Pattye Benson

Community Matters

increasing class size

Demotion & Class Size Remain as T/E Budget Strategies … Teacher Union Weighs In

Opening a door that most school districts would prefer to keep closed.

Teacher contract negotiations have traditionally been cloaked in secrecy. In my perfect world of transparency, school districts would open the teacher contract talks to the public. Letting the sunlight shine on the negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees would benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities. Open negotiations would hold the District and TEEA (Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association) accountable for how they are dealing with the contract negotiations. I know, I know, not possible . . . it will never happen.

Those involved in teacher contract negotiations would probably claim that critical issues such as teacher pay, benefits, and overall responsibilities should fall within the client-lawyer privilege of privacy. I am sure that those at the ‘negotiating table’ would say that the talks should be private in order to foster a more open and frank discussion among the participants. In the case of TESD, this seems twisted logic at best. Why do I say this? Reason … There is no representation by the T/E school board at the negotiation table. As a result, it is a bit like ‘whisper down the lane’.

The information and updates that the school board receives are not through first hand attendance at the meetings, but rather from the four members of the negotiating team. Three members of the team are employees of the District (Superintendent Dan Waters, Director of Personnel Sue Tiede and Business Manager Art McDonnell) and the fourth member of the team is professional negotiator, attorney Jeffrey Sultanik.

I don’t know how the rest of the taxpayers feel about the ‘no seat at the table’ by an elected school board member issue, but I stand by my original view. The school directors were elected by, and are responsible to, the people of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District. I do not think it is fair to the taxpayers and the teacher contract process that there is not at least one school board member participating directly on the negotiation team.

Based on the many comments received in regards to the teacher contract negotiations and budget strategies, I reached out to TEEA president Laura Whittaker. Stating in my email to Ms. Whittaker, that ‘my intention was not to in any way jeopardize or breach the teacher/school district negotiating process’, I asked her several questions. Does TEEA believe that any of the District’s budget strategies currently being discussed (class size, demotion of professional staff, $50 activities fee, etc.) could have a potential negative effect on the quality of the District’s educational program. I also asked if members of TEEA were the decision makers in regards to the TESD 2012-13 budget, what solutions would the teachers offer that could bridge the current financial crisis in the District.

Understanding the limitations posed by the teacher contract negotiations, Ms. Whittaker proved the following statement for Community Matters and I thank her. Reading Ms. Whittaker’s statement, I was reminded again that if the contract talks were held in public, the taxpayers would know what the the teachers are offering; including changes to their health care plan that would save the District money.

“Because of the ground rules established in the negotiations process, I am limited in my ability to share specific aspects of our proposal and negotiations with you.

You have asked what solutions we offer. We are willing to discuss alternative approaches to health care coverage and funding as a means for the District to save money. Additionally, although we are not able to release the details of our salary proposal, we are confident in stating that our salary requests are modest and reasonable.

We have many concerns about the District’s proposal to demote our most experienced, educated teachers. Of course, we are fundamentally concerned about the negative impact that it will have on the educational program and the well-being of our membership. However, if the School Board chooses to implement demotions and the hiring of part time staff becomes the norm, they must realize that T/E will become an undesirable place for the most qualified educators to pursue a career. Simply stated, T/E has been able to attract the best and the brightest to teach its children. How will the District be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest if we are currently choosing to replace our own best and most educated teachers with part-time employees?

With regard to class size, studies have concluded that increased class sizes have a negative impact on student performance. Individual support and attention will most certainly suffer if class sizes are larger. Regarding the proposed $50 participation fee, we have no official position. As far as other budget strategies are concerned, demotions and increases in class size, are (to our knowledge) the only two major strategies being considered by the Board.

The members of TEEA remain committed to achieving a mutually beneficial settlement with the District.”

Thank you for providing this opportunity.

Laura Whittaker
President, TEEA

If you are reading today’s post on Community Matters and have an interest in our school district, I hope that you will plan to attend the school board meeting tonight at 7:30 PM.

On the subject of demotion, other area school districts are keeping a close eye on TESD. The teachers union in Radnor School District has notified their members of tonight’s TESD meeting and suggested their members attend. At Conestoga HS, the demotion issue has caused concern among students and they are organizing support for their teachers.

