Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Property Tax Prison of Education Funding

Invisible though they may be to the naked eye, school district borders increasingly trap low-income students in cash-strapped districts struggling to provide the resources available to their wealthier neighbors.

I sometimes wonder how the inherent unfairness that exists in education funding continues without some kind of revolution taking place.

And then I wake up and remember I live in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps because its a bit complicated and takes more than 15 minutes to understand. Perhaps because not enough people feel any kind of connection with those most adversely affected. Or maybe its just the pall of overall apathy.

Usually, people tend to wake up a bit when faced with examples of kids getting the shaft. After all, we all want the best for our children right.

Maybe we need to broaden the definition of "our children" a bit.

Not that we needed any more evidence of the way cleaving to the property tax as the primary funding source for public education undermines students not fortunate enough to live in a wealthy zip code, but there's more anyway.

It comes in the form of a new report by an organization called EdBuild, a non-profit national organization dedicating to bringing "common sense and fairness to the way states fund public schools."

Their study, "Fault Lines," takes a look at America's most segregated school district borders.

From the examination of more than 33,000 borders between school districts, they the chose the worst 50, the 50 places in America where a line on a map separates well-funded public schools from their polar opposite.

It may surprise you to know that those 50 worst school disparities are concentrated in just 14 states and Pennsylvania is tied with New York for third place. Yay.

Both states have six such districts but perhaps the most shameful part about all of it is that borders between Reading City Schools and those wealthier districts which surround it comprise four of Pennsylvania's six worst disparities.

According to the report, 48 percent of Reading's school children live in poverty.

And four of the districts which surround it -- Schuylkill Valley, Governor Mifflin, Wilson and Wyomissing -- have respective poverty rates of just 10 percent, 11 percent, 11 percent and 12 percent.

We all know these communities to some extent or another. And they are the poster children for the three sentences in the report that crystalize what Pennsylvania's property tax-reliant school funding system is doing to our children.
"Socioeconomic segregation is rising in America's schools, in part because of the structure of education funding. the over-reliance on locally raised property taxes to fund public schools gives wealthier communities the permission to keep their resources away
from the neediest schools. This creates a system of school district borders that trap low-income children in high concentrations of poverty, while more privileged peers live in better resourced communities, often right next door."
Now, if that does not describe the conditions under which Pottstown schools labor every day, then slap my face and call me Sally. Obviously, it also describes Reading.

And we need to recognize this is not just affecting "them."

According to the Center for Education Policy Analysis, more 26 million school children -- 48 percent of all school-age children living in America -- live within the bounds of a high-poverty school district, according to EdBuild's report.

That's half the children in America folks.


They are "our children."

And as the Fault Lines report sadly observes:
"Often, just on the other side of an invisible but effectively impermeable district border, their more privileged peers live in better-resourced communities and are taught in classrooms where they are able to learn and grow with abundant resources that are unencumbered by the challenges their peers face every day."
That is the reality that half America's children now face thanks to our over-reliance on property taxes and our inability to find another way fund schools.

Those challenges that children in poverty face every day -- and the impact those challenges have on their education -- are well established.

Financial insecurity, high rates of crime, mental, emotional and physical health problems that create trauma in the lives of these young Americans -- literally physiological changes that affect their brain development -- all make succeeding in school that much harder, as if they did not have enough to contend with already.

Add to that limited access to quality early education and its no wonder that they fall behind the minute they walk into their first kindergarten classroom.

To its credit, Pottstown Schools have addressed these problems -- PEAK is a state and national model for providing the best early education possible on a limited budget; and new efforts to understand and address the impacts of trauma on school children are now underway.

But Pottstown schools cannot single-handedly force the state to bridge the funding gap that still exists despite the positive step toward a fair funding formula, and as a result, the school must spend more becoming a driver of the very high-tax, low-tax base merry go-round that creates the problems they face in the first place.

As Pottstown School Board member Thomas Hylton said last week. "We can't keep going on like this. We're going to have to get creative."

And sadly, the burden for untying this Gordian knot will remain firmly on the shoulders of individual school districts so long as our well-paid state legislatures continue to spend their time worrying about meaningless minutiae who sells us our alcohol instead of how our schools are funded.

