‘Wingspan’ proposals show promise for community

Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Minor presented four ideas at Tuesday’s school board meeting that outlined proposed initiatives that seek to enhance the student experience. The initiatives, dubbed as ‘Wingspan’ proposals, could have a positive impact on students and the community at large if they win board support.

The four initiatives introduced include the following:

  • Enhanced bus and van travel for K-12 activities
  • Student-supported cafe at the senior high library
  • First Lego League for K-6 graders
  • Playground with support for special needs students and the disabled

The district is not mandated to implement any of these proposals, but I support that we’re at least looking into ideas that benefit our students and the broader community.

Over several years, I’ve heard from many residents stating their disappointment with recreational businesses leaving and playgrounds being torn down. Ideas to build back our community feel overdue.

Funding these initiatives would remain a concern for me but it is worth noting that all of them will be piloted or planned without the use of district funds. The tax burden is still heavy on our residents, so any use of taxpayer funds should be met with scrutiny if it comes to that.

The playground, the largest plan of the group, has estimated costs of $250,000, however the type of playground is unique to the area and may pull donations across the county to fully fund it.

I’m hopeful we can continue this trend and invest the time and energy for future ideas that benefit our schools and community.

The board will meet again for a voting meeting on Tuesday, October 19, 7 p.m. at the Lausch Administration Building.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

Dismal achievement numbers are a wake-up call

Exeter superintendent Dr. Kimberly Minor presented achievement data at the September 7th school board meeting that would make most people feel dejected.

In her report, she outlined the reading and math proficiency numbers along with the pass rates for the 2021 PSSA from grades 3 to 8.

Minor had outlined three academic goals earlier this year for the district’s 2021-24 draft comprehensive plan. Those goals called for 100% of students being proficient in literacy by the end of grade 3, 100% of students being proficient in mathematics by the end of grade 7, and 100% of students graduating on time.

The proficiency data for reading and math she provided are from the 2018-19 school year to avoid skewing data from pandemic-related factors:

Percentage not reading proficient by grade 3 (2018-19)
47% Jacksonwald (Title I school)
42% Lorane (Title I school)
31% Owatin

Grade 8 math proficiency (2018-19)
66% students not proficient in math

Minor also showed the district ranking reported by U.S. News & World Report.

The latest report shows Exeter in the bottom half of both state and national rankings. Exeter is ranked 11,725 out of 17,857 schools nationally and 466 out of 678 schools ranked in Pennsylvania.

Minor then presented the pass rate percentages (shown in the below chart) from the 2021 PSSA results, although it was noted that the pandemic may play some part in the data.

2021 PSSA pass rate

She described the problem as a systems issue and not related to any specific teacher, grade, or school building; ultimately stating the problems we’re seeing are due to poor leadership.

Minor said things are changing fast in the district and some people may feel uncomfortable, but ultimately she believes it needs to happen. “We really have to move with urgency,” she said at the meeting.

Along with changes, a progress monitoring plan will be put in place that provides monthly presentations of data to the board during the committee of the whole meetings.

This problem didn’t happen overnight, but working together now to make the needed adjustments will ultimately improve the district’s academic achievement.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

Partisan topics need engagement, but they shouldn’t become a distraction

The debate over masking and critical race theory continues to thrive in local school board meetings across the country, and Exeter Township is no exception.

The Exeter Township school board introduced their health and safety plan at the July voting meeting which calls for optional masking in school buildings at the start of the school year this fall.

The plan allows for flexibility on masking rules depending on if the state changes its stance should a rise in COVID-19 cases occur. It also follows the CDC ruling that masks be worn on school buses. Opponents present at the meeting called for the cancellation of mask mandates in both buildings and school buses in addition to the elimination of language that would allow for changes to add masking at a later time.

Critical race theory, also called CRT, has been an area of contention at recent meetings as well. The district’s equity committee has come under fire as opponents closely relate it to a CRT initiative.

