Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pennsylvania: a textbook and funding formula in need of an update

May Education Committee Meeting  -all members of committee in attendance,  Board president absent.

Ian Kerr, WCASD Supervisor of Mathematics and Business Education, gave an informative and interactive presentation, focusing on the need for “vertical articulation” of “common core state standards" in math.  Question from a Board member: What is “vertical articulation” in math?  Answer: Vertical articulation ensures that all areas of common core curriculum are being covered,  from kindergarten upwards, i.e., vertically,  through grade 12.  Mr. Kerr affirmed that while the need to “teach to the test” remains, the “tests are changing”, with 40-45% of Keystone exam material taught by end of Algebra 1.  So, will such vertical articulation become a reality by spring 2013, the proposed date for the Keystone Algebra 1 exam?  Most emphatically yes. Why? Because in our district, the “triumvirate of need”, comprised of involved parents, engaged students and committed teachers, is strongly met.  Thank you, Mr. Kerr, not only for the beautiful turn of phrase, but for validating the positive strength of parents, teachers and students in the district to meet any and all challenges together.   

Dr. Elisha Ozer, WCASD  Supervisor of Social Studies and Library/Media,  informed us of the adoption of a new  4th grade Pennsylvania social studies textbook,  Pennsylvania, Our Home, published by Gibbs Smith.  The current textbook has been in use since 1998.  Laudatory comments from a board member who, as a parent  “lived through” the current textbook, and cited not only the lack of proper representation of women and minorities  in PA, but  also the need to better convey economic changes in the state.  Another board member questioned the cost and “shelf-life” of the new text.  Book cost is $46.95 and the district requires 1000 copies. Online access of text is available and Dr. Ozer  is confident the book will last up to 15 years.  The updated textbook will also help meet requirements of common core standards. 
Of interest here:  Policy IFAA “Textbook and Core Novel/Non-Fiction Selection and Adoption” outlines the selection process of textbooks.  

Dr. Marc Bertrando, Assistant Superintendent/Secondary Education, provided update on student activity fees.  Question from board member: should the board consider adding an “escalation”  provision to activity fee policy so as not to have to revisit fee schedule each year?   General consensus  from board and administration was that the policy will need to be revisited next year to determine impact of fee schedule, thus no such provision was necessary.  

Superintendent Dr. Scanlon  addressed yet another second reading of Policy LEB “PTO/HSA Guidelines”  with the following updates:
   1.  “Definition” of PTO/HSA now reads:
                 All parents/guardians of students registered at a school in WCASD and all  
                  administrators, faculty and staff employed at that school.  

Apparently, this “definition”  was taken directly from the bylaws of a particular district PTO.  Public comment:  some PTO/HSA require dues in order to be a “member” while some do not.  In effect, not ALL parents at ALL district schools consider themselves PTO/HSA “members”.  Also questioned was the inclusion of “administrators, faculty and staff" - are they now covered under Policy LEB?  Conclusion: since  PTO/HSA “memberships” vary throughout  the district, why not revise “definition” to “per individual school PTO/HSA by-laws” ? All agreed…for now.

    2. Addition to “#3. Authority”:  
                      4. PTO/HSA may not use school district property and facilities for political 
                           campaigns.PTO/HSA may host non-partisan Meet the Candidates events.

This distinction allows the use of district facilities and property by other “partisan”  groups in the community. PTOC can continue to host Meet the Candidates events. (For those unfamiliar with PTOC, it is an organization comprised of all district PTO/HSA leadership.  In school board election years,  PTOC hosts a public Meet the Candidates forum at a district high school, inviting all prospective school board candidates.  The intent is simple and most definitely “non-partisan” : afford all candidates the opportunity to introduce themselves, answer questions and  tell the community why it is they want to serve on the school board.)

