Blogs > Daily Local Dan

A blog that takes a look at West Chester area government, politics, and community events.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

How much should public school teachers earn?

My Feb. 24 article on the West Chester Area School Board's recent reaction to the PSERS crisis led a number of online commentors to debate how much public school teachers ought to be paid. This is not surprising - the teacher pay debate arises nearly every time we write an article that touches on school district budgets.

Since the article appeared, I've also gotten a number emails about teachers pay - one person, who was unhappy with how high teachers' pensions are, told me: "I hope that you live and own in one of the districts that your property and earned income taxes make you realize that owners are now renters."

I, too, wish I earned enough to be able to buy a house.

Anyway, there is a vocal collection of commentors who think public school teachers should be earning far less than they are now earning. And the tenor of their comments hints that that they don't think teaching public school is a very respectable profession.

So, how much should public school teachers earn? And, is teaching public school a respectable profession? These are not rhetorical questions. I invite you to answer them by leaving comments under this blog post.

Below is a sampling of the teacher pay related comments that my Feb. 24 article generated.

wcnative wrote on Feb 24, 2010 11:09 AM: "Pay for public employees whose jobs are rarely at risk for layoffs used to be somewhat lower than equivalent private-sector jobs, because of that job security. That is no longer true for many, many public employees, especially teachers, who enjoy great pay, great benefits, and generous paid time off. Teachers should think how this looks to continue to demand pay and benefits that are out of line with those of the taxpayers."

realnews wrote on Feb 24, 2010 2:31 PM: "wcnative: What teacher gets generous paid time off? As I know it teachers are contracted to work a set number of days. You might be confused of their time off when they are not under contract and are not being paid. The only reason many teachers receive pay checks in the summer is because they have allowed the districts to withhold money during the year instead of receiving their fully earned compensation."

MisterWoo wrote on Feb 24, 2010 3:30 PM: "Withhold salary or not, the fact remains that the typical middle/high school teacher in PA is grossly overpaid. If the system were fair, they'd all be required to start paying money back to the state upon retirement."

nomorecville wrote on Feb 25, 2010 12:28 PM: "right out of college and you can make $40K per year, who is complaining that that is not enough money for a 22 year old."

[Side note: If public schools were funded solely by a personal income tax, much of this bitterness might go away. Even better - for the purposes of my argument - if local school districts lost the power to tax. If the state collected school taxes at an even rate from all Pennsylvania residents, and then gave local districts a flat amount of money for each pupil they taught, the debate over school taxes would change completely. No one would complain about being "taxed out" of expensive districts, public schools in Philadelphia and Lower Merion would have the same amount of money to spend per pupil, and all Pennsylvanians would be in this together. That would be my comment, if I left comments.]

Labels: ,

Friday, October 30, 2009

Four Days Till Elections!

In the last week, the West Chester Area School Board race, already contentious, has heated up. The rest of the races in my beat (West Chester and environs) are quiet. There are, however, murmurs in the borough's fifth ward. Independent Dave LaLeike is running a vigorous write-in campaign for borough council against endorsed Democrat Tom Paxson. And in Westtown, political unknown John Haws, a Democrat, is trying to unseat Republican Board of Supervisors Chair Carol DeWolf.

All week, my inbox filled with political e-mails. Most were from WCASD Democrats. A whole bunch included a link to a YouTube video that features Republican Candidate Sean Carpenter participating in Chester County Victory Movement rallies. Some included links to this column and this column, by Henry Briggs, a former Malvern Borough Council President and Republican Committeeman. The Democrats are also making a huge deal out of the fact that the Dem WCASD candidates brought ad time on cable television.

The Republicans have been really quiet. Few e-mails. No recent rumors of attack ads. No time on second-tier cable TV stations. This is about the only stir they've caused.

Back to the YouTube video. First, it's cheezy. Second, Democrats (and a few Republicans) asked me, "Isn't it shocking? Aren't you shocked by it?"

No, I'm not. I've covered plenty of Victory Movement rallies. The video appears to have been compiled from footage taken by Chester County Peace Movement regular John Beitzel. It is intended to place Carpenter among the more raucous Victory Movement demonstrators. All it does, however, is weave together images of Carpenter participating in Victory Movement rallies and images of other VM demonstrators yelling, screaming, and holding questionable signs. (OK - Carpenter is holding questionable signs too.)

The video tries to make it seem like Carpenter was demonstrating with the Victory Movement on the day when something like 200 motorcyclists came one of its rallies. I covered the rally, and though I looked for Carpenter, I didn't see him. (He rides a motorcycle with A Hero's Welcome and Warrior's Watch.)

(I regret now that my coverage of motorcycle day was so tame. I didn't mention the guy with the jacket that read "Sons of the Confederacy, Mechanized Cavalry Division." Nor did I mention the Confederate flags, perhaps because I found them so disgusting. One biker tried to fight me. I would've lost.)

Anyway, I hear that school district residents are at this moment being bombarded with campaign mailers. Some of them, apparently, feature quotations from my articles. Please, scan and send me whatever nonsense you get in the mail. You can reach me at I'll put them on the blog.

(BTW - The most ridiculous Chester County attack ad I've seen so far is this one. It goes after Democratic Tredyffrin Supervisors Candidate Eamon Brazunas for having been married less than two years. He's in his mid-20s.)

Sigh. It's 12:22 a.m. on Saturday morning. I'm still at work. I've filed 2,734 words today. I should be out at Halloween parties.

For your entertainment, here's my 2007 Halloween costume. Only the tattoo is fake.

Here's what I normally look like (late at night on a cell phone camera):

Going home!

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jim Smith's response to our headline

West Chester Area School Board President Jim Smith took issue with the headline attached to my Oct. 23 article on the school district's potential 2009-2010 Act 1 exemptions.

The headline:


"Millage increase could be as high as 5.24, officials say.

Here is a link to the letter in which Smith lays out his objections to the headline. He also outlines the school district's financial situation and refutes some of the claims the Republican school board candidates are making. (Note: In the scanned PDF of Smith's letter, the underline at the beginning of the fourth paragraph is mine, not Smith's.)

At the Daily Local, copy editors write headlines. Reporters do not. This is because copy editors, when putting articles onto pages, can see exactly how much space is available for a headline. And it's their job, not ours, to make the paper look exciting.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amateur Hour at the Spellman

Imagine you're sitting in the Spellman Administration Building, watching a West Chester Area School Board Property and Finance Committee meeting. You're listening to District Finance Director Suzanne Moore give a detailed explanation of how the administration arrived at its enrollment projections for the 2011-2012 to 2014-2015 school years. At the end of her explanation, a skinny guy in a baseball cap gets up and, in a tone of forced outrage - a tone that wouldn't seem out of place at an amateur-level theater improv class - demands of the finance committee an answer to this question:

"Is it true that there aren't enough textbooks for the students in the school district?"

"What? Where did that come from?" you wonder. "That has nothing to do with the topic at hand, and it's not even the time for public comment."

A helpful local reporter turns to you and explains: "The Republican candidates for school board sent out a mailer in which they claimed that there are textbook shortages in the school district. The administration has already said publicly that there are not. The guy asking the question is a Democratic committeeman, and he hopes to get the administrators to say again that the Republicans candidates are making false claims. This is somehow supposed to help the Democrats win the school board election."

"Oh," you say. "Why would the Republicans claim there were textbook shortages?"

"Well, the Republican candidates think that, by portraying the current, majority-Republican school board as the party responsible for an imaginary textbook shortage, they can beat the Democrats. For an analysis of why, read the Daily Local Dan blog sometime next week."

Yes, the Oct. 19 property and finance committee meeting (which you, of course, are too interesting to attend) was packed with political operatives. One row - the row I'm interested in - was filled with Democratic committeepeople who were doing a pretty amateurish job of trying to get the administrators to publicly debunk the claims the Republican candidates made in their mailer.

Every once in a while, one of them would interrupt the meeting and ask a question like, "Is it true that the district is in a financial crisis?"

The meeting took on the tone of a late-night infomercial. It was embarrassing.

The Democrats' shoddy acting does not excuse the Republicans for resorting to scare tactics. Their campaign mailer made the following claims:

- The recent school tax increase, combined with the economic downturn, has forced parents to take their kids out of private school and send them to public school. (Enrollment rose by about 200 more students than administrators had expected. District officials have speculated that this is because some parents can no longer afford private school.)

- The enrollment spike has led to overcrowding in classrooms and buses. (The district says this is not true.)

- The resultant overcrowding has led to textbook shortages. (The district says this is not true)

- The teachers salary hike has prevented the district from being able to afford to hire new teachers to relieve the overcrowding. (The district says this is not true, and points to the fact that it has hired more teachers to handle the unexpected influx of students.)

