Wednesday, June 29, 2011

All options explored?

We here in the patch are getting quite a chuckle out of the little dog-and-pony show going on as the Laurel Highlands School Board ramps up to its inevitable raising of property taxes, which we boldly predict will occur at tonight's 7 p.m. meeting.

Today's story in the Herald-Standard, "LH ponders tax increase or furloughs," reveals that LH needs $280,000 to balance its budget. Based on comments from key sources, the public gets the impression that all availabe options to close that gap are being given equal weight, including faculty furloughs and tapping the capital reserve fund.

What's missing, though, is ANY board member who has spoken up AGAINST raising taxes. We don't know if that occurred during Tuesday's planning meeting. It is possible that someone did, but it wasn't reported (our sources say this is sometimes the case).

In the story as it appeared, the stars are lining up for tax increase. First up, business manager Greg Hensh, noting that the maximum tax increase permitted under the state index would hike taxes $2.67 per $10,000 of assessed value, or $27.50 on a house assessed at $100,000.

Next up, retiring superintendent Dr. Gary Brain, noting that the district has already lost 10 to 15 teaching positions due to retirement or resignation, and he won't recommend further cuts in that area.

Third clue? Board president Angelo Giachetti said he doesn’t want to lay anyone off.

Fourth one? Solicitor Gary Frankhouser noted that borrowing from the capital reserve fund at this time could impact future tax increases.

Number five? “Twenty-seven dollars for a $100,000 home and we save our whole educational system. We can’t lose 18 teachers,” said school director Jim Tobal.

Tobal is, of course, a former teacher who retired under the district's generous retirement policy, so his bias in this area comes naturally.

It would have been very interesting -- and no doubt wold have caused a little squirming -- if the Herald-Standard had asked some questions at Tuesday's dog-and-pony show. Questions like, "Are LH administrators taking a one-year pay freeze, like the administration at the neighboring Albert Gallatin Area School District did?" And, "If they aren't, why not?"

As a public service, we here on our little blog present this story "Wage freezes reflect cold, hard reality," from the Valley News Dispatch, June 28:

Teachers, administrators and staff in some Alle-Kiski Valley school districts won't be taking home as much money as they may have been expecting in the new school year.

After Gov. Tom Corbett in March called on school employees to accept a one-year pay freeze, freezes and other concessions have been agreed to in a majority of area districts.

A pay freeze for the 2011-12 year was included in the new contract between the Riverview School District and its teachers. It saved the district up to $220,000, and avoided teacher furloughs or the need to balance the budget by dipping into cash reserves, said Business Manager Frank Thompson.

Please note that this pay freeze in Riverview saved the district $220,000, which is within striking distance of the $280,000 that LH needs to balance its budget.

The Valley News Dispatch also provided its readers with some other interesting facts:

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association lists 137 school entities -- including school districts, vocational-technical schools and intermediate units -- where wage freezes have been adopted for the 2011-12 year.

(Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe) Keever said 65 out of the PSEA's 500 locals have agreed on a pay freeze. A number of others have agreed to other concessions.

At the Kiski Area School District, saving the jobs of eight furloughed teachers was an objective for their peers, who accepted a two-year freeze.

Freeport teachers agreed to cut four working days from their calendar, from 188 to 184; give up pay for extra morning duties; and freeze salaries for supplemental positions, such as serving as coaches and advisors.

At Franklin Regional (School District), the teachers union offered a wage-and-benefit package that totals $1.6 million in savings over three years. It includes increased health insurance contributions and a wage freeze beginning in 2012-13.

It seems that in the bigger world outside of Fayette County, there are a few other options beyond raiding the capital reserve fund, furloughs or raising taxes. But when board members and administrators have relatives on the payroll, a frequent occurrence in Fayette County, it's easy to understand why those other options aren't explored.

Friday, June 24, 2011

We are still waiting ...

When the topic of Fayette County Children and Youth Services came up during this week's meeting of the county commissioners, we here in the patch thought it might have something to do with a long-awaited report from "Fayette County's highest elected official."

That's how WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh referred to Commission chairman Vince Zapotosky back on January 6, when he was interviewed following the death of a 15-month-old in Point Marion.

As the camera rolled, "Fayette County's highest elected official" said this:
“I will assure the people of Fayette County there will be accountability. I will work on it and I will find out what went wrong, and we will do everything we can to hopefully prevent future incidents of this kind.”
You don't have to take our word for it; just go here and see for yourself:

It will soon be six months since Zapotosky made that bold statement. To us, that seems like plenty of time for him to "work on it" and to "find out what went wrong" and to tell us what has been done to "hopefully prevent future incidents of this kind."

According to media reports, part of the problem with this tragic situation was that neighbors reportedly had notified CYS -- repeatedly -- of concerns about the household in which the child was found. As one of three chief administrators of the county, and as one who has had no qualms about pointing out how lawsuits against the county are a big problem (especially when they involved someone else and not him), Zapotosky was on the money in pledging that he would get to the bottom of this.

The great unknown, at this point at least, is what exactly has he done? Has he conducted his own investigation? Has he called the state Department of Public Welfare to conduct one? Has he brought in any law enforcement agencies?

If Zapotosky is stumped at what to do next, perhaps he should place a call to his one-time running mate, former Commissioner Sean Cavanagh, who seemed to excel at initiating such probes and uncovering unseemly behaviors.

Based on his vote to fire election bureau director Laurie Lint, one thing we should be able to look forward to is that if there is any hint of procedural failure at CYS, Zapotosky should stand at the ready to clean house.

But first, he will need to be serious about his stated desire to "find out what went wrong."


Here in the patch, we offer kudos to Albert Gallatin Area School District superintendent Carl Bezjak, business manager Denise Sheetz, and the five central staff members and 11 principals who volunteered to take a one-year pay freeze to help out with the district's current budget crisis.

“The amount of our individual salaries will be equal to our individual salaries for the fiscal year 2010-11,” Bezjak said in today's Herald-Standard. “We are trying to offset this budget tragedy. With their hands raised and sacrifices made within their own households, they jumped in the boat. I was touched and the board was very gracious.”

Granted, these are the some of the best-paying positions in the district, and some might argue that these folks are among those who can most afford to take such a hit. But there is something to be said for leading by example, which these employees have done.

As a follow-up, we would still like to see the newspaper be more aggressive about asking school board directors how many relatives they have working in the district. It is certainly relevant if that is the case with any of the six AG directors who voted for this year's 12.3-percent tax hike: Ed Sutton, Edward Andria, William Boni, Edward Colebank, David Howard and Ken Plisko.

It would also be interesting to know whether AG teachers were officially asked to accept a one-year pay freeze, and what their answer was.

Bezjak, Sheetz, the five central staff members and the 11 principals have done the right thing to help out in a time of crisis. If you see them, make sure to tell them so.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

12.3 percent tax hike

Depending on which version of the "Breaking News" story you read on yesterday, the Albert Gallatin Area School District board either "voted Wednesday to furlough more than 30 employees" (the early afternoon version), or "voted Wednesday to furlough 18 employees" (the late afternoon version).

We will leave it to editor Mark O'Keefe to explain why his publication floated two versions of the story with such a wide variance in the furlough number. Here in the patch, we think it avoids confusion when you get it right the first time, but hey, what do we know?

But both version of the story were in agreement on one big point: The AG school board also voted to impose a 1.368-mill hike in the real estate tax rate. The newspaper promised more details in a story to come Friday.

We hope one of them includes this fact: The AG school board's action will increase school district property taxes by 12.3 percent. This number is easy to calculate: take the 1.368-mill hike and divide it by the current 11.19-mill rate.

Here's how the tax hike really shakes down: Someone who had been paying $500 in school taxes will now pay $561.50. Someoone who had been paying $1,000 will now pay $1,123. Someone paying $2,000 will now pay $2,246.

We seriously doubt that very many property owners in the AG district -- one of the state's poorest -- got a 12.3-percent raise over the past three years, let alone the past year. But this type of tax increase is what happens all too often when school board members have relatives on the payroll.

Both versions of the breaking news story also contained these paragraphs:

According to the district's business manager, Denise Sheetz, the tax increase was needed due to an expected loss of general state funding for the district of $3.6 million.

"The amount cut by the state depletes are current fund balance," Sheetz said. "I am worried that without the increase, we won't be able to make payroll."

Since Ms. Sheetz brings up the subject of payroll, we in the patch also have our fingers crossed that in Friday's follow-up, the Herald-Standard includes some information on what that payroll looks like. If the readers are to be told that AG might miss payroll, shouldn't they also be given some idea of what types of paychecks those like Ms. Sheetz might be forced to do without?

