Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Highs and Lows of a WCASD School Board Meeting

High: Three gentlemen from our three high schools speaking articulately about the programs students participate in and the charities they support.

Low: School board members not being able to speak at all. I.e. Every time a question is asked, it seems the question must be asked multiple times before an answer is given -- if an answer is given. (I am not just talking about board meetings; it seems difficult to get an answer via email either.)

High: Fifth graders from Penn Wood standing in front of a large audience and leading them in the Pledge of Allegiance, without hardly a stammer between the two.

Low: Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Murphy interrupting a member of the audience while he was speaking, suggesting he was being disrespectful even though he was basically reading from another board member’s note (see further down). I am confused: Isn’t the board supposed to advocate for the tax payers and how can they if they don’t want to listen? Shouldn't our school board allow for "provocative discussions with the community where controversial issues are debated...." (How to Choose a School Board Candidate.) By the way, whatever happened to freedom of speech?

High: Students from Fugett Middle School presenting their robotics program, the success of which is taking them to a regional contest this weekend.

Low: Misinformation/lack of clarification over several items, including lighting project for Rustin, the best way to communicate with board members and get real answers, and how much parochial schools save our public school district, supposedly millions. Fact, the public school supports $5 million in busing of parochial students, effectively spending $1,200 on each parochial student, while approximately $400 is spent on busing for each public school child. And busing is not the only service provided to parochial schools. Don’t get me wrong, I do not begrudge the schools these services, I just wonder how do these numbers equate to savings?

But by far, the lowest of the low was when a member of the audience stood up and read a forwarded note from school board member Mrs. Snook (who was not in attendance). In her letter, she pleaded for “representation from the community at large and not just a couple special interest groups” to attend the board meetings. (These special interests groups, as far as I can tell, are those parents and teachers who are concerned for our children’s education.) The note noted that “Big issues of spending, taxes, collective bargaining, strikes, pensions, are on our table.” According to last month’s meeting, the board hasn’t even talked with the teachers yet, so it is a mystery to me how Mrs. Snook knows of an impending strike. Anyway, she called for each municipality in the district to try and cover one month and asked if they could “then send notes around to all of us? We Republican school board members need help from you, our constituents!” Shocker: I thought it was a board representing all members of the community, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and even special interest groups alike. School boards are nonpartisan. I can't say it better than "At the heart of it all, members of a district's board of education must believe, unequivocally, in the value of public education. They must be dedicated to serving and teaching all children. They must believe in the democratic process and understand that their role is to act strategically, in line with the interests of the entire school community." (How to Choose a School Board Candidate.)

Oh, and I almost forgot, another high. The members of the school board were thanked for their hard work on the board because January is “Stand Up for Public Schools” month. Each member was presented with gifts from each of the 16 schools in our district, including a piece of artwork--all strikingly beautiful—created by different students.

Upon review, the highest point of the night was the first half of the board meeting: uplifting and entertaining and effectively run by our young students. Maybe they should be the ones thanked for standing up and supporting public schools?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

1/17/12 Property & Finance Meeting

It was a LONG meeting which began at 6:30pm and lasted more than 2 hours. All board members with the exception of Heidi Adsett were present. The seating area for the public was full. Here are the highlights:

Budget Forecast

-our 2011/12 projection has improved by $1665k, due to a $700k increase in revenues and $965k decrease in expenses. The revenue improvements are from increased EIT ($250k), better than anticipated R/E tax collections ($250k), and increases in "other" revenue such as billings to other school districts (($200k). Expense decreases were from lower salary costs due to vacancies that were not filled ($700k) and savings in transportation contract expenses ($265k). The entire $1665k will be applied to a designated fund balance for the 13/14 school year so will have no impact on our 12/13 budget.

-our 2012/13 projection has improved by $2292k, comprised of a $377k increase in revenues and $1915k decrease in expenses. The revenue improvements are from EIT and Other Revenues similar to 11/12. A small part of the expense reductions are due to transportation savings similary to 11/12 ($100k) and debt service reductions ($256k) due to a small delay in the timing of borrowing. The major part of the expense decrease is due to the elimination of all salary increases for not only the 2012/13 year but for all future years of the forecast. This resulted in a net savings of ~$1481k when netted with PSERS/FICA reductions and associated cuts in state subsidies for those items.

-the bottom line impact of these changes is an improvement of ~$3.1M for the 12/13 school year. Excluding the impact of any tax increase or fund balance usage, that leaves us with a $5.1M shortfall. We are projecting to take $1.8M from our fund balances, comprised of our entire $1.2M PSERS designated fund and $600k from our general fund, leaving it at 6% of expenses (board policy mandates a 5.2% mininum). That leaves us with $3.3M to make up in increased revenue sources or budget cuts for next year. If the board takes the 1.7% Act 1 tax increase, that reduces the shortfall to ~$800k.

