Pattye Benson

Community Matters

teacher demotion

Is T/E School District the next Neshaminy?

Today marks the first day for teachers striking in the Neshaminy School District. Over in Neshaminy, the teachers are starting the week on the picket line; also marking the second strike of the year. If you recall, in January the Neshaminy teachers were on strike for 8 days. The Neshaminy teachers and the school district have been locked in a vicious contract debate for 4 years with neither side willing to budge – sticking points in the bitter contract dispute is healthcare and salary. It is my understanding that the teachers want a 5% salary increase retroactively for the last 4 years. Additionally, the teachers healthcare package is completely funded by the taxpayers. The Neshaminy teachers have said that they will contribute to their healthcare costs going forward. However, it should be noted that I can find reference to the teacher’s offer to help with healthcare expenses but I am unable to find anything in writing to that effect.

As I wrote in January of this year, the teachers in the Neshaminy School District are the highest paid in the state but if we look at PSSA results, the Neshaminy School District doesn’t even make the top 50 in the state, coming in at 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. Compare that to Tredyffrin Easttown School District and the ranking of third in the state. If the highest paid teachers, working in a school district that underperforms 50% of all other school districts in the state, are willing to strike twice in 6 months … what does that mean for other districts with teacher contracts pending?

Should the reward for the excellent education students receive in Tredyffrin Easttown School District be the threat to our teachers of demotion? Some readers have suggested on Community Matters, that the school district has nothing left as a contract negotiating tool but the threat of demotion and the increase in class size. The teacher’s contract is up in less than 30 days, June 30. As a community, are we prepared for a similar battleground as Neshaminy School District has experienced for the last 4 years? Isn’t there a better way?

I used to think a teacher’s strike was not possible in T/E – my Pollyanna view of the world believed that both sides would somehow just ‘work it out’, agree on the contract and everyone would be happy. I no longer think that outcome is likely to happen. If, … the T/E school board decides to demote any of the seasoned, senior members of T/E teaching staff (for economic reasons), I truly believe that the road ahead may well lead to a District teachers strike. I don’t claim to have a crystal ball so here’s hoping that my hunch is wrong and that there is still hope for peaceful resolution in the days to come.

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.

Should School Districts (TESD) Use Fund Balances Instead of Educational Cuts and Teacher Demotions?

Should school districts, such as TESD use fund balances instead of educational cuts and teacher demotions? The answer according to Governor Corbett and some other Pennsylvania lawmakers, is yes.

Tredyffrin Easttown School District has amassed an enviable fund balance – $32 million; one of the largest in the state. There are those in the community that support the school board holding on to the “rainy day” reserve funds; primarily because of the dramatically increasing PSERS contributions over the next few years. We understand that the traditional package of retirement benefits for state employees and teachers has become unaffordable and pension reform is sorely needed (and sooner rather than later). I support the state switching to a defined-contribution model (401(k) type model) for new hires but that only prevents the underfunded-pension liability problem from worsening … the state has a current multi-billion dollar hole. But unlike T/E, the state has no “rainy day” fund. Trying to manage their budgets, the state’s pension crisis has pushed school districts across the state to the edge of the cliff. There are those that praise T/E for the good job they have done in holding onto their fund balance in spite of the pension crisis.

But not everyone in our school district supports T/E holding onto the $30+ million fund balance; suggesting that this money represents past overtaxing and belongs to the taxpayers and should be returned. Then there is the teacher union’s position that the fund balance should be used before utilizing budget strategies such as demotion or increasing class size. Some residents fear that as school district’s budget woes push them over the cliff, the state will look to Districts (such as T/E) to bail out their fellow school districts.

Governor Corbett has sent a message to Pennsylvania’s school districts; he believes that they should tap into their reserves instead of cutting programs or laying off teachers and staff. During a recent radio interview with Dom Giordana on CBS channel WPHT, Corbett said if school boards want to cut programs instead of spending more of their financial reserves, than the public should blame them – not his budget. According to Corbett, “Well, I look at the reserves as – it’s a rainy day fund. And this is a rainy day – we are in a rainy day.” If you are a supporter of our governor, then the message to T/E school board would be no educational cuts, spend the fund balance.