It's all public information, and all the newspaper has to do is ask. But don't look for that to happen anytime soon. It would irritate hundreds of employees and their families, and that could translate into subscription losses.

We don't know what shape Friday's story will take, but we highly doubt that it will look anything like the story that appeared in the Butler Eagle on Wednesday: "SV board member criticizes union -- Wanted teachers to freeze pay."

Here's how it started:

A Seneca Valley School Board member Monday night voiced his displeasure with the decision made by the teachers union not to take a pay freeze to help close the district's large budget deficit.

Eric Gordon, who represents part of Cranberry Township, said he's gotten incredible amounts of feedback from constituents in the board passed the final budget in May.

That feedback, he said, included taxpayers who were upset at a 5.6-percent property tax increase to help close a $10 million shortfall in the district's $94.5 million budget.

Wow. Here we have a school board member in another western Pennsylvania county speaking out against a 5.6-percent tax hike, which is less than half of the 12.3-percent approved by AG. And he thinks the teachers should have helped out by taking a one-year pay freeze.

Across the state, in some public school districts, administrators and teachers have been doing exactly that. In some cases, the pay freeze alone isn't going to be enough to completely solve the budget problem, but it would lessen the size of any tax hike.

We hope tomorrow's newspaper also lists how many school board members have relatives working for the school district. That might go a long way toward explaining the board's willingness to raise taxes 12.3 percent -- and why you're more likely to hit a Marcellus gas well by uprooting a blackberry bush than to hear a AG school board member who sounds like Mr. Gordon.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Less is more, we suppose

If you asked everyone in the patch what were the biggest races in Fayette County in the May 17 primary election, it's a pretty fair bet most would say the contests for county commissioner.

The Herald-Standard apparently thought so, too, devoting its prime Sunday-before-the-election editorial space to its endorsements in those races, which went to Democratic incumbents Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky, and Republican challengers Dave Lohr and Marilyn Cellurale.

On Election Day, though, Democratic challenger Al Ambrosini and Republican incumbent Angela Zimmerlink finished as top vote-getters in their respective primaries, and Herald-Standard endorsees Vicites and Cellurale didn't make the cut with voters.

What perplexes us here in the patch is why NONE of the certified vote totals for the Democratic and Republican races for county commissioner were even mentioned in Tuesday's self-explanatory story, "Fayette County certifies election results."

Winners aren't made official until the vote totals are certified by the Fayette County Election Board, so one would think it pretty important for a newspaper to inform readers of the results in the election's marquee races, even if there were no surprises or reversals.

Only editor Mark O'Keefe can answer why that information wasn't included in Tuesday's story.

Maybe someone just plain forgot. Maybe the Herald-Standard didn't want to repeat official numbers that probably were very similar to the unoffical tally on election night: Ambrosini, 9,256 and 36 percent of the vote, Zapotosky 8,561 and 33 percent, and Vicites 8,040 and 31 percent.

(For purposes of comparison, in the five-way Democratic primary in 2007, the numbers were Zapotosky, 9,963 and 31 percent, Vicites 8,815 and 27 percent, and Sean Cavanagh 7,910 and 25 percent.)

The official vote count IS important, as evidenced by this passage from Tuesday's story:

Attorney John Cupp was able to secure the Republican nomination for district attorney as a result of receiving 151 write-in votes. Cupp lost the Democratic nomination to acting district attorney Jack R. Heneks Jr. 5,749 to 9,487 votes, respectively. The vote count could not be made official until Cupp’s issue was resolved.

The election bureau initially only counted 191 of Cupp’s write-in votes, and he successfully petitioned the court for an additional 60 votes, which put him one vote over the 250 needed to secure a spot on the November ballot.

So on election night, Cupp only had 191 write-in votes and wasn't going to be on the November ballot. But when the official count was certified, things had changed and his candidacy remained alive.

We fail to see why the Herald-Standard would report the results for dozens of municipal races, including which candidates got as few as 11 write-in votes, but leave out the county commissioners.

It is not as if the newspaper decided that all county races weren't worth reporting on. Here's another passage from Tuesday's story:

Countywide, the majority of row office candidates were unopposed. The vote totals for each are: coroner Dr. Phillip E. Reilly, 14,546 Democratic votes; prothonotary Lance Winterhalter, 13,444 Democratic votes; register of wills and clerk of orphan’s court Donald D. Redman, 13,362 Democratic votes; clerk of courts Janice Snyder, 13,248 Democratic votes; and controller Sean P. Lally, 12,769 Democratic votes.