>I am very happy to see these improvements in the financials, especially as we move into the budget phase of looking at potential cuts coming out of the budget task force committees. I do, however, think it is risky to remove all salary increase from the budget for the following reasons: 1)it artificially reduces the shortfall so we will be considering less cuts than we may end up needing and 2)if union negotiations are not resolved by June we will be passing a budget and making a decision on whether a tax increase is necessary based on assumptions that may not come true and could leave us with an unbalanced budget in 12/13.

Community Budget Task Force Findings: Dr. Scanlon categorized all recommendations into their respective board committee for further review. He recommended that the administration distribute the findings into 3 categories: Phase 1 for approval at the 2/27/12 meeting, Phase 2 for the 4/23/12 meeting, and Phase 3 to possibly be considered for the 13/14 school year or beyond. The board seemed amenable to this process.

Penn Wood Elementary Renovations: Kevin Campbell presented the bids for the different portions of the renovation work. The bids in total came in at $9.5M, almost $1M below budget. A lengthy discussion ensued when representatives from Five Star Inc. objected to the awarding of the HVAC work to Myco Mechanical instead of their company. The issue centered around use of the Venmar vs. ChangeAir systems and preferential pricing that the ChangeAir vendor was giving to Myco Mechanical which effectively decided which company would win the bid. The representatives from Five Star felt that it was unfair for the decision to have been impacted in this manner, and that their company should also receive some preference given it is based in West Chester and the owner's children attend WCASD. Linda Raileanu felt that these practices were unfair and should not be tolerated, while Karen Miller said it was just part of doing business. The committee accepted the bid as presented by Mr. Campbell with the stipulation that going forward something would be done to prohibit these types of situations from impacting the awarding of work to vendors.

Rustin Sewer Line Right of Way Settlement: the final hurdle to the Westtown-Thornbury renovations appears to have been settled. Westtown Township had been requiring WCASD to settle the dispute of 2 Dunning Drive homeowners related to the Rustin sewer line before allowing the W-T sewer work to commence (although the 2 are totally unrelated). The district had moved foward with exercising their rights under Eminent Domain to have the property condemned since they could not come to an agreement with the homeowners. However, a settlement has now been reached for which the district will pay each party $5,000 to cover the cost of the land and attorney fees. It is believed that this $10k is less than it would cost to move forward with the condemnation hearing.

New/Revised policies regarding public participation at board/committee meetings: the policy for board meetings was revised and a new policy regarding public participation at committee meetings was created. Only the new commitee meeting policy was discussed. Currently the committee meetings are much more informal than the full board meetings and public comment/questions are taken after each agenda item. The new policy stated that public comment would now only be allowed at the beginning of each meeting on agenda items only and for a limit of 2 minutes/person with a 10 minute max, effectively limiting comment to 5 people/meeting. Furthermore, questions would not be allowed. Several members of the public spoke out against this for reasons including censorship, the fact that the public had alwasy been allowed to participate in this manner, and the fact that this was the only way some people felt they could get any information (anyone who attends meetings regularly knows that committee meetings are where all discussion takes place and most issues are decided). Furthermore, Sean Carpenter, Sue Tiernan, and Karen Miller also said they were not in favor of the policy; Sean said that he felt the committees benefit from the public input and that it should be left to the committee chair to drive how the public comment/question process occurs, not an overall board policy that all committees must follow. Vince Murphy, Maria Pimley, Linda Raileanu, and Ed Coyle spoke out in favor of the policy. Maria said she thought the limitations on public comment would allow the board to do its work more effectively, and Linda Raileanu cited several times that she thought the meetings had become like "a circus" (although she did not elaborate on this). The board decided not to pass the policy in its present form on to the full board, but instead asked Dr. Scanlon to revise it so the committee could reconsider it in its revised form. I will give the board the benefit of the doubt that they will continue to allow the public the opportunity to ask questions and make comments which I believe is our right, so will reserve sharing my opinions until a final policy is presented.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Seeking out the truth. Don't believe every quote you read in the DLN.

An article in the 1/10/12 issue of the DLN talked about the WCASD having the negative outlook on their Aaa bond rating removed by Moodys Investors service. A quote from Board President, Vince Murphy, stated "The maintenance of a solid and reliable financial position is one of the primary responsibilities of a school board". The school board had no responsibility in having the rating being restored to stable. Every municipal entity in Chester County was placed on a negative outlook until Moodys could determine what impact a federal government shutdown, or cutbacks would have on them. Once moody's determined that there would be no negative impact to the WCASD they (Moody's) returned the district to stable status.

The school board should be paying more attention to the impact their current budget deficit situation will have on their Moody's rating this spring, and in the future. They currently face a $8.4 million deficit, and even if they were to raid $3.3 from their fund balance and raise taxes the maximum allowable amount of 1.7% they will still need to find $2.6 million dollars to balance their budget. A community budget task force currently has many recommendations on the table to balance the budget. Some of these include user fees for all activities, raising class sizes, and closing down an elementary school.After this "giddy" press release Lets see how happy everyone is in a few months depending on how this board reconciles their budget dilemma.
Keep an eye on people who are quick to take credit for something they had nothing to do with. If there's anyone who can be credited with attaining & maintaining the WCASD superior Aaa Moody's rating it is our Business Manager Dr. Suzanne Moore. Nuff said!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Monday, January 9 - Pupil Services & Education Committee Meetings

All Board Members, with the exception of Sean Carpenter, were in attendance for both meetings. Although, I could swear I saw him in the hallway as I was leaving. Maybe there was an Executive Meeting afterwards, but I didn't hear an announcement...

Pupil Services
Dr. Ranieri mostly presented for the Pupil Services meeting. She is phenomenal at what she does. I was on the parent committee that interviewed people for her position a few years back. And, yes, she was my number one pick! Pupil Services deals with gifted and special education. Her department is looking into trying not to send students to outside programs. They are trying to keep our tax dollars in our schools. Right now for one program, the District spends $30,000 per student on services provided by the CCIU (Chester County Intermediate Unit). The School District is required to provide services for some students until the age of 21. These students are taught life skills by spending time in an apartment set up by the IU where they can learn skills such as cooking and cleaning and things that they will need to live on their own. She expects 6 students to be recommended to participate in the program next year. She feels that the District can run this program at the same cost for next year (since there will start up costs for the program), but moving forward will prove to be more cost effective for the school district.

Our Gifted Education Supervisor retired and the District cut 2 gifted teaching positions as a result of the last Budget Task Force (went from 10 to 8 teachers). Responsibilities have been transferred and the department in analyzing impacts of reduction in resources and services that have been recommended by the Second Budget Task Force. They also are looking at the possibility of implementing a pilot program with a model called Total School Cluster Grouping that would cluster gifted students together in mixed ability classrooms. Dr. Ranieri also mentioned that the middle school gifted program will be moving to a 6-day cycle so that those students will be provided more opportunities for acceleration, not just enrichment.

Education Committee
There was a short presentation from the Education Foundation. The West Chester Area Education Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization with the mission of supporting educational experiences that will connect our District curriculum with real-world experiences. Their goal is to foster reciprocal partnerships that enhance our educational programs while providing benefits to the business community. To date, they have raised over $14,000. The Education Foundation provides opportunities for children in all grade levels to achieve their personal best through internships, career awareness programs, LifeSkills Training, and mini-grants for teachers. Contributions are tax deductible if you are interested. They are also looking for more ways to connect the students to the real-world, so if you have any ideas, let them know. Check out the http://www.wcasd.net/ website for more info.

Dr. Marc Bertrando is the Assistant Superintendent. He oversees curriculum and instruction along with Dr. Fraser. I was on one of the Budget Task Force Committees that Dr. Bertrano chaired. I think that he does a fantastic job! His whole department is top-notch! We are fortunate to have such a talented team of administrators in our District. There was a report from Dr. Bertrando about a Physical Education Study that the Board asked him to do back in October. The Board said that they would like to know how our Phys Ed and Health credit requirements compare to other Districts. (At the time, they said that they received complaints that people thought the credit requirements were too high. I think I only saw one person ever speak out about it though.) WCASD ranks 5th out of 14 school districts in the number of PE credits that it requires. The committee is going to continue to work to create a strategic plan for the department to reassess PE and Health to connect standards and assessments within the current program while considering more progressive approaches.

Dr. Missett, Director of Elementary Education, reported on an Exit Survey that the School Board requested in November. The School Board wanted to know why “so many students” were leaving our schools. It was determined that, in reality, a very small number of students leave the WCASD to go to charter, cyber, military, private and religious schools. At the Secondary level more kids returned to the District than left. 99 left, but 124 returned to the WCASD. At the Elementary level, more than half of the students that transferred did so because the families moved out of the District. Moving forward, updates to the District PowerSchool program will enable administration to track this data easier.

Property and Finance meeting will be next week - Tuesday, January 17th @ 6:30pm at the Spellman Building. Perhaps the 3 Phases of Budget Cuts will be unveiled.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why is it so hard to get an answer?