Taking Gov. Corbett’s message for school district’s to use their fund balances, a step further are State Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery County) and Mario Scavello (R-Monroe County). These two Republican lawmakers are developing legislation that would force school districts to use their reserve funds to balance their budget before they would be allowed to raise taxes. Vereb and Scavello want to either limit the amount of money that districts can hold in their “rainy day” reserves or ban the school districts from raising taxes if the money needed to balance the budget is available (in the fund balance).

In an article on , “Pennsylvania School Districts have Tripled Savings in 15 Years”, it was stated that Pennsylvania school districts have more than $3.2 billion in reserve funds. Data from the PA Department of Education indicates that the reserve accounts have nearly tripled from $1.1 billion in 1996-97 to more than $3.2 billion last year.

The article included an interesting table listing the largest reserve fund increases in Pennsylvania since 1996-97; Tredyffrin Easttown School District has the distinction of coming in 7th in the state. In 1996-97, T/E had $4,333,661 and in fifteen years increased by more than $26 million to a current total of approximately $32 million. Amazing.

Largest Reserve Fund Increases Since 1996-97
Rank District 1996-97 2010-11 Increase
  1 Pittsburgh $47,013,209 $148,871,185 $101,857,976
  2 Downingtown $183,005 $50,803,447 $50,620,442
  3 Abington $1,509,021 $45,937,675 $44,428,654
  4 Lower Merion $6,584,556 $43,405,136 $36,820,580
  5 Altoona $1,509,021 $45,937,675 $44,428,654
  6 Bensalem $1,674,721 $28,564,360 $26,889,639
  7 Tredyffrin-Easttown $4,333,551 $31,026,455 $26,692,904







Vereb is “furious to find that many of the state’s school districts that are crying poor and blaming the state for their fiscal problems are sitting on surpluses, including one that totals $148 million.” Although Vereb supports school districts having an emergency reserve, he feels that the taxpayer is deserved an explanation as to why school districts with large fund balances are cutting programs and teachers and raising property taxes but refusing to use fund balances. That’s the reasoning behind the legislation that he and Scavello are working on — forcing the hand of school boards to use their fund balances before raising taxes.

$1.5 Million Budget Deficit … Will T/E Use Fund Balance in Lieu of Demotion or Increasing Class Size?

Click here to see the draft on the 2012-13 final budget of TESD to be presented at tonight’s school board meeting – 7:30 PM, TESD administration office, 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne. Click here for the agenda. Thanks to Community Matters reader Roberta Hotinski for providing the updated information and link from the District.

The draft budget reflects a proposed tax increase of 3.3% … 1.7% from Act 1 Index ($1.5 million) and 1.6% from Act 1 Exceptions ($1,498,916). Based on an average residential assessment of $252,601, the average tax increase proposed by the budget is $155 to the taxpayer.

Applying the previously accepted strategies, the District’s budget deficit for 2012-13 is $1,547,888. Now here is the curious part … you will note on page 3 of the proposed final budget (see below) that next to the $1.5 million+ deficit are the words “Satisfied with Fund Balance Contribution”. At both the last school board meeting and the finance committee meeting, when various residents asked school board members about using some of the $32 million fund balance for the budget shortfall, that option was quickly dismissed (with little discussion). School board members were unwilling to discuss using the fund balance to bridge the budget gap but rather focused attention on the remaining strategies of (1) soliciting tax exempt property owners in lieu of taxes, (2) increasing class size and (3) demotion of professional staff for economic reasons.

For the record, page 7 of the proposed final budget continues to list strategies, N-14, Solicit Tax Exempt Property Owners in Lieu of Taxes, N-16, Demotion/Attrition of Professional Staff for Economic Reasons – $640,328 and N-19, Increase Class Size by One at Each Level – $607,500. However, based on the proposed fund balance transfer listed on page 3 of the budget, it would appear that the school board might have changed their mind in regards to demotion and increased class size as budget strategies.