Sheriff Gary D. Brownfield defeated challenger Robert “Ted”Pritchard Sr., 12,705 votes to 2,997 votes on the Democratic ticket.

It seems odd to us that a newspaper would report the official results on a bunch of county races where the candidates were running unopposed, but would print nothing about the races for the top county positions, where there was significant competition.

But hey, what do we know?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Would you like some gravy with that?

Here in the patch, we've enjoyed some pretty good home cooking through the years, but it seems nothing like the kid-gloves treatment the Herald-Standard continues to bestow on favorite sons Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky.

Case in point: Monday's story, "Countywide candidates file campaign finance reports," which had some reporting gaps big enough to drive a runaway truck on Summit Mountain through.

Everyone in politics knows that the two biggest and most interesting campaign expense reports are the one filed two weeks before the election, and the one filed 30 days after Election Day. The "second Friday pre," as it is commonly known, gives a detailed glimpse of how much money each candidate has raised, from whom, and how it has been spent.

But because it is filed on the second Friday BEFORE the election, it doesn't provide a complete picture. Any contributions received in the home stretch, as well as any expenditures (including advertising and cash paid to poll workers), won't show up until the "30-day post" election report is filed with the Fayette County Election Bureau.

These filings are not optional; they are required by law. And if you miss a filing deadline, you have to pay a small daily fine until that is done.

In Monday's story, readers found out that Al Ambrosini, who finished first in the Democratic primary for county commissioner, "loaned himself $20,000" and "paid poll workers amounts ranging from $25 to $75 each" and "spent a total of $25,681 in the reporting period, which included May 3 through June 6. The expenses included advertising costs for WLSW radio for $2,000; Mail Specialty Inc. of Greensburg for mail services in the amount of $3,050; and ads for $1,927."

That's a pretty detailed snapshot on Ambrosini, who was not endorsed by the Herald-Standard.

The newspaper also reported that "Republican incumbent Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink of Allison, who was the top vote-getter for her party, listed expenditures of $2,134. Zimmerlink does not accept campaign contributions. She spent money on a radio advertisement and a $2,054 mailer." Another fairly detailed analysis, though of a much lesser amount, on a candidate who did not get an endorsement.

Readers found out that "Dave Lohr of South Connellsville, who won the second Republican party nomination, spent $1,557 during the reporting period and ended with unpaid debts and obligations of $1,090, which he owes to himself," and that he got a $250 contribution from Mark Rowan, a Connellsville attorney
The newspaper also told us that "Marilyn Cellurale of Lemont Furnace, who finished third on the Republican ticket and did not win a nomination for county commissioner, spent $2,999 during the reporting period, and received $9,500 in contributions," and that her contributions included $7,500 from Terry“Tuffy” Shallenberger of Connellsville, chairman of the Fayette County Airport Authority.

But when it comes to the campaign's two biggest spenders, Monday's story left out some details and more than a few unanswered questions.

Vicites, readers found out, "spent $24,905 during the reporting period. He also listed unpaid debts and obligations of $14,728, which he owes to himself." But when it comes to ANY details, such as how much he paid poll workers (see Ambrosini) or spent on advertising (see Ambrosini and Zimmerink, above), nothing was mentioned.

Even worse, from a reporting angle -- or at least from a "fair and balanced" reporting angle -- is this paragraph from that story: Vicites, who is finishing his fourth term in office, listed contributions of $12,224, but a detailed listing was not available.

If a detailed listing was not available, shouldn't the newspaper tell its readers why? As we noted earlier, this filing is required by law and it was due Friday. Was the listing of which sources contributed more than $12,000 to Vicites in the weeks leading up to the election not included in his expense report? Did the election bureau refuse to give it out? Did the reporter lose those particular pages on the way to the office and say, "Oh, what the heck!"?

If the Herald-Standard can inform us that of Cellurale's $9,500 in contributions, $7,500 from Terry “Tuffy” Shallenberger of Connellsville, chairman of the Fayette County Airport Authority, shouldn't they be obligated to tell us where Vicites got $12,000? Or at least tell us why they couldn't find that out? We are pretty sure they have his phone number.

If the newspaper can tell us that Ambrosini paid his poll workers between $25 and $75 each, why can't they give us some idea of what Vicites paid his? And if Vicites paid no poll workers at all -- which is highly unlikely -- why couldn't the newspaper simply report that fact?

