Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Sound of the Silenced

Another disappointment. At one point I asked my friend Robin, “Why are we here? Why would anyone even bother coming to these meetings?” I can’t even imagine how our administration feels having to deal with our school board on a continual basis (always with the exception of Sue Tiernan). Their lack of school board experience and basic skill sets necessary to lead a school district is evident in every word they utter and as they look at each other in a confused manner trying to figure out what they are supposed to do up there. But that’s okay; they will just continue to hire people with taxpayer money to do all the things they can’t handle. They will create policies that keep the mean parents (also taxpayers) from continually harassing them at meetings. They will make excuses, string us along and blame other people. They will most vocally advocate for the people they consider to be their constituents – the taxpayers who don’t have kids in the public schools.

If you have read all the committee reports that have been blogged about this month, you know everything that happened at the meeting. There really wasn’t any discussion. We were told that all of the discussion goes on at the committee level. Um, well not anymore. They just passed a policy against it without any real explanation.

No surprise that every item voted on at the committee level was placed on the “consent agenda”. The consent agenda passes all items in bulk. Board members are permitted to request that items be removed and voted on separately. In fact, 2 items were pulled off at the beginning of the meeting - the activity fee and a special education settlement agreement (both passed 9-0 without any discussion so what was the point of pulling them off anyway?).

Many community members came to the microphone to speak last night. Dr. Swalm (Oh how I miss his wisdom and guidance!) stepped to the podium and in true Dr. Swalm fashion cited about 10 things they were doing wrong from a meeting procedural standpoint and commented about how it was wrong to implement the activity fee and how advertising in the school would not be beneficial to our children – all in under 2 minutes. Another parent was opposed to the activity fee and made a great point saying that these people ran on a platform of no taxes and yet were taxing our kids and taking advantage of our student’s ambition to participate in enrichment programs and activities. Other community members were upset about the Board’s decision to hire a PR firm to handle communications for them. They were also not happy about the change in the public participation policy. The response from the Board – nothing. (Cue the sound of crickets chirping.)

The only board member to receive a round of applause was – you guessed it – Sue Tiernan. Sue is the School Board Charter and Cyber School Liaison. She went to visit Collegium Charter School and the PA Leadership Charter School (PALCS). She concluded that although they are great for some students, our kids really aren’t missing anything being in public schools. And she highlighted the fact that West Chester still outperforms these schools under the heavy weight of mandates that charter schools are exempt from. She said that the WCASD was looking to incorporate some type of cyber-learning into the curriculum in the future. She will be visiting the 2 branches of PALC – University Scholars and the Performing & Fine Arts School – and will report at the next meeting.

It’s difficult to summarize Linda Raileanu’s report as Communications and Outreach Liaison. She is all about her newsletter. She said that the purpose of the newsletter is to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the board, to highlight the expectations and to delegate various responsibilities. (Yes, I said “What???” too). She said that it is her responsibility to reach out to ALL stakeholders of the community. Not just the people with students in the district. She has received a lot of emails in response to the first newsletter and will categorize the emails, perhaps read them 100 times and research responses if she needs to before she responds. So if you have emailed her and have not gotten a response, this is probably the case because she will “never jump and never rush”. I came away from her explanation of the board’s communication efforts feeling like we were on a scavenger hunt. She promised that in the end the plan would come to fruition. Can’t wait.

Public comment on non- agenda items is always interesting. One parent is waiting for a promised report about the changes in the bell schedule and busing for the kids at Fugett. He wants to see how they compare to the other kids at the other 2 middle schools plus he doesn’t see the million dollar savings in the consolidation of bus stops that was projected. One woman said that she moved to West Chester 28 years ago for lower taxes and wants to see even more cuts and more reduced spending. Then she randomly chastised Sue Tiernan. It was more than a little strange. (On a side note, she is running for a Republican Committee position. So keep that in mind if you vote at the Clubhouse, Brandywine at Thornbury. No worries though, there is a much better option for you on the ballot – our own Toni Keg!)

