Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Election Creeps In

Signs of electioneering are beginning to appear in the day to day dealings of the Pottsgrove School Board.

As you may recall, the results of the May 21 primary election had the four challengers, Don Clancy, Kelley Crist, and Rick Rabinowitz securing lines on the Democratic ballot line, and Matt Alexander securing one on the Republican line.

However, only three of the incumbents -- School Board President Scott Fulmer, Diane Cherico and Nancy Landes, stayed on the ballot, leaving Michael Neiffer as the odd man out.

That means his term ends in December, when the winners of the November general election are seated.

Neiffer, who spent several years as the school board president, has been among the most outspoken of the incumbents both with ideas and criticisms.

If his performance at the June 18 school board meeting is any indication, if anything, his lame duck status has only made him more outspoken.

Anytime any public officials begins a sentence at a board meeting with "well, I've already pissed everyone off so I guess I'll just keep going," reporters tend to sit up and take notice.

But before we get to that particular incident, consider the cross-fire commentary going on during Tuesday's meeting.

First, Rabinowitz got up to address the board, praising them for opting to adopt a preliminary budget in May that raised property taxes by 2.2 percent, rather than 2.89 percent.

Then, offering up examples of tax hikes and millage rates proposed in neighboring districts, with only Pottstown's higher than Pottsgrove's, Rabinowitz said "I humbly ask the board to look for other ways to cut and lower the tax hike without cutting important programs."

If only it were that easy.

And there was little humble about Neiffer's response, who challenged Rabinowitz repeatedly to make a concrete suggestion, berating him to the point that Fulmer had to intervene and say "let him answer the question Mike."
Pottsgrove challengers, from left, Don Clancy, Matt Alexander
Kelly Crist and Rick Rabinowitz

Rabinowitz offered up the suggestion that a proposed new administrator position could be cut, which Neiffer treated dismissively, but later in the meeting offered up as a way to close a newly discovered funding gap.

Clancy got into the act by chiming in from the audience "looks like you can't afford a new gym" as that discussion unfolded, to which Neiffer responded snappishly "that's the capital budget. Those two things are completely unrelated."

Clancy quietly noted later that both capital and operating budgets are funded out of the same taxpayer wallet.

Board member Justin Valentine, who is not up for reelection, nevertheless noted that the candidates "can say anything and not be responsible for what's said."

Clancy was himself the target of some heated exchange after he offered up a plan he said could shave $8 million off the cost of the high school renovation.

Unfortunately for him, he seemed unaware that one of the major pillars of his proposal -- sending more students to the Western Center for Technical Studies in Limerick -- has been in place for years.

Board members, candidate and non-candidate alike, were quick to point out his error in sometimes sarcastic terms that few would describe as mild.

Clancy told the board the plan was brought forward to encourage debate and discussion. "I'm not saying it's perfect," he told them.

On that, at least, the sitting board agreed.

In fact, after the exchange, Fulmer apologized to Clancy. “I apologize for raising my voice. I tend to get excited. I thank you for the putting the time in to bring this to us. I don’t agree with it.”

Pottsgrove incumbents, from left, Diane Cherico, Scott Fulmer
Nancy Landes, Mike Neiffer
But there was no apology for Kim Trotman, a staffer with state Rep. Mark Painter's office, who got up to the microphone to address the board about Painter's vote against the House of Representatives budget.

However, her general remarks were inadequate to Neiffer's sentiments, who asked her what Painter and his fellow House members intend to do to resolve the long-simmering issue of the increasing burden of property taxes.

"I'll tell you what, let Harrisburg take care of pensions and special education 100 percent, and every other district in this state could take care of the rest," he said.

After the meeting, Trotman approached Neiffer and demanded an apology. It's unlikely she got one.

He could be heard telling her "I don't care how it makes you feel. We went to breakfast with the guy and he didn't even talk to us, and he is a Pottsgrove graduate. It's 12 years we've been waiting for Harrisburg to get off their butt and do something about this."

Which brings us to Neiffer's seemingly accurate observation that he had already "pissed everyone off."

With that warning, he launched into a complaint that the district's marching band program is increasing at an exponential rate, and that the growth in budget line that funds that program, is not.

He cited the example of a student who may have to go with a tuba (or Sousaphone), another without a saxophone and the need to replace raincoats that are more than 14 years old.

Money is in a "marketing account" set aside for just this purpose, but the board refuses to spend it.

"This is not something the music league, or a booster club should be funding," Neiffer said.

Although his motion to fund those three purchases, for a cost of about $10,000 received a second from Coffelt, it was tabled before a vote could be taken on it.

"I'm not saying I disagree with you, I'm just saying we should respect the (budget) process," said Valentine, who made the motion to table Neiffer's motion to fund the purchases.

Neiffer noted that the chairs of both the high school and middle school music departments "were going to be here tonight, but I guess they feel they couldn't be, so I am here speaking for them, and for the students in the music program."

Neiffer paused, and then added pointedly, "and if anyone has a problem with me bringing this us, talk to me, don't go after them."

1 comment:

  1. I was completely thrown off by how aggressive and unprofessional the boards behavior was. I'd rather first seek to understand, then finally be understood. As a facilitator type leader, I'll stop my own statements at that point, and just listen and respond to their concerns. As such, I did not counter their mistake that I was unaware we were sending students to Western Technical Center. Clearly I was aware of this based on what I said in writing. I've also clarified last night in the linked written proposal what classes I'd propose to outsource, rather than keep in house. This need to consider outsourcing versus keeping in house is a common discussion in business, when looking to focus more on areas that need to be done well.