Monday, February 8, 2016

School Board Halfway to Government Transparency

If everything goes as planned, The Mercury today will publish a story about the Pottstown School District's attempts to get the community more involved in the decisions that affect us most.

It is an effort to be lauded and encouraged.

There is now an on-line (and paper) survey asking for input on what we all think are important characteristics in a new schools superintendent, a decision to be made in the coming months.

But the district is asking for other input as well.

In a move that seemed to come out of left field, the district also announced last week that it is setting aside time in upcoming Monday board meetings specifically to seek input from staff, students, parents, residents, taxpayers and the odd farm animal on ways the district can save money and avoid waste.

This too is to be lauded and encouraged.

But ....

As I have argued before, HOW you do something is as important as WHAT you do.

If your WHAT is ending world hunger, it sounds good until you say the HOW of accomplishing this is to kill off half the world's population.

HOW matters.

And HOW the district went about inviting residents to come to meetings to share their ideas for saving money is itself a demonstration of how novel this whole government transparency thing is to Pottstown schools.

I attend every school board meeting. (Luckily, I get paid to do that, so the pain of the enterprise is somewhat muted.)

To the best of my recollection, there was never any vote to begin this public cost-saving initiative nor, worse yet, any public discussion of it. It just kind of happened.

That's a no-no.

What is supposed to happen in an open and transparent government is things get discussed publicly and voted on publicly so the public knows what its elected officials -- in this case the group of people in charge of the largest share of your property tax bill -- is doing.

Right now, those considerations still get treated as an after-thought and an annoyance among Pottstown school officials.

("Oh there's that freakin' reporter again, going on about secret meetings. Why can't he give us credit for trying to do something right?)

He's trying.

But when I asked the long-suffering Community Relations Director John Armato HOW this decision to start actively pursuing public input on the budget came about, he got back to me and, with a knowing sigh, said he was told that "it came up in the July board workshop, and was again discussed in the January workshop."

See, this is a problem.

These "workshop" meetings are closed to the public. (I think you see where I'm going with this.)

Sometimes called "retreats," they are supposed to be meetings at which information is presented to board members but, so as not to violate Pennsylvania's admittedly feeble Open Meetings law, "deliberation" is not supposed to occur.

But if things are being "discussed" and "decisions" are being made, that's pretty much the definition of "deliberation."

I asked Paula Knudson, Director of Government Affairs/Legislative Counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association if  this was the Open Meetings Law violation I thought it was.

She replied "you can call it a 'workshop,' you can call it 'a garden party' or you can call it 'Bob's Secret Santa,' if you want.' If a quorum of the school board is getting together and discussing public business and, as it sounds like happened here, and making a decision about a policy change, it has to happen in public session."

And she agreed with me that it was "sad and ironic," that the school board held a meeting that was likely illegally closed to the public in order to foster being more open with the public at its meetings.

And sure, you might argue, "no harm, no foul;" that the board is moving in the right direction, and I'd agree.

But consider that for many of us, there is a little voice inside our heads saying "So sure, we know about this and it seems like a good thing. But what ELSE did they deliberate or decide that we don't know about?"

Why undo the impression that you're trying to be more open by deciding to be more open in secret? Fulminating reporters aside, doesn't that defeat your purpose?

After all, to give credit where credit is due, after being criticized for holding a closed door executive session to hear a proposal from the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit on conducting the district's superintendent search, the board did a do-over and held it again, but in public at the last meeting.

And more incredibly at the last meeting, board members Tom Hylton and Amy Francis said they want to invite the public into "negotiation sessions as we talked about a few months ago" (something which the scold in me feels compelled to point out this sounds like an improper policy discussion in an executive session...)

But still, if that means publicly open negotiations with the teachers union, that would be revolutionary given that discussing labor negotiations is one of the four reasons the board is actually ALLOWED to exclude the public.

So consider all this a helpful reminder in a teachable moment, rather than my usual vitriolic foot-stamping about talking the talk but not walking the walk.

After all, Sunshine Week -- in which open government is celebrated -- is just a month away (March 13 through March 19), so why not study up now?