One of our teachers reported that she and 76 of her co-workers were nominated for the Citadel Heart of Learning award. She wanted to thank all the parents that sent nominations. Two representatives from the Support Staff asked for a hopeful outcome for their jobs. And then more comments about election reform, the public comment policy, and the activity fee. One person questioned the changes in the communication policy. She basically said that the parents, teachers and community at large are smart enough to see past the veneer. Another said that the Board does not seem to feel obligated to provide rationale that support the decisions that they make. No crickets this time. Sean Carpenter spoke first, but this year he has been the only Committee Chair to positively interact with constituents. Maureen Snook talked about how the activity fee was very modest considering how much money the school district spends on “EXTRA curricular activities”(emphasis intentional). Maria Pimley said that she is in constant contact with parents and in the schools on a weekly basis and that parents have been asking for an activity fee for the last 2 years! (Yes, I laughed too.) Linda Raileanu promised that all the newsletters would be archived and available on the website perhaps if we wanted to read them 100 times.

Meeting adjourned.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

2/21 Property & Finance & Personnel Meetings

Budget cuts were reviewed, new financials were analyzed, the first draft of the PA State Budget was lamented, a PR firm was approved, and free flow of information between the board/administration and public was put at risk. Here are the details…

Community Budget Task Force Initiatives to be AdoptedThe following task force recommendations were discussed and approved unanimously to move forward for full board approval:
1. Technology: replace purchased software with open source or online applications, implement an automated time and attendance system, and eliminate the district web administrator position. This is projected to save the district $127k in the 2012-13 school year.
2. Advertising: an advertising policy will be developed and a broker contracted to facilitate the sale of advertising space in the district. This will include advertising on the district calendar, lunch menus, the district website home page, and within our school buildings in non-classroom areas. The plan is for student facing advertising to be indirect and include the areas of health, safety, education, and wellness, while adult facing advertising will be direct and sponsored message oriented. The goal is for this advertising not to infringe on the recognition of student achievement or on existing revenue sources of boosters and PTOs. The total expected savings for these activities in the 2012-13 school year is $59k.
3. Custodial/Cleaning Level Standards: reduce the cleaning staff at each of the high schools by 1 person. The cleaning standards at the high schools will be reduced to allow for each custodian to pick up a larger cleaning and maintenance area. Some rooms will now be cleaned thoroughly every other day with only trash removal and dry mopping occurring on a daily basis. The concern was raised that this could be a health/safety issue, especially in light of the recent Pertussis outbreak. Total expected savings for the elimination of these 3 positions is $192k in the 2012-13 school year.
4. Employee Service Vendor Relationships: review current healthcare costs and provide vendors access to market services to employees. The administration believes that by utilizing a healthcare consultant to review their current healthcare vendors/contracts, that savings of ~$25k can be identified in such areas as LTD, life insurance, and flexible spending account management. Additionally, they believe that by providing vendors with access to market products to employees, that the district can realize gains of ~$25k in revenues or decreased benefit costs.

Latest Financials
Kudos to Dot Krikorian for pushing for, and to Sean Carpenter and Suzanne Moore for implementing, a revision to the financial model that makes the numbers much more realistic. Historically the model would plug a tax increase that was necessary to close our budget gap; in the days of healthy financials and no Act 1, this worked fine, but in the current economic climate this approach no longer provides meaningful data. Therefore, the model has been revised to show our budget gap with different tax increase scenarios and for several years out. While I’m very happy to see the model revisions, the results are sobering. You can see the details on the WCASD website:

I've created a condensed summary, but I'm unable to copy it in here; I'd be happy to provide it to anyone who is interested. What the numbers show is that with no tax increases over the next 4 years, we will need to cut $24M from our budget if the cuts are sustainable (long term reductions that carry to future years), and $59M if they are not; this is a range of 12-30% of our budget. Even if we take the Act 1 Index for the next 4 years, and the Exceptions for years 2013-14 through 2015-16 (since we declined reserving them for the 2012-13 school year), we will need to cut an additional $9M of sustainable cuts or $23M of non-sustainable. AND, these estimates assume no salary increases for any personnel for the next 4 years, and do not factor in the cost increase risk that the Governor’s new method for education funding poses for public schools (see more about this below). I wonder if anyone is wishing they had reserved the exceptions for the 2012-13 school year now?

Impact of Governor’s First Draft 2012-13 Budget
The good news is that the 1st Draft of the PA State budget includes funding for WCASD that is approximately $1.2M higher than forecasted. However, this is not due to the generosity of our Governor but rather some very conservative planning by the district business office; this is not surprising given the scramble to balance our budget last year when the state funding numbers came in significantly lower than projected.