The meeting continues with a bit of  “calling out” by board members, accusations that “partisan” literature was indeed distributed by PTO/HSA during “the election”.  Public comment volleys back, asking for evidence of such “partisan” behavior but none provided. Rehashed arguments from both public and board about  the distinction of actions we take as “individuals” vs. “official members” of an organization.

In the midst of all the election “baggage” surrounding discussion of Policy LEB, one BIG question remains unanswered:  does the school board  lead by example by adhering to comparable guidelines such as those proposed for parent organizations in Policy LEB?  Well, it  appears they do. On the Pennsylvania School Board Association  website, West Chester Area School District is listed  (#404) as “having adopted”  the PSBA  “Standards for Effective School Governance”.  Included in those “standards” is the  PSBA Code of Conduct .  The  following excerpts from that Code are “comparable” to the “non-partisan” provision in Policy LEB:

·                           “Board members should work together in a spirit of harmony, respect and   
                             cooperation, despite differences of opinion.
·                            Personal decisions should be based upon all sufficient facts, we should vote 
                             our honest conviction without partisan bias, and we will abide by and uphold 
                             the majority decision of the board.
·                            Individuals have no legal authority outside the meetings of the board, and should  
                             conduct their relationships with all stakeholders and media on this basis.
·                            We will not use our positions as school directors to benefit ourselves or any  
                             individual or agency.”

While one realizes that PSBA guidelines are no more binding than those set forth in Policy LEB, we can at least be assured that the community can hold all board  members accountable to some ‘professional’ guidelines comparable to Policy LEB.  
Check out the entire PSBA “Standards for Effective School Governance”, including the Code of Conduct,  at

May Property & Finance Committee – 3 of 4 committee members in attendance, Board president absent

Approval of contract with Berkheimer to collect real estate taxes.  This will save the district  a minimum of $50,000/year in operational costs due to the fact that  2012/13 staff vacancies in the business office will absorb the tax office staff, thus avoiding furloughs and unemployment costs.  The only “negative” will be that customers needing  to speak face-to-face with a Berkheimer representative will need to travel to their West Whiteland office.  Fulton Bank will still accept tax payments.

Approval of Bid Awards - all approved  jobs  are “under budget”
Partial roof replacements at two district schools, including “alternate” bids to fix issues that will worsen with time.   Board question:  Explain  need for “alternate” bids in addition to "base" bids.  Answer from administration:  repairs are less expensive to fix while contractors (in this case, roofers) are mobilized  vs. having contractors come back at a later date for a problem that will inevitably worsen in the near future.  A clear example was provided to the board:  a current “alternate bid” for  $112,000 will cost the district approximately $200,000 if pursued 2-3 years from now.

      Additional lockers are needed at district high school at a cost of approximately $16,000.  Included is “alternate” bid for  $790 for 12 locker doors, some to replace damaged and some “extra” in case of future damage.   Board question:  if a student destroys their locker door, shouldn’t that student be liable for replacement cost? Answer from administration: students usually do not destroy their own locker doors,  along with reminder that  many community groups rent our school facilities.   In the end, high school locker doors get damaged and it is prudent forethought to have a few extra on hand shipped with a large order vs. ordering and shipping individually at a later date.

Second reading of Policy KE: Advertising and Sponsorships, with one major addition  “Construction and Maintenance of Advertising on Property” , basically clarifying what entity is responsible for construction, installation, removal, repair, etc.of advertisements.

Dr. June Garwin, Director of Information Technology, introduced Policy GAO: Intellectual Property, created to “clarify ownership of intellectual property produced within the scope of an employee’s job and to limit where district files may be stored”.  There was much board and public comment here that will be taken into consideration as this new policy evolves. 

Ending public comment/questions:

Public: What was the cost of the recent negotiations and budget videos starring Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Murphy? 
Board answer: The matter will be discussed “internally” and an answer provided after such discussion.  Stay tuned.

