Tag Archives: TESD

Abington School District update

Over on Community matters, there was some reference made to Abington’s budget process — somewhat with envy it seemed.  It’s always good to learn more about other districts — but perhaps a point of pride is in place for me about Tredyffrin Easttown School District.  I really want to separate the District from the decisions of the sitting school board.  I did my time on the board so I am not about to scrutinize their decisions individually, but let’s just say that there have been several things they have done over the past 5 years I would have opposed.  But I’m not on the board anymore — and when I was, I struggled to get the public at large interested in anything we did.  It’s constituency-driven politics — not squeaky wheel exactly, but certainly absent any scrutiny of their actions, sometimes the decisions are as “real world” driven as they should be. I have said before — I believe this economy will cause a “market correction” and salaries, benefits and bonuses — things like “retention bonuses” especially, will be a thing of the past.

The sitting board also knows that I believe that the taxpayers and district were not well served when I left the board and the members who continued and those who were new rejected any efforts or  input from me before they did the next teacher contract. I had personally negotiated the terms of the expiring contract, and had completely orchestrated the administrative compensation plan.  I believe their lack of interest in accepting feedback damaged the continuity of the process — as they made changes to things they had no history of.  I’m not saying they were not earnest in their efforts, but having reviewed the documents since my departure, there are a lot of gaps in the thinking. I believe would have helped in continuity.   The Union meets in Hershey every summer to develop a state-wide strategy for negotiating.  Board members rarely ask for advice — and don’t even talk to other boards in most cases.   Such a deal….it sounds like I think I was irreplaceable -and I absolutely do not.  My phrase then — no matter how big the boat, it doesn’t create a hole when you take it out of the ocean.  I believe that.  But I do think that history is critical in negotiations — and the negotiations that followed Carol Aichele ‘s and my departures were done with a new solicitor (our previous solicitor had died in an accident) and without benefit of background.  So I do think some of the personnel costs that are under attack cannot be adequately explained much less defended.  But they are what they are.  I would be happy to address any details that I am aware of.

Anyway — there were references to Abington and their commitment to keeping curricular issues and programs intact — a reference made to a quote that they only look to cut “stufff” — as well as the revelation that their Superintendent was selected Superintendent of the Year.  Congratulations to Dr. Amy Sichel, the ASD Superintendent and  winner of one of 10 awards for  National Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award.  

Here are details: eSchool News, a national monthly publication specializing in educational technology, notified Dr. Amy Sichel that she is a national winner in the 2010 Tech-Savvy Superintendent competition.  The Tech-Savvy Superintendent program honors K-12 educators who have displayed exemplary vision in the use of technology to further the goals of educating today’s students and equipping them with 21st century skills.  Six hundred applications were received by eSchool News, and only 10 winners from across the country were named.  The headline proclaiming her status as Superintendent of the Year may be a bit hyperbole — but the award is certainly wonderful for Dr. Sichel and brought with it grant money and more.

I bring up this particular district because even referencing it in our budget discussions seems incongruous with the issues at hane.  It is such an example of greener grass — as some posters elsewhere have included Inquirer information about how they go about their budget.  Last year, their millage actually “dropped.”  Actually, their millage for now is 27.09 mills, down from 27.29 the previous year.  That’s on property only.  One small point left out — Abington has an earned income tax of .5% — so you would need to look at their budgets, not their millage, to understand what their revenues were forecast to be.

 On SchoolDigger.com, TESD is ranked #6 in PA (NCES statistics)  Abington is ranked 128th.   TESD’s millage is 17.47.  Our CLR is .53 in Chester County and the Abington CLR in Montgomery County is .54 — so you can see my other tax calculations to figure it out:

On a house with a fair market value of $500,000 — the assessed value should be .54 of that number:  $270,000 (the same assessment as Lower Merion and Upper Merion on a similarly priced home)

The millage on that house would cost $7,314.30 plus .5% earned income tax.  Another house bargain discovered?  Remember that the 17.47 millage on a house valued at $500,000 in TESD has a tax bill of  $4629.55 .