Of Zapotosky, the newspaper reported that he "did not file a report with his committee as of Friday afternoon and had only filed a report in which he paid his campaign $300." So did he miss the filing deadline? Will he have to pay the daily fine for doing so? If and when his campaign committee files its 30-day post-election report, will the Herald-Standard tell us how much he raked in, from whom, and how he spent it?

Back on May 15, in the story "Fayette County commissioner candidates file expense reports," the newspaper reported this: “The Committee to Elect Vincent Zapotosky” brought more than $25,000 forward from his last report and received $25,300 in contributions. He had $50,535 available and spent $31,181, leaving a balance of $19,353. He also has unpaid debts and obligations of $4,800." You can read it for yourself here:

So Zapotosky's campaign committee carried forward more than $19,000, and we have no public accounting of how -- or if -- it was spent. Or of how much in contributions "The Committee to Elect Vincent Zapotsky" raked in in the two weeks leading up to the election.

But, thank God, the Herald-Standard had the moxie to let us know that Dave Lohr got a $250 contribution from attorney Mark Rowan, that Zimmerlink spent a whopping $2,130 and that the going rate for an Ambrosini poll worker was between $25 and $75.

We will let you judge whether this was fair and equal treatment of all six candidates.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Did I really say that stuff?

Here in the patch, some guys over at the fire hall have started taking bets on which Vince Zapotosky will show up to co-captain a joint county-newspaper softball team with Herald-Standard editor Mark O'Keefe in a charity game set for June 26.

Will it be the Vince Zapotosky, who as a candidate for Fayette County commissioner in 2003, held this opinion of the long-overdue countywide property tax reassessment courageously implemented by then-Commissioners Ron Nehls, Sean Cavanagh and Vince Vicites?
The reassessment should have been done 20 or 30 years ago, says Zapotosky, who theorizes that the matter was probably delayed by previous administrations for the sake of "political convenience." -- "Five compete for Democratic county commissioner nominations," Herald-Standard, May 15, 2003

Or will it be the Vince Zapotosky, who, as a sitting commissioner, voted in 2009 to cancel a scheduled assessment update, wasting $600,000 of county tax dollars?
"This (suspending the reassessment) wasn't about politics. It's about people," Zapotosky said. -- "Reassessment suspended," Herald-Standard, Aug. 6, 2009.

Will the guy sitting in the dugout next to O'Keefe be Zapotosky the candidate, who in the five-way Democratic primary in 2003, held this opinion:
"I'm running this race individually ... I don't think we should force-feed the public a ticket," says Zapotosky. -- "Democratic commissioner candidates square off for primary showdown," Herald-Standard, March 17, 2003.

Or will it be Zapotosky the incumbent, who in 2009 had this to say about his forming a ticket with fellow Commissioner Vince Vicites:
"Not one man rows the boat ... It has been great to work with somebody who shares a positive vision." -- "Vicites, Zapotosky take 'team approach' to Fayette office bid," Herald-Standard, March 6, 2011.

Will attendees of the game be treated to an appearance by Zapotosky the candidate, who in 2007 said this:
"We need teamwork," Zapotosky said, mentioning House Majority leader State Rep. H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, Murtha and Mahoney as people he could work with to help the county. -- "Zapotoskty seeks nomination to run for commissioner," Herald-Standard, January 9, 2007.

Or will they be casting their gaze upon Zapotosky the sitting commissioner, who in 2010 demonstrated his commitment to teamwork thusly:
Fayette County Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky, a Democrat, compared Mr. DeWeese to an "old shoe that causes blisters." He encouraged audience members at a recent meet-and-greet event for Ms. Snyder in the village of Penn-Craft, in Luzerne, Fayette County, to toss out the offending shoe. -- "DeWeese battlling for seat," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 11, 2010

Regardless of which version of Zapotosky shows up for the game, we hope that O'Keefe takes along a reporter's notebook and a pen, so that between innings he can ask Zapotosky for his view on a few other of his published comments:

Zapotosky says the job of county commissioner is administrative, not legislative, and should be carried out from that perspective. He pledges to impose a two-term limit on himself, vowing to serve no more than eight years if elected. -- "Democratic commissioner candidates square off for primary showdown," Herald-Standard, March 17, 2003.

He said the problems in the county have to be looked at as a whole, including those in Brownsville and Connellsville as well as problems in the boroughs of Masontown, Republic and Point Marion. "We need to bring people back to these areas. One of my goals is population growth," Zapotosky said. -- "Zapotoskty seeks nomination to run for commissioner," Herald-Standard, January 9, 2007.