There are several pieces of bad news as well:
1. This funding is 3.2% lower than our 2011-12 budgeted funding and 8.6% lower than the funding we received for the 2007-08 school year for the categories of basic instruction, transportation, charter school tuition, accountability grants, and social security.
2. While we continue to fund charter schools in a manner that is completely inconsistent with their cost models and the Governor is looking to expand them in PA, the Governor has again chosen not to subsidize school districts for any charter school costs (this subsidy was removed last year). He has again removed the Accountability Block Grant which is used for costs such as full day kindergarten (he removed this last year as well but then replaced it after receiving pressure from legislators and constituents). Special Education funding has also remained flat for the 4th consecutive year.
3. The Governor’s budget includes suspension of capital project subsidies. Currently, if capital projects follow a prescribed methodology and provide the required documentation, they receive a portion of their capital project costs from the state. However, with this proposal current projects such as Westtown-Thornbury and Penn Wood renovations will only be funded if money “becomes available”, and state subsidy of all future elementary school renovations will be in jeopardy. It is estimated that this could cost WCASD $50k per school per year over a 20 year period, totaling $8M.
4. The proposed PA budget contains a new way of allocating funds to school districts. The basic education subsidy, transportation (public and non-public/charter) and social security payments have been combined into a single Student Achievement Education Block Grant. While funding for these costs had previously been formula driven based on actual costs, the combination of these items into a single block grant suggests that this will no longer be the case. It is the opinion of Business Director Dr. Suzanne Moore that the state has made this change in order to eliminate its share of risk for the expected future increases in these costs, and as a result this risk will be borne solely by the district/local taxpayers.

See the following articles if you’d like additional information on the state budget:

Firm Hired for Negotiations Related PR
On 2/8, those members of the board on the labor negotiations team interviewed 3 firms to handle future PR related to negotiations with the 3 labor unions. The decision was made to select The Communication Solution Group at a flat rate of $170/hour with no minimum monthly billing. It begs the question why our own internal Communications team cannot do this work. It is also worth mentioning that this is the same firm that did PR for the district in 2003 when we had our one and only strike. Same negotiator, same PR firm…let’s hope this is not a harbinger of what is to come.

Changes to Board Meeting Policies...when does promoting efficiencies become an obstacle to the free flow of important public information?
One new and two revised board policies were put to the committee for their first official reading (although in reality we had seen them at the last P&F but they were sent back for revisions). The revised policies deal with agenda setting and rules of order for board meeting, and do not appear to have any noteworthy changes. The new policy, however, Public Participants in Board Meetings, lays the groundwork for the systemic elimination of key information flow to the public.

Anyone who attends board and committee meetings on a regular basis knows that everything happens at the committee level; it’s where all the discussion takes place, where the direction of the vote becomes apparent, and where you get a sense for why the board members are for or against something. For as long as anyone can remember in WCASD, there has been an opportunity for the public to make comments and ask questions throughout the committee meeting as each agenda item is covered…which makes complete sense since votes occur after each item and since it’s counterproductive to revisit topics at the end of the meeting.

However this new policy includes language such as: “it is not meant to be a question and answer period”, “there will be a public comment period at the end of each committee meeting or work session on agenda items only”, “no participant may address or question individual Board members”, and “the presiding officer may request the assistance of law enforcement officers”. Excuse me? Aren’t these the same people who, just a few months ago, campaigned on promises of “transparency” and “involving all stakeholders”? Wasn’t the new Communications and Outreach Liaison position created to promote positive relations?

When questioned about this, responses from board members included:
1. We now have the new monthly board newsletter to communicate, as well as email. I read the newsletter, and I reached out to the appropriate board member on February 6th with comments and questions, and to date have not even received an acknowledgement that my email was received.
2. We have offered to attend PTO meetings, and are surprised that only 1 school has taken us up on our offer. Some board members did attend a Fern Hill PTO meeting; they told attendees that due to Sunshine Laws they were not allowed to answer any questions.
3. PSBA says we do not have to answer questions. It is interesting to me that the majority of these board members chose to skip the PSBA new board member training, yet are now quoting the organization when it suits their needs.
4. One board member went on for quite a while, and I can’t say I completely understood the point, but it was something along the lines of trusting the administration and by the time items get to the board they have already been fully vetted and it is not the time to start second guessing so we should be getting involved earlier in the process and with the administration, not the board. As I said, I’m not sure exactly what point was being made, but somehow I doubt Dr. Scanlon has time to have weekly sit downs with parents to apprise us of everything that is going on in the district and get our input.
Bottom line, I was left still not understanding exactly how the public is to interface with the board in order to get questions answered once this new policy goes into effect. I also got the distinct impression that some members of the board do not feel they should have to answer any questions.

To Sean Carpenter’s credit, he did have Dr. Scanlon add that “if the presiding officer determines that a topic needs time for comments, he or she will establish that time during the meeting”, and I do believe that he will try to stick to that and allow for dialogue in P&F. But this policy makes it so that no board member HAS TO allow this dialogue, and even if these members choose to interpret this policy loosely, who is to say that future board members will? Perhaps this is not an attempt to stifle communications but rather a battle weary group of people who are tired of having to explain themselves. I can understand that, they’ve taken a lot of heat. However…they wanted this position, in fact they all fought very hard to get there. So, if the meeting runs a little longer than they’d like, and if they have to listen to frustrated parents who are concerned about their children’s education, I’m afraid all I can say is this is the job you asked for.

This new policy will be up for comment at the February and March board meetings, so if you feel as I do that this is not the direction we want our district to go, show up and make your feelings known.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


On February 13th, WCASD School Board Pupil Services and Education Committees held their monthly meeting. The phase 1 Budget Task Force II recommendations presented for Pupil Services and Education were unanimously approved at the committee level resulting in expense reductions of $396,400 and enhanced revenues of $303,225. A full vote by the Board will occur on Monday, February 27th at 7:30. The phase 1 suggestions are summarized below:
Phase 1 Pupil Service BTF:
Reduce 1 Autistic Support Teacher $95,000
Re-evaluate all Speech Only from early intervention 7,000
Discontinue contract with COAD 53,000
Phase 1 Pupil Service Expense Reduction $155,000

Phase 1 Education Committee BTF:
Increase PE class size from 20-24 to 30 $99,400
Eliminate "academic level" language above level 2 142,000
Phase 1 Education Committee Expense Reduction $241,400
Implement Activity fee for Funded Activities/Sports $303,225
Total Phase 1 Education Expense/Revenue $544,625
Education and Pupil Services Phase 1 $699,625

PE classes at other districts in the area average 30, with some up to 40 or more, WCASD recommends increasing the average to 30 students. Increases in PE class may impact coaching, equipment costs, but provide flexibility for scheduling. The District will continue to offer all language courses, however, students taking level three courses and above will have to take the course at the honors level. Offering honors level language at level 3 and above will provide a greater challenge to students but those students not wanting to experience this level of academic rigor will not have a language option beyond level 2. District personnel will be able to sustain the instructional model without the CCIU (Chester County Intermediate Unit) autistic support teacher and no impact is anticipated. The expense cuts result in a reduction of 4.4 staff. It is anticipated staff reductions will be reached through attrition.

A three-tier activity fee will be implemented for funded programs at a rate of $25 for elementary, $50 for middle school and $75 for high school. This is a onetime annual fee for one or more activities with a maximum fee of $200 per family. Dana Seaman requested and Dr. Bertrando said he would review reinstating intramural programs at the middle schools that were previously discontinued. The activity fee will not serve to reverse the "no cut" policy instituted in 2011-2012. The fee will be charged after try-outs, no adjustments were made to hire additional coaches. Financial assistance will be provided for those unable to pay the activity fee. Mr. Carpenter suggested the "recommendation to charge a fee for unfunded activities" be eliminated. The education committee members were in agreement and this fee will not be initiated (unfunded activities have no supplemental contract whereas funded activities have a supplemental contract).

