Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Chester Upland School District

Expert Negotiators Named as TESD Teacher Contracts Talks Begin

Tredyffrin Easttown School District contract negotiation process with the teachers union, Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) is officially underway. The current 4-year collective bargaining agreement expires June 2012. (Click here for current contract).

With a cooperative tone, both sides have issued their preliminary statements – the school board recognizing the quality and standard of the District’s teachers but reinforcing the severity of our economic times. And the teachers union proudly applauding the school district as one of the best in the state and stating their desire to work together through the contract negotiations. The TEEA however did voice concern that no school board director was part of the negotiating team.

Representing the school district for the teacher contract negotiations:

  • Dan Waters, TESD superintendent
  • Sue Tiede, TESD human resources director
  • Art McDonnell, TESD business manager
  • Jeffrey Sultanik, Fox Rothchild, Blue Bell*

* Sultanik’s law practice focuses on personnel and labor relations for municipal and school districts. He chairs his firm’s Education Law Group, which has provided legal services to more than 90 school districts throughout PA. During his tenure as former president of the PA School Board Solicitors Association, Sultanik presented legislative testimony before the PA Senate Education Committee, May 2009. Click here to read a copy of his testimony, ‘Public Hearing on Teacher’s Strikes in Pennsylvania and the Impact on Public Education’.

Currently at the helm of the school district’s teacher union is TEEA president Laura Whittaker, a Conestoga HS social studies teacher. Representing TEEA in the contract negotiations is Ruthann Waldie, a UniServe representative from the PA State Education Association. Other members of the teacher negotiating team have not yet been announced.

As an aside, Waldie represented the Unionville Chadds Ford School District teachers union in their recent and very long (challenging) teacher contract negotiations. If you recall, the state intervened and assigned an outside arbitrator in the UCFSD negotiations. Although the arbitrator was brought in to bring both sides together, there was a feeling from the UCFSD teachers union (a feeling that was shared by Waldie) that the arbitrator did not fairly represent the teacher’s side. I share this information, to point out that neither Sultanik nor Waldie are novices to school district negotiations.

With two ‘A players’ (Sultanik and Waldie) in the school district/teacher union negotiating world representing the opposing sides, we’ll have to wait and see if the TESD contract process may put their skill and experience to a test.

Looking beyond T/E school district boundaries, did you see the suggestion of one Philadelphia City Council member to help fund the Philadelphia city school system? With a larger than expected budget shortfall (nearly $80 million in the red!), Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown obviously supports the theory that difficult times require creative solutions. Her proposed legislature would keep the city bars open an additional hour, until 3 AM. This extra hour of liquor tax revenue would net the schools an extra $5 million. I’m all for the ‘thinking outside the box’ ideas but somehow the use of liquor and schools in the same sentence just seems wrong – isn’t there a better way?

Chester Upland School District has become the poster child for failing school districts in the state. CUSD announced to the state in December that they would be out-of-money by early January and therefore, unable to meet their payroll, utilities, etc. With the announcement, brought an offer from the CUSD teachers to work without pay, at least temporarily. At the ninth hour, the federal court intervened, issuing a short reprieve and an order for the state to advance $3.2 million to the district. Although the state money has continued to keep the doors open and the teachers on the job, this band-aid solution was only worth a few weeks.

Come the beginning of February, Chester Upland School District will have used up their advance and once again, be out of money – CUSD needs approximately $20 million to finish out the school year. Gosh, don’t the kids in CUSD deserve to know that their schools will be open until the end of the year?

Finally, click here for a draft legislative proposal that several PA state legislators have recently made public. Marked confidential, the draft proposal document is titled “Chester Upland Fiscal Distress” and dated November 4, 2011. Interesting to note that this draft proposal was written prior to CUSD’s request to the state for financial help. The proposal calls for the state to take over school districts in financial distress (starting with Chester Upland) and run the school district with the use of an oversight board – a ‘Special Board of Control’.

This special board would have the legal authority to cancel teacher contracts, turn district schools into charter schools, reassign or suspend staff and to close schools. To be clear, this is only a draft proposal and no formal legislation has yet been introduced – however, this draft would suggest that the ‘handwriting is the wall’ for the introduction of this, or similar legislation.