Abington Info

Location
Northern suburb of Philadelphia in Montgomery County

  • Includes Abington Township and Borough of Rockledge
  • 15.2 square miles, primarily residential
  • Total population: 56,444District Organization/Enrollment 2009-2010
Elementary schools (K-6) 3,774
Junior high school (7-8-9) 1,739
Senior high school (10-11-12) 1,923
Total enrollment 7,436

 Personnel 2009-2010
Professional staff positions: 633.3       Supporting staff positions: 420.9
Budget 2009-2010

Budget Item Total Federal Funds
included in total
State Funds
included in total
Local Funds
included in total
Salary Items $ 71,946,518  $   472,927 $  10,703,364 $  60,770,227
Employee Benefits $ 23,368,932   $  155,230 $  4,921,407 $  18,292,295
Non-Salary Items $ 31,731,955   $    69,352 $  4,490,799 $  27,171,804
ARRA Stimulus Reserve $ 1,533,308 $ 1,533,308 $  0 $  0
Total Budget $128,580,713    $2,230,817 $20,115,570 $106,234,326

Taxes 2009-2010

Real Estate Tax:

  • The 2009-2010 tax rate is set at 27.09 mills. This means that for every $1,000 of assessed property value, $27.09 in school taxes is levied. The millage rate reflects a decrease of .7% when compared to the millage rate for the 2008-2009 school year.Earned Income Tax:
  • The 2009-2010 tax rate is set at 0.5%

Items in our budget over which we have little or no control:

  • Cyber and charter schools
     
  • Additional enrollment
     
  • Dramatic increases in fuel and utility costs
     
  • Increasing retirement/pension costs
     
  • Increasing medical insurance costs
     
  • Unfunded and underfunded mandated programs including special education classes and other programs and costs
     
  • Low level of state funding for education and decreasing federal funds
     
  • Increasing costs of textbooks, instructional materials, supplies and ever-increasing importance and costs of instructional technology

Future Plans of Graduates (Class of 2009):

  • Higher Education: 88%
  • Employment: 11%
  • Armed Forces: 1%

Once I am able to review their year to year budget, I will advise you whether cutting “stuff” really reduced their expenditure budget as some have claimed…anecdotally.  But please read their “things over which we have little or no control” as it’s pretty much true for every district in Pennsylvania.

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If it’s broken, it’s time to fix it – School Finances

Over on Community matters, some posters are concerned that these proposed budget cuts in TESD (they are happening almost everywhere, I promise) are going to damage the value of the school system — one poster said she would warn people not to move here.  I have answered in that exchange, but the comments would be far too lenghty for a blog comment — so I’m including my thoughts here as a Post. 

 I’m posting my research here –don’t want to dominate the CM comments.  There is a link to this blog on Communnity Matters – so folks can read here if they choose.  I’m not set up to be a “back and forth” commenting site  — so feel free to read it here as background and continue the discussion there.   I actually tried to shorten this to post it there — but it’s still too long..so here goes:

Point of Information:  This recession has cost the US 8.4 million jobs.   Only 1.5 million might return this year…

To Tredyffrin Easttown Parents

Please don’t worry about the quality and consistency of TE Schools.  This is a global economic problem, and it certainly is not limited to our district.  There should be some level of comfort knowing that TE has a history of high performance, and the leadership in our administration is seasoned, stable and dedicated.  Dr. Waters,  TE’s Superintendent has been in our district for more than 20 years, coming initially as the Principal at Conestoga.  He is in his 10th year as Superintendent.  TE is ranked as the 6th district in the state (the top 3 have less than 200 students; 4 and 5 have 2000 students) Source – NCES Dept of Education – summarized online at SchoolDigger.com   Presumably the talent that brought us this district is NOT abandoning a quest for excellence.   They were here in lean times and have been part of growth.  They know what works. Great teachers produce great results. 

 But lest you think TE is struggling to stay “afloat” as one blogger opined:

 Some facts about neighboring districts:

  • Radnor – in a contract year with teachers – Dr. Grobman is in her second year as superintendent, coming from Philadelphia. She received her PhD just prior to coming to Radnor.  Previous superintendents – 2 interim sandwiched around one 5-year contract (Cooper) that resulted in a resignation after 3rd year.   Multiple principal and administrative turnovers  during Cooper’s departure.  Radnor is ranked as #12 in the state.