Public: Citing and applauding both the prevailing wage and pension reform resolutions recently adopted by the board, will the board now adopt a resolution to reform cyber/charter school funding formulas?
Board answer: Any member of the board can suggest a resolution, but three members – a “triumvirate,  if you will -  must agree to “move forward” with the resolution. To date, that “triumvirate of need” for cyber/charter school funding reform has not been met on the board.
No one can dispute the fact that cyber charters and charters work, sometimes better than traditional public schools, for many students in this district. No one can dispute the right of any parent to choose what delivery method of public education works best for their child.  However, there are few in the state that will dispute the fact that the current funding formula for cyber/charter schools is in desperate need of reform.  In 2010,  Auditor General Jack Wagner warned the PA General Assembly that the charter/cyber funding problem was “accelerating at an unaffordable rate”.   Wagner is a supporter of charter schools, having voted for the original charter bill in 1997 while serving as a state senator. However, he believes that the funding method for charter and cyber charter schools is a “bad deal for taxpayers”:
  "The big problem is that we are trying to finance 21st century education with 19th century methods.  With Pennsylvania still mired in its greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we can’t afford to be wasting precious financial resources on schools whose costs have absolutely no basis whatsoever on what is actually needed to educate our children." *                                                                                                 
Perhaps another, admittedly simpler, way to look at it: if our 1998 Pennsylvania textbooks are in need of updating, isn’t it time to give our 1997 charter funding formula serious review?                                                                                                
Pennsylvania School Board Association sample resolution for school boards,“Reform of the Cyber Charter and Charter School Funding formula”:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Grant Not Taken

The rumblings are no longer rumblings, they have turned into reality. Dr. Scanlon has confirmed that on May 2nd he notified the PA Department of Education that WCASD would be declining the Keystone to Opportunity grant it was awarded.

The Keystone to Opportunity Grant that West Chester won was made possible by Pennsylvania’s receipt of $38M from the Federal Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program. Thirty-five states applied for this funding and PA was one of only six to receive it with the second highest award behind Texas. The purpose of the Federal program is to help states pursue a comprehensive approach to improving literacy outcomes for all children from birth through grade 12, including limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities.

West Chester applied for $877k for literacy development in the 4 areas outlined in the grant application: Birth to Age 5, Elementary, Middle, and High School. A literacy plan was proposed that would improve transitions at the 3 key shift points that children experience in their K>12 school career: from pre-K to K, 5th grade to 6th and 8th grade to 9th. The grant process was extremely complex and competitive, and unfortunately West Chester did not receive funding for the elementary, middle, or high school portions of their proposal. They were, however, fortunate to be awarded $453k per year for 2 years to be targeted toward Birth to Age 5. More than 350 school districts applied for this grant, and only 58 (~16%) received awards. I’m not aware of any other district that declined their grant.

Upon learning that the district had declined this grant, of course questions were raised. Some answers were given, but honestly none that make sense to me or anyone else I’ve spoken to. Currently the board is not responding to any emails on this topic (although Mr. Carpenter did return my emails early on), and Dr. Scanlon is being asked to address all questions. The stock explanations being given to inquiries are that the grant was declined because 1) it would increase the expense side of the budget by $453k and 2) the funding was not for an existing program so would require the district to take on a new program for students who are not current participants in our K>12 school system. I’ve also heard a 3rd reason cited that the existing grant approval process was not followed, and a 4th that we would be left with responsibility to continue the new program after the funding was gone.

Being a numbers person, I find the financial explanation the most flagrant as it simply cannot be supported mathematically. According to Dr. Scanlon, of the $453k/year offered in the grant, $417k would be directed toward 6 West Chester non-profit pre-schools that are not part of the WCASD system (although they are within its geographic borders); $23k would go toward the WCASD literacy program, and the district would get $13k for administrative costs, presumably to address the overhead in managing the grant with the non-district entities. Due to this $417k being redirected outside the district schools, Dr. Scanlon was told by the Board President and the P&F Committee Chair that in order to accept the grant, $417k would need to be cut from our district budget. Due to the large cuts made to our budget over the last several years (nearly $14M over 3 years), Dr. Scanlon did not feel comfortable cutting another $400k+ in programs for the 2012-13 school year. And why would he, you might ask? But the real question is WHY SHOULD HE?

Anyone who has any financial acumen knows that financial performance is not driven by revenue or expense individually, but how they relate to each other. If I were to tell you that my business generated $300M in revenue last year, would you say that was good or bad? Would whether I incurred $150M vs. $400M in costs to generate that revenue impact your opinion? Of course it would. Same story here, it’s not about what this grant would do to our expense line item, but what it would do to the net difference between our revenues and our expenses. Although a grant would flow through both the expense and revenue side of our income statement from an accounting perspective, at worst it has $0 impact to our operating results, and in this case provides us with $36k positive benefit. It is predominantly an accounting pass through of funding from us (from the State Government, from the Federal Government) to early childhood education providers. So given we would not be spending any more of the district’s funds, why would we need to cut $417k from our budget? Doing so would mean our budget would have a positive $417k impact, not stay flat, which the grant accomplishes. Making this reduction to expenses is not a requirement for accepting the grant; it is a self-imposed condition by the board.

The second reason cited for not accepting the grant, the fact that it would require the district to take on a new program for students who have not yet entered Kindergarten and thus the “responsibility” of the WCASD, suggests a lack of recognition of the critical role that early childhood education plays in the future success of a student. Preschools were unfortunately not allowed to apply directly for this grant, so were reliant on their local school districts to do so; now these 6 early education providers will be deprived of receiving funding that would have had significant impact on their ability to deliver quality programs to their students. There are countless studies showing that at-risk children who participate in high-quality early education programs are more likely to enter school ready to learn, perform better in school, have a higher graduation rate, and are less likely to be involved in juvenile crime and violence. Aside from the clear benefit this has to children, for those only concerned with the economic side this also means less cost and more benefit to our government and economy in the long run. Current best practices suggest that learning should be seen as a continuum starting from birth, and in these difficult economic times the more education providers cooperate, the better results and lower cost for everyone. For WCASD this would mean less time and money spent on these children once they do enter the district, leaving more resources available for regular education students who are not protected by as many laws and will continue to lose as budgets shrink. The following opinion piece by Ted Kleisner, Chairman and CEO of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company and member of the PA Early Learning Investment Commission, does an excellent job describing the economic drivers for investing in early childhood education even in the hardest of times:

As far as the grant policy not being followed, the current policy was written in 1981 and states that the district should have guidelines for grant submission and the board should be provided with the grants to which the district is applying. In practice, no such guidelines seem to exist and for as long as anyone can remember the board has not been consulted prior to grant application but only after a grant has been awarded. Is that to say that the board would not have approved applying for this grant had they been consulted in advance? In these challenging economic times, isn’t it the job of a superintendant to look for additional revenue streams that will not impact taxpayers? What expertise does the board have to determine which grants should and should not be pursued? The Administration was acting in good faith for the financial well being of the district and the educational well being of its students, as they should be. To penalize them (and really the children) for not asking in advance seems a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. And as far as the need to continue the program after the funding runs out, I have not seen anything official suggesting that is the case. I suspect if it were, that reason would be communicated loudly and clearly since being obligated to continue a new program for non-district students without funding is very different than acting as a conduit for funding to be directed toward future students with expected future benefit. I highly doubt that is a position Dr. Scanlon would put the district in.

As sad as the loss of this funding is for West Chester children, the more troubling part of this situation is the manner in which it was handled by our board. My understanding is that the district was notified in mid-April that we won this grant and the board was notified soon after. Based upon the concerns cited by the board president and P&F Committee Chair (as noted above), the decision was then made not to accept the grant. This was done without any public discussion, without any notification to the public despite the fact that one person congratulated the board and administration on winning this grant at the April 30th Board Meeting, and apparently without the input of all board members or any sort of vote. Is this how a school board is supposed to operate?