If I am interpreting the District budget proposal correctly in regards to the fund transfer, this could be good news for those supporting the District teachers most in risk of demotion. Additionally, maybe this new information will begin to move the teacher contract negotiations forward towards a peaceful resolution. Here’s hoping!


Teachers Union Files Grievance against T/E over Additional Teaching Period

Have you ever attended a meeting where you left shaking your head in confusion and wondering exactly what was decided? Last night’s Finance Committee meeting of the school district was that kind of meeting for me. I would think it was just me, except that following up with Ray Clarke, who also attended the meeting; I took solace that some of what was said too confused him.

Unfortunately, if Ray and I were a tad confused, I fear that the standing-room only crowd in attendance may be likewise. Here are some of the highlights; if you attended the meeting, and find that, I misunderstood the information, please jump in.

The remaining 2012-13 budget deficit is $1.5 million. There are 3 budget strategies under review to bridge the gap:

  1. Strategy N-14: Solicitation of tax-exempt property owners for payment in lieu of taxes. A letter from the District would go to these property owners requesting a payment in lieu of taxes equal to 10% of the total amount if their property was not tax-exempt. The District will do the research and insert the actual dollar amount of what they would pay (if not tax-exempt) along with the requested 10 percent amount. There is a potential of $5 million from the 308 tax-exempt property owners. This is a 2-prong approach – the District will be quantifying to see if any property owners have lost their non-profit status and there should be paying taxes, and to ask for donations from non-profit property owners. Interesting to note that 2 of the largest non-profit property owners are Tredyffrin Township and Tredyffrin Easttown School District.
  2. Strategy N-19: Increase class size by one student. Grades K & 1 would go from 22 to 23 students, Grade 2 from 23 to 24 students, Grades 3 & 4 from 25 to 26 students and Grades 5 & 6 from 27 to 28 students. Estimated savings: $607K
  3. Strategy N-16: Demotion of professional staff for economic reasons. Estimated savings: $640K TESD solicitor Kenneth Roos attended the Finance Committee meeting and gave his legalize during the meeting, as needed. He explained that the District could not demote on merit because it is subjective. Demotion cannot be “arbitrary or capricious”. Dr. Waters offered that by demoting those with the highest salaries, the impact would be lessened with fewer teachers affected. The solicitor confirmed that the TEEA contract is silent on the subject of demotion.

Last year, budget strategies numbered 31-35 combined are listed as a cost savings of $1.125 million — these strategies were ultimately approved in the 2011-12 budget. Strategy 31 requires high school teachers to teach 6 periods per day, Strategy 32 maintains the 8 periods per day at Conestoga and limit students to 42 periods per cycle. Strategy 33 requires science lab teachers at Conestoga to teach 5 classes, Strategy 34 eliminates German and Latin in the middle school and final Strategy 35 curtails applied tech, FC and Tech Ed in Grades 5 and 6.

Because of increased teaching periods that started this school year, an announcement by school board member Betsy Fadem last night that was surprising. It is my understanding from Fadem and the solicitor that the teachers union has filed a grievance against the District in regards to the additional teaching period in the high school — Conestoga teachers are teaching 6 periods per day versus 5 periods.

The TEEA grievance topic was the number one most confusing, and least explained item of last night. Between Ray Clarke and me, we have tried to figure out what was said but there was little to go on. There is a potential $1 million price tag associated with this grievance, should the District lose. There is an additional problem (which could be costly in time and money) that’s the rescheduling required if TEEA prevails and the number of teaching periods returns to where it was before this budget strategy was imposed.