There are only four topics of discussion from which the public can be legally excluded: labor negotiations, real estate purchases or leases, personnel discussions of a specific individual (very important that last part), or identifiable legal issues, particularly one that has actually been filed in a court.

Otherwise, it has to be in public.

Its not as if you have hordes of people busting down the doors to come to your board meetings folks.

Best rule of thumb is not to call them "workshops," or "retreats" or "information sessions" or even "Bob's Secret Santa" and best not to exclude the public.

I mean the board most often holds these 'workshop' meetings on a Saturday morning anyway. If no one comes to your regular meetings, why are you worried who will show up on a Saturday?

Hold them Saturday morning, don't close them to the public and if the public shows up? So what?

Maybe you'd get some of that input you're looking for.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Pottstown Health and Wellness Foundation Announces Latest Grant Round Worth $1.5 Million

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation.

The Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation has announced its latest round of grant awards. 

The foundation seeks grant proposals that are consistent with our identified mission of improving health outcomes in the Pottstown region. 

Within its mission, the foundation has established priorities which grants are required to serve.

The fall 2015 grant round includes 39 grants, totaling $1,481,042 awarded to non-profit organizations, schools, and municipalities. 

These grants are funded according to the following priorities:

PRIORITY #1: Healthy Behaviors - General (One grant totaling $31,200).
Pottstown Mercury Foundation: Fit for Life

PRIORITY #1A: Promoting healthy living through nutrition, activities and programs in public and private schools to reduce obesity and encourage healthy living

There were no requests for Priority #1A during this grant round.

PRIORITY #1B: Improving parks, programming and the built environment to increase access to physical activity. (Six grants were awarded totaling $250,353).
Borough of Pottstown: Bike Pottstown Shelter at Manatawny Green
Borough of Pottstown: Memorial Park Playground Replacement and Site Improvement
Parent Booster USA Inc.: Replacement weightlifting equipment and room refurbishment for
Daniel Boone High School
Pottstown School District: Grigg Memorial Field Lights Matching Grant
Preservation Pottstown Inc.: Community Garden Expansion and Capacity Building
South Coventry Township: T. S. Elliott Site

PRIORITY #1C: Creating and promoting social networks involving healthy living
(Seventeen grants were awarded totaling $456,212).
Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos Inc.: Dancing Dribbling Fusion
Communities in Motion: Traffic Safety Town Program
Council On Chemical Abuse Inc.: LifeSkills Training for Daniel Boone School District
Developmental Enterprises Corporation/Pottstown Training Center: Healthy Eating,
Healthy Living Family Services of Montgomery County: Building Resilience Among Teen Parents
Helping To Inspire Positive And Healthy Opportunities For Progress: HIP HOP Health
Maternity Care Coalition: Early Head Start (Pottstown)
Pottstown Area Police Athletic League: General Operating & PAL Youth Programs for Health, Wellness & Leadership Development
Pottstown Area Seniors' Center: Prime Time Health
Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority: Pottstown Outdoor Farmer's Market Pottstown FARM
Schuylkill River Athletic Club: C.R.E.W. Community Recreational Water athletics program
The Pennsylvania State University Philanthropic Fund: Pathway to Quality: Better Kid Care
Professional Development Support
The Pennsylvania State University Philanthropic Fund: After School Programs at Park Springs Apartments
Triskeles Foundation: Food For Thought
Wellness Council of Boyertown: Complete Wellness for All
West Pottsgrove Township: Establishment of Aquatic Programs at West Pottsgrove Twp. Community Pool
Young Audiences New Jersey & Eastern Pennsylvania: Jump with Jill Nutrition Education Initiative

PRIORITY #2: PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH (Eight grants were awarded totaling $522,037).
Camphill Village Kimberton Hills: Aging in Community (Funded by PAHWF East Auxiliary).
Carson Valley Children's Aid: Women's Voices/Healthy Choices
Child Advocacy Center of Montgomery County, d/b/a Mission Kids: Fostering the Resilient Child through Family Advocacy and Forensic Interviews (Partially funded by PAHWF East Auxiliary).
Child, Home & Community: Pottstown Adolescent Prenatal Parenting and Support Continuum
Creative Health Services, Inc.: Healthy Weight, Healthy Families Program
Health Care Access: Health Care Access Programs
Montgomery County Community College Foundation: Dental Sealant Day
Visiting Nurse Association Community Services, Inc. (VNA): Personal Navigator Program with Expanded Legal Support