It's within Harrisburg's power to address this problem, and to do so with limited political pain, always the top consideration under the copper dome.

An effort now being championed by Pottstown Mayor Sharon Thomas and highlighted by The Mercury in May when former state representative and Monroe County Comptroller Kelly Lewis came to town to talk about an organization called Equity First.

He argued, rather convincingly, that the increase in education funding contained in the two most
recent state budgets can do the most good by setting aside a portion of the new pool to be targeted specifically to the 180 school districts in Pennsylvania which are underfunded by $937 million every year.

That would still more more money for the 320 over-funded districts, just not as much.

Pottstown by the way, is Pennsylvania's 14th most underfunded school district. It won't surprise you, given what EdBuild found, to know that Reading is number one on this unenviable list.

Pottstown School District is underfunded every year by $11 million, according to the commission report, said Lewis.

That’s more than 18 percent of this year's $59.6 million Pottstown Schools budget which, by some miracle, did not raise taxes for the second straight year.

Providing an additional share of the additional state educating funding is not a new idea.

In fact it is one of the many recommendations made last year by the fair funding commission, created by former Gov. Tom Corbett and headed by outgoing Republican Representative Mike Vereb of our own Montgomery County, suggesting as much as an additional 10 percent to the underfunded districts over 10 years to help them catch up.

But the General Assembly, in its particular myopic way, focused only on authorizing the formula, not bothering to make sure the funding was arranged to ensure the formula actually does the most good for the schools that need it most.

This allows legislators to go home to the voters and say they did the right thing by "adopting the formula" without most of those voters understanding that they gave out teaspoons to a fleet of floundering ships and said "you're welcome."

As I see it, there are only two ways this changes:
  1. Legislatively, either through the current legislators getting a clue or by replacing them with some who do.
  2. Or Pennsylvanians finally wake up to their raw deal their children are being handed and we get that revolution.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Taking A TRIP Toward a Career in Science

Photos by Evan Brandt
The morning and afternoon session groups of this summer's TRIP Initiative at Temple University were very patient about parents taking photos.

While many of us were cavorting on beaches, mowing lawns or tending to the barbecue over the summer, a group of students from throughout the region were particularly focused on the health of flies.

No, not the kind of flies you shoe away from your lemonade, or scrape off the end of a swatter, but the kind you experiment on for six weeks and then present your results to peers and other scientists.

Dr. Amanda Purdy, right, introduces Pottstown student
MaSofia Sosa 
as she begins her presentation last week.

It was all part of a program called the TRIP Initiative, which stands for Teen Research Internship Program, a comprehensive science research training program for high school students interested in scientific careers and a collaboration between Fox Chase Cancer Center and Temple University.

Oh, and by the way, it's free.

Two of the 16 students who took part in the program this summer on Temple's Philadelphia campus were rising Pottstown High School seniors Dylan Brandt (full disclosure: he's my son) and MaSofia Sosa.

All the students, some of whom were as young as 15, conducted their tests on Drosophila melanogaster, also known as common fruit flies, which, the presentations all noted, share 70 percent of their DNA with humans. That makes them useful test subjects for probing theories about how humans would respond to the substances the students tested.

Pottstown High School student Dylan Brandt presents the results
 of his study of the impact of garlic on the health of fruit flies.

The hypotheses tested varied almost as much as the personalities and backgrounds of the students

For example, one student tested the impacts of caffeine on male fertility, while another wanted to see if the files are affected by electro-magnetic fields.

One student studied the impacts of sleep deprivation, by keeping a light on the flies 24 hours a day, and another, who told the audience that she uses prescription adderall, wanted to see if the files developed some of the same symptoms she has.

The program, held two half days a week over the course of six weeks, is led by Dr. Amanda Purdy, manager of academic programs and training at Fox Chase Cancer Center and a former adjunct biology professor at Montgomery County Community College.

