Pattye Benson

Community Matters


Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board Approves Teacher Demotions, What does this mean for T/E teachers?

Sixteen months ago, I wrote an article titled, “Looking at Unionville-Chadds Ford School District – Is the ‘Handwriting on the Wall’ for TE?” The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District (U-CF) is similar to the T/E school district and the districts are often compared. Students from both school districts enjoy similar academic performance; both top performing school districts. On the SAT and PSSA, the performance of the districts places each in the top 1% statewide. We often seen the districts listed together for the similar quality of their education.

You may recall, the U-CF teacher contract expired June 30, 2010 without the signing of a new contract. The talks between the school board and teachers union continued but after six months, the PA Labor Relations Board assigned an arbitrator to resolve the bargaining impasse through a fact-finding report. The school board voted to accept the findings of the report whereas the teachers union rejected the report.

Two major suggestions contained in the report – (1) a provision for each union member to receive a one-time, nonrecurring paying in lieu of a raise in year one and an increase in the final two years of the contract and (2) that union members move to a new, cost-saving healthcare plan, Keystone Direct, in the second year of the contract. The U-CF school board sought to maintain quality care at a reduced rate and they suggested, “that the economic times are hard and that the teacher union has benefited greatly when times were good but they must now share in the sacrifice as the others.” The teacher union rejected the independent report and recommendations.

The U-CF school board and teachers union finally reached an agreement in September 2011, sixteen months after the expiration of their contract. I wrote of the agreement on September 13, 2011, and asked the question if there were any lessons for T/E as a result. What did the U-CF school board and teachers union finally agree to – Terms included:

  • Year 1 (2010-11) no pay increase for 2010-11
  • Year 2 (2011-12) 1% increase on the pay schedule, step movement, prep level movement
  • Year 3 (2012-13) $300 in each cell on the matrix, $700 one-time bonus, step movement, prep level movement

One of the sticking points in the U-CF school board – teacher contract negotiations had been over healthcare benefits (sound familiar). In the final U-CF agreement, the teachers contributed 7.5% in 2011-12 and 10% toward their healthcare costs.

Although the U-CF school district contract does not expire until June 2013, according to the Daily Local, their school board and teachers union members have been quietly meeting unofficially since January of this year, for preliminary contract talks without the expense of outside legal counsel. According to U-CF school board member, Jeff Leister, the early talks were “an attempt to find common ground, achieve greater certainty about the future and to avoid a lengthy process later in the year.” However, what’s the saying about the “best laid plans of mice and men” ? Unfortunately, the school board and teachers union are too far apart at this point, and both sides decided to end the preliminary contract discussions.

Leiser did comment that going forward the school board would adhere to a three-tier approach –

  1. What is in the best interest of the students and the quality of education
  2. Is the agreement sustainable under Act 1
  3. Is the agreement consistent with current economic conditions, and what I fair to ask of residents financially.

In reviewing the U-CF school board agenda of May 21, I did note something of interest:

Demotion Resolutions (2)
1. Approve the Demotion Resolution for Employee No. 2797, as attached
2. Approve the Demotion Resolution for Employee No. 866, as attached

The discussion and approval of demotion resolutions may explain why the preliminary contract talks have ceased between the U-CF school board and teachers union. Curious as to the contents of the demotion resolutions, I filed a right-to-know request with their open records officer. (If I receive a response, I will certainly post it).

In the Souderton School District, their school board and teachers union were unable to resolve contract negotiations and were aided by a state mediator. The mediator’s proposed bargaining agreement between the Souderton school board and teachers union was released – to read the overview, click here. The school board and the teachers union accepted the recommendations of the state mediator and signed a 5-year contract. The contact contains a salary freeze in the first 2 years; elimination of 2 “masters-plus” salary schedules; increased health care premium share; and reduced tuition reimbursement. There is a 1.6% reduction in the teacher salary schedule in the first year; no “step and column” movement for the first two years; then a 1 percent salary schedule increase in the last year and a return to “step and column” starting in the third year. It appears that significant concessions were required on behalf of the Souderton teachers union.

The Souderton school district budget of $107 million for 2012-13 includes a 3 percent real estate tax increase. The harsh reality of Souderton’s budget deficit required school board members to make some tough decisions to balance their budget, including eliminating middle school teaching positions, demotion of a language teacher, reducing the budgets of technology, facilities and supplies, increasing student parking and activity fees, etc.

Whether it is Souderton, Unionville-Chadds Ford or T/E, the reality of the economic crisis in Pennsylvania’s public school, is forcing school boards to make some very difficult budget decisions. A state assigned mediator was required in the contract negotiations of Souderton and U-CF to push their contract impasse, I wonder if the same will happen in T/E? Maybe having a hired professional negotiator will make the difference for TESD — I’m not sure if Souderton and U-CF took this approach. It would hard for the taxpayers to pay Jeffrey Sultanik’s legal bill if in the end, the negotiations still require an independent arbitrator.

Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations

As a bit of history for those that are new readers to Community Matters. When I started this journey 2-1/2 years ago, it was without a personal agenda except to engage the community on important issues and to encourage greater transparency from our elected officials.

Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability; a metaphorical extension of the meaning a “transparent” object is one that can be seen through. In government, transparency is vital to a healthy democracy. Public scrutiny helps ensure that government works for the people and spends their tax dollars wisely.

As far as the teacher contract negotiations are concerned, I suggest that both sides ‘open the door’ that in the past has been closed. We have seen how in the last few days, the ‘cloaked in secrecy’ approach to the negotiations is not working and is showing signs of cracking. Discussion is turning to conjecture, as in the ‘he said, she said’ world; which is never good. Letting the sunlight shine in on the negotiations, would help the parents, taxpayers (and employees) better understand the process and the District’s priorities.

My assumption is that if negotiations were public and everyone could see the negotiations, it would help us (the taxpayers) to further understand the positions of the teachers and the District. If all that the community hears is a partial or half-truth from either side, the misinformation is perpetuated and the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. The teachers’ contract accounts for a significant part of the budget and strongly influences the bottom line of the District’s financial picture. The negotiating period is the only time when informed public opinion can have any possible effect on the decisions of elected officials, but how can the public reasonably weigh in on the proposals without having all the facts. A mandatory public comment period on the yearly budget seems a bit like an empty exercise if we do not have updated contract negotiation information.

The early disclosure of each side’s proposed contract terms would reduce the incentive to open negotiations with extreme proposals made merely for bargaining purposes. Extreme proposals from TEEA or the school board are bound to create hard feelings as we have recently seen and the potential to prolong negotiation, thereby making compromise more difficult. Conversely, an open and public process (transparency) would lead to proposals that are more realistic from both sides and narrow the range of disagreement in the process.

In the last few days, we heard from several teachers who alluded to a less than satisfactory proposal from the school district in regards to insurance and reduced salary. Add the possibility of demotion for economic reasons to the plate of the teachers, and it is no surprise that they are concerned. Do we have the entire story from TEEA on the subject of benefits and salary, probably not? On the other hand, what have the teachers proposed to the District and what was the school board’s response. Don’t know; the public doesn’t have any of those answers.

How about the negotiating parties work to make the process transparent for the public – posting the bargaining framework, their proposals and counter-proposals on the TESD website, as they become available. This kind of transparency would help the TESD parents and community members understand how children will be taught and how the tax dollars will be invested. The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes public schools. There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract process. The teachers are public employees, so why shouldn’t the union negotiations be public.

As a community, we should call on our elected school board members and teachers union to put the needs of students and families first and honor the public investment of taxpayers. I ask for both sides to be more open about the negotiation process – talk truths to each other and to the public. It’s time to turn on the lights, open the windows and the doors.

T/E School District Budget Options . . . Pay Waiver, Demotion & Furlough Discussion

I attended the T/E marathon ‘Budget Workshop’ last night. For nearly 3 hours, the school board members and district administration waded through 30+ slides which contained so many charts and graphs, it was hard to take it all in. The slides and their detailed explanation took up the vast majority of the evening with probably the last 30 min. devoted to audience questions. The workshop included three new cost-saving ideas that were ‘new’ to me – a ‘pay waiver’, demotion and furlough.

There was a pivotal slide labeled ‘Options to Close Remaining Shortfall’ that grabbed my attention. Slide #26 indicates the remaining budget shortfall (after taking budget strategies) at $3,570,509. Two options listed to close the shortfall – (1) Outsourcing of custodial services $950K and (2) ‘Pay Waiver for remaining staff (TEEA and TENIG) $3,000,000. We understand the outsourcing option; an RFP has gone out with a return date of early April. An announcement detailing the results of the RFP should be available early May.

What is a ‘pay waiver’? If I understood it correctly, the school district would ask the teachers union not to take their contract guaranteed pay increase for 2011-12. This would be a one-time pay waiver (a give-back of sorts). Unlike a salary freeze that could be retroactive (as in the 6-month salary freeze in Radnor’s recent contract) or a salary freeze the first year but larger increases in the second year of a contract, a pay waiver would not be made up in a future contract. There was no indication that TEEA has been approached with this proposal. Although several school board members praised the teachers, they also suggested the reality and the severity of the economic times, call for a ‘shared sacrifice’ by the taxpayers, teachers, etc. This is a bold proposal and it will be interesting to see if there is any comment or discussion from TEEA.

The other ‘get my attention’ moment of the evening was Dr. Waters suggesting that the district would explore ‘demotion’ and ‘furlough’ as possible ways to close the shortfall. He cited PA School Code 1151 in regards to demotion. I did a bit of research and determined that Section 1151 of the School Code provides for the demotion of professional employees. While this section does not make mention of demotions for economic reasons, case law has established that school districts are permitted to demote professional employees for economic reasons, so long as such demotions are not arbitrary and capricious under the law. Expanding the provisions of Section 1124 would similarly allow school districts to furlough employees for economic reasons.