Looks like Chester Upland School District could become the model for all distressed school districts across the state. It is probably a fair assumption that how the state decides to handle the financial crisis in CUSD will be duplicated in every other failing school district in Pennsylvania.

Do Higher Teacher Salaries in Philadelphia Area School Districts Equate to Higher PSSA & SAT Scores? Not According to Research Study

Periodically I have posted about the Unionville Chaddsford School District (UCFSD) and their ongoing teacher contract negotiation struggles of last year. Deadlocked contract discussions required the PA Labor Relations Board to intervene and assist with the bargaining impasse. However, even after the release of the fact-finding report, it took months for resolution and the signing of a new contract.

After working without a teacher’s contract for over a year and weathering the contract negotiation process, a new contract between the UCFSD and the teachers was signed in September 2011.

Academically, there is a similarity between the UCFSD and T/E school districts – both districts are top performing school districts in the state. On the SAT and PSSA performance, both school districts score in the top 1%. In my post of September 21, 2010, I wrote that “T/E School District ranks #2 for SAT scores and UCFSD is ranked at #5.” Using the high PSSA and SAT scores as a negotiating tool by the teachers union, I wondered if this was a tactic that would similarly be used in T/E and wondered if our school district could learn from the lessons in UCFSD.

All around we are seeing school districts struggling. We are watching Delaware County’s Chester-UplandSchool District as they try to figure out if they can make their payroll next week. Over in Bucks County’s Neshaminy School District, classes for 9,000 students are cancelled for the third day as their teachers strike. Having worked without a contract for four years, the teachers and the school board are battling over the contract and healthcare appears to be a major stumbling block on both sides.

If you follow Community Matters, you may recognize Keith Knauss as one of those that regularly comments on school district issues. Knauss currently serves on the Unionville Chaddsford School Board and brings first-hand experience, especially when dealing with teacher negotiations.

Knauss prepared a report for his own school district, which he has graciously offered for Community Matters readers. He looked at the 61 Philadelphia area school districts for factors that might explain the wide variation in academic achievement on PSSA and SAT tests.

Factors Knauss considered included:

  • Parental education
  • Poverty
  • Student to Teacher Ratio
  • Spending per Student
  • Average Teacher salary
  • Average Teacher experience
  • Average Teacher degrees

In his analysis of the data, Knauss uncovered some interesting results. He discovered that “only two factors are significant – Parental Education and Poverty and those two factors alone can explain the bulk of the differences in academic achievement.” Recognizing that “those two factors are beyond the control of the District”, Knauss notes that the “all other factors, where the District does have control over are not significant, including per student spending, class size, teacher salary, teacher experience, teacher education.”

While most of us might assume that the more experienced teachers, or those with the most education and the highest salaries would be factors associated with higher test results, Knauss research data does not support that theory, at least not in the 61 school districts in the Philadelphia area that he researched. Knauss concludes, “contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence from the 61 districts that spending or the number of teachers has a measurable effect on academic achievement.”

Click here to read Keith’s Spending Trends Presentation TE research study. I would encourage everyone to look at it – see which factors influence test scores in T/E. A fascinating study providing an interesting way to look at what may (or may not) contribute to PSSA and SAT test scores.

Going back to the Neshaminy School District, according to a November 28 article, the teachers in this district are the highest paid in the state. However, when you review the PSSA results, Neshaminy School District doesn’t even make the top 50 — but is number 245 among Pennsylvania’s 500 districts. Over half of the Commonwealth’s school districts have outperformed Neshaminy on PSSA tests for the last 10 years.

The SAT results in Neshaminy have the school district ranking number 156. And according to the article, over half of the teachers (337) make over $90K plus 64 teachers make over $100K. The average teacher’s salary in Neshaminy School District is $80-85K.

Neshaminy parents who are opposing the demands of the teachers, claiming that they are not getting ‘what they are paying for’ — believing that because the teachers are the highest paid in the state, it should equate to higher test scores. But as evidenced by Keith Knauss research data, their assumption would be incorrect. According to the research, higher salaries do not necessarily mean higher PSSA and SAT scores.

Chester Upland School District is Out of Money – Can Other School Districts be Far Behind?