Demotion of Professional Staff in T/E School District Remains Budget Option

Monday night was the Board of Supervisors Meeting and TESD Budget meeting. I attended the BOS meeting and will offer a few thoughts in a later post. Ray Clarke attended the school district meeting and offered his opinion on the evening which I provide below.

In reviewing Ray’s notes, I was pleased that it appears the elementary and middle school music programs are safe (at least at this time) from the budget ax. Although certainly not a perfect solution, increasing class size of students by one or two students may be something that the parents (and teachers?) can live with versus some of the alternatives presented such as elimination of music programs.

However, the ‘demotion of professional staff for economic reasons’ could have potential to go in many different directions. Apparently there was discussion at the budget meeting which suggested the idea of ‘demoting’ higher paid full-time staff to part-time. Ray wonders if they are referring to PhD employees.

It may be legally possible but is it realistic to think that the school board would demote teachers with the longest service (and presumably highest salary)? If we assume that the teachers with the longest service are the highest paid, surely the TEEA would step in and fight to protect those full-time positions. At the last finance committee meeting, there was discussion that perhaps there were individuals (for personal reasons) who would like to work part-time rather than full-time and might take advantage of this opportunity. It was my understanding that the teachers union had mentioned this option to its members.

Ray’s notes reference the statement from the teachers union in regards to using the school district’s fund balance towards budget shortfall. For the full statement from TEEA, click here. An excerpt reads as follows:

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District maintains a $32 million fund balance, which equates to 26% of revenue. Most other school districts maintain a fund balance of 8% to 10%. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association recommends a fund balance no greater than 5%. We ask the question and we believe the taxpayers and parents should ask the question, ‘Why is this fund balance not being used to save programs and preserve the great, award-winning T/E School District?’ Why are District officials insisting they do not have the resources to protect these programs?

Ray Clarke’s remarks from last night’s budget meeting:

Some notes on the TESD budget meeting from my perspective …..

The TESD meeting was notable for airing out some new projections for 2012/13 (previously discussed in committees), but we are still some way from numbers that can be trusted, and even when we have them, it seems that they’ll still show a deficit.
Some highlights I noted:
– The current enrollment figures show a 3% decrease over the current year, but the expectation seems to be that the final figures will be higher, but smaller than projected back in October 2011. The net result being 3 fewer FTEs now needed in 2012/13, reducing the expense increase by $225,000. Some more detail of the assumptions on this would have helped.

– To recap on professional staff: Average years of service continues upward – now 11.7 years – and so does average salary – by year-end approx. $86,000. TTRC member Barbara Morosse tried to get the Board to own up to the fact that the approx 30% increase in average salary (my number) over the last four years is in fact a major contributor to the current budget problem, but of course we continued to get the litany (best articulated last night by Kris Graham) that lists all the issues outside the Board’s control. There was no update on contract negotiations, but Art O’Donnell read a list of corrections to a recent TEEA commentary.

– A few expense analysis comments:
a) Next year has a $1.65 million increase in teacher salaries deferred from this year, and this makes up most of the salary line increase; presumably the cost of increased FTEs are offset by a mix change due to 17 retirements.
b) It looks like the current prescription plan can be funded with no increase, rather than the 10% previously budgeted (saving $500,000).
c) It was announced that the transportation company waived their contracted 2% increase this year, but it looks like the budget assumes next year’s increase will make that up.
d) There is a $725,000 increase in interest expense next year, and apparently no opportunity to use the Fund Balance to pay down debt and save interest expense until 2015.
e) The administration has benchmarked legal and architectural rates and found them to be competitive.

– There’s an good-sounding budget strategy to replace special education services purchased from the CCIU with our own staff and save $200,000.
– Of course, strategies to address the remaining budget gap (after a projected 3.4% tax increase, let’s not forget) are now getting contentious.
Betsy Fadem came out strongly for tabling any consideration of:
a) reducing EDRs (although new hires are already paid less) (saving forgone $220,000)
b) eliminating ES and MS music lessons (savings forgone $375,000)

She [Fadem] carried the day on those. On the other hand, the Board did vote to further consider:
a) demoting higher paid staff (PhDs??) from FT to PT (saving $640,000)
b) increasing the class size by one (or maybe two??) (saving maybe $500,000, but the numbers not at all clear on this).

