Friday, December 4, 2015

No Holds Barred in New Board Member's Full-Throated Defense of Pottstown Schools

Mercury Photo by John Strickler
New Pottstown School Board member Kurt Heidel, left, is sworn into office Thursday night by District Justice Scott Palladino while his charming daughter Madeleine holds the Bible for him.

So first of all, I need to fess up to a "Digital Fail" as one of them-there newfangled 'digital journalists.'

When new Pottstown School Board member Kurt Heidel took to the podium Thursday night before being sworn in, and began by saying "I was born in Phoenixville ..." I put my iPhone down on the cafeteria table thinking this was certainly not "video-worthy," particularly given that I wanted to save battery to ensure I shot video of board members being sworn in.

Let this be yet another example among many that sometimes I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

Little did I know that as he began, Heidel had just lit a long fuse on what turned out to be some pretty explosive comments.

But I thought I was there because I anticipated the story of the night would be who the new school board president would be.

And it was.

And, as you'll see in today's Mercury, it was quite a story in itself.

But you can read that by clicking on this link.

And I also couldn't ignore the official conclusion of Pottstown High School senior Emanuel Wilkerson's historic quest to become a full-fledged voting board member.

So yeah, I got video of that!:

But as Heidel continued to speak, I realized, as one Pottstown teacher said to me, that I had missed the boat on getting video of his speech, because that's what it was, a throw-down challenge to anyone who wanted to trash-talk Pottstown.

It only slowly evident that he was not talking Pottstown down, but outlining the evolution of his thoughts about Pottstown and its schools. It was not all that different from an evolution I had gone through myself.

(Luckily, Heidel had a printed copy of his comments and agreed to let me have them. And of course, all school board meetings are recorded on video, so you can see video of Heidel's remarks on the school district web site. Good luck finding them though. I couldn't.)

If I had shot video, I just could have embedded it here and let you watch it, but I didn't.

So old ink-stained wretch that I am, I realized I just had to stay up late and write it.

Because frankly, when a public official stands up and speaks truth plainly, its incumbent on us all to take note.


That said, it's four pages long, so this is the Cliff Notes version, but you'll get the picture.

As I said, Heidel began by talking about how he and his wife Emily were both from Phoenixville and had every intention of spending their lives there.

They moved to their house on Queen Street in 2005 after losing their apartment in Royersford due to a change in owners, thinking "Pottstown was the last place we thought of moving to."

When they became "middle-aged parents" in 2008, with the recession eating the equity in their house, "we realized we weren't moving anywhere soon," he said.

Like when they looked for a home, the Heidels first impulse was anywhere but Pottstown public schools when it came to educating their daughter, but they decided to start there because of the 4K and full-day kindergarten.

When they walked into Rupert, saw the condition of the building, they had second thoughts until Kim Stillwell, then on the Friends of Rupert PTO and not on the school board, "corralled" them into getting involved.

They met the staff and "despite everything I saw as structurally deficient, Maddie was doing really well and I began to think that the school district wasn't as bad as we had heard or thought.," Heidel said.

"Maddie was really excelling, both educationally and socially and we made the decision that it would be best for Maddie and us as a family to stay at Rupert," said Heidel.

In first grade "we came face to face with the economic, social, behavioral problems that children and families in this community face," he said. "Between first grade and second, we watched as two families who were just as involved as us left Pottstown schools. One sold their house at a loss to get out of town. The other family enrolled their children at the Renaissance Academy."

Heidel said the school board "made the right decision" in not choosing him last year to replace Dennis Wausnock on the board after Wasunock's death, because Heidel later realized he was "applying for personal and selfish reasons."

But after 15 months of attending board and committee meetings "I saw how this district made more with less. I realized how important a fair funding program was to this community. I learned that the federation of teachers do so much more than just teach our children. I also got to see the passion that the administration and the board members have for this district," Heidel said.

During a board executive session in October, Heidel said he had a conversation with John Armato and then-student representative and fellow school board candidate Emanuel Wilkerson who "asked me point blank what difference i was willing to make as a board member."

Heidel said he gave a stock answer, similar to the one he provided to The Mercury.

