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U-CF board member raises objection to tuition reimbursements

09/22/2015 10:11AM ● Published by J. Chambless

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

During the Sept. 21 work session for the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Boad, board member Keith Knauss read a statement that was not part of the agenda, objecting to what he says are unnecessary courses being taken by district teachers.

"I got a report about courses taken,” Knauss said. “We spent $240,000 on tuition reimbursements for 220 courses that teachers took. Of course, the district encourages teachers to take these courses because we believe it results in more effective teaching. In addition to reimbursing the tuition, we increase teacher pay when they earn advanced degrees and complete academic coursework. In our pay system, teachers with bachelor degrees at Step 16 earn $75,000 a year, while teachers with a masters degree at the same level, plus 60 extra credits, would earn $103,000. Plus, there's a strong financial incentive of a $28,000 annual increase in salary.

“By the way, this is unusual in the private sector, where companies will typically pay for tuition, but a salary increase is not guaranteed,” Knauss continued. “A shadow industry has emerged to game the system. This industry offers a number of three-credit courses that add little to teaching effectiveness, courses that Dr. Sanville would never approve if he were not constrained by contract language. These are technical education courses with names like 'Google Apps for Education,' 'Interactive White Board Technology,' and my favorite, a second level of the incredibly important course about movie making, with the title 'Apple iMovie Level 2.'

“This has got to stop,” Knauss said. “Twenty-five percent of the courses taken each year, comprising $58,000 in tuition reimbursement, fall into this ineffective category. I realize these technical education courses are part of the teacher contract, and thus we are obligated to let each teacher take four of these courses. But I'm wondering if we should strike a bargain with the union that would be beneficial to both sides: We give every teacher 12 automatic tech-ed credits, and we in return save tuition money. I'm going to throw that out there and let the school board directors chew on that. Maybe we can have some further discussion.”

School district superintendent John Sanville said, “From a historical perspective, there was a memorandum of understanding with the district and the Teachers Association in 2011 that was based on concerns similar to what Keith just raised. Out of that memorandum were some filters relative to what would be approved and what would not be approved. But a caveat was that 12 applied technology credits would be acceptable.

“I can tell you that John Nolen and Ken Batchelor and I look at teacher requests for tuition reimbursement very closely,” Sanville continued. “Where we have less perogative in what is approved is on the technology side. There are some technology courses that make sense. But there are also some technology courses that I'm not sure how they might fit with individual teacher's responsibilities.”

Knauss acknowleded that, “75 percent of the courses are challenging courses, and I think they do add to the effectiveness of teaching. But I'm also seeing a good portion of those courses that, in my mind, are highly questionable.”

The board discussed whether the district could approach area colleges and universities and negotiate a reduced rate for district teachers taking advanced courses. Sanville said he would investigate the possibility.

The ongoing renovations at Patton Middle School were addressed by Rick Hostetler, the supervisor of buildings and grounds. “I told the board last month that we anticipated having classrooms ready for the start of the school year,” he said. “Well, we did, but not by much. We finished Sunday afternoon at 2:00 and opened school on Monday morning.

“The classroom portion, which we considered phase one of this project, is complete. Phase two -- which is the main entrance, the main office, guidance, and the nurse's suite – is in progress. The interior walls should be completed by the end of October, the interior finishes by the end of November, and exterior masonry completed by mid-November. It should all be done by mid-December, and ready for move-in over winter break,” Hostetler said.

Sanville asked Hosteler to address some concerns that the middle school play would be disrupted by the renovations. “None of this work is happening in the auditorium, so there's no reason for activities in the auditorium not to proceed,” Hostetler said.

The long-standing problem with the roof of the Unionville High School auditorium – which echoes with noise during a heavy rain – is moving toward resolution, Hostetler said. “A corrective design has been determined. Pricing has been obtained from some contractors. A contractor has tentatively been selected to do the work,” he said. “The hold-up is that the insurance company has not acted to authorize the architect to hire the contrator and move ahead.

“Everyone agrees it's the architect's issue,” Hostetler said, “but the insurance company has been a little reluctant to move ahead with a $200,000 item. Provided we can get the insurance company moving, the plan is to complete the work before the end of October.” The roof will be fixed at no cost to the district. The work should be complete before the fall play is staged at Unionville, Hostetler added.

In a bit of good news, he said the rooftop air-conditioning unit for Patton Middle School is installed and working. A suitable unit that was never installed was found sitting in storage in Baltimore, and the district negotiated a bargain price for it.

“We have obtained the unit, and it is operational at the middle school,” Hostetler said. “The unit was $10,000. The curb that it sits on cost us $3,000, and there's another $3,000 in control work. For under $14,000, the unit is operational. If purchased new, it would have been $60,000 to $70,000. I think we're in good shape.”

School board member Gregg Lindner replied, “Sounds like the deal of the year for us.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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