The Inquirer reported this about Radnor at the time of Dr. Cooper’s sudden resignation:

Teachers’ contract negotiations last summer and fall were acrimonious, with a threatened strike, and some teachers, including the union’s leadership, said the superintendent’s attitude toward them during and after the talks was partly responsible for strained relations…..Since June, eight administrators either have left or will soon be leaving, and in recent months several residents, saying they thought morale was low among the staff, asked the school board to launch an investigation to determine the cause of the exodus.

  • Lower Merion –also  in a contract year with teachers.   Dr. McKinley is in his second year as superintendent.  Previous Supt.  Savedoff served one five-year contract – extraordinary renovation projects.  Left under a cloud of political attacks.   McKinley comes from running the  Delco IU for two years, and previously was Supt at  Cheltenham and held various positions in Philadelphia.  Lower Merion is ranked as #13 in the state. 
  • Great Valley –the board there has also declined to apply for Act 1 exceptions – so will live with the 2.9% cap on taxes.  16 year superintendent Rita Jones retired in 2009 despite being renewed for Aug 2008-Aug 2012.  Her replacement is Alan J. Lonoconus, who came to GV from Shikellamy School District (where his contract was to run through 2010).  Prior to that he was a Superintendent in Southern Columbia Area SD.  Great Valley is ranked as #15 in the state.  (Shikellamy district is ranked #420 in the state)  Great Valley Stakeholders just took a majority of seats in the most recent election.
  •  Downingtown – Dr. Mussoline began as the new superintendent this school year, replacing one-term 3-year Superintendent Sandra Griffin (previously at Lower Merion).  He comes to the district from Wilson School District in Berks County, a district with 6,000 students and ranked #57 in the state, where he had signed a 5-year contract in 2006.    Downingtown has approx 12,000 students and is ranked 28th in the state.   They have declined to approve requests for Act 1 exceptions. 
  • West Chester has also declined requests for Act 1 exceptions, and their Superintendent, Dr. Scanlon replaced retiring Alan Elko (after 8 years in the district) this past spring 2009.  Prior to this position, he was Superintendent at Brandywine in Delaware “for over 2 years” and spent 7 years as Superintendent in Quakertown Community School District, as district of 5,400 students ranked 75 in PA. Their website says that officials estimate that to avoid an Act 1 taxpayer referendum, the district must cut more than $6 million from its projected 2010-11 expenses.  West Chester also has an earned income tax.  Officials voted on Jan 25 to decline the request for Act 1 exceptions.   West Chester has approximately 12,000 students and is currently ranked 46 in PA. 
  •  Unionville Chaddsford has just renewed their superintendent Sharon Parker  for a second 4-year term – amidst public conflict over her compensation.  Ranked #11 in the state, UCFSD went to referendum last year to ask for approval for a major renovation of their high school.  The voters turned it down and the administration remains adamant that the plan needs to go forward.   Their budget has significant issues but since they cover two counties, I could not find any information about whether they have agreed to Act 1 limit. 
  •  Phoenixville SD continues their search for a new Superintendent. Ironically, their school board president is TESD’s retired teacher and  former Union president…they have an interim Superintendent who is the 3rd person in that seat since July 2008.  The turnover at the administrative level has hit most buildings and demonstrates how difficult it is to hold onto staff during tough times –so many districts are hiring administration (or trying to)  With 6 schools and approx. 3,300 students, Phoenixville is ranked 64th in PA. 

So – life is not easy anywhere.  I could go on to other neighboring districts – but I think the point  is that schools are facing  and  looking for ways to respond  to economic pressures.  Citizen Journalists such as Community…Matters Save Ardmore Coalition and the Great Valley Stakeholders sites are shining light on details that typically were taken for granted or ignored…because life was progressing and nothing was broken.  Times were fine and pressure to avoid strikes kept teacher contracts flowing.  With these new blogging analysts,however,  there are lots of concerns and questions.  It’s similar to buying a new car once every 10 years — you are shocked at how the prices have changed!  Now – we find that the financial system is broken – so it needs fixing.   The reason that many scrutinizing the system are parents of kids who have already or even long ago graduated from our district is that those same people – presumably 10+-year residents – have also seen the “value” of their homes double, but unless you are moving away, that is meaningless. They spent what they could — and now the market wants them to spend more.    Taxes are based on assessed values.  Newer residents are paying these higher prices and so their taxes represent a smaller (and no doubt escrowed) percentage of their house purchase price, which comes with high expectations. 

