Do you believe that the Lower Merion School Board is breaking the law? That is precisely the concern that 68 residents expressed in their November 9, 2006 letter to the board. So what action has the board taken to respond to these citizens? So far, the board has simply ignored them. But, while ignoring certain members of the public has been routine for some members of this board, ignoring the law is another matter!
So what are these citizens concerned about? They are concerned about a sole source contract that the board awarded to a local lobbying firm to "sell" the board's capital program. The citizen's November 9, 2006 letter to the board presents a complete explanation of why the board's actions are in violation of Act 1 (click here for the letter with exhibits). But the history is equally important.
On September 18, 2006, the board voted to award a sole source contract to a firm they referred to as a "communications" firm. The firm to which they referred is Ceisler Jubelirer, who by their own words is really an "issue advocacy" firm, otherwise known as lobbyists (see www.cj-llc.com for what they say about themselves). Superintendent Jamie Savedoff, along with board president Larry Rosenwald and board members Marcia Taylor, Joss Gelfand, and Lisa Pliskin argued that this contract needed to be awarded without delay, as it was clear that the board needed a "public relations" firm (immediately corrected to "public information" firm) to "sell" (the word was later retracted by Lisa Pliskin, who stated: "I didn't mean to say sell") the capital program. According to Doug Young, the district's Director of School and Community Relations, copies of the meeting are available from the district (See his reply posted under the title "Resident Questions the Board's Intent; Board Defends Using Students to Promote its Agenda" elsewhere on this site). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I urge you to obtain a copy so that you can see for yourself how this board operates. You will find it quite disturbing!
After a strained debate without much eye contact, the board voted 5 to 3 to award the $5,000 per month contract to Ceisler Jubelirer for a trial three-month period. So what exactly was Ceisler Jubelirer hired to do? To find out, we requested via the "Sunshine Act" a copy of the district's contract with Ceisler Jubelirer. The request and the Agreement that we received in response to our request are Exhibits A and B of the November 9th letter. Exhibit C is the applicable pages from Act 1. What you find when you compare the Ceisler Agreement with the law is quite alarming.
Act 1 clearly states that: "No public funds may be used to urge any elector to vote for or against a referendum or be appropriated for political or campaign purposes." The referendum to which the act refers is the referendum that will be required under Act 1 when a budget exceeds the inflationary index, which is precisely what will happen when the district has to factor in the debt service for the New Lower Merion High School into its 2008-09 operating budget. The Board has made this reality of Act 1 quite clear. And Act 1 is clear that public funds may not be used to urge the citizens to vote for the passage of this so-called back-end referendum.
Yet, despite this clear prohibition, the stated purpose of the Ceisler Agreement is to develop “strategic communications recommendations for the [LMSD] capital improvement plans in light of a back end referendum...” The stated goal is to “garner and solidify community and legislative support for LMSD’s capital improvement projects.” The stated strategy is “centered upon gaining community support for LMSD’s capital improvement projects now that HB39 [aka Act 1] has been signed into law…” They even go so far as to state that they will "manage...grassroots advocacy campaigns including a letters to the editor effort." Simply put, the stated purpose, goals, and strategy that make up the District’s Agreement with Ceisler Jubelirer, all directly violate the express prohibitions of Act 1.
But this board is simply unflappable. Consider this: on November 2nd, a draft of what became the November 9th letter to the board was "leaked" to the board without the knowledge of the original drafters. On November 3rd, the board send letters to the homes of the four people whose names were listed (w/o addresses) on the letter, supplying them with Superintendent Savedoff's October 23rd letter to Larry Ceisler, which was included as Exhibit D of the November 9th letter. The Superintendent's letter was not turned over with the documents pertaining to the Sunshine Act request, which were picked up on the morning of October 23rd. So why did Superintendent Savedoff wait until October 23rd to write a letter to Larry Ceisler confirming that the board "has accepted" his proposal for services commencing on October 1st, an action that the board had actually taken over a month earlier, on September 18th? Shouldn't that letter have been written in late September or, at the latest, on October 1st? Of course, if it had been written even a day earlier than October 23rd, it would have had to have been turned over under the Sunshine Act request. But, it wasn't. So when the board saw our draft on November 2nd, what were they to do? There was no letter dated prior to October 23rd that dealt with our concerns. In fact, the earliest that such a letter could have existed would be October 23rd.
When you evaluate the above time line, you come to one of two conclusions. One possible conclusion is that on October 23rd, it occurred to Jamie Savedoff that he had neglected to let Larry Ceisler know that more than a month earlier the board had accepted Ceisler Jubelirer's August 25th proposal and so he quickly dashed off a letter advising Ceisler of the precise Act 1 language that we would later quote in a letter to the board, leaving it up to Ceisler to decide if his own actions broke the law. The other possibility is that, on November 2nd, to counter a challenge that he now knew was coming, the Superintendent composed a letter showing that he was way ahead of us, but not more ahead than October 23rd or we would have cried foul on the Sunshine Act request. Which of these conclusions is correct? Like Board President Larry Rosenwald likes to say, we'll let the public decide!
Bottom line: If you believe that, despite being alerted to this from the start, the board has spent your money illegally, show up at the December 18th board meeting to hear the board's position on this directly from them. And if you miss the meeting, watch for it on TV6 in the next few weeks. I believe its time for a change. And I believe the upcoming primary elections are the vehicle for this change. Before you vote, check out the facts. It's time to start paying attention so that you and your neighbors make the right choice in the Spring. Your making a huge investment in the future of our community. Spending money on lobbyist rather than teachers will not pay the dividends that our children deserve.
Bill Manginelli, Narberth
UPDATE: At the December 18, 2006 School Board meeting, the District's solicitor Ken Roos agreed that the services outlined in the Ceisler Jubelirer agreement were, in fact, prohibited under Act 1. However, he went on to state that it is OK because Ceisler Jubelirer didn't perform these services and the District intends on writing a proper contract agreement. In reply to more recent Right-to-Know requests, we have been told there is no new contract. So why do we continue to see Larry Ceisler at our Board meetings? Could it be he is donating his time free of charge? Come to a Board meeting and ask for yourself as the Superintendent recently made it clear that he will no longer answer our questions!