On Election Day he was at St. John's Church and met an elderly couple who arrived in a newer Cadillac. "When I went to shake their hand, the wife sneered at me, then proceeded to yell at myself and the Democratic poll worker that we were all the same and all we wanted was to raise her taxes and that they can no longer afford them."

The weekend after election day, Heidel said he was reading responses on The Mercury's Facebook page to an article about the drop in Keystone test scores. "They were all the usual responses, People form other towns who point out how their state and federal taxes get flushed down the toilet when given to Pottstown schools. The person who has to chime in that they are so glad that they were able to move out of the cesspool that is Pottstown. And the pissed-off homeowner from the North End who wants to remind everyone how they can't afford to carry the water for 'those people' in the core district," Heidel said.

"For the past 15 months, since I originally applied for the open seat on the board, I have kept my powder dry. I have bit my tongue and tried to play nice with the people of Pottstown. But NO MORE (emphasis Heidel's). Maybe the people of this town didn't know who they were voting for in me, but they will now. I am a member of this board for the next four years, and I am ready to call out anyone who thinks bashing this district, its teachers. administrators or students is OK."

Then he did just that, addressing what is an all-too-common, almost unconscious put-down of Pottstown uttered Tuesday by new Pottsgrove School Board member Al Leach (and Tweeted by yours truly).

In arguing for Pottsgrove to add a third foreign language to its curriculum he noted that "even Pottstown" had three foreign languages.

In his defense, Leach did apologize in his own Tweet: "I apologize. Pottstown is a very fine school district and its' community members should be proud."

"I accept your apology," Heidel said, "but won't forget your comment."

This after Heidelsaid "if your board of directors cared a little less about new turf practice fields, maybe Pottsgrove could have an excellent foreign language program like we do in Pottstown."

And then the core of his challenge unfolded:

"To the elderly woman I met at St. John's Church, I would like to grab you by your cashmere scarf, pull you into Rupert Elementary School and meet Mrs. Foley. Ninety three years young and she shows up every day to show kindness, compassion and love to students who many only get that from her and nowhere else. Maybe if you even attempted that one day, your heart may grow three time its size and you could gain the strength of 10 Grinches plus two."

"To those naysayers from other towns, we all live in the TriCounty area. What happens in Pottstown affects you in your little McMansions and quaint farm houses. If running us down makes you feel better about yourselves, then you are petty trolls who don't deserve my respect."

"To the person who's glad they left our town: Changing your zip code doesn't change the person you are. I'm glad we no longer have to deal with your negativity in our town."

"To that North End homeowner. We're all on the same team here. If you want to live a life of self-loathing, I suggest you do like me and become a Philadelphia Eagles fan. That is a much better way to beat yourself up than bringing everyone else down."

"And to that family I met who thinks they are doing right by their children by home-schooling them, I want to address this to you: I will never tell anyone how to raise their family, but I believe you are doing yourself and your family a disservice."

Heidel then thanked his wife and daughter for inspiring him to get involved and make a difference, telling his daughter "over the next 10 years, you will learn life lessons you wouldn't get anywhere but in the Pottstown Schools. And you will be a better young woman for it."

He concluded by saying "Mr. Kefer stated at the last meeting that he was going to miss Ms. Bacallao's candor and straight-forward manner of speaking. Well I believe you won't miss it for long."

"I am proud to say that Pottstown is our hometown. I am proud to be making a difference in my community and proud to be raising my family here. That is the answer to the question you asked me in October Emanuel."

What some might describe as a "stunned silence" followed Heidel's remarks, although I got the distinct feeling that the people in the audience were on the edge of applause, but hadn't quite digested it enough yet to realize how much it deserved their applause.

So consider this my applause Mr. Heidel.

Well said.

The willingness to get a deeper understanding of the many complex issues involved; the recognition of dedicated people doing their mostly unheralded best to make the best of it, often succeeding; and the outright vocal rejection of the casual insults thrown in Pottstown's direction by people too lazy to educate themselves about the challenges this town faces, challenges which would likely crush them -- those are all attributes we should value in an elected official.

Dare I say it? But I think it might be another reason for us all to say "Proud to be from Pottstown."

Now, without further ado, here are those infamous Tweets: