Friday, February 25, 2011

Thumbs up to the teachers

But who do we believe?

From today's Courier Times editorial page . . .

Thumbs Up: To Neshaminy School District teachers for minding their manners amid labor turmoil.

Hundreds of teachers met with union leaders this week for an update on stalled contract negotiations. While the meeting turned into a bit of a pep rally, it's encouraging that the morale-booster didn't include strike threats or talk of a work slowdown.

Parents should appreciate the teachers' apparent desire to avoid disrupting the school year -perhaps a lesson learned from an earlier slowdown that did little but cast a pall over the school environment and turn parents against them.

If only teachers and their union leaders could learn as much about district finances. Fact is, the numbers are compellingly against the union's contract proposal. They've got to give a lot more than they've offered; maybe then the school board would find ways, if there are any, to up its offer.

The Courier Times' Ed staff is basing this on comments from a teacher who attended Tuesday night's rally and was willing to speak with reporter Rachel Canelli under the condition of anonymity. But anyone who watched the Fox 29 interview with Louise Boyd might have a different view of what happened on Tuesday night. The union president kept repeating the same answer that "we discussed everything," suggesting that a strike vote and/or WTC might still be under consideration.

So who should we believe? An anonymous teacher who provided information to a reliable news reporter, or the NFT President with a history of making accusations but offering no proof to support her claims.

I'll go with the anonymous source.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Righting a wrong

When you get into politics, you soon learn that to the victor go the spoils.

Translation: the controlling political party on a board gets to choose which professional service vendors (solicitors, insurance brokers, etc.) will get a contract from the district. Both parties do it, so all you can hope for is that whichever vendor is selected is qualified for the job and can render services at a fair price. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case.

Let’s rewind to December 2009 when the Board made a controversial appointment of an insurance broker who was neither qualified nor fairly priced. I won’t rehash all the details here
but you can read up on what happened last year by following this link.

Throughout 2010, we received less than stellar service from our broker, who was compensated by my estimation around $330,000. To put that in perspective, we could have hired the top three bidders from our last round of RFQ’s for less money than what this broker received. That’s a lot of cabbage for disappointing service, don’t ya think?

Fast forward to last night . . . the Board appointed a new insurance broker,
WRG Insurance Group. Mr. Gulla’s firm will not accept commissions from our insurance carrier but will instead turn that money over to Neshaminy in exchange for a flat fee of $7,700 per month. This means that Neshaminy should receive a greater level of service AND reduce its bottom line by more than $200k each year.

Maybe not a fairy tale ending, but it proves that it’s never too late to do the right thing.


Teachers hold rally

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The NFT's new math

According to today's Courier Times article, NFT President Louise Boyd insists the union's proposals offer "substantial savings," and she adds that the teachers are "growing somewhat impatient" with the Board's "take it or leave it" approach.

One problem - there is NO NET SAVINGS to the district in any of the NFT's offers. And yes, we have a take it or leave it mentality here . . . We will not cut vital student programs to subsidize a new contract. Our students our not negotiable.

The Board will soon release an analysis of the insurance details from last Tuesday's negotiation meeting which will once again show the NFT's proposals only drive costs higher during these difficult economic times.

Here is the Courier Times article in its entirety:

Discussions could include going back to working to the contract and/or voting to authorize a strike.

A "rally and informational meeting" of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers will convene tonight and could include discussions of going back to working to the contract and/or voting to authorize a strike, according to union President Louise Boyd.

That doesn't mean the union will strike, but it would give Boyd the authority to call a strike.
The rally - which isn't open to the public - will go on as scheduled despite a canceled appearance by the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, according to various officials.

AFT President Randi Weingarten was supposed to speak at the 7:30 p.m. meeting at Carl Sandburg Middle School, but an AFT spokeswoman said the speech was canceled due to a scheduling conflict.

According to union spokeswoman Janet Bass, there is a chance that Weingarten will send a personal message to the more than 600 NFT members who have been embroiled in a labor contract dispute with the school district since 2008. Bass noted Weingarten will "definitely be there in spirit."

"Trying to make informed negotiations didn't work," said Boyd. "We're growing somewhat impatient. Somehow, we have to get this thing started. We need the board to come towards the middle and they just haven't. It still is take it or leave it. They have taken (none of their 56 items) off the table, nothing. The teachers are together on this. We believe there's huge support from them and other certified staff."

Boyd said the union has made two offers. The second one includes a significant reduction in their health insurance plan that would provide substantial savings, she said, adding that the teachers also pulled off the table topics like class size.

"We have been trying to do this at the table to the best of our ability without affecting anyone in the community, but we do have to have a real serious conversation tomorrow night and the teachers are ready for that," said Boyd.

District officials said the teachers union has the ability to hold private meetings at school district facilities as provided in the union's last, expired contract, which both sides continue to honor.

Charles Alfonso, a Neshaminy parent who has been a frequent public critic of teachers unions, said he plans to stand outside the meeting and voice his opinions.

Alfonso said it is more important than ever to get involved in the Neshaminy contract impasse, with the current situation unfolding in Wisconsin. Thousands there have gathered to express opposition or support for the governor's proposed Budget Repair Bill, which calls for restrictions on unions' collective bargaining rules.

"I am not about to let (the NFT) have the spotlight and make it appear they don't have any opposition here," Alfonso said Monday. He vowed to arrive outside the meeting site around 6 p.m. "Even if it's just me, standing outside with a sign, I'll be there to show the media where we stand," he said.

Alfonso called the debate generated by the contract dispute a "wildfire that has spread across the Neshaminy Prairie" and "has become an inferno across the country," with the Wisconsin situation.

"It's all related," he said, adding that he supports Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill. "The issues are the same."

The issues in Wisconsin have escalated to the point where 14 Democratic state senators left the state to prevent a needed quorum to pass Walker's bill, which critics say is more about breaking the unions than fixing a state budget. In addition to changing collective bargaining rules, the bill would mandate increased union contributions to pensions and health insurance plans.

The Neshaminy union's most recent offer to the school board is a five-year deal that includes 2.75 percent annual salary increases for the first two years, a 3 percent increase in the third and fourth years, and a 3.5 percent increase in the final year. That would be in addition to about 2 percent stepped increases for longevity and educational credits, district administrators said.

The proposed contract would be retroactive to July 1, 2008, and end June 30, 2013, with teachers not contributing to health insurance premiums. School board members have said the district doesn't have the money to pay for retroactive pay raises.

The district's latest counteroffer was for a one-year contract, which included a 1 percent annual raise, plus an average of 2 percent in step salary increases. That offer also would require teachers to contribute 17 percent toward their health care premiums, and work three extra nights to ensure attendance at back-to-school nights, officials said.

Board President Ritchie Webb said Monday the school board respects the union and the contract dispute is purely "an economic issue."

"We are not anti-union in any way," he added. "This is about what we can and can't afford."

Christian Menno can be reached at 215-269-5081 or Follow Christian on Twitter at Rachel Canelli can be reached at 215-949-4191 or Follow Rachel on Twitter at


Monday, February 21, 2011

So much for civility

The following was just posted to the Courier Times Now.

The Neshaminy Federation of Teachers will hold a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

According to NFT President Louise Boyd, members could discuss the possibility of returning to working to contract and/or voting to authorize a strike.

This doesn't mean the union will definitely strike, but would give Boyd the power to call for a strike.

While the meeting is closed to the public, some parents have said they will stand outside the facility to express their views regarding the ongoing contract dispute.

A scheduled appearance by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has been cancelled due to a scheduling conflict, an AFT spokesperson said.

More details in tomorrow’s paper.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's déjà vu all over again

Maybe we need to hire Yogi Berra to be our mediator.

The following statement was just posted to
the Board's negotiation website:

Representatives from the NFT and Board met for negotiating meeting #29 this past Tuesday to discuss the health care plan information obtained from our insurance provider by the solicitors representing each side. Since our provider, International Blue Cross (IBX), did not supply us with the information until Monday evening, both parties require additional time to review the data.

It is worth mentioning that nothing provided by IBX contradicts what was reported by the Board during previous discussions, and this should serve as validation that the Board has been completely transparent with the NFT throughout these negotiations.

Before the meeting concluded, Board President Ritchie Webb reaffirmed the Board's position that teachers must contribute no less than 17% towards monthly health care premiums at this time in order for the district to confront its financial and educational challenges. Since health care/benefit costs are our single greatest expense, the Board is unable to consider other aspects of the collective bargaining agreement until this issue is addressed.

The NFT offered no concessions regarding health care premiums during this meeting, nor did they give approval for the Board's proposed self insured Rx plan which would offer substantial annual savings to the district with no benefit impact to our employees.

The State mediator will be contacting both sides to schedule another meeting in the near future.

Here we are, three years later, and the NFT still has not demonstrated any understanding that health care costs are the linchpin issue to these negotiations. Despite the impression she would put insurance plans and premium contributions on the table for discussion, NFT President Louise Boyd seems more concerned with avoiding these issues than addressing them. I fear she still holds out hope that the NFT can somehow maintain its current Rolls Royce health care plan with no employee contributions. I hope I'm wrong.

And just so we can avoid any accusations, this is not an uncivil personal attack on the NFT's leader. I am stating my assessment of the situation based on her actions to date, including this past Tuesday when she told Fox 29 (see video clip below) "The Union is very disappointed ... It is the School District who is not budging from its original offer while the Union has already moved twice." Her statement is not only misleading, it is flat out wrong.

The Board's original offer to the NFT included employee contributions of 10%-12% over three years for a reduced-cost health care plan. The NFT said they wanted to maintain its Rolls Royce plan and so the Board did in fact amend its offer ... the NFT could keep its plan BUT they were going to have to pay for it, and that is why the employee contribution rate was increased to 15% - 17% over the three year agreement. Ok, ok - I know what teachers will say to this . . . how can you call that a concession when it will cost us more? I will answer that question with another question . . . how can the NFT insist it has offered concessions when the bottom line costs of the counterproposals are more expensive than their original offer?

Ms. Boyd's claims that the last NFT proposal will save the district millions, but only the opposite is true - it will cost us millions of dollars more. This past Tuesday's meeting proved that the $3-$4 million savings she previously touted were not realistic. At best, the NFT's offer includes initial reductions of about $2 million BUT most of that would be the result of implementing the Board's proposal for self insured Rx. And what little savings the NFT did offer is gobbled up by other aspects of their proposal.

Let me bottom line this for you ... There is no NET savings in any of the NFT's proposals to date. And that brings us back to issue #1: Health care.

Since Ms. Boyd has stated that health care cannot be resolved independently of all other issues, I have a suggestion: Negotiate health care issues and reach a tentative offer solely on that topic that is subject to change depending on the other aspects of the CBA. Perhaps both parties can agree to keep those details confidential until the full contract is ready for public vetting. By doing this, the Board will be able to assess its financial position to determine if there are areas in which concessions can be considered.

Or the NFT can continue down the same path as it has for the past three years of negotiations. How's that been working out so far?

So let's maintain civility - absolutely! Let's focus on issues, not the people involved - no question! But while we engage in the usual rules of healthy debate, let's not overlook
REALISM. The facts are unavoidable - We have an unsustainable economic model in the midst of a struggling economy. If concessions aren't made that will substantially reduce our expenses, student programs will eventually be cut. And while we're at it, can we all agree that is not a realistic solution to anyone???

Monday, February 7, 2011

Neshaminy arts on display

Congratulation’s to the following students from Mr. Bursk’s, Mrs. Troxell’s, and Mrs. O’Neill’s art classes for their acceptance into the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s 24th Annual Touch the Future Student Art Exhibit:

Michelle Kopena
Sarah McGowen
Braden Kelner
Lorraine Hughes
Chelsea Kearns
Shannon Ryan
Laura Zakowski
Kelly Gilbert
Maggie Martin
Jeff Hackett
Molly Lichtner
Natalie Kizewski
Allison Bretzel
Hayley Rippert
Shannon Jones

1200 students applied to this juried show and 314 were accepted. The show runs now until February 27, 2011 at the Abington Art Center, 515 Meetinghouse Rd. Jenkintown, PA 19046. For more information on gallery hours and special receptions go to


On to the State Finals!

And we're not talking about sports . . .

On Wednesday, February 2, 2011 five students from the Business, Computer and Information Technology Department’s Finance classes earned the distinction to represent Neshaminy High School and the Neshaminy School District in the Pennsylvania’s LifeSmarts Challenge State Finals. The student competitors, Brian Chatot, Mary Clarke, Alex McCaulley, Scott Morantz and Ryan Rebea, will travel to Harrisburg on February 24 to compete against nine other high school teams from Pennsylvania. The first place winner of the Pennsylvania competition will earn the right to compete at the national challenge in California.

LifeSmarts, the ultimate consumer challenge, is an educational program that develops the consumer and marketplace skills of teenagers across the United States. The LifeSmarts program is run by the National Consumers League and supported by Pennsylvania’s Office of the Attorney General.


State-mandated ignorance

If you were a school board member considering how to vote on a charter school application, you would weigh the financial impact on your public schools, wouldn't you? Nope, not in Pennsylvania you wouldn't.

In its infinite wisdom, Harrisburg does not allow finances to enter into the equation despite the existence of an imperfect funding formula which pulls money from the public schools within a district even though its costs may not decrease with each student who attends a charter school. And if your school board revokes a charter school application based on the financial impact, the Pennsylvania Charter School Appeal Board will reverse the decision.

I shook my head in disbelief when I heard this, so I contacted the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) who confirmed what I was told is absolutely correct.

It doesn't make sense to me that when we consider expanding (or even saving) programs in our district, we must weigh the educational benefits against the costs. Yet when it comes to voting on a charter school, the state says we must enter into the debate with one eye closed.

Note to self: Stay away from Harrisburg . . . ignorance is contagious, and they're a carrier.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

NBC 10 visits NHS

NBC News 10’s Aditi Roy visited Cheryl Soltis and her Digital Electronic Arts classes at Neshaminy High School to film “The Teacher Says,” segment. Twelfth grade student, Linda Mikulasko submitted the story about the Electronic Arts project where students incorporated their digital photography and PhotoShop skills to create mini animations using

They combined images, music and video into the Animoto program to create an animated film that promoted positive school climate. Many students chose topics that were related to Neshaminy “Takes Pride.” Takes Pride is a district initiative with roots in Social and Emotional Learning. Students also developed their creativity, communication, teamwork and problem solving skills as they worked in small groups to create their finished project.

The Neshaminy Electronic Arts “The Teachers Says” segment will air Monday, February 7th at 5:45 and 6:45 AM.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Healthcare remains a major issue

The following meeting summary was posted on the Board's Negotiation Website:

Negotiation meeting #28 took place earlier today as Ritchie Webb and solicitor Charles Sweet met with Louise Boyd and NFT attorney Tom Jennings. The state mediator, Mr. Cairns, was also present for this meeting that lasted approximately 90 minutes.

Healthcare continues to be one of the major issues that separates the two sides. Mr. Sweet and Mr. Jennings agreed to jointly meet with our healthcare providers to obtain specific financial information. Hopefully this will clarify our costs and coverages, and will help bridge the gap that divides us.

Mr. Cairns requested that we meet again on February 15th, using the same format to review Mr. Sweet's and Mr. Jennings' findings.