Despite the board’s silence, this story is playing out online. Some of the more noteworthy comments and questions I’ve seen are:
  • If you wanted to spend an additional $417,496 you would not just ok it without some public disclosure; so why if you were given $417,496 do you refuse it without the same public disclosure?
  • Some members of the Board made a decision but did so in private and have done little to explain themselves. What else are they deciding in private conversations and emails that the taxpayers, parents and students will only learn about after the fact?
  • It would be much easier to accept the decisions of this Board, even if one were to disagree, if they would publicly own their decisions and welcome debate; they either think that they have no obligation to explain themselves, or just don't care to.
  • I am just mystified as to why, when they have spent the year looking for alternative revenue streams, that this is their tactic. In education and all non-profits grants are a part of lifeblood.
To add insult to injury, rather than acknowledge that they did not handle this situation as well as they could have and attempt to explain their actions to the public after the fact, the board has completely shut down on this topic. I know of at least 3 people who have repeatedly asked questions directly to board members, only to receive a response from Dr. Scanlon that “questions regarding the Keystones to Opportunity Grant are being referred to [him]” because “part of [his] role is to serve as the official spokesperson for the school district”. That may be true, and Dr. Scanlon is certainly in the best position to explain the mechanics of the grant, the related discussions he took part in, and the resultant actions that were taken. But what he is NOT in a position to respond to, and what people really want to know, is WHY the board gave the direction that it did, WHY the board did not feel this topic warranted public discussion, and HOW they can use the noted reasons as rationale for refusing this grant when they simply don’t justify this action.

Dot Krikorian summarized the issue well: “The board deserves credit for a good budget based on the economic reality we face, but that goodwill does not provide a free pass on public discussion and exchange on important issues facing the district. The board and the community have made great strides in moving forward together in tandem. However, the perception is this board is on a mission to limit public exchange with their recently passed resolutions for public comment and PTO guidelines and unfortunately, the lack of information regarding the decline of the KtO grant only adds to this perception.” To these concerns, the board has repeatedly stated that they are transparent, accessible, and responsive. The business definition of transparency is “operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed and the rules and reasons behind those actions; a lack of hidden agendas and conditions, accompanied by the availability of full information required for collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision making; a degree of disclosure to which agreements, dealings, practices, and transactions are open to all for verification”. This sure doesn’t feel that way. It feels like our board made a decision in private and now is refusing to answer questions that only they can answer, and putting the superintendant in the hot seat to deal with the aftermath. I don’t believe that that is behavior fitting of elected public officials, and I don’t believe it is what our community deserves.

So, then, why did the board really not want to accept this grant and what are the possible long term ramifications? Possibly they have an ideological opposition to accepting money from the Federal Government due to our significant Federal deficit. Unfortunately this grant will not be returned to the Federal Government, but instead will be awarded to another district, so nothing was accomplished in relation to that. Nor should board members be making decisions for the district based upon their personal political beliefs. If, in fact, our board does believe it is wrong to accept money from the Federal Government, what does that say about their view on our State Government applying for and accepting it in the first place?

There is also the issue of keeping to the $202M 2012/13 “Budget Goal”. I’ve put this in quotations, because the first time this “goal” was mentioned was at the April Property & Finance Committee meeting, just one week prior to the final budget vote. Where did this goal come from, and how come it was never discussed before? Wouldn’t such a goal have been useful to have when the Community Budget Task Force began its work in the fall of 2011? The appearance is that all acceptable and feasible cuts from the task force were enacted for this budget cycle, and then a little more was squeezed out at the very end. Could this be part of the reason some board members (and perhaps other behind the scenes individuals having an influence on the district’s budget) were willing to agree to the 1.7% tax increase? The fact that our budget had decreased for 2 years in a row was certainly used as a selling point and victory for the board, and why not, it is an impressive accomplishment. However, is it a good enough reason to deny literacy funding to needy children that will likely cut future costs for the district? 

