Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Coming together is a beginning…

As expected, the big news at the April 30 West Chester Area School Board meeting was the adoption, by a vote of 8-1, of the  final 2012-13 budget, totaling $201,793,407.  The budget  included a 1.7% property tax increase as allowed in the PA State ACT  1 index. 

Public comment prior to the vote included suggestions to postpone the vote until the May  meeting in order to investigate more cost-saving/revenue generating measures.  One speaker expressed his feeling that  we were not experiencing a “revenue problem, but a spending crisis”.   Others acknowledged the difficulty of the decision by the board, but stressed the impact on our budget of  variables beyond local control, such as the state pension system.    While speakers on both “sides” of the issue were passionate, all public comment respected the different opinions in our community  and the need to be “civil” in our discussions and disagreements.  Congratulations to the board  and to this community for making and accepting a tough, yet realistic budget decision and moving forward in a positive and productive manner.  Always remember, our kids are watching and learning from our public behavior. Be proud, West Chester and confident that we will get through this together, supporting not only our schools, but those in the community who continue to struggle in this difficult economy.

More public comment this month on revised Policy LEB: Relations with Parent Organizations, specifically the following line: “ PTO/HSA is to remain non-partisan. School district property and facilities shall not be used for political campaigns”

A parent, involved in PTO for many years, spoke eloquently about these “relations”.   An excerpt:

“Advocating for children is not political speech. It is free speech. To advocate means - to speak on behalf of another. The role and mission of the PTO is to serve as a non-partisan organization that promotes effective policies and practices that ensure our children receive a full and comprehensive education as mandated by the PA State Constitution. The role and the duty of the School Board is to insure that public education is delivered effectively and efficiently, period.  The state legislature has made school board elections part of the political process, not the PTOs. PTOs have no political power other than as individual voters at the ballot box. What is the authority of the Board to abridge the First Amendment right of free speech; or, the rights of parents to speak on behalf of their children? Children, who cannot speak for themselves. “

Amen, sister.

I am personally grateful to the administration and the board for their diligence in beginning to update outdated and archaic policies.  I came across another classic from 1974 on the website: Policy BDBC: Community Involvement in Policy Development.  According to this policy, “any resident of the District” can suggest policies and/or revisions.  I humbly suggest that the next policy up for revision be Policy BH: Ethics and Operation of the Board.  That policy, as posted on the District website, was last updated and signed by the 1996 WC school board and appears to contain the closest thing to LEB’s “non-partisan” clause. Section 1.,5. states:                                                                                                         
                  As members of the West Chester Area Board of Education, representing all the 
                  citizens of our school district, we recognize that we must never neglect our personal
                  obligation to the community and our legal obligation to the state, nor surrender
                  these responsibilities to any person, group or organization but that, beyond these,
                  we have a moral and civic obligation to the nation which can remain strong and 
                  free only so long as public schools in the United States of America are kept
                  strong and free.   

Not only as PTO/HSA representatives, but as a community, we look  to the Board for positive leadership examples and remain optimistic  that the Board and administration will soon address the need for comparable guidelines for “non-partisan”  behavior by all board members. 

Mixed Messages:
The Board  adopted a resolution to be sent to senators, representatives  and the Governor for consideration of school employee pension system reform.   A few board members  encouraged parents to get involved by contacting their legislators about pension reform.  Wait. Parents, you say?  Riddle me this:  if a PTO leader would like to initiate a letter writing “campaign” at their school to advocate for pension reform, or perhaps even circulate an online petition, would not that individual run the risk of being out of compliance with the “no political campaigns” section of Policy LEB?   A “campaign” is simply a plan of action to cause a desired effect, in this case a campaign for the “political” issue of pension reform in the state before it bankrupts the public education system.   And let’s face it, chances are the Board would eventually be in support of some legislative proposal sponsored by some political “party”, so the issue would inevitably run the risk of being “partisan”.  Come to think of it,  the Board’s prevailing wage resolution cited a proposal by Representative Kampf, a Republican, so should parents refrain from gathering support for that cause? 

In the end parents, if you do want to write letters in support of any Board resolutions, perhaps the best way to remain in compliance with Policy LEB is to NOT let your legislator know that you are an involved parent active in any West Chester PTO/HSA.  Maybe something like “Save my district from the PSERs crisis and the shackles of prevailing wage…not that I’m involved the schools in any way, but please do something, thanks”.   Effective.  

All joking aside, it is difficult not to believe that the sole  desired outcome of the “political campaign” revision to Policy LEB is  to show Board dominance over particular parent groups in the community.  However, in attempting to subjugate parent advocates,  the Board has patronized and alienated many PTO/HSA representatives.  Here’s a thought:  “ PTO/HSA shall not use school property or facilities to  campaign for political candidates for election.” Such wording could quash parents just enough, while still  permitting the Board and administration to utilize their power and passion for letter writing campaigns, legislative events, etc.  It’s a win-win.

The President of the West Chester Area Education Association read a letter to the community, attesting to the fact that their organization is facing a “critical time” as contract negotiations begin with the District.  She beautifully expressed gratitude for the support of parents and community during this time: 
                    “We also want to let you know that the West Chester Area Education Association  
                     is more than just an organization for teachers and staff.  We take pride in our
                     teaching, the quality of which can be seen in the many awards our students have
                     received and the phenomenal graduation rates.  In addition, we're completely 
                     invested in the community.  Not only are we teachers, but we are your neighbors   
                     and friends.  Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns you might  
                     have.  Again, we're all in this together."                           

All are encouraged to read this powerful  and unifying message in its entirety at

It's over already?
One expected to hear someone from the Board or administration shouting the  great news that the District was awarded  a little over  $450,000 in a Keystone to Opportunity grant. Thankfully it was mentioned by a community member in closing public comment. For those unaware, Pennsylvania was one of only six states to receive  funding through the program, funds made possible through the state's  receipt of $38 million  from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program. The grant will help Pennsylvania communities  pursue a comprehensive approach to improving literacy outcomes for all children through grade 12, including limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities.  Congratulations and eternal gratitude  to all individuals involved in applying for this grant.  We look forward to seeing the positive impact it will have on the entire West Chester community.

Press releases regarding  the grant were issued by the two senators who represent my local schools, one Republican and one Democrat:

The Republican: “Education begins with the ability to read. By using technology and data-driven learning, schools can improve literacy and give more students a chance to succeed academically. These grants will help provide Coatesville and West Chester with the tools to boost reading scores and overall academic performance." 
The Democrat: “Helping children become good readers and writers is crucial to getting them on the right path in school, work and life. These funds will increase access to strong literacy instruction through innovative approaches by providing school districts the flexibility they need to identify the literacy programs best suited to meet their students needs.”

Eerily similar, yes?  Bi-partisan agreement on the importance of literacy as the foundation of academic success. It’s a start.  

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. –Henry Ford

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