At Monday's School Board meeting a question was asked repeatedly - Who on the Board had actually met the negotiator they were about to vote to hire? After much insistence from Robin Kaliner it was finally revealed that 5 of the nine members (a majority!) had not even met, let alone interviewed a legal consultant they were about to hire to the tune of $200 per hour. Doesn't sound like a process that was thoroughly vetted to me. It was also revealed that the Board took a "straw pole" at their 12/12/2011 executive session. A straw poll is a vote, and it is against the Sunshine Act to take a vote on an action item in executive session. Also, when the teachers agreed to a pay freeze in April, they also agreed to begin negotiations with the teachers at the start of school back in September. The Board majority chose not to keep that promise, and wait until the election was over. I've negotiated 4 contracts with the WCEA over the past 20 years. It is not as difficult as this new board makes it out to be. And, how would they know, since none of them has been involved in any substantive negotiations before. You have to be patient, honest, and bargain in good faith. It takes a lot of work, but when you commit to being a board member that comes with the territory. Later this month the administration will be presenting the proposed suggestions from the community budget task force in a tiered approach. When we're looking at "pay to play", increasing class sizes, and the possible closing of an elementary school should they really be in a hurry to hire a paid negotiator they haven't even met?......Stay tuned.

No Surprises Here - Special Board Meeting: Monday, January 2, 2012

There were no surprises at last night’s special school board meeting to approve a lead negotiator for negotiations with the West Chester Area Education Association. Well, maybe some people are surprised that there even was a meeting. Not only did the Board try to sneak the vote into the last board meeting, but they decided to hold the special meeting the day after a holiday (that was actually the observed holiday for most) without any notification to parents other than to place it on the District website. I learned of it from the DLN article WCASD shelves decision on hiring a negotiator. Even though Dr. Scanlon defended the Board’s closed door meeting about hiring a negotiator by stating that it was announced under the umbrella of “Other Business” to be discussed at the Executive Session of the Personnel Meeting, it still seems a little fishy. Nonetheless, there was a pretty good crowd there – about 75 people.

We all had a pretty good feeling that the Board had already made the decision to hire the negotiator and was only holding the meeting as a technicality. It didn’t stop people from voicing their opinions, asking questions, and providing comments for the Board. There were probably 30 people that came to the microphone to speak against hiring a negotiator. Only 2 public comments were from people that agreed with the decision. We just wanted answers and rationale and possibly just one of them to act like he or she was actually considering what we were saying.

Sean Carpenter was the first to speak to the public. He said that contract negotiations were the most important act as a Board. Mrs. Miller felt that not hiring a negotiator would be irresponsible. She said that Sultanik was routinely used by the District (maybe 5,6,7 times per year) – I’m sure there are invoices for that… She said that since the Board has no experience with negotiations that they need someone to give expertise. She was the first of many of the Board members to break down the cost of the last strike (more than $230,000). It all adds up to the same sum. And just like during the election, the Board members complained of “erroneous misinformation” being circulated, but they failed to point out anything specific. Sue Tiernan said that she believed that they needed a negotiator because no one on the current Board was capable of doing the negotiating. She said there were no interviews of potential negotiators and no discussions about it by the Board. Although, she thought there was a need for hiring someone, she was not in agreement for hiring Sultanik. Ed Coyle agreed that the new board wasn’t experienced enough to deal with negotiations especially since it needs to be done by January 5th.  He said that it wasn’t a good practice for lawyers to represent themselves. So much for all the “experience with contracts” he claimed to have when he was campaigning. Maria Pimley felt that the 48-page contract was too difficult to evaluate and time consuming to get through. She was busy with work and her family, and it would take too much time out of her schedule. Mrs. Adsett thought it would be fiscally irresponsible. She said that the last contract caused a $4 million deficit (What??? Jim Davison went to the mic and responded that the District is actually paying teachers $200,000 less in total salaries than it was 4 years ago – she had no response). She claimed that school boards don’t cause strikes, unions do. Linda Raileanu talked extensively about how she is an advocate. I’m just not sure who she advocates for – the school district or her political party. She said that she always follows a process and will always seek outside expertise when she feels she can’t handle an issue. She said that it wasn’t a time for the new school board to be “skill-building” and that the contract negotiator must be experienced. Her skill set was in the healthcare industry not in contract negotiations. Vince Murphy claimed that hiring a negotiator was a standard practice in the District. Maureen Snook chose not to provide comment or explanation. Her silence spoke almost as loudly as her “yes” vote.

The vote was taken. 8-1 (Sue Tiernan was the only vote against). No surprises.

For more information, check out the article in today’s DLN by Eric Smith. West Chester Area School Board hires lead negotiator for contract