I believe the district. Here's why:

If there were textbook shortages, classroom overcrowding, or bus overcrowding, the Daily Local would have gotten at least a few calls and emails from outraged parents. And we would have gotten these calls in September. Yet, we've heard nothing. Until, that is, we got a look at the Republican mailer.

I shared this argument with Republican school board candiate Sean Carpenter.

"Maybe you aren't talking to the same people we're talking to," he said.

"It's possible, but we're a local paper," I said. "We don't usually have to wait to hear about things like this. People call us all the time about problems at schools, and so far, we've heard nothing."

"Maybe people are afraid to call the paper because they believe they won't be treated fairly," Carpenter said.

I told Carpenter that, based on past experience, I know that not much will stop an angry parent from calling us.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

School Board News!

Here's a link to the controversial mailer sent out by the Republican West Chester Area School Board candidates. It has created a stir at the school board's last two committee meetings.


In case you don't want to download it, here are the two paragraphs that got School Board President Jim Smith riled up.

"You are probably painfully aware of the 5.9% property tax increase that the current school board voted upon [sic] in May. Combined with last year's increase, the taxpayers have had to absorb almost 13% in tax increases over the last two years. Delaware County residents were hit even harder, with a 9.4% tax increase this year and a 9.0% tax increase last year, a whopping total of over 18% in two years.

"Adding insult to injury, the current board also voted to raise teachers' salaries almost 9% over the next two years. That just didn't make sense in these perilous economic times, with unemployment rising, employees being laid off, and businesses downsizing or closing. It also proved to be extremely short sited [sic]: May parents can no longer afford the tuition for private/parochial school and have enrolled their children in our public schools, resulting in overcrowded classes and buses, with shortages of textbooks. Because of the teachers' salary hike, there is now no money to hire more teachers to relieve the overcrowding in the classroom."


Thursday, September 24, 2009

"I disagree with everything you said"

My blog needs a gimmick.

How about this?

The Bold Statement of the Week Award.

This week, it goes to Jim Smith, the president of the West Chester Area School Board.

At Monday night's meeting of the school board's property and finance committee, the following transpired:

School Board Member Rogers Vaughn said that distance learning could be a solution to the school district's budgetary woes. His argument: teachers who deliver instructive and insightful lectures are rare. Why not set those teachers in front of a camera and beam their lectures into all classrooms? Facilitators (who would presumably be paid less than traditional teachers) would be in the classrooms to oversee the process of lecture absorption.

Smith, after hearing this, responded, in raised voice, "Rod, I disagree with everything you said."

Smith said that West Chester East was designed so that teachers could preside over large lectures. This, Smith said, was supposed to have been a new, innovative way to educate high schoolers. However, he said, the program was scrapped after five years.

"The kids did not like it and did not accept it," Smith said.

Smith, a former History and Social Studies teacher, said that the lecture model (especially the remote lecture model) is inappropriate for high school students - it does not give them enough access to teachers. Teachers need to be there to answer students' questions, to wake students when they are sleepy, to inspire students when they have lost the will to keep studying.

Assuming an oratorical tone, Smith concluded, "We have tried the lecture model. Did we try it long enough? Maybe not. Was it successful? No. ... I understand the way colleges go. Will it work in a High School? No."

To that, I say, "Huzzah."

Allow me, for just a moment, to be unobjective.

I distrust remote learning. My instinct tells me that face-to-face instruction conveys knowledge in a way that remote learning cannot fully replicate. Being in school with other people - learning to interact with other people - is just as important - if not more important - than academic learning.

That's not to say that Vaughn is full of nonsense. He is right about many things. Here are two:

1) Teachers who deliver inspired, engaging lectures are rare. Students would benefit from more access to them.

2) The cost of salaries and benefits is rising quickly. The current system may be unsustainable. Bold action is needed.

Vaughn's argument contains a third, perhaps unintended implication:

Many students would rather watch TV than listen to their teachers. Could students be tricked into watching teachers on TV? Would they pay more attention to TV teachers than to in-person teachers?

I'm serious.

Labels: ,

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Interesting primary election results

In case you missed it, West Chester Borough Councilwoman Carolyn Comitta won the Republican and Democratic mayoral primaries.

Chester County Director of Voter Services Jim Forsythe tells me that she will appear on the ballot only once. This is unfortunate. I was hoping for a showdown between Comitta the Republican and Comitta the Democrat.

Another strange thing happened on Tuesday: Two Democrats were the top vote-getters in the West Chester Area School Board primary. Sue Tiernan and Sue Carty got more than 4,000 votes each. Republicans Sean Carpenter and John Wingerter came in third and fourth, respectively. All four candidates were cross-filed. To determine their rankings, I've added the Republican and Democratic votes they each received.