What does this mean for the future of our district? What will this do for employee morale when people see the district “give back” money in the face of large cuts and impactful contract negotiations? Does this signal an unwillingness of the board to pursue other grants in the future? If we do apply for other grants, will we still have a chance to receive them or will we be blackballed for what can be construed as discourteous behavior in rejecting a grant that we applied for and others spent time considering? If grants are no longer a prospective source of income and future tax revenue increases are tenuous at best, how will we meet the imminent cost increases we know are on the horizon? The answers to these questions could signal more trouble in our future.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


As mentioned in the last blog, West Chester was recipient to approximately $450,000 in grant money through the Keystone to Opportunity grant funds made possible through the state's  receipt of $38 million  from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program. The money would benefit six local pre-school entities, helping to ensure that all children in the district would be afforded the opportunity to enter kindergarten armed with strong literacy skills -  a positive impact for the entire community.  The understanding is that the following programs would benefit from receipt of the grant money:

Advent Lutheran Preschool
Dilworthtown Christian
Aardvark Childcare & Preschool
West Chester Daycare Center
West Chester Play School
Chester County IU Headstart Program

There are disturbing “rumblings” in the community that West Chester has made the decision to decline the Keystone to Opportunity grant.  Why, we ask?  Unfortunately there has been no public comment from the board or administration, but the “word” is that the District policy on grant applications was not followed. In addition, if the grant money is accepted, the District will ultimately need to offset that “revenue” with expenses, not necessarily this year, but in subsequent years of the grant.  Some background on KtO grant: Pennsylvania was awarded $38.6 million for one year, presented by the United States Department of Education (USDOE) as a 5-year project.  Funding for years 2-5 is contingent on continued funding by the USDOE.  West Chester was fortunate to receive a 2- year grant, with years 3,4, 5 dependent on availability of federal funds.

Realistically, one  cannot imagine what a difficult position this decision puts our district in. As leaders in education, our administration must decide whether to take the grant money in hopes of ensuring kindergarten readiness for “at-risk” students in the district  OR succumb to the Board’s condition to find and  cut established district K-12 programs to offset the grant revenue?    Sadly but understandably, the latter decision will most likely prevail, once again demonstrating the critical role school board directors play in influencing a district's educational vision. Regardless of the decision,  we must continue to commend the administration for applying for this grant, for whoever applied for this grant had the best interests of our children and community in mind. Whoever applied for this grant is obviously well aware of  the numerous studies linking early childhood education/literacy with better outcomes for students entering our K-12 system.  Whoever applied for this grant is aware of the “preventive” nature of such early childhood literacy programs and the fact that they can, in the long run, possibly decrease remediation costs for children who will ultimately enter the WCASD in kindergarten.  Thank you to all involved for your leadership and vision in applying.

In addition, we implore those  members choosing to serve on the Education and Pupil Services committees - who must also be well aware of the above mentioned studies and long-term implications of this grant -  to do everything in their power to find a way to accept this grant with minimal impact to the budget, if not this year than next.  In the past, through the formation of community task forces, the entire West Chester community has demonstrated its commitment to being fiscally responsible while maintaining the educational integrity of its programs.  As a community, we cannot overlook the impact these funds could have in ensuring children entering our district schools will be well prepared for our programs.
 rt examines the work of three state school board associations
What does now become a bit clearer to those of us in attendance at last week’s school board meeting is why the news of this grant was not mentioned by any board or administration member.  Never having been made “public” by the board, declining this grant can pass quietly with minimum community involvement.   When confronted, the Board can blame the administration for not “following policy” in applying for the grant.    Either way, the  Board remains safe in having adopted a 2012/13 budget, including a 1.7% tax increase, and can continue to commend themselves on the consistent years of cutting/staying “flat” with expenses regardless of the amount of revenue received. 

