Sunday, February 28, 2010

Updates and earthquakes

This definitely goes down in the books as the most difficult, challenging business trip I've ever been on. My plane was 90 minutes away from Santiago, Chile in the wee hours of Saturday morning when the pilot alerted us we were being diverted back to Lima, Peru due to an earthquake in Chile. After landing in Lima and learning the details of the tragedy, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that we had not landed in Santiago prior to the earthquake. The other passengers were upset and concerned over their families and loved ones who live in Chile. For their sakes, I hope everyone they knew is safe.

The next 24 hours was a little bit of Hell that I like to call "Escape from Lima". After spending 4 hours in a holding area awaiting some sort of update which would never come, we were sent to baggage claim to find our luggage. Yeah, good luck on that one. After four hours of sifting through bags from multiple flights jammed on the carousel, our bags never appeared. It took another hour for workers to figure out that our bags had been pulled earlier and put into a closet for no apparent reason. With our meeting in Santiago now cancelled, all efforts were spent on getting home. Many hours were required to find an available flight, and local customs and security people at Lima airport aren't exactly the friendliest or most competent. Long story short, we boarded a plane for home around midnight on Saturday. I'll be arriving home shortly, and will grab a shower and breakfast before catching up on my good old friend . . . sleep!

Now onto something a little more relevant to you. The School Board just released two more outsourcing bid results for Grounds Keeping and Food Services. As you might expect, there is still some substantial savings opportunities should the Board outsource Grounds Keeping, about $1.5 million over 5 years. And while Food Services is cost neutral for the district, one vendor guaranteed the District $55k in annual revenue which could be used for other District operational expenses.

You can see the details of both bid tabulations by going to
the School Board's Negotiation website.

It's great to be home!
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The 10th Board member?

After two days of frustrating plane rides and 42 hours without sleep, I thought nothing could stop me from going straight to bed when I arrived home today. But after reading today’s Courier interview with incumbent Frank Farry, I had to delay the appointment with my pillow so I could reflect on why our State Representative is commenting on things over which he has no influence. Or did you all elect him to the school board while I was gone?

Let me be more direct – Why is Frank Farry interfering in our negotiations? Why is he even meeting with education special interest groups instead of fixing what's wrong with education funding?

According to Mr. Farry, he told our support staff union they need to "concede some" … SOME? Well Mr. Farry, what education programs shall we cut to make up for “some” of those concessions? Right now there is a $7.3 million deficit for next school year's budget. Even if the support union agreed to EVERYTHING the board offered that would only reduce expenses by $1 million. For every operational expense we don't reduce, that's another program that gets cut. What should we cut . . . sports? choir? after-school clubs? AE classes? I have asked that NESPA President Mindy Anderson answer these very same questions. Perhaps she and Mr. Farry can put their heads together and come up with the magic bullet.

Later in the interview, Farry says he’s concerned about what could happen if the District “privatizes” transportation services but he offers nothing to substantiate his fears. Why would he even be concerned that we would take these services back in-house? Do you think outsourcing will fail, Mr. Farry? Is it because it would cost too much ... even more than what we pay now? Don’t think so. Is it because the vendor’s drivers would be too dangerous? Not likely since First Student anticipates employing over 90% of our current drivers. So what is it you are basing your fears on?

Consider this: 86% of PA school districts outsource their transportation services. In Neshaminy’s case, following suit will save us an average of $3 million every year that will be used to maintain our education programs. Council Rock uses First Student and was happy enough with their service that they just renewed their contract. Sounds pretty successful to me. When your baseless gut feelings can stand up to that, let me know.

If you want to help us Mr. Farry, how about taking a leadership role in reforming state worker’s healthcare and retirement benefits? It’s a shame that you feel powerless to do anything about that, according to your own words in today’s article. I’m no political expert, but if you want to earn re-election this year, you might want to drop that whole “freshman legislator” tag and kick it into second gear.

When Farry opposed a Republican budget last July that would have cut education spending, I gave him a mention on this blog and I even wrote him an email thanking him for splitting with his party. That’s what he should be doing – take care of business in Harrisburg to the benefit of his constituents back here. But when he injects himself into local issues like this, he’s crossed a line.

Call me cynical, but I don’t like when election-year politicians start taking interest in things they shouldn’t be involved in. Why is Frank Farry even meeting with NESPA? The Board never asked him to intervene, and he certainly has no right to speak on our behalf. Even with good intentions, Frank Farry should have refrained from discussing contract issues with NESPA. But he didn’t, and that makes me question why?

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Monday, February 22, 2010

A few thoughts on the NESPA negotiations

Just some things I want to get off my chest. Blame it on too much caffeine this morning . . .

In today’s Courier is a letter from a Donald Brown raising concerns over outsourcing. Mr. Brown is a retired Neshaminy Facilities worker. First he blames Neshaminy’s economic woes over the raises given to Administration. My response to that is any negotiating unit that accepts the Board’s offer does get their raises but also has to start kicking in for benefits at a rate of 15% - 17% over three years. So as soon as NESPA accepts the Board’s offer (IF they accept the offer), they too will receive their salary increases along with a contribution to benefits – just like Administration. And the total dollar amount of raises paid to NESPA workers will dwarf what was paid out to Administration.

Next Mr. Brown goes on to say that outsourcing vendors trick you with low-ball initial bids, only to hike their rates massively in future years. That’s some trick. The vendors are guaranteeing us substantial savings for five (5) years. We’ll save millions if we go the route of outsourcing. Even if at the end of the five year term the outsource vendors raise their rates to astronomical levels (let’s say even as high as what our current costs for support services are), we will still have saved millions of dollars. At that point, we will re-bid the services to the lowest costing, qualified service provider anyway.

Lastly the author suggests that the District has squandered money away by repurposing funds not paid to the State workers’ pension for some seemingly nefarious reasons. Of course Mr. Brown offers no proof of this but rather just throws a theory out there with no regard to fact. After all, it’s easy to fight fact with fear. It’s just like a headline in the National Inquirer . . . how do you refute a rumor that’s just plucked out of thin air other than to say it’s not true? So Mr. Brown, it’s not true.

Ahhh, but there is more . . .

The District is not negotiating in good faith and is treating the Support Staff workers like “second class citizens” says NESPA President Mindy Anderson as quoted in a recent article appearing in The Advance.

For quite a while now I’ve been listening to Ms. Anderson accusing the Board of not caring about our employees, and even going as far as linking the Board’s position to lacking concern for the students – You see, in her world if we don’t back down, we are hurting the children. That is evident from her statement that “it’s not a question of dollars when the children are at stake.”

Ok Mindy, so I should assume that capitulating to NESPA’s demands will only help the children? Hmmm, I’m having a little problem with the math on that one.

Looking towards next school year, we have a $7.3 million deficit. Just to get within the State-mandated Act 1 inflationary limit, we must knock $3.9 million right off the top. If we give NESPA all that they have asked for, we won’t even make a dent into that number. That would leave us with only one realistic alternative: Cut student programs. Lots of them, a few million’s worth at least. Should we give NESPA what they ask for at the expense of our students’ education? According to Mindy Anderson, the answer is yes. She didn’t use those words, but that’s what will happen if we give her what she wants.

Perhaps the next time Ms. Anderson addresses us from the podium, she can provide specific suggestions as to what programs we should cut in order to cover the millions of dollars needed to pay for their contract demands. Should we eliminate Fine Arts? After-school clubs? Sports? How about cutting our AE classes? I would really appreciate some help here.

And I’ve gotta be honest, Mindy . . . this whole “second class citizen” thing is sooooo 15 minutes ago. Nobody is going for it. Can we please dispense with these clich├ęs found in every negotiation playbook?

Look, you’ve had a great run. Your union got its members incredibly generous CBA’s in the past, but the windfall is over. It’s nothing personal. We simply cannot afford those inflated costs any more, and we are not willing to cut student programs. There just aren’t a whole lot of options left. For the sake of your entire rank and file, I hope you’ll reconsider the Board’s offer and will do so immediately. This isn’t a game to see who will blink first.

Ok, I’m good. Thanks for reading.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

US House Committee begins work to rewrite NCLB

This week Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee said that they intend to begin work next week to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) - currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the committee, John Kline (R-MN), the senior Republican of the committee, Dale E. Kildee (D-MI), the chairman of the subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, and Michael N. Castle (R-DE), the senior Republican of that subcommittee, issued the following joint statement:

"Today, we're announcing a bipartisan, open and transparent effort to rewrite No Child Left Behind - a law that we all agree is in need of major reform. It will start with a series of hearings in the coming weeks to explore the challenges and opportunities ahead as we work to ensure an excellent education is available to every student in America. With a real commitment to innovation, we invite all stakeholders who share our serious interest in building a world-class education system to email us their suggestions."

The committee's first hearing will focus on charter schools and will be held on next Wednesday, Feb.24. Beginning today, groups and stakeholders can send the committee their input and suggestions at
eseacomments@mail.house.gov. The deadline for comments is March 26, 2010.


This information courtesy of a Washington Post article.
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Study finds states face shortfall in retiree benefits

Just so you don't think Pennsylvania is the only one . . .

There was a $1 trillion gap at the end of fiscal year 2008 between the $2.35 trillion states had set aside to pay for employees' retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises, according to a new report released by the Pew Center on the States. The shortfall, which will have to be paid over the next 30 years by state and local governments, amounts to more than $8,800 for every household in the United States.

The figures detailed in Pew's report, "The Trillion Dollar Gap," include pension, health care and other non-pension benefits promised to both current and future retirees in states' and participating localities' public sector retirement systems.

Pew's numbers likely underestimate the bill coming due because the most recent available data do not account for the second half of 2008, when states' pension fund investments were particularly affected by the financial crisis. Additionally, most states' accounting methods spread the investment declines over a period of time-meaning states will be dealing with their losses for several years.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Goal is no tax increase this year

From today's Courier Times . . .

The board hopes to close a $7.3 million deficit to avoid a tax increase in July. The district's proposed budget calls for an average $265 increase in tax bills.

Zero. Zilch. Nada. That's the amount of tax increase the Neshaminy school board is shooting for as administrators attempt to tackle a $7.3 million deficit over the next few months. The board recently voted 7-1 to approve a preliminary 2010-11 budget, which is expected to be about $162.8 million. Richard Eccles voted no and William O'Connor wasn't present, officials said. But revenues are estimated to be about $155.5 million.

The $7.3 million gap would mean a 9.6 percent tax increase. For homeowners with an average assessment of $27,626 that would be a $265 hike. The average tax bill would increase from $4,199 to $4,464, said Joseph Paradise, business administrator. The value of 1 mill in Neshaminy is $736,526. The district's current millage rate is 152, Paradise said.

Under Act 1, the district's tax increase limit is 2.9 percent, or 4.4 mills, or $3.4 million. But the district also qualifies for two exceptions: $1.6 million in special education costs and $1.3 million for increasing contributions to the state pension fund, said Superintendent Lou Muenker. So, Neshaminy's legally allowed to raise taxes by 5.37 percent, or a total of $6.2 million, Muenker said. However, after passing the first-round spending plan, the school directors then unanimously approved a motion to at least try to pass a zero tax increase and use the Act 1 limit only as a last resort.

"This will not be an easy task and may require some extremely difficult decisions from the board and administration and the community," said Ritchie Webb. "If we stand together, work together, we will get through these very difficult financial times."

You can read the complete article by
clicking here.
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