Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Doug Carlson

Affordable Care Act discussion at TE Special Board Meeting — More questions than answers!

Last night’s special school board meeting included discussion of the Affordable Care Act and how the federal mandate would affect the District and its employees. The District’s ACA experts were Rhonda Grubbs, Wisler Pearlstine attorney (who works in the office of Ken Roos, school district solicitor) and Art McDonnell, business manager for the District.

Several aspects of the ACA presentation and discussion troubled me. Although the agenda stated that Grubbs would make the presentation, it appeared that McDonnell was in charge of the discussion and for the most part, served as respondent to Board and resident questions with Grubbs there as back up. McDonnell went through his prepared slides on the ACA, which included the various options available to the District. One slide, labeled ‘Health Benefits’ provided the cost of offering health care to all employees working 30 hr./wk. or 130 hr./month not already covered. According to this slide, the cost to provide benefits would be $881K for single employees and $2.2M for family coverage. However, there is no indication as to how ‘many’ employees this dollar amount references. Many of us in the audience were wondering where McDonnell got these dollar amounts from – what is the exact number of additional employees the District is required to cover under the ACA. Why weren’t the number of employees indicated on the slide? Pete Motel asked McDonnell that specific question – with a bit of hesitation, McDonnell responds that the number of additional full-time employees that the District needs to cover is 106.

It then becomes clear why the number of employees does not appear on McDonnell’s slide — because the next question is what happened to the jobs of the rest of the full-time employees. If you recall last spring, I think there were about 178 District aides, paras and substitute teachers that were not covered by District health benefits. We know that about 40% of the aides and paras did not return for the 2013/14 school year but it is unclear how those positions were filled. It is believed that many of these positions were outsourced but there has never been any public statement to that affect.

The next logical question to McDonnell came from Scott Dorsey – and that question was what happened to the rest of these jobs. Dorsey wanted to know many aides and para positions are currently outsourced in the District. McDonnell states that he does not know and asks Sue Tiede, the District’s personal director to answer Dorsey’s question. Tiede says that she doesn’t know the answer either. How is it possible that two of the highest paid administrators in the TE School District are unable to answer this simple question?

Subsequently and to their credit, both Pete Motel and Doug Carlson tried to achieve an answer to the outsourcing question. Again stonewalling by McDonnell and Tiede – claiming they do not know how many positions have been outsourced. With combined salaries of nearly $350K/yr, it is impossible to believe that neither McDonnell or Tiede know how many jobs are outsourced in the TE School District. McDonnell manages the check register for the District – he knows how much money is paid to Delta T and Quest. Tiede manages the District’s personnel – she knows who is hired and/or outsourced.

This is clearly not a case of McDonnell and Tiede ‘not knowing’ the answer to the outsourcing question but instead their choosing not to answer the direct question of school board members. According to Buraks, the ACA will next be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting on Monday, January 13. The question for Art McDonnell and Sue Tiede is how many District jobs are outsourced to Delta T and how many District jobs are outsourced to Crest.

Following the ACA presentation and Board member questions to McDonnell and Grubbs, there was an opportunity for the residents to offer their comments and/or questions as stated in the agenda. However, what the agenda did not say, was that residents were not allowed to ask their questions directly to the ACA presenters. All residents questions must be directed to the school board president who ‘interprets’ the resident’s question and then re-asks it to Ms. Grubb. But wait, it gets worse as one District resident, Joanne Sonn, discovered.

Sonn has done her homework on the Affordable Care Act, understands it better than most of us and previously offered her findings to the Board last year. She has spoken to expert ACA consultants and they agree, (with the information currently available) that the District can be in ACA compliance by offering a ‘skinny plan’ to the aides and paras. At last night’s meeting, some of the information provided in the presentation did not agree with Sonn’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act so during the resident comment/question period she questioned McDonnell and asked for legal clarification from Grubbs. In the midst of her questions, the District solicitor Ken Roos rudely interrupted Sonn and told her that residents are not allowed to ask Grubbs questions!

Sonn was asking the Affordable Care Act ‘expert’ for legal clarification. She was then required to re-state her questions directly to Buraks. But rather than asking Grubbs to respond to Sonn’s ACA questions, Buraks says that all residents must ask their questions before any will be answered! To be clear, it doesn’t matter if there are three people or 10 people in line at the microphone – residents at school board meetings must ask all their questions before anyone can receive an answer. I guess this delay gives the Board president time to decide which questions will be answered. This policy makes no sense and is extremely unsatisfactory. At Board of Supervisors meetings, when a resident asks a question, they receive an answer immediately – why don’t the school board meetings operate the same way.

How were the residents to know that they are not permitted to ask questions of the person making the public presentation – there was no indication in the agenda nor direction from the school board. I found Ken Roos outburst to a resident unnecessary and disrespectful. There’s much talk about civility at these meetings; shouldn’t that civility policy extend to the District solicitor. Although it is understood that Ken Roos does not work for the residents, our taxpayer dollars pay his legal fees.