The first reading of 2012-2013 school year calendar was completed with a review of moving the 10/11/12 in-service day back a week or two to provide increased consecutive weeks of uninterrupted instruction in the early weeks of school, a good suggestion by Dr. Pimley. The second parent teacher conferences will be held midyear, in February, to provide adequate time for student improvement and progress monitoring before the end of the school year. Again, this was a great decision because many parents feel the spring conferences are too late in the year. There will be separate town hall style meetings to handle the transition from 5th to 6th grade. In keeping with WCASD policy, both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days off in 2012. This is the first time since 2009 that both holidays fall on weekdays. Dr. Missett indicated she is meeting with the YMCA this week and will have a recommendation in March for the Before and After School Care Program recommendation.

The next committee meetings will be held on Tuesday, February 21 with Property and Finance convening at 6:30 p.m. followed by Personnel at 7:30 p.m.

Further information can be found:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Chester Upland Article Highlights Charter School Funding Issue


This article does a good job explaining one of the key inequities in the charter school funding formula related to Special Education. The funding formula does not take into account the type of special education needs the children attending charter schools have. So, while costs to address speech and language impairments are significantly lower than those for other disabilities such as
blindness, deafness, or autism, the amount of funding charters receive for children with any type of special education need is the same. Additionally, the per child rate that public schools must pay for district students attending charter schools is based upon an assumed % of students with special education needs, not an actual amount; if the district’s special education population exceeds that assumed %, their costs are higher, but this funding formula neglects and penalizes the district for this. This is demonstrative of the entire problem with the way charters are funded which is completely unrelated to their costs. How can this make sense when these schools are supposed to be non-profit?

I found this quote by Lawrence Jones, president of the PA Coalition for Public Charter Schools, very interesting. In response to the proposal for payment levels for charter special education students based upon the severity of disability, he said it could create "a second class of students" getting lower payments and lead to "potentially substandard treatment for some." Given the assumption that teachers would not be aware of how much money was being paid by each district for each student, what would the basis be for this “substandard treatment”. More importantly, how is this any different than the way the schools are already funded? Different districts pay different amounts for their students to attend THE SAME charter school since the funding is based on the home district’s average spending per student. So, if there is a fear of this second class mentality occurring, why is this not already a concern? And shouldn’t the administration of these schools be capable of ensuring this disparate treatment does not occur?

The truth is that charter schools like the way they are funded, because they have no responsibility to prove that they are using all funds received on students. While charters themselves are non-profit, the management companies some use are not, so there is ample opportunity for misappropriation and fraud. Just last month the former chief executive officer of a charter school in Northwest Philadelphia pleaded guilty to stealing more than $500,000 in taxpayer funds
intended for the school, and in total frauds of $861,000. Anyone who has spent any time looking at charter schools has heard the name Vahan Gureghian. Mr. Gureghian is a Philadelphia lawyer and multi-millionaire who owns a company called Gureghian's Charter School Management Inc. that manages the Chester Community Charter School’s (located in the Chester Upland School District) finances. His company owns the school buildings and leases them back to the school, and he collects a management fee of $5,000 per student! Where is the competition and market driven pricing there? While Chester Upland School district has been forced to cut staff and programs and is not even sure it will have enough money to finish the school year, there has been no evidence that the Chester Community Charter School has had to make any cuts. And while the charter school is public and subject to Right to Know laws since it receives taxpayer money, Mr. Gureghian's private, for-profit management company is not and so its finances are not open
for public scrutiny. Oh, and Mr.Gureghian was also the largest contributor to Governor Corbett’s campaign, and Governor Corbett is trying to expand charter school laws in PA….

I think there are great merits to the concept of charter schools. Some children simply do not
thrive in the traditional public school setting, and for them and their parents charter schools can be life saving. I also have no problem with the idea of charter schools providing competition in
order to push government run, bureaucratic public schools to perform better, and to act as champions for the development of best practices. Isn’t that what they were established to do? It is not the concept, it is how it has been operationalized that I take issue with. Should charter schools drain funds from their public school counterparts at a rate that these schools cannot survive? Should some be able to profit from taxpayer funded schools because the laws are not equipped to deal with the opportunities for fraud? Shouldn’t the taxpayer funds sent to these schools be tied to the money being spent to educate students there, especially since charter school testing results have lagged behind those of public schools? Isn’t it time that we as taxpayers start paying as much attention to how our money is being spent in these schools as we are to how they are spent in the public schools? In a time of cost cutting and the need to make every dollar spent count, I think the answer to that question is an unequivocal YES.