Pottstown High School engineering teacher Andrew Bachman,
who taught both Brandt and Sosa last year, was on hand for
the final presentations last week.
But the students chosen for the program from among a sizable pool of applicants are chosen by students who participated previously in the program. They review the applications, which include a number of open-ended problem-solving questions, and choose the participants without knowledge of the name, sex, race or home high school of the applicants.

After learning laboratory skills -- how to "sex" and separate flies for example -- the students propose an experiment and, once approved, have to design it to answer the questions posed by their hypothesis.

At the end of the program, each student makes a roughly 15-minute presentation to their fellow students, parents, and several Fox Chase scientists and Temple graduate students who helped in the lab.

Here is some video of Sosa at the start of her presentation:

In addition to describing their experiment, their methods and the conclusions they reached, they also outline their mistakes (my son killed many flies by accident), what they would do differently, and what the results suggests by way of future research.

This is the first year Pottstown students have participated in the TRIP Initiative and Purdy said the program is open to students from any area high school.

You can reach her via e-mail at

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

With Feola Departure, Pottsgrove in Holding Pattern

Well, the somewhat inevitable happened Tuesday night.

Alerted by The Sanatoga Post last week (and subsequently The Mercury), no one was surprised at Tuesday night's Pottsgrove School Board meeting to hear board president Rick Rabinowitz reading a statement regarding Superintendent Shellie Feola's departure.

If you haven't seen the video yet, here it is:

It was, as you might expect, very matter-of-fact, as these personnel matters so often are.

But, as some speakers suggested Tuesday night, this personnel matter was personal too.

Former board president Mike Neiffer seemed to think it goes back to the decision to re-organize Pottsgrove's elementary schools into grade centers.

As Assistant Superintendent at the time, Feola was the face of that unpopular initiative, even though it was the brainchild of former superintendent Brad Landis and the school board.

Or it may have been the black eye the district got over her involvement in the futile effort to secure signatures on a nominating petition for former board member Ted Coffelt, and the investigation which followed.

There may be other reasons.

Not being privy to closed-door executive sessions where personnel matters are discussed, and given that the separation agreement prevents Feola from speaking about it, we may never know.

Feola has always seemed to me to be a person who likes things a certain way, her way, which is not in any way a comment on her competence, which always seemed above average to me.

But perhaps that tendency was in conflict with board members who have the same tendency. Who can say?

Whatever the reason, she had a rough ride, more so since the new board majority took their seats nine months ago.

Who can forget this combative exchange between Feola and board member Bill Parker at a board meeting in June?:

But Feola had her supporters, two of whom came forward publicly Tuesday to praise her.

And they were in a position to know. Mike Neiffer and Scott Fulmer are both former Pottsgrove School Board presidents.

Here is some of what they had to say:

In the end, things have to move forward.

Assistant Superintendent William Shirk, is now also Interim Superintendent William Shirk, and will be for a while.

Board member Bill Parker's motion to immediately begin the process of searching for Feola's replacement only won one other vote -- Patricia Grimm -- who also was the only board member to make the futile gesture of voting against accepting Feola's resignation.

Board President Rick Rabinowitz argued -- apparently without irony -- that the district needed "stability" ... this after coming to "mutual agreement" to have the superintendent leave three weeks before the start of school.

Here are the Tweets and video from Tuesday's brief board meeting.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New School Year, New Teacher Contract

Photos by Evan Brandt

The Pottstown School Board meeting Monday was briefer than the one that preceded it -- or so I'm told.

I missed Thursday's meeting because I took the day off. Rare, I know.

However, the brevity of the meeting did not diminish the importance of what happened in those 50 minutes.

As is so often the case in Pottstown, the most important item of the meeting appeared nowhere on the agenda.

Having dispensed with eight pages of items -- which included eight resignations, five leaves of absence, three salary changes and 20 new hires, including a new human resources director for $115,000 a year -- with a single vote that elicited no comment from anyone on the board, they proceeded on to an item of business labeled only as "new."

Pottstown Federation of Teachers President Beth Yoder, left,
and Mike DiDonato, right, were part of the negotiating team
that will ensure younger teachers like Rine Strohecker, earn more.
As you have by now no doubt deduced, this "new" item was the ratification of a three-year teacher contract which completely re-constructed the entire salary schedule for the Pottstown Federation of Teachers.