This is further evidence of the rift in the local Republican Party: In the WCASD, more Republicans than Democrats voted, but more Republicans voted for Democrats than Democrats for Republicans. Which is a confusing way of saying: Carpenter received 469 Democratic votes, and Wingerter received 466. Meanwhile, Carty received 2,004 Republican votes, and Tiernan received 1,865.

Until the end of 2008, Carty was a Republican. When I asked her why she changed parties, she said it was "A Sarah Palin thing." Tiernan, who describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, is campaigning on what Republicans would call "a message of fiscal discipline" (That's not what she calls it. She just says that the district's finances aren't in good shape.) These candidates are not, or are not presenting themselves as, liberals.

Meanwhile, Carpenter, the top Republican vote-getter, is doing his best to suppress some rather embarrassing pictures of him that are travelling from inbox to inbox. One shows him holding an "I love Gitmo" sign. The other shows him holding a sign that says "Compared to be-headings, waterboarding is just good, clean, fun!!!" The local Republican Party is also doing its best to find and confiscate these photos. I'm told that the images are copyrighted, which means they cannot be used freely on political flyers. E-mail transmission, though, is impossible to control. (I'm not posting them here because, if they are copyrighted, I'd likely be the first target in the lawsuit.)

Wingerter has come under Democratic fire for a comment he made at a May 3 League of Women Voters forum: when he was asked about intelligent design, he did not flatly condemn it, but neither did he say he would seek to make it part of the science curriculum. The Democrats are trying to make the argument that he would.

Here's the picture that emerges: For the first time in recent WCASD history, the Democrats are ahead and the Republicans are on the defensive. But the Democrats are ... Republicans?

Which makes the school board race is a microcosmic version of Pat Toomy versus Arlen Specter.

(Note: The success of the Democratic school board candidates with Republican voters cannot be attributed to Comitta's deceptive Republican sample ballot. That ballot only went to voters in the borough, which makes up a small portion of the school district. Additionally, only 124 Republicans wrote in Comitta's name. Fewer, I'm sure, took her misleading ballot seriously.)


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The battle for the soul of the Chester County Republican Party

It's no secret that the county GOP is in the midst of an ideological battle. On one side are the social conservatives, who believe that the government should promote a conservative Christian agenda, restrict gay rights, and ban abortion. On the other side are the social moderates, who have little interest in restricting gay rights and banning abortion. (Where the "traditional" Republican values of fiscal conservatism and self-determination fit into all this I'm not sure. Perhaps both sides profess them?)

This battle rarely breaks out into the open, due to the GOP's instinctual desire to present a unified front. But a few weeks ago, it did.

The Republican committee people from the West Chester Area School District held a meeting at which they interviewed six school board candidates and endorsed four of them (there are four seats up this year, and the only incumbent running for reelection is a Democrat). Those four candidates, however, weren't the ones that certain socially moderate Republicans on the school board wanted to see endorsed.

School Board President Jim Smith, a Republican, said he wanted to see the Republicans endorse Sue Tiernan, who has been a teacher, principal and administrator in the district, and Gary Bevilacqua, a long-time parent volunteer at district schools. Smith was upset that over these candidates the Republicans endorsed Sean Carpenter, and IT professional who recently founded the Pennsylvania Conservative Council. Carpenter is also a photographer for Warrior's Watch and A Hero's Welcome, groups that arrange homecoming parties for U.S. Military personnel and give them motorcycle escorts to and from the airport when they leave for and return from duty. While what these groups do is honorable, their right-wing ideology is undeniable. (Their members often spend Saturday mornings on the courthouse lawn, marching under the banner of the Chester County Victory Movement).

In a newsletter article Carpenter wrote last week, he said that the GOP's decision to endorse him and the other three for school board represented a victory for the conservative wing of the Republican Party and a defeat for its liberal wing.

"This is exactly how we want to take back the Republican Party — using superior preparation and ideas to win these battles," Carpenter wrote. "This is how we get office holders we can support with pride, rather than ones that are an embarrassment to us all."

When School Board President Smith saw the newsletter article, it raised his ire. As I reported on Sunday, Smith said that by choosing Carpenter over Tiernan or Bevilacqua, the local Republican Party proved it cares more about promoting right-wing ideology than about the quality of education in West Chester schools.