What would this mean for the school district budget? Far less staff would be affected and programming would be maintained. It appears that by law, the school district superintendent would be empowered to review the entire school system as a whole to identify where reduction in staff could occur. Very interesting news. I sensed a real determination from Dr. Waters that he was doing everything in his power to help with this budget deficit. Although he certainly did not say that he would evoke demotion or furlough measures, there will be further discussion on the subject.

Although there was much other discussion in regards to cost-cutting measures, these particular suggestions were ‘new’ to me and caught my attention. I left the meeting last night with a real sense of the seriousness of the financial situation and of the battle to close the $3.5 million remaining shortfall.

I would strongly suggest that State Rep Warren Kampf and Sen Andy Dinniman need to play a role in our local school district issues – I’d like to see a public forum with their attendance. I believe that I recently read that Kampf attended a Phoenixville School Board meeting (or one of their subcommittee meetings?). If Kampf or one of his staff workers is reading Community Matters, I am making a public appeal that he attend a T/E School Board meeting. . . . aside from serving as our State Representative, Kampf lives in the T/E school district and I would like to see him personally involved in our school district’s budget issues.

Ray Clarke also attended the budget workshop and provided his editorial comments.. It is interesting to have both perspectives of the evening and I thank Ray for his notes below:

Tonight’s TESD “Budget Workshop” did not really live up to its title, but was nevertheless an informative, if a little selective, exposition of the underlying forces driving the district’s finances – and driving them to steep deficits.

  • The real estate-based gravy train has run off the rails – the tax base is declining and there’s no sign of recovery in transfer taxes
  • The state is exacerbating the problem – reduction in the social security reimbursement, flat special education funding despite increasing enrollment, and a tax increase formula that will limit property tax increases to around ~1% for at least the next couple of years. There’s even talk of eliminating “Exceptions” and reducing the PSERS match – but that last would just be insane.
  • As it is, PSERS will be the biggest expense increase – up $1 million each year for the next two years, $1.5 for each of the two years after that and $3.5 million in 2015/16
  • The district has reduced staff by 60 in the last two years, but the vagaries of grade and school specific demographics will require a staff increase next year despite likely flat enrollment.
  • New news: there are tools within the PA School Code that would allow for selective staff “demotions” to meet budget deficit situations. This may be a way to implement previously attrition-dependent changes such as the teaching period changes at the high school.
  • With all known realistic strategies and a 3.77% property tax increase including the now-approved exceptions, the 2011/12 deficit would still be $3.6 million
  • Other ideas continue to be studied: $400,000 of reasonably tangible and realistic notions, and maybe an equal amount of less tangible but possibly realistic ones. A few multi-million dollar ideas with profound impact on the culture and educational quality are further on the list, but seem likely only in extremis.
  • Which brings us to the big issues, laid out individually by the administration: outsource custodial services and obtain a “pay waiver” from both the TEEA and TENIG. There was no indication that the Board has received any proposal from the unions, much less one that would forgo (“until better times”) $3 million of pay increases. However, there was considerable emphasis on the need for shared sacrifice, and it is starkly apparent how such a move could bring the deficit somewhat back into range. There was no commentary from the TEEA – unlike from the TENIG representatives, who, as at previous meetings, appealed to emotion rather than the pocket book. As that process evolves, it would be great if TENIG could quantify the cost savings they claim they could bring to the district.

Bottom line: my view is that the district continues to make the best of the hand it has (including of course, the cards picked up from generous previous contracts and other decisions). The key question: what will the unions do to show that they can remain relevant, and be part of the solution, not part of the problem?

And even if the deficit can be reined back some, PSERS remains the issue.

There was an interesting chart that documented the Employer Contribution Rate from 1988 to now. The rate started out at 19%, declined for 13 or 14 years to 1% (thanks to a booming stock market), at which point the benefit multiplier was increased to 2.5, COLA rules changed and bubbles burst, whereupon the ECR started up again, to next year’s 8.65% and then 33.37% by 2015/16 and for the next decade, even after last year’s Harrisburg “fix”. Employee contributions have been consistently 7.5%.

So, how to fix this (and the related SERS for state employees)? Any solution will likely have to be approved by taxpayers. If the problem is dumped in the local lap, the increases are fundamentally unaffordable without a referendum: be it for, say, 10% property tax increases or an equivalent EIT. Even if Harrisburg rose to the occasion, that might also involve a courageous appeal to voters: for a change in the Constitution (“Any unilateral substantial change in public employee pension benefits that constitutes a “net detriment” to the employees is a constitutionally impermissable impairment of the employment contract”), or for issuing a Pension Bond to deal with the unfunded liability.

Now there’s something to write to Dinniman and Kampf about!

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