CRT has its roots in graduate-level legal studies. Originating in the late 1970s, it attempts to identify systemic racism and its impact on legal systems. Recently though, CRT has morphed into a meaning that covers any subject matter that addresses anti-racist themes. Critics of CRT believe the theory and teachings promote damaging and self-demoralizing ideas to white students and that it rewrites history.

When someone asks my stance on CRT, I often ask to engage in further dialogue. Some believe I’m trying to evade their question, but it’s not a simple yes or no answer as the definition of CRT differs from person-to-person.

To my knowledge, there has been no curriculum implemented in Pennsylvania K-12 schools that advocates the teaching of critical race theory. Also, CRT, in terms of the legal academia from the seventies, is far too complex to be introduced in a K-12 school setting. Most of the bans on K-12 teaching of critical race theory that we’re seeing in other states are vague and appear more like political grandstanding.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, many districts including Exeter, introduced anti-racism initiatives. On July 21, 2020, the school board passed an anti-racism school climate resolution that specifically referenced systemic racism and authorized the creation of an equity committee.

Critics have called for greater transparency of the committee in recent months.

Dr. Sharon McLendon, school board member and liaison for the equity committee, typically provides an update of the committee’s work at the end of each voting meeting. While there is no requirement that the committee meetings document formal minutes, I think it would allow for a greater level of transparency and help address any criticism.

Lack of transparency is not just an issue with the equity committee though, I’ve often struggled to find good information on most of the school board committees as they typically aren’t recorded and finding meeting minutes and agendas is often a challenge.

I believe these are important issues that need more respectful dialogue between school board members and the community, but we must not let it dominate all conversation.

Case in point, the school board approved five new administrator positions at the July meeting but there was little discussion on why these positions were needed or what they would provide for the students.

The new administration roles are troubling when considering taxes were just increased 1.754%. The community was told the increase was needed in order to eliminate the structural deficit in three years but we’re now introducing new high-salary positions. Granted, two of the jobs are paid from ESSER grant funds through 2024.

The Pennsylvania Election Code of 1937 allows school board candidates to file nomination petitions for multiple political parties. The reason this is allowed is because school board directors are considered to be non-partisan positions.

School board members must strive to be impartial and weigh all the information to decide what’s best for students, families, and taxpayers. Most importantly, they must listen and encourage engagement with the community from all sides.

Conversations around partisan issues may be needed. We just can’t fall short on other school board discussions in the process.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

Post-primary: my thoughts and gratitude

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never seen a local school board election affected by as many polarizing issues as I did this year.

Over the course of a couple months leading to the primary election, I was asked for my opinion on a range of topics including abortion, firearms, critical race theory, lockdowns, mask wearing, and what news sources I rely on. But the most prevalent question – are you a Republican or a Democrat?

Issues normally dominated at the national stage were now flowing down to local school board elections which are typically non-partisan. The Philadelphia Inquirer even published an article on the phenomenon.

There were definitely days I had more residents telling me why they weren’t voting for me instead of why they were. A few were even downright nasty. That can certainly make the entire process discouraging.

“You need to have a thick skin to be in public office.” I’ve been told that for years by a number of people. I can personally attest to the adage now, but I knew what I was signing up for from the beginning.

At the end of election day, the outcome was overwhelming to me. As of this writing, the unofficial results show that I received a total of 2,718 votes from both parties in the primary election; 1,596 from Republicans and 1,122 from Democrats.

I walked away with the second highest number of votes in each party and the highest overall votes when compared to the candidates. I’m truly blessed for the amount of support I received.

The results guarantee my spot in the general election and I’m joined with Tim Morgan, Julia Shaffer, and Andrea Battler in that contest for four openings on the school board.

For those that voted for me in the primary, I thank you. For those that didn’t, I hope I can earn your trust.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

Exeter’s comprehensive plan pledges 3 academic goals

Dr. Eric Flamm, Director of Teaching and Learning, presented a draft of the Exeter Township School District’s 2021-24 comprehensive plan at last week’s committee of the whole meeting.