You know, a small item on which the public would doubtful have any comment or thought to share.....

Also absent, were the throngs of fluorescent-green shirted teachers who have previously packed the seats in the high school cafeteria to make their presence -- and their grievances -- known. 

That was the first big clue that something had changed.

Anyhoo, as you have no doubt by now read on the front page of The Mercury, the details of the contract that were available last night are there.

Solicitor Stephen Kalis, whose re-appointment was also part of that discount eight page-for-the-price-of-one vote maneuver,  assured us the new contract will be posted on the district web site shortly for all to peruse.

 In the meantime, here are the Tweets from a brief but significant meeting.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Pottstown is Having a Field Day, Be Part of It

A Community Field Day to help families learn about low-cost fitness and outdoor activities will be held at the Chestnut Street Park in Pottstown on Saturday, Aug. 27 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The park is located at the corner of Chestnut and Washington streets.

The goal is to have at least 15-17 stations of fitness/sports or other activity for group participation.

Each station will have groups of approximately 10 people participating in the activity for about five minutes.

The DJ will play family appropriate music continuously until the five minutes are up.

Then, the DJ will use audio equipment to yell/announce SWITCH,  and each group will move on to a new station.

Each participant will receive a stamp on their activity pass for every station they complete. Once they complete 10 stations or more, participants will turn in their card and receive a free gift.

This way we can track how many people completed the minimum challenge equating to at least 45 minutes of fitness for each participant.

Organizations that want to participate, man a table, or donate a raffle prize or a gift to give to families for their participation should send an email to Laura Washington at or call (484) 300-2410.

The even is in need of healthy food items in order to provide free samples, gift bag giveaways and raffle prizes.

Volunteers are also needed for set-up. The set up will begin at 10 a.m. Tables and chairs will be provided but help is needed setting them up along with some of the activity stations.

In addition to the community field day activities, there will be a DJ playing music, children’s table activities and free food samplings.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Veterans Community Day With Food, Beer and Music

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by the Pottstown Parks and Recreation Department.

The Pottstown Parks and Recreation Department will host a Community Day in Memorial Park on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

This event will feature free entertainment, family-friendly activities, a bounce house for children provided at no charge, local food stands, a Sly Fox Biergarten, and representatives from multiple regional U.S. Veterans’ organizations.

There is no admission fee.

Hillbilly Shakespeare
A portion of the proceeds, including funds raised in the Sly Fox Biergarten, will be awarded to local veterans’ organizations in support of their missions.

The event will be held on The Island at Memorial Park, amidst the World War II and Vietnam War Veterans’ Memorials. The event begins at 11 a.m. with a short ceremony recognizing American Armed Forces veterans, including two local Korean War Veterans, Al Kutz and Henry “Hank” Saylor who will be recognized with special awards from Glass Tears and Congressman Ryan Costello.

Speakers include Monsignor Thomas Coyle, Army Chaplain Ret.; Bishop Everett Debnam, Pottstown Police Department Chaplain;; and musical performances by Hamilton Celtic Pipe and Drum and Thomas Wang, an award-winning actor who has appeared in numerous theatrical productions as well as in Hollywood, independent and industrial films.

Stephanie Grace
The featured speaker is Captain Robert Boyce, retired commanding officer of the USS Florida, a nuclear Ohio-class submarine, and proud Pennsylvania educator.

Following the ceremonies, the Sly Fox Biergarten will open for business and free concerts will commence from Hillbilly Shakespeare (12 to 2 p.m.) and Stephanie Grace (3 to 5 p.m.).

Activities will be hosted by ArtFusion19464, Stowe Lions Club, and the Pottstown Roller Derby Rockstars, among others.

The long-running Pottstown Rotary Duck Race will also take place at this event, commencing at 4:30 PM. Duck Race tickets will be on sale all day during the event.

Food vendors will include local favorites, Grumpy’s Hand-Carved Sandwiches, Manatawny Green, and The Butcher and the BBQ, offering all of Pottstown’s favorites.