On a positive endnote, this grant,  if declined, will go to  another equally, or perhaps more, deserving district  - still a “win” for early childhood education in Pennsylvania.   
However, each of us is encouraged to find out more facts about the receipt of this grant and contact the board for a more thorough and public explanation.  And continue to thank and congratulate those in our administration who had the vision and foresight to apply for this grant.   Personally, I am remaining optimistic that what we hear about the grant are simply “rumblings” and the issue will not become yet another storm that divides this community.

Please check out “Thinking P-12: The School Board Role in Pre-K education”, published for the Center for Public Education . It analyzes the impact of  2-year grants in 2006 awarded to school boards in Kansas, Ohio and Texas, in order to expand school board member awareness of pre-k and better involve them in state pre-K policy. No joking, but perhaps the Board can investigate if grants such as these still exist to help all in the community better understand the importance of early childhood education programs in our District.“ re

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Coming together is a beginning…

As expected, the big news at the April 30 West Chester Area School Board meeting was the adoption, by a vote of 8-1, of the  final 2012-13 budget, totaling $201,793,407.  The budget  included a 1.7% property tax increase as allowed in the PA State ACT  1 index. 

Public comment prior to the vote included suggestions to postpone the vote until the May  meeting in order to investigate more cost-saving/revenue generating measures.  One speaker expressed his feeling that  we were not experiencing a “revenue problem, but a spending crisis”.   Others acknowledged the difficulty of the decision by the board, but stressed the impact on our budget of  variables beyond local control, such as the state pension system.    While speakers on both “sides” of the issue were passionate, all public comment respected the different opinions in our community  and the need to be “civil” in our discussions and disagreements.  Congratulations to the board  and to this community for making and accepting a tough, yet realistic budget decision and moving forward in a positive and productive manner.  Always remember, our kids are watching and learning from our public behavior. Be proud, West Chester and confident that we will get through this together, supporting not only our schools, but those in the community who continue to struggle in this difficult economy.

More public comment this month on revised Policy LEB: Relations with Parent Organizations, specifically the following line: “ PTO/HSA is to remain non-partisan. School district property and facilities shall not be used for political campaigns”

A parent, involved in PTO for many years, spoke eloquently about these “relations”.   An excerpt:

“Advocating for children is not political speech. It is free speech. To advocate means - to speak on behalf of another. The role and mission of the PTO is to serve as a non-partisan organization that promotes effective policies and practices that ensure our children receive a full and comprehensive education as mandated by the PA State Constitution. The role and the duty of the School Board is to insure that public education is delivered effectively and efficiently, period.  The state legislature has made school board elections part of the political process, not the PTOs. PTOs have no political power other than as individual voters at the ballot box. What is the authority of the Board to abridge the First Amendment right of free speech; or, the rights of parents to speak on behalf of their children? Children, who cannot speak for themselves. “

Amen, sister.

I am personally grateful to the administration and the board for their diligence in beginning to update outdated and archaic policies.  I came across another classic from 1974 on the website: Policy BDBC: Community Involvement in Policy Development.  According to this policy, “any resident of the District” can suggest policies and/or revisions.  I humbly suggest that the next policy up for revision be Policy BH: Ethics and Operation of the Board.  That policy, as posted on the District website, was last updated and signed by the 1996 WC school board and appears to contain the closest thing to LEB’s “non-partisan” clause. Section 1.,5. states:                                                                                                         
                  As members of the West Chester Area Board of Education, representing all the 
                  citizens of our school district, we recognize that we must never neglect our personal
                  obligation to the community and our legal obligation to the state, nor surrender
                  these responsibilities to any person, group or organization but that, beyond these,
                  we have a moral and civic obligation to the nation which can remain strong and 
                  free only so long as public schools in the United States of America are kept
                  strong and free.   

Not only as PTO/HSA representatives, but as a community, we look  to the Board for positive leadership examples and remain optimistic  that the Board and administration will soon address the need for comparable guidelines for “non-partisan”  behavior by all board members. 

Mixed Messages:
The Board  adopted a resolution to be sent to senators, representatives  and the Governor for consideration of school employee pension system reform.   A few board members  encouraged parents to get involved by contacting their legislators about pension reform.  Wait. Parents, you say?  Riddle me this:  if a PTO leader would like to initiate a letter writing “campaign” at their school to advocate for pension reform, or perhaps even circulate an online petition, would not that individual run the risk of being out of compliance with the “no political campaigns” section of Policy LEB?   A “campaign” is simply a plan of action to cause a desired effect, in this case a campaign for the “political” issue of pension reform in the state before it bankrupts the public education system.   And let’s face it, chances are the Board would eventually be in support of some legislative proposal sponsored by some political “party”, so the issue would inevitably run the risk of being “partisan”.  Come to think of it,  the Board’s prevailing wage resolution cited a proposal by Representative Kampf, a Republican, so should parents refrain from gathering support for that cause? 

In the end parents, if you do want to write letters in support of any Board resolutions, perhaps the best way to remain in compliance with Policy LEB is to NOT let your legislator know that you are an involved parent active in any West Chester PTO/HSA.  Maybe something like “Save my district from the PSERs crisis and the shackles of prevailing wage…not that I’m involved the schools in any way, but please do something, thanks”.   Effective.  

All joking aside, it is difficult not to believe that the sole  desired outcome of the “political campaign” revision to Policy LEB is  to show Board dominance over particular parent groups in the community.  However, in attempting to subjugate parent advocates,  the Board has patronized and alienated many PTO/HSA representatives.  Here’s a thought:  “ PTO/HSA shall not use school property or facilities to  campaign for political candidates for election.” Such wording could quash parents just enough, while still  permitting the Board and administration to utilize their power and passion for letter writing campaigns, legislative events, etc.  It’s a win-win.

The President of the West Chester Area Education Association read a letter to the community, attesting to the fact that their organization is facing a “critical time” as contract negotiations begin with the District.  She beautifully expressed gratitude for the support of parents and community during this time: 
                    “We also want to let you know that the West Chester Area Education Association  
                     is more than just an organization for teachers and staff.  We take pride in our
                     teaching, the quality of which can be seen in the many awards our students have
                     received and the phenomenal graduation rates.  In addition, we're completely 
                     invested in the community.  Not only are we teachers, but we are your neighbors   
                     and friends.  Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns you might  
                     have.  Again, we're all in this together."                           

All are encouraged to read this powerful  and unifying message in its entirety at

It's over already?
One expected to hear someone from the Board or administration shouting the  great news that the District was awarded  a little over  $450,000 in a Keystone to Opportunity grant. Thankfully it was mentioned by a community member in closing public comment. For those unaware, Pennsylvania was one of only six states to receive  funding through the program, funds made possible through the state's  receipt of $38 million  from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program. The grant will help Pennsylvania communities  pursue a comprehensive approach to improving literacy outcomes for all children through grade 12, including limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities.  Congratulations and eternal gratitude  to all individuals involved in applying for this grant.  We look forward to seeing the positive impact it will have on the entire West Chester community.

Press releases regarding  the grant were issued by the two senators who represent my local schools, one Republican and one Democrat:

The Republican: “Education begins with the ability to read. By using technology and data-driven learning, schools can improve literacy and give more students a chance to succeed academically. These grants will help provide Coatesville and West Chester with the tools to boost reading scores and overall academic performance." 
The Democrat: “Helping children become good readers and writers is crucial to getting them on the right path in school, work and life. These funds will increase access to strong literacy instruction through innovative approaches by providing school districts the flexibility they need to identify the literacy programs best suited to meet their students needs.”

Eerily similar, yes?  Bi-partisan agreement on the importance of literacy as the foundation of academic success. It’s a start.  

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. –Henry Ford