And, finally, our favorite Zapotosky quote:
" ... and God knows, we need a level of integrity." -- "DeWeese battling for seat," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 11, 2010

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We are in charge of a school district?

Somebody please buy seven dunce caps so they can be given to Connellsville Area School District board members Kevin Lape, Gary Wandel, Dr. P.J. Carte, Dr. Paul Means, Denise Martin, Tom Dolde and Jim Fabian.

They deserve them, not because they want cancel legal adertising in the Herald-Standard as retribution for editorials they don't like, as reported in Sunday's front-page story, "Attorney says board's action may be illegal."

No, this crew deserves to wear the crown of stupidity for failing to be smart about it. First up, director Lape, author of the motion to penalize the newspaper:

Lape cited the negative content of recent editorials published by, including school board endorsements and support of a study tied to a proposal to consolidate Fayette County School Districts as his foundation for the action.

“The Herald-Standard should stick to selling newspapers, not be involved in what a school district should or shouldn’t be doing,” he said.

Way to go, Mr. Lape. You andthe others who didn't get the newspaper's endorsement in the May primary election now make it painfully clear that you're going to make them pay by, well, not paying them.

Then we have this public relations gem, also printed in Sunday's story:
Fabian, meanwhile, expressed pleasure at the opportunity to cast a favorable vote to Lape’s motion to halt advertising in as he exited the meeting.

“I’ve been waiting for a month to do that,” he said.

It is hard for us to believe that seven people who are in charge of running a school board, and thus educating thousands of children, are themselves so stupid. It is no wonder that their school district faces a $7 million deficit and that socking property owners with tax increases is the only way they can balance the books.

Instead of picking a fight with the Herald-Standard, all they had to do was use logic. The law requires that school districts place their legal advertisements -- for things like when they are holding a meeting, or when they are soliciting bids for a project -- in a newspaper of general circulation within the political subdivision of the school district.

That is fancy wording for, "You have to advertise your meetings and such in a newspaper that circulates in your area."

The easy out for these disaffected Connellsville Area School District board members? You say, "Hey, we've been doing some nosing around, and one of us discovered that there is a newspaper of general circulation with here in our own back yard. It is called the Connellsville Daily Courier. And since we are the Connellsville Area School District, we think makes better sense to advertise in the Connellsville Daily Courier, instead of the Uniontown-based Herald-Standard."

And if these school board members were REALLY smart, they would have had the district's well-paid business manager provide some numbers to back up the decision. (We are pretty certain that the Herald-Standard's advertising rates are going to be higher than the Daily Courier's.)

All that Lape & Co. had to do was provide those numbers, and say, "Look, it's costing us $5,000 a year to advertise in the Herald-Standard, and we can fulfill that requirement for $3,000 a year by switching to the Daily Courier. Times are tough -- after all, we have a $7 million deficit to close, and we lost a ton of state subsidy this year -- so we have to save money wherever we can."

And if they were REALLY, REALLY smart, they would have thrown down the gauntlet in front of the Herald-Standard by saying, "Now if the Herald-Standard wants to match or beat the Daily Courier's rate, we will gladly consider keeping our advertising with them. Otherwise, the Herald-Standard is advocating that we pay MORE for a service than we actually have to. We don't consider that a prudent use of tax dollars. Do they?"

As for these board members being upset with the newspaper's support of state Rep. Tim Mahoney's effort to conduct a study to see if adminitrative consolidation of county school district would have money, that is a mere smokescreen issue. (And the behavior of The Connellsville Seven only serves to prove that Mahoney's vision cannot come to fruition soon enough. One side benefit would be that only one set of legal advertising would be needed, instead of six sets.)

Lastly, we remain a little unclear as to whether Lape's motion was just a proposal to do away with legal advertising in the Herald-Standard, or whether it is a done deal. The reporting in Sunday's story is a bit unclear on that count.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Good news, bad news

When they were running for re-election as Fayette County commissioners a scant four weeks ago, Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky sent out a campaign mailer that sketched a pretty positive picture of the county's economy.

In urging voters to re-elect them, they told us: "Over the last two decades, Fayette County has experienced over $1 billion worth of infrastructure investment in the manufacturing sector (annual average of over $60 million). This investment has created and retained almost 8,000 jobs and generated new payroll dollars of almost $150 million annually."

Among those new jobs they touted were 1,650 in the category of "Customer Support Centers," and one of the companies they specifically mentioned was Teleperformance, based in Redstone Township.

That number will have to be adjusted downward, as today's Herald-Standard reports that Teleperformance is laying off 306 local employees.

We commend reporter Chris Haines for trying to gain access to employees on break outside the building (she was denied) and for reporting that one employee interviewed off site said they were told that they weren't allowed to speak to the media. (If that's true, someone should inform Teleperformance that this in the United States of America, not the United Arab Emirates.

Other than pointing out the transient nature of these "Customer Support Center" jobs -- here today, gone tomorrow! -- the purpose of this post is to point out a basic inconsistency regarding economic news.

If Teleperformance had announced they were ADDING 306 jobs instead of subtracting them, you can bet your firstborn child that it would have looked like the Mount Summit Challenge as Vicites, Zapotosky and Fay-Penn Economic Development Council officials raced to the Herald-Standard to deliver and comment on the news.

There probably would have been a well-staged announcement, particularly in an election year, with all of them patting each other on the back and taking credit for a job well done.

Why, then, aren't these same glory-seekers regularly contacted for comment when there is bad news to deliver? It would be interesting to hear what they have to say, don't you think?

We're not blaming any of them for the job cuts. But we will say that these aren't the type of jobs anyone should brag about. If you're going to take credit for Teleperformance coming to town, you should also face the music when they send 306 people packing.

But in all fairness, you can't comment unless you are asked to.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Welcome to the jungle

Here in the patch, we've known plenty of people who have gotten laid off from a job, including us at one time. It's never a pleasant experience, especially when you don't see it coming and have bills to pay or a family to keep.

Countless others among our neighbors have spent many years not knowing if their job would be there tomorrow, or next month or next year. For most of Fayette County, permanent job security is about as elusive as a 16-point buck on opening day.

So it was with a certain amount of "What's the big deal?" that we read the June 9 comments from Carl Bezjak, superintendent of the Albert Gallatin Area School District, concerning the fact that 100 AG teachers had been notified of possible furloughs.

That doesn't mean 100 teachers -- or approximately one-third of AG's teaching force -- is in imminent danger of being laid off. That is very unlikely to happen, but it makes for a nice scare tactic. The teachers' union contract requires that such a letter be sent now, lest the school district be unable to lay anyone off down the road.

“But the letter alone raises anxiety and it’s unfair to people,” Bezjak said in the Herald-Standard. “It’s unfair to all the districts to have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best because you are dealing with human beings here. I find it extremely heart-wrenching to have notify my staff of this. I hired these people. I shook their hands and smiled. And now I have to retract it through this ugly process.”

Bezjak sounds like Dr. Gregory House delivering a grim medical prognosis on the hit FOX medical drama "House," just because extraordinarily bad economic times mean that a group of his employees MIGHT get get furloughed.

We don't doubt that it's a tough thing to stare employees in the face and inform them that their services might no longer be needed. But what makes, or should make, school district employees immune from feeling the same anxiety that many coal miners, mill workers, laborers and social service workers have felt during their working lives?

We are not trying to be anti-school district here. We are just saying that this particular sector of the employment spectrum has had it so good, for so long, that they think the world is coming to an end when the status quo can't be maintained.

In their defense, it is patently unfair that school districts are required by law to pass a budget sometimes without exactly what their state subsidy will be. But that's not the end of the world, even in Albert Gallatin's case. If you are requried by the teachers' contract to send out potential furlough letters by a certain date, you do it. If you are required to actually lay off some teachers because you don't have the money, you do it. And when the state funding comes through, you call some or all of them back as financial conditions allow.

That might be a novel concept to school districts, but it happens in the private sector all the time.

Maybe we missed it, but we don't recall reading where Albert Gallatin teachers agreed to accept a one-year pay freeze, as teachers in some other districts in the state have done, in order to help out with the budget crisis. And we don't recall reading where Bezjak has agreed to lead by example and take that step, as administrators in some other districts have done.

While we would never want to cite Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, as a source for a doctoral thesis, we did find these facts listed there regarding the Albert Gallatin Area School District.