The plan aims to reach 3 academic benchmarks in the school district:

  • 100% of students proficient in literacy by the end of grade 3
  • 100% of students proficient in mathematics by the end of grade 7
  • 100% of students graduating on time

Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Minor said the grades defined by the proficiency goals are markers that define a student’s success based on comprehension of math or literacy.

The proposed final plan will be viewable by the public starting on April 21 and would be voted on by the board at the May 24 voting meeting. Flamm indicated the plan is submitted to the state in November.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

What impact will federal COVID-19 relief funds have on Exeter?

Over the past year, the federal government has allocated billions in relief funds to the nation’s school districts as part of an effort to help recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

Three separate funds have been designated known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. ESSER funds are distributed to states based on each state’s proportionate share of Title I-A funding. The funds are intended to support COVID-19 response efforts and may be spent on a wide range of allowable activities.

Despite the obvious monetary benefit, the funds seek to give districts the ability to address a multitude of different initiatives. Learning loss suffered from the pandemic is one major push; and 20% of the money distributed from the last round of funding must be used to cover it.

The following amounts were allocated for the Exeter Township School District:

  • ESSER I (May 2020)
    • $355,585
    • Must be spent by September 2022
  • ESSER II (January 2021)
    • $1,524,528
    • Must be spent by September 2023
  • American Rescue Plan (ARP) ESSER (March 2021)
    • $3,158,380
    • Minimum of 20% of funds must be used to address learning loss
    • Must be spent by September 2024

Based on their ESSER II grant application, the school district plans to use the $1.52 million in funds for summer learning, benchmarking, and HVAC improvements.

A budget presentation is slated for the school board’s committee of the whole meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 6, at 6 p.m. I’m hoping to get a better picture of the pandemic’s impact in the coming weeks as the district prepares to review its proposed final budget for the 2021-22 school year.

Click here for more information on Pennsylvania ESSER funds.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

Exeter’s graduation rate deemed ‘a crisis’

In November, Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Minor and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Winters gave a presentation to the Exeter Township School District Cirriculum Committee on the district’s academic performance and current challenges.

The presentation focused on the 5-year performance of literacy and math in individual schools and the performance across the entire district.

Beyond performance, Winters emphasized the issue he saw with the district’s graduation rate. Out of 18 school districts in the county, Exeter is tied with Schuylkill Valley and Twin Valley at 15th place; meeting a 2019-20 graduation rate of 90%.

“That’s a major concern. In fact, I’m going to take it a step further and say it’s a crisis,” Winters said.

In attempt to combat this, the district is rolling out a targeted support and improvement (TSI) plan.

Winters said some focus needs to be directed towards students with an individualized education program, or IEP. Specifically, he called out concerns with attendance and the graduation rate within the sub-group.

In the 2018-19 school year, he indicated out of all students with IEPs, 80.5% attended school on a day-to-day basis. He stressed the importance of bringing that number to 100% for these students.

Winters also indicated that the graduation rate for students with an IEP was actually 74% compared to the overall rate of 90%.

Looking at the data, you can also see some concern with falling literacy proficiency among the earlier grades at each of the elementary schools. The district believes focusing on addressing literacy proficiency in early years will also help with the district’s long-term goals.

I appreciate data before subjectivity, and the information presented at the meeting was eye-opening.

The presentation can be viewed here: https://go.boarddocs.com/pa/exeter/Board.nsf/files/BV83BE060F73/$file/November%2010%2C%202020%20CC%20Mtg%20-%20Data%20Presentation.pdf

Video of the meeting can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQFIT7BroBw

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

The pension problem

“What will you do to fix the teachers pension?”

That’s one question I was asked since announcing my candidacy. The unfortunate truth is that any pension reform needs to be solved in Harrisburg.