There is some chilling news for public education out of Delaware County. . . is this a ‘sign of the times’.

With no help from the state and no fund balance, the Chester Upland School District (CUSD) has announced they have no money to pay their teachers. CUSD has a cash crisis and this past week the district ran out of money. Unless emergency funding arrives immediately, the CUSD will not meet its payroll on January 18 – which means no paychecks for teachers. Also, means no money for electricity or heating in the schools. To satisfy the January 18 payroll crisis, CUSD needs $7 million immediately and approximately $20 million to finish the school year.

When Gov. Corbett cut the education budget last year, we know that the cuts hit the poorer school districts the hardest – such as CUSD. Because CUSD relies on the state for nearly 70% of their funding, the district now finds themselves in the hole by $19 million and unable to disburse paychecks.

In an impressive show of support for the students, the CUSD teachers resolved through their union, to stay on the job as long as they can. As altruistic as their intentions, how long can the teachers realistically work without a paycheck. Still it shows a remarkable level of compassion from the teachers and indicates ‘who’ really cares about the students.

In mid-December, the CUSD school board and teachers union begged Corbett and PA Department of Education (PDE) for an advance 2012 emergency funding of $18.7 million — $17.5 million for basic education subsidy plus $1.2 million for special education funding. (click here to read CUSD letter).

However, on December 24, CUSD received word from Harrisburg that their advance request was denied. It was suggested in the response from PDE that the CUSD’s economic crisis was a result of their own making — suggesting that the school board had mismanaged the school district’s operations and finances. As a result, regardless of their cash crisis, the letter states that no help will be coming to CUSD from the state. (click here to read PDE’s response to CUSD).

Before the start of the 2011-12 school year, CUSD already laid off 40% of their professional staff and 50% of their unionized support staff. Because of those actions, the teachers now have class sizes exceeding 40 students. If emergency funding does not arrive by January 18, CUSD may be forced to close schools.

As minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Andy Dinniman had harsh words on Friday for the Corbett administration’s handling of the CUSD financial crisis, claiming that PDE is set on a path to destroy public education in the Commonwealth and an orchestrated attempt to fund charter schools versus public schools.

In his press release, Dinniman indicates that Corbett’s unwillingness to help CUSD is politically motivated, suggesting, “Is it just a coincidence that the operator of the for-profit charter school serving the students of this district [CUSD] is also one of the biggest Republican contributors in the Commonwealth?’”

Dinniman goes on to say, “The callous action to not advance the basic funds to allow the education of students in Chester Upland is not school reform; it is a purposeful and harmful attempt to destroy public education. No matter what side of the education you are on, all of us need to stand up to make sure that the basic funding continues to be available for the students in this district. We must stand as one to assure that the politics of education in Pennsylvania is not done on the backs of these students and these teachers.”

Sharing the sentiments of some of the T/E school board members, Dinniman looks to PDE for the answers. However, I don’t know how realistic this is – if PDE is willing to allow the Chester Upland School District to implode why should we think that the state will help the healthier, more financially secure school districts. The school districts, like T/E that are sitting on hefty fund balances are not certainly not going to find themselves at the front of the line, if and when, the state decides to offer financial assistance.

Several school board members have suggested that the financial problems facing our school district, and every other district across the state, is a problem that needs fixing in Harrisburg. I probably would not disagree that the state needs to help. However, based on CUSD’s dire financial situation, I think that the ‘hoping for Harrisburg help’ position may prove futile and unrealistic.

It appears that Corbett and the PA Department of Education is willing to throw the financial crisis back at the feet of the local school districts and their taxpayers.

Please, before anyone jumps in and suggests that I am somehow comparing T/E School District to Chester Upland School District– I am not. These two school districts represent opposite ends of the spectrum in probably every way . . . from property values to student test scores. And whereas, CUSD has no fund balance, our school district has one of the largest fund balances in the state.

BUT . . . realistically, how many school districts ‘away’ from a Chester Upland School District cash crisis is T/E?

Due to PDE funding cuts and looming PSERS costs, all the school districts across the Commonwealth are sitting on the edge of a cliff. Sure, T/E and other local school districts with their significant fund balances, may be at the end of the line to fall off the cliff but, . . . how far off is that fall?

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