The special meeting to discuss the Affordable Care Act was eye opening, to say the least. It wasn’t so much what Rhonda Grubbs and Art McDonnell said — it was more what they didn’t say (or chose not to say). It was obvious that Grubbs and McDonnell are working together with a shared goal. And unless the Board and the community offers push-back, I think the endgame is to see how many reasons they can come up with not to offer insurance to the District’s aides, paras and substitute teachers. Grubbs herself volunteered that she and McDonnell would be working together on the ACA issue. So much for unbiased third-party input and since when did the District’s business manager become an expert on the Affordable Care Act? Again, I ask – why doesn’t the District bring in insurance consultants/experts from the outside?

A special thanks to school board members Pete Motel, Doug Carlson and Scott Dorsey – they were asking the questions that the public wanted answered.

TESD Voters will select 4 school board directors on Tuesday — Who will get your vote?

Commenters have started a dialogue on the last Community Matters post about the selection of TE school board directors. The discussion is important and I want it to continue. On Tuesday, the TE community will select 4 school board members from the 8 candidates in the race.

The following are TESD School Board candidates:

  • Tredyffrin, East – Region 1: Kevin Buraks (D) **
  • Tredyffrin, East – Region 1: Pete Connors (R)
  • Tredyffrin West – Region 2: Rich Brake (R) **
  • Tredyffrin, West – Region 2: Scott Dorsey (D)
  • Easttown, Region III: Doug Carlson (R)
  • Easttown, Region III: Virginia Lastner (R)
  • Easttown, Region III: Maryann Piccioni (D)
  • Easttown, Region III: Jean Kim (D)

** Buraks and Brake are incumbents seeking re-election for another 4-year term. With the exception of Piccioni and Kim, the other candidates participated in the League of Women Voters forum. In case you missed it, click here.

With the exception of Kim, the other candidates supplied Main Line Media News with a brief statement that contained their background, experience and why they thought they should be elected (or re-elected as in the case of Buraks and Brake). Click here for the MLMN article on the school board candidates.

Beyond the LWV forum and statements in the newspaper, you can find further information online – some of the TE school board candidates have their own websites. A quick Google search found Tredyffrin residents Buraks, Connors, Dorsey and Brake with websites but I couldn’t find sites for Easttown candidates. Additional information can be found on the Democratic school board and supervisor candidates at Tredyffrin Township Democrats website, www.ttdems.com. Unfortunately, the local Republican Committee in Tredyffrin has not updated their website since before the May Primary, www.ttgop.org . And then we have all been bombarded with the endless stream of campaign literature in the mailbox. As a registered Independent, I have the good fortune (?!) of receiving candidate campaign flyers from the Democrats, Republicans and any ‘other’ political party affiliation!

There has been much discussion on Community Matters about ‘knowing’ the candidates before you go on Election Day. As voters, what should we look for in a school board candidate? What important issues in TESD are important to you, the voter … teacher contract negotiations, special education, outsourcing, pension reform, transparency, quality of education, employee morale, respect for diverse points of view, property taxes, etc.? Which candidate supports your position?

At the baseline, we know that all the school board candidates believe in the value of public education. But who do we select that will govern with the interests of the entire school community – the children, the parents, the taxpayers. Whose background and experience makes him or her most qualified for your vote?

I welcome your comments on the 8 TE school board candidates but will not post any comments that contain personal attacks or mention of candidates spouses and/or children. Please keep the focus of your comments on the individual candidates and the important District issues.

League of Women Voters Debate: Part I, TE School Board Candidates

democrats-republicansYesterday, the League of Women Voters held the TE School Board candidate debate and the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors candidate debate. I attended both debates. Although the debates were not shown live, they will be available for viewing (Comcast 2 and Verizon 24 channels) sometime after Monday’s Board of Supervisors Meeting. My guess is that there will be separate schedules for the two debates – check the township website for details.

Unfortunately, due to the lateness of scheduling, the school board debate was limited to a 1-hour format versus the 2-hour supervisor debate format. In speaking with the League of Women Voters representative, Mary Lou Dondero, before the debate, I learned more about their scheduling process. Ms. Dondero was none too pleased about the lateness of which the school board candidates debate was scheduled. When asked who was responsible for debate scheduling, it was interesting to learn that it not the local political party leaders that should ask but rather the candidates themselves who should contact the LWV. This is good information to know going forward.

Six of the eight school board candidates participated (due to prior commitments, Easttown Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim were unable to attend). After each candidate presented a 2-minute opening personal statement, the moderator read questions, which audience members had anonymously submitted. Each question was answered by all candidates with the moderator giving each candidate the opportunity to be first to answer. Following the questions, each candidate had an opportunity for a 2-minute closing statement.

The LWV debate is not the traditional format that many of us recall from our high school/college days, but rather a Q&A forum. The downside of the LWV debate style is it does not allow for rebuttal by candidate. Case in point, the LWV repeatedly asked the candidates (both school board and supervisors) to respond to the specific question yet several candidates answered the LWV questions with accusations against their opponents. Due to the LWV format, it made it difficult for the candidates to defend the accusations.

Everyone that follows Community Matters knows that I fought for a school board candidate debate. Important school district issues surfaced this year, making for a contentious situation for all involved — the Board, administration, employees and the public. For my efforts in moving the school board debate forward, some questioned my agenda. If I had an agenda, it was simple – voters need to ‘know’ the candidates and candidates need to have the opportunity to deliver their views on issues, before Election Day. Hindsight being 20/20, I’m actually glad that I had nothing to do with the school board debate other than to attend. I cannot be accused of unfairness or a bias in the organization of the debate – candidates were not coerced; they own their words.

For those of us who regularly attend and/or watch the school board meetings, there was little surprise in most of the audience questions. As a result of contentious school board meetings this year, many of the questions related to communication, trust, transparency and morale issues, — asking what would the candidates do to ‘improve’ the current situation, if elected.

Five of the six candidates spoke of the need to improve communication and several of them mentioned morale issues. School board director Rich Brake (R), who is seeking re-election, accepted that there have been communication issues between the Board and the residents and spoke of the need to improve the dialogue, suggesting town hall meetings. Brake believes that the negativity issues need to be handled directly and wants to bring people together. It was refreshing to have a current elected official acknowledge the problems, accept responsibility and suggest ways for improvement.

With a similar response, Brake’s opponent Scott Dorsey (D) supports greater transparency and open dialogue between the public and the Board, suggesting a public advisory board. Dorsey spoke out against the Board’s use of the consent agenda and suggested its use should be reconsidered. The consent agenda is designed for routine items, such as meetings minutes. However, as Dorsey explained, the consent agenda takes away the public’s right to question an issue. The consent agenda can bury an item that the Board does not want publically discussed. In my opinion, in 2013 we saw the misuse of the consent agenda by the school board for the hiring of Andy Chambers and the inclusion of administrator raises and bonuses. If the hiring of the former police chief as the District’s security expert or giving raises to the administrators was such a good idea, why not openly discuss them in a public school board meeting, than than buried in a consent agenda. Dorsey was the only candidate to address the consent agenda issue.

Easttown Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner spoke favorably on the topic of communication, wanting to see greater resident participation and awareness of District issues. Lastner wants the employees to feel that they can speak candidly and not risk their jobs by speaking out. Referring to her background and prior elected positions in Connecticut, Lastner is a proponent of the “listen and learn” concept.

Tredyffrin school board candidate Pete Connors (R) remarks on this topic included “morale starts with leadership”. Connors believes that there exists a trust issue in the community and proposed an advisory citizens group. He specifically cited the threat of outsourcing and the proposed demolition of the tennis courts where the Board was forced to reverse their decisions due to the public. Concerned about the Board’s lack of transparency that has decisions being made in private, Connors promoted a greater sharing of information with the public.

The consistent theme from Brake, Dorsey, Connors, Lastner and Carlson was the need for the school board to provide greater communication opportunities for the public. Dorsey, Brake and Connors took it a step further and spoke of changing the negative tone, improving trust and respectfulness and supporting the creation of some type of citizen advisory group.

As president of the school board, Kevin Buraks (D) was center front to the confrontational monthly and committee school board meetings of 2013 yet did not agree with the other candidates on District morale or communication issues. Unmistakably Buraks is disconnected to the important issues raised by his fellow school board director Rich Brake and by Democrat Scott Dorsey. At times, it was hard to believe that Buraks and Brake are both on the same school board or that Buraks and Dorsey are representing the same local political party.

Responding to a question, Buraks stated clearly that there are no morale issues in the District. He further commented that if there were moral issues in the District, the employees would leave. On the issue of communication, his stance is that the school board already provides an open forum, is transparent and that through emails, website, etc. all District information is available. He pointed out that the Board listened to the public about the demolition of the tennis courts and the outsourcing of the aides and paras and reversed their decision. In other words, according to school board president Kevin Buraks, there is no trust, respect or communication issues in the school district. He backed these assertions by continuously pointing to T/E school district’s rankings as his proof.

So overall, was there any new ‘news’ or any surprises learned from the school board candidate debate for me? Yes and no. Because I regularly attend the school board meetings and understand most of the issues, some of the information was not new. However, I did not know the background and views of Easttown residents Virginia Lastner and Doug Carlson, so appreciated the opportunity to learn more about them. I know candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey and both have previously spoken out about the District’s communication and transparency issues, so was not surprised by their responses.

The surprise was in the school board incumbents performances. Perhaps it is because Kevin Buraks is an attorney, but his stance during the debate was not to back down or take responsibility for any of the public’s perceived ‘miss-steps’ of the school board or of his term as the president. I guess as an attorney, you make a calculation and then stand by your decision, using the mantra of no ‘do-overs’ allowed. Taking the approach that because the TE School District is highly ranked, Buraks wants the voters to believe it is a result of his leadership. Other the other hand, incumbent Rich Brake took a completely different approach and surprised me with his candor. Portraying himself as somewhat of a school board outsider, Brake acknowledged that there needs to be greater dialogue with the public and more openness. Whereas Buraks would have the public believe that everything is cohesive and agreeable among the school board directors, Brake paints a very different picture.

These are my personal observations from the school board debate, I welcome others who attended to contribute their opinion. If you did not attend the debate, I would encourage you to watch in on online when it is available.

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