The problem essentially boils down to the high employer contribution rate. The board for the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) just approved an increased employer contribution rate of 34.94% for the 2021-22 school year; up from the current rate of 34.51%.

While it is a statewide problem, it hits especially close to home when looking at the impact it has on the school district’s budget.

Contributions to the pension plan from the Exeter Township School District were $10,659,000 for the year ending June 30, 2020 according to the 2019-20 audit report by Maillie LLP. That accounted for approximately 13.5% of the school year’s budget.

Considering the employer contribution rate was just 5.64% ten years ago, you can imagine the impact the increases have had on school district budgets this past decade. Unfortunately, the reduction of rates from 1997 to 2011 are partially to blame for the problems we’re seeing today.

I don’t fault the teachers and staff. They didn’t cause the mess that we’re seeing with PSERS and they actively contribute to their plans which can range anywhere from 5.25% to 10.3% of their payroll depending on when they began paying into the system.

As much as I’d love to solve the problem, the issue ultimately needs to be tackled by our state representatives.

For more information on PSERS contribution rates, visit https://www.psers.pa.gov/FPP/Publications/General/Pages/Employer-Contribution-Rates.aspx.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.

Six years later, we’re still talking about the new transportation center

The district’s transportation center? Yes, we’re still talking about it.

The need for a new bus transportation center resurfaced again last year because of the continued deterioration of the current facility that is located on Kerr Road. The building was constructed in 1974, and as you can imagine, it isn’t up to current code.

You might recall, the district did attempt to move forward with building a new facility along Boyertown Pike in 2015, adjacent to Owatin Creek Elementary. The call for a new building goes all the way back to 1999, but this was the first major action to try and make it happen.

The Boyertown Pike initiative ultimately failed to gain the zoning approval for a variance that was needed but also brought about legal appeals between the school district and the zoning hearing board, at the taxpayer’s expense.

The same issues at the Kerr Road facility that are spoken about in recent board meetings, are the same issues that were talked about in 2015.

Recent discussions about the need for a new facility narrowed to two options – build a new facility on the land adjacent to Owatin Creek Elementary with an estimated price tag of $3.5 to $4 million, or raze the existing building at Kerr Road and construct a new facility in its current footprint for approximately $1.5 million. With a rebuild at Kerr Road, some of the vehicles would need to be parked at a different location.

For now, the board is pursuing the cheaper rebuild option but nothing is set in stone yet.

Some proponents of taking the more expensive route say the taxpayers will only incur a few additional dollars to their tax bill. That kind of mentality is essentially why the district faces financial challenges today.

The district had also pursued a transportation outsourcing study in 2019; only receiving two bids from six outsourcing companies that indicated interest. Outsourcing was not a very popular option in the community, but ultimately the board also concluded the net cost of operations were higher outsourcing than keeping in-house. Granted, those figures did not take into account the cost of a new facility.

With all that being said, if a new facility must be constructed, I think it’s the better move to at least pursue the $1.5 million rebuild option before we even try going down the path of building near Owatin Creek again. In 2015, the idea of building next to Owatin Creek wasn’t popular and I don’t believe much has changed since then.

There’s two main reasons why I’m not in favor of building along Boyertown Pike. First, the land on the available lot is expensive to develop because of all the rock at the site. When the district began pursuing this option back in 2014, it was going to cost over a million dollars just in land development. Second, the $2-3 million that could be saved by rebuilding at Kerr Road is money that would be better spent addressing any capital projects at the existing school buildings where the students spend the majority of their time.

While the reconstruction on Kerr Road sounds more appealing at a lower price tag of $1.5 million, we’ll need to wait and see if that is the true cost. In 2015, we saw the $3.4 million construction estimate increase to nearly $4 million when costs were further evaluated.

This topic is still alive and anything could change at a moment’s notice, but for now, all signs point to a Kerr Road rebuild.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.