By John Chambless
The Unionville-Chadds Ford school board had plenty to do at their March 17 meeting at Chadds Ford Elementary School, but issues of bullying and student participation fees kept taking the spotlight.
In his opening remarks, superintendent John Sanville addressed the complaint of a parent who came to last month's board meeting and read a statement accusing the district of ignoring his son's repeated bullying. Sanville said an administrative team has reviewed video from the school bus and interviewed witnesses, and determined that "the incident that occurred was not the scenario that was described at last month's meeting." Sanville said that "all parties involved understand the consequences" of the incident, which was bullying, but not to the degree described by the distraught parent, he said.
"We will continue to send the message that bullying is not welcome in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District," he said.
Later in the meeting, board member Kathleen Do addressed the bullying complaint and public comments that followed its publication in local media. "Bullying is just as much a problem for this board as it was for those who sat here 20 years ago," she said. "School districts must be vigilant." She listed several steps the district has taken to combat bullying, including the rollout of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, the tightening of administrative guidelines on bullying, a revision of all harassment policies for adults and students, and the anti-bullying websites that have been linked to each school's website, among other initiatives.
"I recognize that people with limited information can say that this district doesn't care about bullying," Do said, "But I ask that when you make these claims, please don't be a bully about it."
Board member Keith Knauss added that, "The scenario described by the parent was almost entirely inaccurate, as evidenced by both video and interviews. The incident was bullying, but beyond that, the report was almost devoid of fact."
On the issue of activity fees paid by parents of students who participate in sports or other activities, several board members took opposing viewpoints. The district is looking at raising fees for some sports in the coming year so that student fees will cover about 15 percent of the actual cost of a student's participation. Taxes cover the rest of the costs.
Board member Gregg Lindner read a statement that proposed spending property tax revenues to pay the fees instead of raising the costs for families. "Shifting the fiancial burden to users is an unacceptable approach when applied to public education," Lindner said. "For parents who already pay taxes, it's not a 'bargain' to pay more."
While Lindner said he will respectfully disagree with the board's approval of raising the fees, "I don't like the model of user fees on programs that the district funds," he said.
Knauss later countered Lindner, saying that in the case of students who participate in sports such as baseball or football, "Let's say it costs $1,000 per student, per year," he said. "Should parents of those children or their neighbors share that cost? I have no trouble asking parents to share 15 percent or more for these activities."
In board business, a bid was approved for the purchase of one 72-passenger school bus and four nine-passenger vans from Wolfington Body Company, at a net cost of $218,808. The purchases are a routine replacement.
The board approved the Chester County Intermediate Unit's 2014-15 core services budget in the amount of $18,468,620. The Chester County School District contributes $603,727, of which the Unionville-Chadds Ford share is $42,639. That amount is unchanged from last year's contribution. The CCIU's occupational education budget was also approved in the amount of $24,574,830. The Chester County School District contributes $19,213,459 for this budget, of which Unionville-Chadds Ford's share is $743,106. That is an increase of 4.7 percent over last year's contribution.
The subject of hiring outside workers for custodial positions was another subject of debate by the board. Ultimately the board approved an agreement with School Operations Services Group, Inc. (SOS), for custodial employees as part of a pilot program that is evaluating whether there is a substantial savings to the district by hiring contract workers rather than taking on full-time employees with benefits. Several board members had reservations about the pilot program, but are willing to wait and see the results. The pilot runs through June, but with only four outside employees hired through the pilot, it may need to be extended to gather more statistical information.
In her prepared remarks, Do said that she opposed the proposal for outsourcing at the board's November meeting, and continues to oppose it. "Custodians are often our first line of defense in an emergency," she said. "They know the buildings and they know how to shut down systems in an emergency. Are we outsourcing because we can't fill these positions in-house? No. The only reason to get contracted workers is to save money."
Do said she feels that hiring full-time workers with benefits creates a more loyal, invested workforce. She was the only "no" vote on approving the contract with SOS.
During public comment at the beginning of the meeting, township resident Kathy Brown addressed the board in favor of the proposed leasing of a barn on the district's property near Unionville High School. The team behind the Garage youth centers in the county are proposing building a teen recreation center in the barn, which is currently not being used by the district.
"We propose that a low-cost lease from the district is the best choice," Brown said. "The property will remain in district ownership, and there will be no costs to the district. And if the project does not succeed, the barn will be renovated and returned to the district. Preliminary discussions with the community have been positive," Brown continued. "Allowing us to use the barn would be a concrete example of a community that cares."
Board member Jeff Hellrung spoke forcefully in favor of the barn project. He pointed to the district's mission statement which is signed, he said, by former superintendent Sharon Parker, who attended the meeting but did not speak to the board.
"Part of that mission is to empower each student," Hellrung said. "And that happens through embedded programs that model ethical behavior. Would this proposed community center be consistent with that? It is based on a model that is highly successful, the facility will be on site, there is no cost to the district, and it has the support of the community. So I say yes to due diligence, yes to finding the best way to make this happen, but let's try to move forward with an eye toward making this happen. This could be a tremendous support system for our children."