The statement from Roos on TEEA grievance was confusing. I absolutely do not understand the scope of the grievance, the timeline for appeal, associated costs, etc.; the public is owed a much more comprehensive explanation than was offered last night. We all left the meeting shaking our heads and not understanding this grievance issue. I couldn’t help but wonder is this a ‘balance of the scales’ contract strategy from TEEA against the ‘demotion talk’ from the school district? Please school board, can the taxpayers have transparency and explanation on this important issue. If there are any teachers who can shed light on the complaint, please help us understand.

The only other item I will mention from last night had to do with creating a way for residents to donate to the school district to help the budget. Many residents have spoken out that they would like to contribute with donations to the District, some suggesting that they were willing to see their taxes increased to ensure the quality of the T/E education. There was discussion about having a ‘button’ on the District’s website for contributions and setting up a foundation to collect donations (as a Great Valley organization recently did). In addition, FLITE is willing to have contributions go through their organization that would be earmarked for the District. A number of students and parents spoke out in support of voluntary contributions to the District.

With $32 Million in Fund Balance, How Can TESD Consider Demotion?

Here’s the question for the day:

Why is it that Tredyffrin Easttown School District has the largest fund balance in the state ($32 million) and is the only school district giving serious discussion to ‘demotion of professional staff’ to fund the $1.5 million budget deficit?

There are those that suggest that the idea of demotion is not a serious consideration but simply a contract-negotiating tactic to use against the teachers union. If I understand the tactic, the school district keeps the teacher demotion idea afloat in hopes that the teachers union (TEEA) will offer reduction in health care benefits in exchange for no demotion. Looking at the calendar, here is what I do not understand — The School Board has to vote on the 2012-13 budget at the June 11th school board meeting but … the teachers’ contract does not expire until June 30th. Presumably, based on the calendar, our school board members will need to make the demotion decision prior to knowing the contents of TEEA’s contract offer.

I don’t claim to know what ‘magic’ amount our school district should have in reserve, but it would appear that with $32 million of taxpayer dollars, the District could afford to use $1.5 million to fund the budget gap. As I said in a comment on Community Matters, Haverford School District voted to use $1.3 million from their fund balance to fund next year’s budget gap – but unlike TESD, they only had $2.6 million on which to draw! Their school board decided to take 50 percent of their reserves to fund the budget shortfall. The Haverford School Board choose this approach to funding the gap versus demotion of teachers. I know, I know, some will say that TESD is being fiscally responsible by preserving the $32 million fund balance, and yes, I realize that the District’s pension obligation grows significantly in the years to come, but still … ?

Regardless of motives, is the ‘demotion talk’ from the School Board, the right direction the discussion should be going? According to the agenda for Monday’s Finance Committee, the two big ticket items that still remain as budget strategies are $640K for demotion of professional staff for economic reasons and $345K for increasing class size one at each level. My guess is that there will be a decision at this meeting whether or not to recommend these strategies to the entire School Board.

The Finance Committee agenda defines demotion as a “reassignment to a position which has less authority, prestige or salary.” (PA School Code). “Demotions are permitted by the School Code for economic necessity. Seniority provisions do not apply to demotions for economic necessity. The right to demote employees is an inherent management right and does not need to be bargained. The TEEA contract is silent on demotion.” Under ‘considerations’ of demotion, the agenda lists “retention of existing trained staff could become more challenging, and (2) “Introduces a competitive disadvantage to the recruitment and hiring process.”

This afternoon, I received the latest communication from TEEA – titled, “Demotions Will Harm T/E Students, Community; Residents Asked To Share Voice”. Although some reading Community Matters may suggest that demotion of professional staff is nothing more than a negotiating ploy on the part of the union, it certainly appears that the teachers are taking the demotion strategy seriously, stating in their latest press release “ … any minimal and short-term economic benefits produced will be offset by greater and more serious long-term costs. If the Board decides to follow through on teacher demotions, we ask—what is the true price? How will these demotions affect our students, our schools, and the T/E community?…” TEEA echoes my question in regards to other school districts, declaring that “… T/E is currently the only district in the Main Line area considering teacher demotion as a cost-effective strategy…” I have spoken with several District teachers and they are concerned and consider ‘demotion’ a serious District strategy, not just a negotiating ploy. It will be very curious to see if the Finance Committee is met with a similar audience of teachers, parents, students, taxpayers were at the last school board meeting.

For the record, I absolutely believe that members of TEEA understand that their health care benefits cannot remain at the same level and, further I think that their contract offer will be reflective of that understanding. On the topic of health care benefits, I do have a question that maybe someone can answer. The administration is not part of TEEA but I have never heard their health care benefits discussed. Do they have the same insurance plan as the teachers? And if so, will the administrators health care benefits change when presumably, the teacher’s plan changes? Anyone know the answer?

I found the following comment for Community Matters apropos to this post. Rather than see the comment, I think the commenter’s sentiments are reflective of what many in the community are feeling:

From bluedog1776:

I would rather procrastinate with using a small amount of reserve money than decimate our teaching staff.

I would rather use a small amount of reserve fund money than lay off our most experienced teachers.

I would rather use the taxpayer’s money: THE RESERVE FUND, than ask our non-profits to chip in.

I would rather use some of the reserve fund than cavalierly dismiss employees who have worked for the District for many, many years.

I would rather do what Haverford School District is doing or what our School District has done in the past, which is to use some of the Reserve Fund, some tax increases, and some employee give backs, than make a rash ridiculous decision that is really about destroying the teacher’s union than about great fiscal principles.

The same five people on this blog hash over the same tired arguments over and over again. Would love to hear from more people. But I guess they are reluctant to contribute because they just don’t have the same level of experience/knowledge/brilliance as you.

The problem with many of the postings on this blog is the groupthink that persists. It would be interesting to have a real debate with real analysis.

The District has done a heckuva job (great job Sultanik PR firm) convincing most of the public that they don’t have a nickel in the bank. If we had a real newspaper asking real questions; if we had more community members come out and ask more questions; the truth would come out.

It is an absolutely unbelievable that a District with $32 million in the bank has convinced the public that we are Chester Upland. Since when? It is demeaning to this community that the powers that be have made TE out to be broke and near bankruptcy. Since when?

The board has done a good job cutting expenses, and the teachers need to pay more for health care; but we should NOT destroy this school district because we have a few people who want to take an ideological stand on not using the fund balance.

I don’t want my property values to plummet because TE schools go down the tubes as we cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.

I watched the school board meeting on TV and saw the woman at the end who revealed that it is not that the school district CAN’T use the fund balance; they have CHOSEN not to use the fund balance by passing a policy to put it in a lock box.

UNLOCK THE BOX! Stop this nonsense! Stop attacking the teachers! Work with the teachers!

I agree with Pattye. I elected YOU school board members, to represent me. DO YOUR JOB! Get to the table. Settle this contract. Stop making the teachers the enemy.

TEEA States T/E $1.5 million Deficit Will be Reduced by Teacher Retirements!

The teachers union in T/E School District, Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) held a members meeting today. I am assuming that the press released that I just received (below) was a result of their meeting. The teachers union is coming out strong in opposition to school board using demotion of professional staff as a budget strategy for the $1.5 million budget deficit.

According to this press release, TEEA is suggesting that the 2012-13 budget deficit could be reduced by nearly $1.5 million due to the retirement of 17 teachers. According to the teachers union, these retirements were not factored into the budget. If this is true, problem solved and no need for further discussion of demotion. Surely, it cannot be that simple. Or, can it?

Looks like another showdown may be coming at Monday’s Finance Committee meeting. I have received a number of phone calls and emails from concerned residents since the School Board meeting. Many of the conversations have been in support of my call for greater transparency in the teacher contract negotiation process. Comments have continued to be posted on Community Matters suggesting that the school board is fully aware of the negotiations, etc. etc.. and that it is perfectly OK that elected school board members are not sitting at the negotiating table. Sorry, I am still standing on the fact that the taxpayer needs to be represented in the room, sitting at the table, not hearing the conversation secondhand. I want someone with ‘skin in the game’ representing me — the taxpayer. And unless someone can tell me otherwise, I do not think any of the 4 people negotiating on behalf of the school district lives in either Tredyffrin or Easttown Townships.

All four school district representatives are paid by the taxpayers – one is professional negotiator Jeff Sultanik and the other three are school district administrators — Superintendent Dan Waters, Human Resource Director Sue Tiede and Business Manager Art McDonnell. Where is the Tredyffrin or Easttown taxpayer? Again, unless some tells me differently, these four individuals are not personally affected by the outcome of next year’s budget or the contract negotiations because they do not live here. The District negotiating team (Sultanik, Waters, Tiede and McDonnell) will not be affected by the increase of property taxes or the possible diminishing quality of the TESD educational program — certainly not like the taxpayers, parents and students!

I know that I sound like a broken record, but where is ‘our voice’? I think that is why I am stuck on the transparency issue; I can’t helping thinking that the taxpayers are the ‘third wheel’. We have the teachers union and the school board appointed negotiators but the parents and the taxpayers are not represented but left with a lot of questions.

Here’s the latest TEEA press release:

T/E Teachers: Demotions Unnecessary, Destructive; Existing Resources Sufficient to Preserve Program

The T/E community recently spoke out against teacher demotions at the April 23rd School Board meeting. The central concern: should the Board use existing resources to protect our best and brightest teachers – the core of an exceptional T/E school system – or cut these dedicated educators from our program?

One truth remains clear: no parties involved have created the financial challenges affecting T/E. Rather, these challenges result from a confluence of economic and legislative factors beyond the control of our local officials, residents, and teachers.

The manner in which these challenges are resolved, however, still remain in the Board’s control.

While the School Board has recently proposed the demotion of our most successful teachers as a viable cost reduction strategy, T/E teachers believe strongly that this proposal will be extremely destructive to the T/E educational program and that more reasonable solutions exist.

The recent Board meeting and a TEEA review of District finances reveal several important factors related to demotion alternatives:

  • The Board revised downward its projected deficit to 1.5M based upon allowable Act I tax increases not included in its original assumptions, revised instructional expenditures and newly accepted budget strategies.
  • 17 retiring teachers, also excluded from the Board’s initial assumptions, will reduce the projected deficit further. TEEA estimates savings of nearly $1M from teacher retirements.
  • The Board has designated much of its substantial 31M fund balance – one of the largest in the state – to rising PSERS obligations, a major external legislative challenge causing this year’s deficit. But it has not considered the use of these funds to offset next year’s increased obligation. The projected deficit is larger as a result.
  • The Board regularly uses the general fund balance to resolve budget deficits.
  • The Board’s own internal policy is the only measure preventing the use of the $31M general fund balance as a bridge that would protect the excellence of our program. The Board regularly changes its own policies, and has the authority to use these funds. The Board is not prevented by PA School Code.

If the decision to be made is between the core of our educational program or a small fraction of the fund balance, then the decision should be clear.

The Board should table the demotion measure and, instead, fully participate in comprehensive, two-way, productive contract negotiations – one of several important paths to sustainability. Why destroy our award-winning program when the resources to protect it exist?

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.

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.

T/E Fund Balance … Panacea to District’s Budget Shortfall?

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District School Board is contending with decreased local revenue, higher health insurance costs, increased contributions to the state pension fund, and diminished state and federal revenue. These problems do not make TESD unique; school boards across Pennsylvania are facing the same issues.

To suggest that Pennsylvania school districts are challenged by the financial crisis would be an understatement. As School Boards struggle to balance their budgets amidst these challenges, there is unprecedented concern as they look for solutions.

In TESD, the teacher contract talks continue as a backdrop to the ongoing budget discussions of the school board. With the current teachers’ contract set to expire on June 30, 2012; we are starting to see the battleground lines drawn in the sand. I am beginning to fear a “us versus them” mentality is developing. Many of the comments on the last Community Matters post were focused on the health insurance benefit plans of the teachers. I have to believe that the T/E teacher’s union TEEA accepts that the district can no longer afford to sustain their members’ health care plan at its current level – simply not possible.

Teacher unions fight for their members’ financial self-interests. To be clear, I do not have a problem with that motive – after all, isn’t that the primary reason ‘why’ a teacher would join TEEA and pay dues. Some may suggest that it appears that both TEEA and the school board are more focused on the money than the education. Let’s hope for the benefit of the District’s children, that conclusion reached by some is incorrect. Many of T/E teachers are also residents and parents. TEEA may be hoping to keep their benefit package intact but I have believe that the quality of the district’s educational program is every bit as important to most of its members.

Monday’s School Board meeting should be an indicator to the community on whether the teachers and the School Board are working toward the same goals or not. A couple of important topics for discussion at the meeting will be demotion and increased class size. I have previously written that increasing class size by one or two students may not be a problem, but could this be seen as the beginnings of change to the quality of TESD education? Increased class size may mean that teachers cannot focus as easily on individual students’ needs.

Just the talk of ‘possible’ demotion in TESD for economic reasons, is sending a negative tidal wave to TEEA. It is worrisome that the professional staff may be feeling devalued based solely on this budget strategy discussion. According to a recent TEEA press release, “T/E Teachers Willing to Help Create a Financial Bridge to the Future” the teachers union fully understands the District’s financial crisis and has prepared an ‘extremely reasonable solution’ to the School Board. However, according to TEEA, there has been unwillingness on the part of the School Board representatives to discuss their offer. The article further states that if demotion in the District moves forward, it is likely that some of the teachers will be forced to seek employment elsewhere. In reading the press release, I bought into this part of their argument.

However, the following paragraph from TEEA caused me pause,

At the same time, the Board has made assumptions about our future financial condition based upon many worst-case scenarios. They assume no future revenue growth, continued real estate decline, and continued lack of state and federal funding. These assumptions ignore significant increases the district made to its reserve fund in the past year. A more reasonable projection would account for an improving employment rate in Chester County, a real estate market that is beginning to rebound, and other indications of improving economic conditions.

To be fair to the School Board, they would not be doing their job if they were not realistic in their budget projections. Governor Corbett has focused his blame for the current budget crisis in Pennsylvania schools solely on the shoulders of local school boards. With Harrisburg’s major public education funding cuts, it is precisely the school board members who are now mired with this mess as the state pushes school funding responsibility on local school districts. I believe it is a bit quixotic for TEEA to suggest that the School Board should take a more positive (unrealistic?) approach to improving economic conditions. I am all for taking the ‘half glass full’ approach to situations but its needs to be tempered with realism. Rather than ‘worst-case scenario’ as suggested by TEEA, I hope that our School Board is attempting to be realistic in their projections.

In the latest TEEA press release, ‘Teachers Hope for Open Dialogue, Ask Community to Share Voice’, they offer a list of questions for community members to ask at Monday’s School Board meeting. Much of their focus is on the District’s fund balance, and the suggestion that the reserves be used to fund the budget shortfall. According to the TEEA, our school district currently has a reserve fund that is 26% of revenue, whereas other local school districts have fund balances of 8% to 10%. TEEA states that the PA School Boards Association recommends a balance no greater than 5%.

I believe that TESD has the largest fund balance in the state – someone please correct me if this wrong. And since the fund is taxpayer’s money, do you agree with TEEA and that a buy down from the reserve is in order to help fund the 2012-13 budget?

However, what are the repercussions, if any, with this approach for future budgets or future emergencies? Moving forward, you don’t know when a roof is going to need major roof repairs or a school boiler is going to need replacement. Few school districts have amassed anywhere close to the significant fund balance as TESD. Maybe we should view 2012 as an ‘emergency’ and with that approach, use the fund balance as TEEA suggests.

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