The first of these seems completely insane to me, but maybe they are trying to make points to the TEEA and to the community about their willingness to undertake the limited options allowed by state law. There was a very confusing discussion about the overlap of the retirements and the demotion strategy, so maybe I’m missing something. So it looks like they are still at least $1 million short of a balanced budget, and facing a TEEA that wants to get further compensation increases paid out of the Fund Balance, while it lasts. Dr Motel called for a thorough review of all non-mandated programs: art, music, kindergarten, transportation, etc.

Not a pretty picture.

Bragging Rights: PSSA Results Rank Tredyffrin Easttown School District Third in the State

2012 School Guide logo

Last week, the Pittsburgh Business Times published their 2012 Guide of Western Pennsylvania Schools, which lists the school district rankings for the Pittsburgh area and the entire state of Pennsylvania. The newspaper analyzed all the school districts’ performance based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Exam results. According to their website, the formula for the ranking takes into account three years of PSSA test scores in math, reading, writing and science. They look at three years of scores, with the current year given the most weight.

In the Top 15 school districts category in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County was the number one county with six school districts represented followed by Chester County with three school districts (Unionville-Chadds Ford, T/E and Great Valley), Delaware County with two school districts (Radnor and Wallingford-Swarthmore) and Montgomery County with two school districts (Lower Merion and Lower Moreland).

For 2012 rankings, Upper St. Clair School Districts holds onto its first place title for the eighth year in a row, with Tredyffrin Easttown Township School District dropping to third place and Unionville-Chadds Ford School District taking second place. Radnor Township School District stays in fourth place, Lower Merion drops down a level to eighth and Great Valley School District drops from 13th to 14th place. Looking at other area school district rankings, Downingtown School District moved from 28th to 25th and Phoenixville School District dropped from 85th place to 98th on the rankings list.

To see the ranking for all 500 Pennsylvania school districts, click here.

Pennsylvania School District Rankings
Statewide Statewide
Rank 2012 Rank 2011 School District (County)
1 1 Upper St. Clair School District (Allegheny)
2 3 Unionville-Chadds Ford School District (Chester)
3 2 Tredyffrin-Easttown School District (Chester)
4 4 Radnor Township School District (Delaware)
5 6 Mt. Lebanon School District (Allegheny)
6 5 North Allegheny School District (Allegheny)
7 9 Hampton Township School District (Allegheny)
8 7 Lower Merion School District (Montgomery)
9 8 Central Bucks School District (Bucks)
10 12 South Fayette Township School District (Allegheny)
11 10 Peters Township School District (Washington)
12 11 Fox Chapel Area School District (Allegheny)
13 15 Wallingford-Swarthmore School District (Delaware)
14 13 Great Valley School District (Chester)
15 14 Lower Moreland Township (Montgomery)

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud. PSSA scores is viewed by many as a reliable predictor of future success. As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provide useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and give us the truest measure of how an overall class is performing.

In the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, the teachers union used their District’s high PSSA and SAT scores as a contract negotiating tool. I wrote a post on January 11, 2012, Do Higher Teacher Salaries in Philadelphia Area School Districts Equate to Higher PSSA & SAT Scores?’ that included a report by Keith Knauss, a school board member from Unionville Chadds Ford School Board. Knauss looked at 61 Philadelphia area school districts for factors that might explain the wide variation in academic achievement on PSSA and SAT tests.

In his analysis of the data, Knauss concluded 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, “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.

Bottom line … if we accept that school district rankings, based on PSSA performance, have an importance, do we give credit to the District teachers for the results? If you believe that the teachers play a role in the student’s performance on the PSSA exams, should the results be a factor in the current teacher contract negotiations? Should the TEEA use the PSSA exam results as a tool in their contract negotiations?

TESD is facing tighter budgets and difficult choices are the options that remain for the school board. In all likelihood, the 2012-13 school year will see a $50 fee charged to students to play sports, perform in the marching band and participate in clubs. The District’s Education Committee is exploring many ways to reduce costs to help the budget. Last year we saw the elimination of foreign language in the elementary program and German and Latin in the middle school. Now we see that there is discussion of eliminating string lessons in the third grade or possibly eliminating elementary and middle school music lessons.

Another couple of budget strategies in discussion — (1) the demotion of professional staff for economic reasons and (2) increasing class size to help the 2012-13 budget. Here’s a question — wonder if there is any research to suggest that increasing class size could result in lower PSSA exam results for TESD.

Click here for details of Education Committee suggestions for 2012-13 budget strategies.


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