Free parking for this event can be found at 75 West King St, in Memorial Park and more information can be found on the Pottstown Parks and Recreation Department Facebook Page:

The event is rain or shine.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rotary Club's Duck Race Set for August 20

Ducks make their way down the raging Manatawny Creek during a previous duck race. 

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by the Rotary Club of Pottstown

The Rotary Club of Pottstown is proud to announce that it will hold its 25th Annual Rotary Duck Race on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 4 p.m. at Memorial Park, Pottstown. 

This year, the Rotary Duck Race, a long- time standing tradition in Pottstown, is being held in conjunction with Pottstown Department of Parks and Recreation’s Veterans’ Community Day. 

This free public event will honor American Veterans and their service to our country and our way of life. The event will include live music, local crafts and artisans, engaging speakers, and more. 

For added family fun, Rotary’s signature 16 foot high big yellow duck will be on hand for the race at Memorial Park on that day. 
Spectators, gripped with anticipation, watch a previous duck race.

Started in 1991 by the Rotary Club of Pottstown, The Rotary Duck Race was founded to help community-based charities/non-profit groups raise money to support their programs. 

Rotary, along with members of the twenty-five participating charities/ non-profit groups, sell tickets for the race, with a pro-rated portion of all ticket sales reverting back to those groups to help support their work in the community. 

Each ticket sold has a number that corresponds to a plastic duck with that same number. 

About 3500 pink, yellow, and blue numbered ducks will be released into Manatawny Creek in Memorial Park for the race and float down to the finish line. 

 A host of prizes are awarded to ticket holders of those ducks fastest to cross the finish line, and a prize is even given for the last duck to finish the race.

Last year, the Rotary Club of Pottstown, along with local individuals and businesses, contributed over 100 prizes for this event, totaling more than $10,000 in value. Rotary expects this year’s event to be an even bigger success, and will be awarding a wide range of prizes, including $1,000 cash, a 40 inch HDTV Television, and a smart watch or Apple watch.
Yes, the giant duck will be there too.

In addition to being lots of fun, the Rotary Duck Race is a great way to support our local community. 

In fact, since its inception, the Rotary Duck Race has enabled The Rotary Club of Pottstown to contribute more than $330,000 to non-profit organizations in the Pottstown area. .

Tickets for this Pottstown tradition can be purchased from participating charities/non-profits or from Pottstown Rotary Club members. 

Rotary will also be selling tickets at the Veterans Community Day on August 20th at Memorial Park. For a complete listing of participating charities/non-profits who will benefit from this event and who are selling Rotary Duck Race tickets, please visit

Here is the list of participating agencies –
  • Pottstown Rotary Community Endowment Fund
  • Abilities in Motion
  • Building Industries Exchange, Pottstown
  • Campfire USA
  • Colebrookdale Railroad Passenger Platform Fund
  • Develomental Enterprises Corp
  • Edgewood Cemetery
  • Linfield U.C.C. Church
  • Marine Corp. League, Chester County, Detachment 286
  • Meals on Wheels, Pottstown
  • National Federation of the Blind
  • PAL – Pottstown Police Athletic league
  • Pottsgrove American Legion Post #244
  • Pottstown 4th of July Festivities
  • Pottstown AMBUCS
  • Pottstown Area Senior Center
  • Pottstown Downtown Foundation
  • Pottstown Historical Society
  • Pottstown Regional Public Library
  • Pottstown-Stowe Lions Club
  • Pottstown Halloween Parade
  • Renovating Hope (Helping Veterans)
  • Soroptomists International of Pottstown
  • Springford Rotary Club
  • Vietnam Veterans
Rotary is a local and international service organization comprised of men and women committed to making a positive contribution in their community and the world. The Rotary Club of Pottstown supports a number of programs in Pottstown, including, the Pottstown Halloween Parade, The Little Free Library program at Riverfront Park and Smith Plaza, student scholarships, Operation Backpack, and Meals on Wheels. The club also sponsors the Pottstown High School Interact Club, a service club for high school students. To learn more about The Rotary Club of Pottstown, please visit