Forget the fact-finding; its time to go to court

Teachers, district pitted needlessly by state’s negligence (or worse)

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoEarlier this month, word got out that both the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District and its teachers’ union, the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Association, both will seek fact finding on their ongoing, and apparently stalled contract negotiations.

Maybe its spending a week in the wilds of southern Alaska, maybe it is the sheer giddiness that comes with going more than a week without a PECO power outage at my home, but I feel oddly qualified to give you a preview of what the fact finder will determine after both sides make their presentations:

They’re both right.

Okay, there will be lots of expository and nuance in the final report when we see it in a few months, but in the end, the fact finder will determine that the teachers deserve a raise and that the district can’t give them one without putting program, jobs and educational quality at risk in the coming years.

And yes, I know this district better than any other in the area— and I would argue better than most. As a parent, taxpayer, President of the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Foundation and publisher of UCFConnect magazine, not to mention having covered the district in this publication for nearly five years, I’ve had a ring-side seat, maybe like no one else. And because of long-standing relationships with both sides of this issue, I have no motivation to favor one side over the other.

So, as I’ve noted to both sides, I see myself as Switzerland — heavily armed and neutral (yet oddly fond of chocolate) — in this ongoing negotiation.

From that outside position, I can see that our pals in Harrisburg — Republican and Democrat — have set up a scenario to pit teachers against school districts so no one notices either how lousy a job the state has done for a generation (or worse, that a small but active faction seeks to destroy public education, in favor of its clearly inferior, but for-profit private sector replacement, not out of an honest policy disagreement, but to line the pockets of a few already rich and powerful people).

The evidence, from the pension mess to Act 1, the school tax increase limiting law — former Gov. Ed Rendell’s lasting legacy to wreck education in Pennsylvania — is clear. In pretending to “fight for property tax relief” various governors and legislators did little more than gut public education, pander to big-dollar special interests and shirk their responsibilities, rather than actually look to solve the funding problem. And yes, the same dance is going on right now during the budget impasse.

Here’s a fun fact as to why your (and my) property tax is so high: a bit more than a generation ago, the state funded about 50% of the cost of public education. Now, between expensive unfunded mandates (special education is a particular disaster) and back-door funding cuts, that number is down to about 31% (in Unionville it is a single digit). Our beloved Politburo, uh, state legislature would like you to believe local taxes keep going up because local school boards spend too much money, but the truth is that the state has continually failed in its constitutionally mandated role to fund “thorough and efficient” education.

Now, in no way, am I advocating reckless spending or giant pay increases for teachers. What I am advocating for is to allow folks in local districts like Unionville to make their own choices — through their elected school board — on what is right for their community and school district. We don’t have that now.

One needs only to look at the ongoing petty and stupid state budget negotiations — interest groups attacking legislators for cutting education spending and those same legislators using taxpayer funds to send out mailings saying “no, I didn’t” — to know the solution will never, ever come from the legislature or the governor’s mansion.

No. It’s time for this to head to the courts.

Already, six Pennsylvania school districts — all facing financial crisis — filed suit last fall against the commonwealth over its failure to fund schools. Similar suits have been filed in New York, California, Tennessee and Kansas. Suits in Washington, Texas and other states have been successful.

And while the suit clearly stands a good chance of success, imagine the impact if one of the top districts in the state — some say the top district — were to join the fight and lead. Heck, what if the top five school districts in the county joined the suit? I’m pretty sure there would be no shortage of sheer panic of our local state legislators, already looking at a brutal and potentially disastrous 2016 election cycle.

The teachers, the administration and the school board all have the same goal: continue to have an exceptional school district at a price the greater community can live with. Might not is make sense to reach a compromise one-year deal — as just done up in Neshaminy — so both sides can work together in taking on the state?

Standing on the sideline of this great fight, while bashing each other locally, does no good. We must pull together as a community and work to find real solutions.

The greater Unionville area has long been known for bravely leading when others would not. One only needs to look at all of the stops on the Underground Railroad here to know that. What might those brave folks say now about a lack of courage to fight for justice?

At the end of the day, if we in Unionville have any pretense about truly being the best district in the state, we must lead. Not just in test scores, but in character and being willing to fight for what is right.

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One Comment

  1. TE Resident says:

    What if the 5 top school districts in the county joined the suit, you ask? I think the local legislature and maybe the governor might look at, and see that not only does the Supt. in UCF makes more money than he does, as the highest paid governor in the country, but so does the ASSISTANT Supt. at his new salary of $!93,000.

    They would probably be confused why another one of the top districts would spend $4.5 on a maintenance building costing $6M to repay and hundreds of thousands of dollars on fencing that no one wants, and then turn around and sue the legislature over their failure to fund the schools.

    If I were a legislator, I might laugh. But what do I know?

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