"A small group of radicals has taken control of a party I dearly love," said Smith. "West Chester's schools provide excellent education, and we have the lowest tax rate in the county. These qualities need to be maintained. Obviously that's not recognized by the core of committeepeople who seem to be controlling the selection process."

Why was Smith so mad? No where in Carpenter's newsletter article did he say what he believed the values of the party's conservative wing to be. But he did say that all four School Board candidates (the others are Heidi Adsett, Maria Armadi-Pimley, and John Wingerter) had been "recruited and coached by Gwenne and her group, and it is only with her group's guidance that we succeeded."

Carpenter was referring to Gwenne Alexander, of Chester County Action, a local PAC. Anyone who's familiar with county politics knows that if you're associated with Chester County Action, there's a 99.9 percent chance you're a right-wing Christian conservative.

I called Alexander last week, and she said that while Chester County Action is particularly interested in the West Chester Area School Board race, it has not actually given its recommendation to the four endorsed Republican candidates. She also said that Carpenter wasn't entirely accurate in saying she was responsible for fielding him and the other three who got the endorsement.

None of the endorsed candidates, except Carpenter, said that Alexander had given them any special coaching. Carpenter later said he probably shouldn't have written that Alexander had coached the candidates.

Board President Smith, however, said he was sure that Chester County Action was responsible for the endorsements.

"I am disappointed with the party as a whole, and with Gwenne Alexander," he said. "It's a disgrace that the party doesn't really care about the candidates it puts forward."

(I didn't make it clear enough in my Sunday article that while Smith is worried about the message the GOP seems to be embracing, he said he hasn't met all of the endorsed candidates and doesn't want to categorically say that they're not qualified to sit on the school board. He said he has never met Adsett or Armadi-Pimley, and therefore has not had an opportunity to form an opinion of them. And, he said, he believes Wingerter, who spent his life in public education and served as superintendant of the Marple-Newtown School District, would probably make an excellent board member.)

Chester County Action's website provides a nice synopsis of the battle going on within the county GOP.

From the About Us" section: "We know that the endorsement of the local Republican Party is extremely powerful in Chester County. Consequently, it is important to have an organization that will recruit and train conservative, pro-life people to get involved in the political process ... Our goal is to educate voters and to encourage conservatives to get involved in the political process. We are confident that when voters understand the whole story, we can prevail. Our challenge is formidable however. For over four years, a different organization has been working against the values we hold so dear. As a result, this group has targeted conservative, pro-life committee people for their seats on the local Republican Committee. Unfortunately, several conservative committee people lost their positions." (Note: for clarity, I've changed the order of the sections of this quote. On the website, the part before the ellipses appears after the part after the ellipses.)

I wrote an article last April about how moderateshad just taken several committee seats from social conservatives. My article provides a concrete example of what Chester County Action is talking about.

In the article, which appeared on April 26, 2008, I reported that two groups were battling for the Republican Committee's Malvern-area seats. I had a lot of trouble deciding what to call these two groups. One group clearly identified themselves as "fiscally conservative social moderates." The other group said they sought only to promote "party unity," which they defined as the inclusion of both social conservatives and moderates in the Republican tent.

Compare what's described in the following paragraphs to the battle Chester County Action describes in the above quote:

[Socially moderate committee candidate Bill Noll] said he was for a party that was dedicated to "fiscal conservatism, good government, open access and public involvement." He said he thought the party should refuse to "pursue an agenda of co-opting the local government for social policies."

Those social policies, Noll said, were "issues regulating reproductive rights, issues regulating gay marriage restrictions, things like that."

[Party unity committee candidate Kelly] Geiger, who identified herself as a pro-life Catholic, said she, [party unity candidate] Bensley, and the other members of their slate are dedicated to unifying the local Republican Party and allowing both pro-choice moderates and pro-life conservatives to hold seats on the committee.

Geiger called [former Republican committeeman and social moderate Henry] Briggs, Noll and their political associates "divisive," and she said they refused to support candidates who don't "view social issues the same way they do.

"Henry (Briggs), for example, never worked for Rick Santorum, and he takes shots at George Bush in his newspaper column whenever he can," Geiger said. "That's not the role of a committeeman. The role of a committeeman is to get Republicans, regardless of their ideological differences, elected to office."

In this particular Republican Committee battle, the party unity people lost three seats to the moderates. During a high point in the battle, the police had ask two of the party unity candidates not to return to the property of a social moderate candidate. There was also some lawn sign nonsense. Capture the flag for adults.

Whew. This is a very long way of saying, "Pay close attention to this year's West Chester School Board race."

Labels: , , ,