 It could be  a stand-off  if you don’t trust and support the process to address the obvious dissonance in the message.    Hopefully reading and discussing and learning will set an example for our kids and for our community — we are going to thoughtfully consider these problems — not just throw money at them.  Parents can talk about moving, or even independent schools — but those choices are not about solving problems. 

In all likelihood, these times will cause a market “correction” in salaries, benefits and the “race to the top” that drives and mesmerizes so many programs.   It is not a coincidence that the highest correlation to success in schools is parent involvement.  2/3 of the adults in this community have college degrees.  Ray Clarke makes the point about slowing down the pressure to offer more and more might actually benefit kids.  As long as the state continues to add mandates to the educational testing pile — more and more curricular time is going to be spent teaching to the test — which in many cases is built on standards lobbied for by special interests.  (For instance:  History standards are 1/3 world, 1/3 US and 1/3 Pennsylvania….??)  We can talk about that later.

Don’t let this budget process discourage you — and don’t let the final passage be your last interest in the be a  the system.  Schools are going to need more volunteers — won’t be all those paid aides making copies and cutting forms and doing mailers. 

But this budget is just a start.   It’s going to be harder going forward because of the state retirement system.  But THAT is a story for another day.  PSERS.  Check it out.  Click on the link for a copy of the presentation slide show that starts to outline the problem under “Hot News”

FLES redux in TESD

I want to formally alter my comments about FLES and the fact that nothing has changed since its introduction except the retirement of Drs. Foot, Slobojan and Folts.  In fact, something has changed, and it’s my error not to know it. 

Anyway — I spent some time on the PDE website — specifically about Annual Yearly progress for the PSSAs.  One thing has seriously changed since FLES was introduced — and that is the testing of elementary aged kids on content knowledge by the State.  I had no idea that Pennsylvania has undertaken PSSA testing for SCIENCE in the 4th grade.   I don’t know about you, but I think science until 7th grade was rock collections, bug collections, and enviromental knowledge. 

 TREDYFFRIN-EASTTOWN SD Grade 4

 All Students    # scored  473

%  Advanced   68.7

% Proficient   27.5

% Basic   3.2

% Below Basic  0.6

  • Below Basic – seldom demonstrates grade-level appropriate concepts/skills for a particular subject/task.
  • Basic – at times demonstrates some grade-level appropriate concepts/skills for a particular subject/task.
  • Proficient – routinely demonstrates a variety of grade-level appropriate concepts/skills for a particular subject/task.
  • Advanced – consistently demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the grade-level appropriate concepts/skills and uses sophisticated strategies to solve a task

NICE DESCRIPTION OF A 9-YEAR old…what??? And they get this in Reading, Math and Writing too through their K-4 experience.  Again in 5th grade for some subjects, and 8th and 11th grade to evaluate the districts’ Annual Yearly Progress.  We better be comfortable with the tests, because we are absolutely going to have to teach to it.  Does ANYONE remember anything that age except “Iowa” achievement tests?  (and air raids?)

You can go to the state’s website to see the results and the tests that our kids take…HERE

You should also visit the TE District’s website and read about the elementary curriculum.  FLES still shows because it has not officially been cancelled, but reading the curricular objectives, and knowing that the state of PA has learning outcomes mandated by testing….I’m glad I have my college degree and my kids are done.  I thought high school was stressful…actually — high school IS stressful.  Now I guess I’m learning just how much more we have forced downwards to the elementary program.   Just my opinion — but it’s clear there is no time for instruction in a foreign language that would result in meaningful learning because there is simply not enough time.

Thoughts?

Assessment appeals and their role in tax issues

At the risk of creating more controversy that has nothing to do with solutions —I responded to a post on Community….Matters from John Peterson who denounced the “GOP” lead school board driven by GOP issues. I will stand by each and every budget decision made during my time on the board, and I can assure you that the largest component of tax increases related to staffing were a direct result of a community study we undertook in response to KIDS COUNT, an extremely well-funded group that pushed for and achieved class size targets well below anything we had ever experienced. During times of lucrative transfer tax revenues, and new development with a rising tax base, these costs were absorbed. Kevin Grewell was elected to the board as a Republican after switching parties to get the TTRC endorsement, presumably because there was no organized process for running as a democrat. In defeating an incumbent Republican for the seat (Rick Zagol), Kevin ran on a platform of spending more for smaller class sizes. MUCH smaller in some cases. There were several board members who had previously been associated with the Democratic party but switched to Republican registration absent any benefit to a Democratic affiliation.

There was a claim made on the blog comments that TESD services since 1996-2000 have been degraded, with lost of activity ….the size of the population has simply grown exponentially. And the cost of housing in this community has risen to levels that new residents who choose to purchase here come with many, many expectations.
Can we please talk about the realities and not the theories. The issues on the table absolutely were predictable. The health care increases are easy to point to — but it has happened before and is the reason the district has a fund balance. $4M of fund balance right now is designated for “retirement obligations” which means severance and other issues for sitting and retired administrators. When I attempted last year to look at the contracts of these people, I was met with anger and changes in policy as to how to look at these numbers.

It’s fine to understand the reasons behind the increase, but not okay to suggest that they were surprises. Assessment appeals are quite typical in a down market. Countywide reassessment was done in 1998 — the CLR since that time has gone from the goal of 100 (meaning market value would equal assessed value) down to 53. Actually 2008 showed a rise to 53 from earlier levels — but since the CLR reflects the percentage of market value that the assessment should reflect, a steadily decreasing value ultimately predicts that the effort of reassessment is now worthwhile as the outcome would be significant enough to undertake it.

1998 93.4
1999 89.8
2000 85.2
2001 80.5
2002 74.0
2003 68.0
2004 60.8
2005 54.9
2006 51.8
2007 51.7
2008 53.0

I apologize that these are not “sound bite” comments, but as you know from previous postings, I have a great deal of information to share and would like us to all understand the implications of our current tax level.

One other response, however, is that the teachers’ contracts rarely try to work around economic predictions — and the PSEA (if you read their website right now) advocate for growing the starting salary so that there is a shorter time to reach “career” earnings (the top step) and less “percentage increase” required per year….the local salary schedules reflect a competitive look at neighboring districts along with a formidable staff of PSEA staff running numbers and making offers or responding to district offers — all the while knowing that the elephant in the room is a strike. Board members know the damages of a strike — so the abililty to influence the outcome is severely limited and is only likely to come out less in the union’s favor with a willingness not to blink. Where would the community come down if our schools were closed for two weeks? (I have referred to this before, but due to some legal conclusions reached at the state level, teachers do not lose any salary or benefits during a strike…I can explain if you have any questions about it).

Thanks.

Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools

I include this information here to provide the background on the introduction of the FLES program.  The decision to cancel it has been tentatively made — though some would say that it was just the first shot fired over our collective bow to get attention — but considering the premise behind its introduction, I hesitate to accept its demise.  In my view, nothing that led to this program has changed — except perhaps the Administrative support may have retired or simply faded because of an abundance of expectations. 

Anyway, when now retired Dr. Folts and Dr. Slobojan were part of the strategic planning process, here’s what the District proclaimed:

From the TE District website:  http://tesd.net/fles/program.htm

We believe that learning a foreign language in the elementary school is an essential part of a child’s education and development.  

Making Foreign Language A Part of The Strategic Plan

  •  Tredyffrin/Easttown’s 1996 Strategic Plan emphasized the importance of student proficiency in a foreign language.  It stressed the need for graduates to be prepared to live and work in a global context.  This was the starting point for the FLES program.
  • On both the national and state levels (and the international front), there is an urgent call to improve the foreign language competency of Americans.  From the 1983 report A Nation at Risk to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s expected learning outcomes, foreign language study is viewed as an essential component of education.  
  • Scientific studies indicate that there are sound physiological and psychological reasons to initiate foreign language study with children at an early age.  