PRIORITY #3: STRENGTHEN NON-PROFITS (Seven grants were awarded totaling $221,240).
First Baptist Church: Handicap accessible renovations requested by CCLU
Foundation for Pottstown Education: Donor Perfect Fundraising and Donor Management Software
Pottstown Area Industrial Development Inc.: PAID Annual Operations - 2015 supplemental
Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities: Program Support for Healthy and Sustainable Living and Capacity Support for Organizational Sustainability
Pottstown Karate Club: Capacity Building/Program Management
Royersford Outreach, Inc.: General Operating Funds for Building and Program
YWCA Tri-County Area: Mission Impact Support

The Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation’s mission is to enhance the health and wellness of area residents, providing education, funding and programs that motivate people to adopt healthy lifestyles. Visit for more information about the Foundation. Discover Pottstown area’s online community Mission Healthy Living to learn and share great information on how to lead a healthier life. You can also follow Mission Healthy Living on Facebook and Twitter and the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation on Pinterest and LinkedIn.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

First Niagara Donates $20,000 to Cluster Program

From left: Renee Murdock, First Niagara’s Community Development Officer-Eastern PA; Allan Altschull, Pottstown Cluster Board President, Bob Rettinger, First Niagara’s Branch Manager-East End/Pottstown; Barbara Wilhelmy, Pottstown Cluster Executive Director; Mary Ann Glocker, Pottstown Cluster Board VP; & Tamera Hrynkow, First Niagara Area Manager.

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by a public relations firm for First Niagara Bank.

On Ja. 28, First Niagara provided a $20,000 grant to Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities to support the Understanding Poverty to Plan and Persevere. 

Through interfaith cooperation, the Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities addresses the basic needs of persons within the greater Pottstown community, while assisting with their spiritual and social needs. 

Their programs and referrals are coordinated to help individuals make real progress in moving from dependency to productive self-sufficiency.

Understanding Poverty to Plan and Persevere is an intensive sixteen week workshop to educate persons living in poverty on how to recognize the cultural and economic differences between people living in poverty and people of middle class status. 

With this knowledge, persons in poverty can develop realistic plans for achieving stability. 

It is the goal of the program to equip participants to reduce dependence and increase self-sufficiency.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Valentine's Day Colonial Style at Pottsgrove Manor

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by Pottsgrove Manor. 

They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

Connie Unangst
If that's true, it is also true that the way to a woman's heart is paved with chocolate. 

On Saturday, Feb. 13, a cooking demonstration at Pottstown's own Pottsgrove Manor will show how our colonial forebears handled chocolate.

The demonstration will be held between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for demonstrations of open-hearth cooking with the program “Valentine’s Day, the Colonial Way.”

In the colonial era, before the invention of the techniques that give chocolate the smooth consistency people know and love today, chocolate was usually consumed as either a hot beverage or as an ingredient in various “made” dishes. 

In this program, historic cook Connie Unangst will prepare a variety of 18th-century recipes using chocolate. 

Visitors can stop in the kitchen at any time during the hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to see what’s cooking. Guided tours of the manor will also be offered on the hour throughout the day, and the site’s museum shop will also be open. 

There is a suggested donation of $2 per person for this program.

Visitors can also take a guided tour of Pottsgrove Manor during regular museum hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

Tours begin on the hour. 

The last tour of the day begins at 3 p.m.
Pottsgrove Manor is located at 100 West King Street near the intersection of King Street and Route 100, just off Route 422. 

Pottsgrove Manor is operated by Montgomery County under the direction of the Parks, Trails, and Historic Sites Division of the Assets and Infrastructure Department. 

