By John Chambless

Staff Writer

With a packed agenda, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board covered a lot of ground in a four-hour work session on Monday evening.

Board member Jeff Hellrung was appointed unanimously to fill the unexpired term as the board's representative to the Chester County Intermediate Unit board until June 30, 2014. The position had been  left vacant after the Oct. 21 resignation of former board member Holly Manzone. The board decided to not fill Manzone's position on the school board, since new members are arriving in December during a reorganization.

The board briefly discussed the district's achievement report, a comprehensive list of how the district's six schools are performing. The complete report will be presented at the board's Nov. 18 meeting.

School safety was addressed by Rick Hostetler, the supervisor of buildings and grounds. A broad study of security issues has been conducted, including discussions with community members, county summits, building audits by the Chester County Safe Schools Program, discussions with local police and others. Hostetler said a 10-point plan has been put in place for immediate changes, and there are other measures that will be taken over the next three to five years. Details will be shared with the board, he said, but not with the public, to keep the security measures secret. "I can tell you there's a tremendous amount of work being done on a daily basis," Hostetler said.

School district superintendent John Sanville said there will be further discussions of security improvements in January. "We do an awful lot - some that people know about, and some that people don't know about," he said. The district maintains plenty of counselors and interventionists to stop potential violence, and a rigorous anti-bullying program is in place. Staff members are being trained to deal with possible violence. "All of this has been ongoing for years," Sanville said.

A long-range plan for rehabilitating the district's buildings was also presented by Hostetler. The plan was drawn up so that the board and administration could have a time frame for upgrades and repairs that might be needed, so that big-ticket fixes don't come as a surprise. Drawn from detailed studies by architects and engineers, the plan details a range of costs for the upkeep and repairs, and prioritizes them according to need. The focus of the plan is on Hillendale Elementary School and Patton Middle School, since they have had the least amount of work done in recent years. Hostetler said Hillendale hasn't had a major upgrade since 1987, and Patton Middle School last had significant work done in 1997.

"This is a first draft, but it's pretty comprehensive," Hostetler said. Tasks are ranked according to priority, with optional items - such as a reconfiguration of the middle school's main entrance, and the replacement of the 1987 carpeting at Hillendale - left as possibilities to consider.

Board member Jeff Hellrung said, "I'm pleased to see that there are no big surprises. This should be manageable over 10 years, and we can work it into our budgets." The total cost for the entire list is $17 million to $20 million, spread over 10 years, Hellrung said.

Robert Cochran, the director of business and operations, laid out several ways the district could pay for the fixes and upgrades, while working within the Act 1 Index.

Board member Kathleen Do introduced six new courses that will be offered at Unionville High School - Global Science, which is intended to help students meet Keystone test requirements; and a traditional online geometry class that will be offered, for a fee, over the summer. The school's fitness center will be adding four new courses as well. No new teachers are required for the new classes, she said.

The board discussed possible changes to the fees that students in the high school and middle school pay to participate in sports. Students pay a small percentage of the cost, with taxpayers and booster organizations making up the rest of the cost. Cochran outlined a plan to make the fees paid by students more equitable for everyone, but the result would be some fee increases in some sports.

"I'm very concerned about some of these fees, some of which are doubling," board member Gregg Lindner said.

"Some families may have a child quit playing sports because they can't afford a new fee," Do added.

The participation fee change is a line item in the upcoming budget, and can be altered as the budget process continues, Sanville said. No increases will take place until next fall at the earliest.

Two large expenditures were discussed, and will be voted on at next month's meeting. The board will vote on seeking bids for the replacement of several vans, at a cost of $310,000. The board will also vote next week to ratify the purchase of new oven equipment for Patton Middle School. The kitchen is making do with one partially operational oven since the 18-year-old equipment broke two weeks ago. The purchase and installation of the equipment, at a cost of $43,615.92, was fast-tracked because of the immediate need. It will be paid for out of cafeteria funds.

Next week, the board will vote on creating a position for an assistant wrestling coach at the high school, along with the hiring of a winter track coach. Both sports are "no-cut" activities with high participation, and the additional staff is needed for student safety. The money for the positions is available in the budget because of retirements and resignations elsewhere.

The issue of contract services was the topic of a long discussion. The administration is proposing using contract workers to fill support staff vacancies, such as secretarial, clerical and paraprofessional workers. The issue was first raised at the Oct. 21 board meeting, but several board members objected to the pilot program, saying they were concerned that workers without health insurance would be working alongside full-time employees with insurance and retirement plans.

"I'm surprised that we're voting on these two contracts," said board member Leticia DeWilde.  "Other districts have negotiated with their support staff first, before outsourcing. I think we got ahead of ourselves. I know we're trying to save money on health care and retirement, but I feel more comfortable doing these hires internally."

Kathleen Do proposed waiting until January, when new board members are in place, to vote on the contract services issue, but Hellrung said, "I think some of the concerns are valid, and this may not work out. … But the public wants us to stick to the Act 1 Index and constrain our budget. In that environment, if we have people who are fully qualified to work here, do we want to tell them no? We do not have unlimited resources. Let's trust our superintendent to hire contracted employees where it seems to make sense, and evaluate it down the line."

Sanville proposed keeping the number of contract hires to 10 percent by category, which the board seemed comfortable with.

"This is a pilot program," said Ken Batchelor, the assistant to the superintendent. "The administration can decide to change it, or eliminate it, based on costs and the quality of the work."

Board president Eileen Bushelow added, "I looked at this as a pilot program to fill vacancies, certainly not to replace anyone."

The board will vote on approving the new contracts at next week's meeting. But Do said, "I want to value all the employees working in our district. I'm sad to see Unionville-Chadds Ford moving in this direction. I will not be supporting this, and I will be monitoring this pilot program carefully."

Sanville led a discussion of a recently completed study of the district's communications, speaking by phone with David Voss, of Voss and Associates, who prepared recommendations for improving the way the district interacts with the community.

Voss said he met with a wide array of community members, administrators, students and board members in preparing his suggestions. Among his findings were that the community has a perception that the district doesn't listen to them, that the schools "are like a private school," and that "have-nots" in the community are shut out of the schools. Voss recommends a beefed-up social media presence, including short videos or podcasts available online, mobile apps for parents to get instant updates, getting distinct "branding" for each school, and creating a communications plan in place for how to handle a crisis. A comprehensive print piece is needed, he said, for use by realtors or people moving into the area who want to know what Unionville-Chadds Ford schools have achieved, and what they offer incoming students. No such printed material exists now.

The whole overhaul of communications was priced at $65,500, but that figure can be reduced, depending on which aspects the district decides to purchase from Voss and Associates.

"I'd suggest a critical review of each line item, and then we can decide what we really need," said board member Jeff Leiser. The board seemed to agree, saying that the total package price was too high. Board members acknowledge, however, that when the issue of communications came up previously, it was decided to do much of the work in-house. The remaining gaps show the flaws in that approach, and the board seemed to think that some professional outside help is needed.

At next month's policy committee meeting, to be held at 6 p.m. in the district meeting room, there will be a public discussion of a policy that further defines the district's residency requirements, Do said, as well as a discussion of the district's commercialism policy. She invited the community to attend. The board's regular public meeting will follow in the high school's LGI room. For more information, visit www.ucfsd.org.