Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Consider the source

June 25 West Chester Area School District Board Meeting – all members in attendance

Superintendent’s Report
District  PSSA results should be available late July and we are reminded of the District’s commitment to “student achievement”:  we strive to get our  students not just “proficient” but “advanced” in their PSSA scores.  On that note, Newsweek's Top 1000 High Schools  included East  (#863) and Henderson (#925). Report continues with end of year summaries on professional development goals, parent survey results, reminders of new revenue from activity fees, before/after care, etc. – basically, a nice synopsis of positive accomplishments throughout the school year.

More good news: West Chester Area School District  received the Association of School Business Officials International’s (ASBO) Certificate of Excellence (COE) award in Financial Reporting award for having met or exceeded the program’s high standards for financial reporting and accountability. Recognition through the COE program can help strengthen a district’s presentation for bond issuance statements and promotes a high level of financial reporting.  Congratulations and gratitude to Dr. Moore, Beth Butch and John Scully for bringing this honor to WCASD!

Public Comment on Agenda Items:
Parent spoke passionately of her frustration in attempting to secure afternoon placement for her child with Tot Time, the district's new before/after care provider.  Parent had to return to YMCA for care and is now paying close to $1500 for her 2 children.  She finds it "professionally irresponsible" of the District to end one contract (with YMCA) before starting the other with Tot Time.  We hope and trust her valid concerns were addressed by appropriate individuals after the meeting.

Comment on First reading of Policy DFF, Grants from External Sources – speaker references Keystone to Opportunity grant, and questions language in policy.

Board business:
Approval of  contract with Tot Time (referred to as “A Child’s Place” in schools) to provide before/ after care services at elementary schools for the 2012-13 school year.

Approval of the following policies for “first reading”:
Policy JCDAC:Drug and Alcohol Abuse -revised to reflect changes in terminology.
Policy DJF (new):Food & Beverage Expenditure Guidelines – written as result of Attorney General’s report concerning food expenses in Reading School District.
Policy DFF: Grants from External Sources – revised to include guidelines for pre-approval of grant funding by the school board.
Policy KDC: Flyer Distribution – revised to include pre-approval for distribution of flyers and prohibit distribution of political information on school property.  

Approved and now in effect is Policy GAO (new): Intellectual Property –establishes guidelines for ownership of materials developed while employed by the District.

One item pulled from Property & Finance consent agenda section: Approval of contract with School Media pulled due to concerns expressed at June Property & Finance Committee meeting

Board approved a resolution recognizing that three collective bargaining unit agreements will expire on June 30th and in the event there is no settlement, the current language will remain as ‘status quo’ until an agreement is reached.  In effect, negotiations continue and agreements are valid beyond expiration date of June 30.

Chair of Property & Finance Committee Sean Carpenter addressed  “status quo”  and other issues when he and Board President Vince Murphy visited WCHE on June 22  to update the community on negotiations. Both men presented themselves as calm, professional representatives of the Board, but had no  “new” news, holding steady to the facts and figures posted on District website.   At the beginning of the interview, WCHE made it clear that representatives from West Chester Area Education Association had been invited to the interview. 

A few  interview “highlights”:
In discussing contract negotiations in general, WCHE uses the term “laborers”. Now, one  assumes the commentator was referring to unionized teachers in his theoretical example.  However, “laborers” unionize in many different fields due to specific concerns of their profession, and perhaps a more respectful word choice was in order.  Or better yet, since the discussion concerned school employees/teachers, why not refer to them as such?   Admittedly, one gets lost debating the connotation of “laborers” so let us  affirm it as a “positive”.    Teachers, support staff, building custodians  are indeed “laborers”, for they build and strengthen the foundation of any decent society, which is  a quality and equitable public education system.  Over the top? Maybe, but look where the interview goes from here and my need for  positive affirmations becomes clearer.

WCHE asks Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Murphy how much is in the District fund balance.  After response,  WCHE commentator  proclaims  “the  union” must be “licking their chops”  looking at that number. 

In discussing the District’s proposal of  a 5% surcharge to collect West Chester Area Education Association (“union” )  dues,  WCHE commentator remarks that  “if it were the other way around, you can be sure the union would want to collect the surcharge”.  Sadly, that comment is followed by appreciative chuckles but with no video, we remain  uncertain who emitted them.  We hope and trust that neither member of the Board would have shown such a lack of decorum in discussing sensitive negotiation proposals.

The interview wraps up with ending thanks to all and a final comment by WCHE  that teachers are “not looking good by not coming to the mic(rophone)”.   The microphone?  The microphone that labels all unionized  work force members as   “laborers”?  The  microphone that  portrays teachers as salivating animals hungry for more money and benefits?  THAT microphone?   One could argue the teachers looked just fine not coming to THAT microphone.

Board Reports:
Intermediate Unit  by Mr. Coyle – reports that goals were set for IU

Charter/Alternative Schools by Mrs. Tiernan – cites recent Auditor General  report  on charter/cyber funding, recounting that charter/cyber funding reform could save $365 million per year.  School visits have stopped for summer recess,  but she looks forward to reporting again in September

Communication and Outreach by Ms. Raileanu –  Board outreach has also stopped for summer recess. However, we are promised a Board Connections summer newsletter. 

Legislative/PSBA report by Mrs. Snook – reports on  “tentative” PA budget (now passed, see  https://www.westchestervote.org/Legislative_Update.html)

Mrs. Snook noted there “may” be increase to Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) which she tells us “will benefit WCASD Education Foundation”.  Remember, tax credit programs such as EITC were publicly championed by Mrs. Snook at a local church last month, but not because they would help WCASD Education Foundation.  Let’s  give her a break, move forward  and hope this remark is evidence that she realized the faux pas of her “pulpit speech” and really does care equally about all schools in WCASD.

Final budget did increase EITC by $25 million, to $100 million, making available $60 million for private scholarships, $10 million for pre-kindergarten scholarships, and $30 million for public education improvement programs (WCASD  Education Foundation appears to fall under this category).  The WCASD Education Foundation “benefits” from EITC when a  private-sector business  makes a contribution to the Foundation, which funds mini-grants and internships that support the District’s educational mission.   In return, the business enjoys the gratification of  strengthening the community by investing in education and also receives a generous tax credit from the state.  In addition to EITC, the PA budget includes a new program, the Education Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit/ Voucher Lite, making available $50 million in tax credits to businesses who contribute to scholarship organizations for the purposes of providing school vouchers to students in low-achieving public schools.  Everybody’s a winner with tax credits, yes?

It is estimated that since its inception in 2001, EITC has cost $586 million in taxpayer subsidies:

”… the EITC is actually quite expensive. Because it reduces available revenue that can fund public schools or human services, the EITC is counted, much like an expenditure, as a cost in the budget. In 2011-12, the cost of the EITC is $75 million, up from $60 million in 2010-11. Through the EITC, businesses are able to obtain a credit against their Pennsylvania taxes in return for making a contribution of cash, personal property (cars, real estate, or stocks) or services to scholarship or educational improvement organizations. After the business is approved for a tax credit, it then makes the contribution to the approved organization. When the contribution is confirmed, the business receives the tax credit to apply against its business tax liability for that year. This reduces the state revenue collected by the same amount as the credit."  http://pennbpc.org/sites/pennbpc.org/files/PBPC-EITC-Analysis-6-25-2012-Final.pdf

So, if state revenue collections are “reduced” by the amount of the tax credits, then it is  “true” that we have less money to spend on education.  So it makes perfect sense for the state to invite the private sector to invest in education and  reward their philanthropy with generous tax credits, that reduce the state revenue collections…wait,  is this really a sustainable, not to mention ethical,  way to “fund” a critical social need such as public education? 

Maybe I overreacted and the  future of funding public education in  PA really is this simple:  create new and increase existing tax credit programs, turning  “funding”  into a competition between private sector investors  scrambling for those credits before the program’s “cap” for the year is reached.  Such a system in turn increases competition - not to mention animosity and increased misunderstanding -  between all types of schools now forced to prove themselves worthy recipients of philanthropic funds.  No more handouts, greedy Public Education, for  “funding”  is evolving into a competitive venture.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful to private-sector investors, such “funding" is  especially concerning  in the area of public education.  Yet in a strange, admittedly despairing way, I could almost be at peace  with this trend if only the legislators/lobbyists responsible for such initiatives  would own up to the fact that “spending” tax credits to “fund” education  promotes the slow but steady privatization of a truly public education system.  Yes –privatization -because the private sector ultimately  decides the beneficiary of the “funding”.  No formula, “flawed” or “fair”,  exists with tax credit “funding”, just a subjective decision to write a check to a particular educational entity in exchange for a tax credit.  In most cases, no real guarantee of where or how the funds are spent either.  And  how long do corporate tax credits alone suffice as “reward” for private sector philanthropists?  Many of them may want or even expect something more, perhaps a school named after them or  a particular curriculum taught/ideology espoused as a condition of their “funding”.   In those cases,  the benefactors will seek out institutions who will accommodate their wishes,  placing at a disadvantage “traditional” public schools who will continue to accept and educate all children. 

Ok, everyone out of the abyss.  Time to finish Mrs. Snook’s report and our favorite part of school board meetings, non-agenda public comment.

Mrs. Snook again mentions need for pension and prevailing wage “relief” and reminds us of the Board’s resolutions in support of Representative Kampf’s prevailing wage bill and also his pension reform bill .   Also mentioned is a bill that would allow students to wear military uniforms at graduation. With no bill number referenced, one believes Mrs. Snook is referring to Representative Duane Milne’s  HB 1307, amending the Public School Code and covering everything from wearing military uniforms at graduation to “financial recovery” of “distressed” districts.   This bill was signed in the House and Senate, and  expect to hear more on its contents during forthcoming charter/cyber reform discussions.
Public  comment, non-agenda items:

Two names are called and we find that one of the speakers called  is “yielding” her 2-minute time  limit to a friend, who will now enjoy 4 full minutes of public comment.  Apparently  that is perfectly legal, my friends.  Lengthy diatribe against teachers, administrators, Board members?  No problem.  Find a friend to sign up and “yield” their time to you, but act quickly for we trust it won’t take long for a policy “revision” to take care of this public comment loophole.  Our “yieldee” speaks sweetly as a former educator who has taught in both public and private systems. She is a senior citizen who values education and has participated in the District’s Bus to the Future,  an event that offers tours of a District high, middle and elementary school to see “students at work”.  She has witnessed firsthand the great things going on in District schools.  And here it comes, the proverbial  “other shoe” drops, hard.  Our speaker is  “appalled” at the “unconscionable  demands” of the teachers, for they  are “brazenly out of line. As the 4 minutes tick on, she continues,  suggesting  to the Board that NO taxpayer money be used to collect union dues  because it is common knowledge that those dues “support political campaigns”  (Unsure of implication of that comment: with  Citizens United recently upheld in Montana case, political campaigns have been for sale to the highest bidder since 2010).   She wraps up her  4 minutes with a caution:  if current teachers are unhappy,  there are “young enthusiastic teachers”  who would “jump at the chance” for a job in this District.

A lovely senior citizen approaches the podium informing us that teachers “should not be immune to recession” and if they are unhappy with Board proposals, she offers a simple solution for all of them:  “leave and find a job in the private sector”.   In reality, her solution may not be so far-fetched.    With the above mentioned tax credits and  pending charter/cyber reform legislation, public education may be the “private sector” sooner than we think.   

A gentleman who had served for 30 years as an  Easttown Township supervisor has fair and valid questions: is West Chester teacher pay commensurate with other districts in area? He kindly commends teachers for service but also feels the District should not collect “union” dues. 

A Republican Committeewoman informs us  that she received  a $230 “increase” this year and she is happy with that. She would be agreeable to give teachers a $230 increase also.  

Two comments on  “disappointment” with District and Board communications concerning  teacher negotiations, one male one female. Female states that upon analysis, she finds the information posted on District website does not match the information posted on the West Chester Area Education Association website.   

Male deserves quoting:  “The issues being negotiated are highly emotional and complex. Additionally, because the collective bargaining process involves people with pride, dignity and unfortunately, at times, egos, it can get frustrating.”  He goes on to urge Property & Finance Chair Mr. Carpenter and Board President Mr. Murphy to cease the “abridged, news clipping type stories until the contract is finalized”.  He continues by encouraging WCAEA President to “persevere to remain above the fray and continue to negotiate in good faith toward contract resolution.”

A teacher reminds us that association dues are collected by employers even in the private sector.

Woman reminds Board of agreement to address charter/cyber reform “resolution”.

President of WCAEA states that the Board’s “assertion of 18.3% increase proves the Board is only interested in misleading”.   She asserts that the WCAEA shares in the Board’s vision of “achievement and affordability” and seeks only COLA increases, no percentages.   

Woman spoke as “teacher, parent and homeowner”, advising the Board and all in attendance to “beware” of the image they portray of teachers.  She hopes and suggests that communication on all fronts remains “positive and truthful”. 

WCASD support staffer recounts something her mother always told her to the effect of “get all the facts” before you make a final decision about anything.   ALL THE FACTS, then “you will know the truth”.   While I agree that  “truth” ideally does correspond to “facts”, my experience during this Board meeting leads me to the sad realization  that, regardless of facts,  there are competing “truths” concerning current negotiations.   So I  close by respectfully offering a complement to our speaker’s maternal advice, and share something my father always told me:  Consider the source.

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