For more information, call 610-326-4014, or visit the website at

Like Pottsgrove Manor on Facebook at

Thursday, February 4, 2016

North End Firehouse (Not) Feeling the Heat

The squirt 69 pumper is one of Pottstown's primary responders in case of a fire. It could be damaged if the boiler at the North End firehouse is not repaired quickly.

Wednesday night's borough council meeting covered a number of interesting topics, from a tax delinquent landlord, to domestic violence to street sweeping.

But the matter of the most urgency is the fact that the heater at the North End Firehouse has given up the ghost.

North End's Assistant Chief Dave Saylor came before council last night to report that the boiler at the firehouse, now more than 30 years old, is "leaking all over the place."

Early cost estimates to replace it and the non-functioning air handler in the bay are expected to come in between $30,000 and $40,000 -- money the fire company does not have in its maintenance budget.

Recognizing that failure of the heating system could not only damage the firehouse itself, but the valuable pumper that resides in the bay, council opted to act fast and to help the fire company with the money.

"If this were in the summer, it would not be an immediate problem," said Council President Dan Weand. "We need to act quickly."

The details of that help will be worked out in the next few days between staff and the fire company

No doubt, extra contributions from anyone able to do so would be particularly welcome in this crisis.

In the meantime, here are the Tweets from the fest of the meeting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Scenes of the Schuylkill at Valley Forge

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by the Schuylkill River National Heritage Area.

A new art exhibit at Valley Forge National Historical Park explores the varied beauty and character of the Schuylkill River region.

Consisting of 16 pieces of art and photography by 15 different artists, the Scenes of the Schuylkill selections will be on display in the park’s visitors’ center through Feb. 26. 
"Listening Woods" by Helen Mirkil.

It is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The exhibit represents a selection of art from the larger 12th Annual Scenes of the Schuylkill Juried Art Show, which was held last fall at the Montgomery County Community College West Campus Gallery in Pottstown. 

Most works in the show are available for sale, and a portion of all proceeds benefits the Schuylkill River Heritage Area.

The 16 pieces on display at Valley Forge comprise the show’s winning entries and other selected works. They include a variety of mediums and styles, with subjects ranging from river views, cityscapes, woodland scenes, barns and more. 

Presented together they create a striking exhibition that highlights the diversity of scenic beauty found throughout the region.

“We are grateful to our partners at Valley Forge National Historical Park for displaying a selection from Scenes of the Schuylkill at the park,” said Schuylkill River Heritage Area Executive Director Silas Chamberlin. “This enables us to expand the reach of our annual art show and draws attention to the many talented artists whose work is deeply rooted in the Schuylkill River valley.”
Memento Mori by Jonathan Bond.

Scenes of the Schuylkill is an annual art show that celebrates the Schuylkill River region through art. Now in its 12th year, it is organized each fall by the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, a National and State Heritage Area headquartered in Pottstown. 

The 2015 show included 92 works and ran through November and December at Montgomery County Community College West Campus Gallery in Pottstown. All works were carefully selected from 163 submissions by juror Charles Stainback, Director of Art at the Berman Museum, Ursinus College.

The Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area, managed by the non-profit Schuylkill River Greenway Association, uses conservation, education, recreation, cultural and historic preservation and tourism as tools for community revitalization and economic development. For more information visit

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Building Bridges in Douglas (Montgomery), Literally and Figuratively

Photo by Evan Brandt

Justin Keller, recreational circuit rider for the Pottstown Metropolitan Area Regional Planning Committee, left, asks the Douglass Township Supervisors if they would like help with grant writing or planning for the township's open spaces and parks development plans.

I had a choice between at least three township meetings last night -- Upper Pottsgrove, Lower Pottsgrove or Douglass (Mont.)

I chose Douglass because A) Township Manager Peter Hiryak was kind enough to e-mail me the agenda ahead of time; B) the agenda for Upper and Lower, as shown on their respective web sites both seemed equally non-consequential; and C) I had not been to Douglass since Anthony Kuklinski was named the chairman of the board of supervisors.

The meeting was over in a half hour, but there were updates on how Douglass handled the Winter Storm Jonas; what regional recreation planner Justin Keller can do for Douglass and what's going on with the County Line Road Bridge project.

Read the Tweets and be updated: