choice initiative in the 1990s. Is there significant change in the political climate in 2011 to support a voucher initiative? If Philadelphia is any indicator, there seems to be a movement among parents in big cities wanting better (and safer) schools for their children. Historically, there has been support for unions in the big cities, but parents are tired of waiting for the public schools to improve. To succeed, Corbett and his legislative supporters will need to balance the interests of urban parents who want better schools for their children with the suburban parents (like those in the T/E school district) who believe that public school may not need to change.

I support the right of all children to attend ‘safe’ schools but as we know from news reports, that is not always possible in Philadelphia. Is a school voucher plan the only option for parents to keep their children safe from violence, gangs, drugs in some of Philadelphia’s inner city schools? Unsafe public school must change, but how?

Does anyone share my uneasiness that a school voucher program may potentially violate Article III, the separation of church and state, contained in the state’s constitution? A voucher system cannot regulate where the money goes . . . I would think that using state tax money for religious schools would violate the constitution.

Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could? I’m curious to hear what others think about a school voucher plan. Do you think that the school voucher discussion is going to affect the teacher contract negotiations, one way or the other?

TESD Looming Deficit Continues to Rule Decisions . . . Property Taxes to Increase + Middle School Latin & German to Disappear

Last night was T/E School Board’s monthly meeting. I attended the Board of Supervisors Meeting but I am pleased to provide Ray Clarke’s notes. In reading Ray’s notes, I understand that the school district has to make difficult decisions but it is disheartening to see that the district made the decision to phase out Latin in the middle school (as well as German).

I have mentioned it before but will repeat, our daughter had 12 years of Latin before going to college and then to medical school. Latin proved to be a significant help to Lyndsey with other languages, science courses undergraduate and later in medical school, In medical school, her background in Latin provided a ‘bonus’ in the way of help; a foundation that some of her fellow students lacked. As a first year resident, her background in Latin continues to assist her daily. Beyond a medical career, there is much to be gained in life lessons through the study of Latin. My fear is that if the school district phases Latin from Middle School, the interest and enrollment will continue to go down for Latin in the high school. This is unfortunate news.

An interesting aside, I received an email from someone outside of the school district who is thinking about relocating to our area. In researching the school district, he had found Community Matters and had several questions, including whether we had an Earned Income Tax and rate of property taxes. He also wanted to know the timeline for teacher contract negotiations . . . interesting.

Notes from Ray Clarke from the T/E School Board Meeting:

Two important votes at a very well-attended School Board meeting on Monday night. (Good result from all the district Communication activities). Again, 5 to 4 to pursue the request for Exceptions to enable a 4.2% property tax increase. Also, 7 to 2 (Bookstaber, Buraks) to phase out middle school Latin and German.

Public comment on the Exceptions broke down into the usual extremes. I was taken by a small business owner who brought the perspective of the commercial properties that pay 20% of the education bill in T/E. When a small business revenue is down, these inexorable tax increases have a very real impact on the bottom line. On the other side, a parent commented on the choices that everyone makes on whether to live in T/E, implying that those who don’t like the property taxes should move. If we think the district has a crisis now, what would be the state if all the seniors are forced out and replaced by school-aged families?

Generally all members of the School Board that did speak (all except Bruce, Motel) were against tax increases; the majority favored keeping options open while more data is gathered. This position will of course be untenable when we get to the final vote (Proposed Final: May 9th, then Final: June 13th). One data point I’m interested in: the February 14th banker report to the Finance Committee on the Fund Balance, borrowing rates and debt capacity – hope springs eternal! Kevin Mahoney made very thoughtful comments (well, I agree with them, anyway) that everyone would do well to watch on the replay.

Much positioning re the next TEEA contract; it will be interesting to see how the talk (eg: fix the contract, abolish the matrix) translates into action. Also notable in this regard: President Cruickshank implied that the pension increases are “going to Harrisburg” – well not really, they are part of the compensation of teachers here in T/Ewhich we need to take into account when negotiating the other parts.

It was helpful to have the discussion about the Latin and German programs. Students and parents had actually been voting with their course selections: enrollment has been on a downtrend to small levels. Rich Brake encouraged the administration to take all possible steps to encourage selection of these languages in the High School, as many do for Italian and Chinese now. I do like the idea that the current focus is to really push for fluency.

The Board went to great lengths to emphasize that it values all community comments, so let’s make sure that all perspectives are heard, and that those perspectives are based on actual data, not emotion!

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