Cognitive research shows that very young children learn language easily due to the elasticity of the brain.  

  • In fact, this research states that the learning window, when the peak acquisition of a foreign language occurs, is between birth and ten years of age.  Yet, for most students, foreign language is introduced and formally studied when they are twelve years of age or older.

Academic research also supports teaching of a foreign language at the elementary school level. 

  •  These studies indicate that the benefits of early foreign language programs go beyond language acquisition.  These benefits include the development of students’ creativity, memory, and listening skills.  There is specific research to suggest that the child who learns a foreign language at an early age makes greater progress in the acquisition of English language arts, specifically, in the areas of reading and writing, than the child who has not had experience with a foreign language.  Studies also show that students who have studied foreign languages attain higher scores on the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT), especially in the verbal areas.

Learning a foreign language benefits all children, regardless of academic ability. 

  • Foreign language study in the elementary school incorporates all of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and uses a multi-sensory approach.  
  • It sharpens global awareness and exposes children to other cultures and thoughts.  The study of foreign language at the elementary level helps prepare students to interact in the global community of the future, thus helping to place our students in a more equitable position with students from other global countries.  
  • Research also indicates that children studying a foreign language have an improved self concepts and sense of achievement in school.
  • The FLES program at T/E strives to incorporate District initiative’s of Self-Directed Learning, Technology, and Differentiated Instruction to benefit students overall learning, cognitive, and personal development.

We believe that students who begin foreign language study throughout their education in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District will develop a higher level of proficiency in both foreign language and English.  

  • We believe that along with strengthening skills in language acquisition, our students will learn about other cultures and broaden their global awareness.  
  • We believe that the study of foreign language, beginning at the elementary school level and continuing through high school, will enhance and strengthen our students’ career potential and help broaden their employment opportunities.  
  • We believe that foreign language instruction at the elementary level will add a significant academic dimension to our students’ educational program.  

 

 

I’m back…..and talking about contracts

j0318112Not that I have any allusions about anyone missing my blog during my absence, but I will explain  that I have stayed away from this blog topic until the municipal primaries were completed for this cycle.  I didn’t want to find myself in the position of endorsing or denouncing anyone who has the energy and willingness to serve in a public position.  Now — do I support term limits?  — that’s another question and one I don’t have an answer for.  School boards are not well served by extensive participation by the same voices — especially when the incumbents believe they should stay on the board to “protect the seat” from the unqualified who dare to run against them.  On the other hand, the PSEA has been around for a long time, and will continue to formulate a state-wide (and nationwide to some extent) strategy every year.  It may take a few terms before a board member can really understand the role of negotiation in managing your own district.  So a mix is good — depending on the components in the mix.  With senior board members including new members, we are well served.  When they are an exclusive club, who have little regard for new ideas, not so well.

As I stayed out of the election fray, I found myself cringing at periodic statements by candidates about what they could do for this community.  While my thoughts and comments are in response to local candidates, my concerns are most certainly relevant to anyone running for or voting for a school board position.  “Fiscal responsibililty” – giving our children the best” – “keeping taxes low” …..and all those platitudes that we all like to hear.  One local candidate surely cringed after knocking on my door — not knowing what would face him on the other side.  I asked about his goals and what he felt he could bring to the table, but then I went off on how simplistic it is to have goals and how difficult it is to accomplish them.  This candidate felt that his demographic (elementary age children) was especially lacking on the current board.  I, of course, reminded him that everyone who has a child in the district was at some point an elementary parent first.  My first year on the board my youngest child was 5.  I knew then and I know even better now that elementary parents have very little perspective on the process of educating children.  Each level has its own talking points — and each level is obviously naive about what the next level has to offer.  The continuum is the base of knowledge. 

Am I saying that an elementary parent is unqualified?  Nope.  I just know that what you want to accomplish when your children are first getting on a bus to school is very different than what you can afford to attempt when your last child is graduated from the system.   Having your children in a classroom for a large part of the day is a very vulnerable position if you are at all in an adversary role with that classroom teacher.  Parents have their needs — and teachers have their rights, and kids just have to be there.  It’s an interesting and complex mix.

As a new elementary parent, your precious child leaves a preschool where you know the teacher well and he/she knows you by first name.  You have dropped them off (maybe even at the classroom door) and picked them up with a personal hand-off.   When it’s time to start kindergarten, you actually walk them to a BUS STOP where they get on a bus without seat belts, and they attend a building without air conditioning, and they go in the morning or afternoon (without you choosing), and the bus only goes one direction….and unless you have a lot of time to volunteer in the classroom, the teacher may not even recognize you at ACME unless you remind her/him who you are.   And if you are a full-time working parent, you may never have occasion except for curriculum night and the scheduled 20 minute conference to actually see the teacher.  And that preschool class that had maybe 12-15 kids in it — seems intimate if you are on the wrong side of a class size policy….(which always seems wrong if your child is in it).

So what does this have to do with contracts?  Here’s my focus for the next few entries.  I did several contracts during my time on the T-E board.  I felt the process was civil and went well.  There were occasional attempts to influence me through my children (“ask your mother what the Go for the contract button means”) and one threatened unfair labor complaint because I had “intimidated” an un-named teacher that taught my child.  (quickly recanted when my lawyer suggested I get the details or we would consider defamation charges).  The negotiations were about terms of work (7 hours and 35 minutes is our contract day — longest in Chester County – not negotiable!!!) and wages/benefits. 

 But here’s the deal I understand now, away from the table, that I didn’t even consider then:  we didn’t negotiate wages or benefits.  We negotiated raises and increases in benefit costs — and how we would account for them.  And folks, that’s the problem.

Teachers deserve to be well paid, but in this economy, it’s hard to define what that means.  College graduates are looking desperately for jobs.  Salaries reflect the numbers of applicants chasing few jobs.  The notion of an underpaid teacher is becoming  outdated — especially when contrasted with unemployed workers.  Teachers do not make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they do make a very decent salary that is based on 180+ days of 7 hours and 35 minutes of work (that’s the contracted part).   They are paid by a taxing authority, so there is little fear of a pay check not clearing the bank.  Pink slips are virtually non-existent.  There is no mandatory retirement age enforced, and quality is what the individual teacher chooses to deliver.  TE is one of 6 districts in PA that has met the PSEA goal of a $50K starting salary. This starting salary  goes up every single year — and the salary for each teacher goes up every single year (and each salary step seems to increase with every single contract).  Districts (taxpayers)  pay for graduate education that triggers another form of raise for negotiated levels of achievement.  Teachers have a benefit plan that doesn’t resemble anything in the private sector in that the employer (again: taxpayer) pays virtually (and in some cases 100%) all of it.  And no matter what year it is, or how long the contract is, the above comments stay true.  The end of one contract simply  means you start talking about the new raises, and the new, higher starting salaries, and the new “top step” money….but rarely do you add any obligation to the process of teaching.  Sometimes they will add a non-teaching day (or even a teaching day) but that increases the salary and obfuscates the actual raise percentages.   Oh yes — you are tenured after 3 years…so performance isn’t a factor in your salary either.  After their annual union meetings in Hershey setting state-wide strategies, one district negotiation focuses on  improving education benefits, another improves health care benefits at retirement, and another might put lots more money on the “steps” of the salary schedule.  The next contract, your teachers are coming at you with whatever the other district improved (regardless of where you have already added costs).  This isn’t done to attract teachers (though it does influence individual decisions, there are many, many applicants for each position).   This isn’t even done to retain teachers (or there would be a state contract).  This is done because every district wants to claim to be the best, and teachers have a right to strike. No one on a board or in a district ever wants that to happen — including the teachers.  So it stays amicable and pleasant and you reach an agreement where the district only spends “some” extra money…and every teacher who was already going to get a raise now gets a bigger one than in the previous contract for their level and education.  And papers never talk about taxes — they talk about tax increases.  Keep those increases low…. The idea of freezing wages  or keeping staff on the same “step” for more than a year is simply not on the table.

The other piece — our state allows you to accrue the right to a pension at the rate of 2.5% per year worked, on your final 3 year average salary.  So, start at 22 years old — at $50,000.  Work 185 days or so and have as the baseline that you do not get rated “unacceptable” (which doesn’t influence your pay, just puts you into a professional improvement program).  Once hired, you get a guaranteed raise every single year you teach (tenured at 25 — so your job is yours) — and retire at 62 with a pension equal to 100% of your salary that is untaxed in Pennsylvania.   (And if you still want to work, you can come back in another capacity — often in New Jersey — and start at a high level making a full salary and still getting your PA pension).  Let’s pretend that those raises were only 2%…(which they NEVER are) and you are making over $100K in 40 years….so that will be your pension annually.   How much does someone in the private sector need to save to generate $100K a year untaxed by the state?  And how much does each district have to contribute to the state each year to fund that retirement obligation?   So — teachers aren’t rich.  But outside of the wall street crowd, do you know anyone who is?  Had a double digit raise not based on performance any time in your recent memory?   And how many would give up raises for tenure/free benefits/lifetime pension? 

So friends. This is my topic.  I look forward to comments and questions.  I’m going to give you some examples and some thoughts to ponder.  I respect teachers, but I’ve lost respect for the contract process.  I’m going to tell you why incumbents may understand the game better than new people, but also why incumbents have in many cases been behind a major effort to hide information from the public “who don’t understand.”    I’m going to try to encourage you to look hard at the folks who have taxing authority and  control the purse  strings in your community — and what is behind their interest in serving.   We can talk about the benefits of incumbency, and the perils of naivete — and vice versa.  These people negotiate salaries and then raise your taxes based on the costs of personnel.  It’s a lot of power in a local board. 

Oh — one more thing:   I will try to explain salary schedules and contracts and benefit obligations, and how the law doesn’t penalize teachers who strike (no loss of income). That’s really an interesting twist.  (Check out the Stop Teachers Strikes website referenced in the blog roll)

I’m back….hope you are listening.

Public Information (and a new blog address)

This is a modified version of the post I left on my previous blog site —

After several suggestions from folks around the state, I am relocating my commentary and efforts to this site  from  http://TESD2009.wordpress.com  Asking Questions of School Boards (TESD). 
WHY? Because an address of TESD2009 is too local a name for the broad issue of school spending. While I live here, and was a member of the TESD board for 3 terms, this blog is not meant to be narrowly focused on TE.

TE does a great job. Don’t get my scrutiny confused with criticism. Having said that, however, I was somewhat appalled (confused, really) at a Public Information meeting this past week when the Board’s president Betsy Fadem said that TE wants to be first in education, but not transparency. Board member Debbie Bookstaber, along with Karen Cruikshank and Pat Wood did not seem to agree with this assessment. Caution in what to disclose is prudent, but openly suggesting that we aren’t about disclosure is something else.  I pointed out the denials I had received in my request for open records — and the charge I was asked to pay for a copy of the TE Teacher’s Contract ($9 for 36 pages scanned — in random order — which apparently means that our Administration does not have an electronic word copy of our major negotiation document).

Consistent with that hesitation about transparency however, the Board’s president had summoned a presentation (a paid presentation) by the District’s solicitor at this same meeting, attended by all of 3 members of the public.  Not that I don’t enjoy hearing a legal presentation on Open Records, but there was no decision to be made at this meeting, and paying several hundred dollars for his appearance  just in case a question came up seems a bit wasteful. Mr. Roos had prepared a memorandum on the topic and distributed it to the audience. That seemed to have been sufficient for the process, and his presence may have been a bit unnecessary as billable time. (Note that the District’s Open Records Officer and the Superintendent were not present at the meeting — perfectly customary in this case as the administration was well represented by other staff, but if the Board felt that the Solicitor needed to be present, perhaps they might have ensured additional administrative support).

So — welcome to my new site.  I have stopped posting on TESD2009 (for now anyway) and will try to follow the request of some of my followers — to advise readers about school spending and what kinds of questions you might ask of your own board (while examining my own local board’s budget and process.)