Pattye Benson

Community Matters

public information

Looking for public updates from the TE School Board on District lawsuits, teacher contracts … but none given!

Communication + Transparency = Trust

I attended the final TESD school board meeting of the 2016-17 school year on Monday night for several reasons.

First, I wanted to hear the District’s statement about the two important lawsuits filed in the last couple of weeks.

  • On May 17, Thomas Batgos, an assistant Conestoga High School football coach fired by the T/E School District in the aftermath of the alleged hazing and sexual assault filed a lawsuit against District administrators – Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick and Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit cited defamation of character, misrepresentation, fraud, improper termination, etc. and seeks damages of at least $50,000 in compensation plus punitive damages.
  • On May 8, a Federal lawsuit was filed against T/E School District and Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit alleges that District administrators and teachers at Conestoga HS tolerated a culture whereby Arthur Phillips, a 67-year-old instructional aide could repeatedly sexually abuse a 15-year old female student. The lawsuit filed by the parents of the student, seek damages of at least $75,000 in damages and calls for the resignation of Dr. Meisinger.

There was no statement from the school board on these lawsuits. Nothing, nada, zippo … I get that this a legal matter but what about an acknowledgement from the school board that the lawsuits exist? What about a reassurance that all policies/procedures related to suspected sexual abuse will be reviewed and updated as needed? The TE School District is more than school rankings and the number of college acceptances — it is the safety of our children!

The law firm in the federal lawsuit, Ross Feller Casey, has won record-setting awards for its clients, including victims of predatory sexual abuse like seven men who were victimized by Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. This lawsuit has the potential to bankrupt the District financially and yet the board makes no public statement.

Secondly, I attended the school board meeting to receive an update on the District teachers’ contract, the non-instructional employees (TENIG) contract and the Act 93 (administrators) agreement – all three of these contracts are due to expire in two weeks, on June 30, 2017.

There was no statement from the school board on the status of the TEEA or TENIG contracts.

The school board did however approve a raise of 1.7% plus a 1% bonus for District administrators to extend the Administrator Compensation Plan (Act 93 Agreement) through June 30, 2018.

And finally, I attended the school board meeting to see how the school board was going to handle the passing of the final budget for 2017-18 given that the TEEA and TENIG contracts and the Act 93 Agreement account for 70% of the budget and these items were labeled ‘TBD’ (to be decided) in the budget. During the budget discussion prior to the vote, there was no discussion about needing any contingencies for these (soon to expire) contracts in the budget.

Although the preliminary budget had contained a 3.435% tax increase, the board agreed to lower the tax increase before approving the final budget. The school board passed the budget 9-0 with a 3.2% tax increase for 2017-18. The newly passed budget assumes no increases for teachers and non-instructional employees. By my calculations, this budget for 2017-18 marks 13 consecutive years of tax increases. You would have to go all the way back to the 2004-05 to find a ‘no tax increase’ year.

I attended the school board meeting expecting to hear updates about specific important issues facing the school district. Instead I left the meeting feel very disheartened about the lack of information. The school board has a responsibility to involve the community and to communicate clear information to the public. The importance of transparency and providing public information to the community cannot be understated.

2012 Township Budget and T/E School Board Updates

Today’s post includes notes from the Board of Supervisors and T/E School Board meetings held last night. Although a prior commitment prevented me from attending last night’s BOS and school board meeting, Ray and Carol Clarke attended the meetings and graciously forwarded their notes. I attended a TMACC (Transportation Management Association of Chester County) meeting and will provide a 202 project –Stage 3 update separately.

At the prior BOS meeting, the preliminary 2012 budget was presented which included a millage increase 6.9% for real estate taxes to cover the $500K deficit. The supervisors left that meeting with determination to review the budget and look for opportunities for further reductions and to take a hard look at expenditures and services before approving any tax increase.

The supervisors continued the budget discussion at last night’s meeting. In their review of the preliminary budget, the supervisors found some ways to decrease expenditures and as a result reduced the tax increase from the initial 6.9% to 3.5%.

The supervisors propose decreasing expenditures in several ways:

1) Reduction of professional fees by $49.7K

2) Use the Capital Fund to fund IT equipment – 67.5K (This changes the revenue source from the Operating Fund to Capital Fund)

3) Supervisors asked township manager to find $45K in reductions. (Not clear on how this will be accomplished; further discussion is required).

4) Defer the hiring of 2 full-time (currently open positions) in the Police Department until July – $85K savings

5) Associated savings in benefits due to #4 – $45K

To lower the tax increase to 3.5%, the supervisors are proposing a combination of decreased expenditures and the using fund balance reserves for the remaining budget shortfall. Based on the 2011 budget process and the severe cuts that were required, I am not sure where Mimi Gleason is going to find $45K in reductions for the 2012 budget. Reductions in the healthcare benefits could produce significant savings for the budget; but apparently due to contract negotiations may not be an option. If a reduction in benefits is off the table as a possible solution, it is not clear what remains that could be reduced.

The 2012 budget will have another final review at the next BOS meeting on December 19. If we want to feel better about our potential 3.5% tax increase, we need look no further than to our next-door neighbors. In Phoenixville, residents are facing a potential 19 percent tax increase to close their 2012 budget deficit. And remember, they pay an Earned Income Tax in Phoenixville!

The T/E School Board meeting was a very short meeting. With a 9-0 vote of confidence, Karen Cruickshank was elected to president and Betsy Fadem as vice president of the school board. Cruickshank will choose the committee chairs and members this week. There are significant Finance and Facilities Committee meetings planned for next week. With the loss of Kevin Mahoney on the school board, the School Board is going to be challenged with the Finance Committee.

In my review of the agenda for last night’s school board meeting, I was disturbed to read that the Public Information Committee would be abolished. Debbie Bookstaber’s presence on the school board had encouraged transparency and public information. Without her advocacy for transparency, it may be challenging for us to receive information during the contract negotiations.

Apparently, the board defended its actions to abolish the Public Information Committee last night, with the feeling that each school board committee should be responsible for their communications. Without the Public Information Committee holding the board to a high communications standard, it becomes the responsibility of the taxpayers to play watchdog. The school board members agreed that if a future need required it, the Public Information Committee could be re-instituted. Why do I feel like we are going backwards with this decision instead of forward?

Now that Debbie Bookstaber is off the school board, maybe she will join the conversation on Community Matters. Her insight as a recent school board director could be extremely valuable in the upcoming teacher contract negotiations.

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