Although some of the information listed here is a few years old, it does gives some indication of where the district stands, relative to its peers:

The district's administrative costs per pupil, in 2008, were $730 per pupil. The lowest administrative cost per pupil in Pennsylvania was $398 in 2008.[46]

In 2009, the district reported employing over 300 teachers with a salary range of $31,400 to $100,000 for 184 days.[47] Teachers receive a benefits package that includes: health insurance, life insurance, reimbursement for college courses, paid personal days, sick days, paid bereavement leave, and a defined benefits pension.[48] Additional compensation is paid for after school activities, training time, and required meetings.

In 2007, the district employed 252 teachers. The average teacher salary in the district was $48,979 for 180 days worked.[49] As of 2007, Pennsylvania ranked in the top 10 states in average teacher salaries. When adjusted for cost of living Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation for teacher compensation.[50] Additionally, the teachers receive a defined benefit pension, health insurance, professional development reimbursement, personal days, sick days, and other benefits.[51]

In 2008, the district reported spending $12,139 per pupil which ranked 257th in the state.[52]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Watch your wallet in Mustang country

We knocked on the door of House 222 here in the patch, and asked 99-year-old Stutta Bubba if we could again borrow her crystal ball to make a quick prediction.

"Vat for?" she wanted to know. "And make it quick. I am in middle of making halushki."

When we told her that we wanted to predict whether the Laurel Highlands School Board would be raising property taxes, Stutta Bubba slammed the door in our face. "You don't need crystal ball to make dat prediction. It is done deal."

Based upon what board members and administrators are saying, and more importantly are not saying, we would have to agree with the patch matriarch.

All school districts in Pennsylvania are struggling, because the increased state operating subsidy they count on like clockwork isn't going to automatically roll in this year. That means some tough choices have to be made.

Gov. Tom Corbett has asked all school district employees, including administrators and teachers, to accept a one-year pay freeze in order to help out. Your chance of winning the Powerball drawing is greater than seeing even two Fayette County school districts agree to that.

Another option is to cut staff. That's going to be tough in a county where one of the unspoken duties of a school board member is, in many cases, to be a job creator for family members. It would be easier to find a coal baron still living in Brownsville than to find a board member willing to sacrifice the gainful employment of his or her relative(s).

Which brings us to option number three, raising taxes. And that's what leads us to boldly predict that Laurel Highlands property owners are about to get soaked.

In the story "LH board struggling with budget," published in the Herald-Standard on June 2, the public relations groundwork for this tax hike was plainly laid down.

The first clue comes in the lead paragraph: Even if the Laurel Highlands School District puts every penny of its estimated $2.9 million fund balance into the 2011-12 budget, it will still have a $900,000 shortfall.

This gives the subliminal impression that the school board is in such dire straits, it may have no choice but to raise taxes.

The next clue is this quote from board member Jim Tobal: “It seems like we can get through this year, but if we spend all of our fund balance, where will we be next year?” Tobal is softening up the tax hike beach, even though he has no real clue what the state subsidy will be two years from now. He should solve this year's budget crisis and cross next year's budget bridge when he comes to it. Also, as a retired LH schoolteacher and thus a recipient of the district's generous retirement policies, Tobal is used to seeing the money roll in from one source or another year after year.

The third clue comes from LH curriculum director Randy Miller, who said, “We’re not just looking at the cuts, we’re also looking at how we can bring in additional income.” You can bet your sweet bippy that the "additional income" Miller speaks of isn't going to be generated by a hoagie sale, hosting bingo in the auditorium or passing the hat at the next football game.

While Miller did say the school district is looking into the possibility of layoffs, we doubt that those will amount to much if they even occur. If anyone gets the ax, look for it to be support staff like janitors and cafeteria workers, not administrators. And we have a sneaky suspicion that anyone who has a strong board connection will still be collecting a paycheck when the dust clears.

Part of the problem with Laurel Highlands is in its generous policies, like the one that provides retirees with $100 for each unused sick day. What private employer in Fayette County provides a benefit like that?

Another part of the problem, for Fayette County school districts in general, is that they give out multi-year contracts to employees that are predicated on steady increases in state subsidy. When that fails to happen, as appears to be the case this year, they inevitably turn to the taxpayers with the explanation that, "We have all these fixed costs, so we have no choice but to raise taxes."

That is a lie. They have other options, which include, in order: laying off employees, reopening contracts to reduce wages and benefits, and negotiating new contracts predicated on current economic realities.

We wish the Herald-Standard would have the courage to do some simple math and inform the public just how much of a millage rate increase would be required to close an existing $900,000 deficit. That would give people at least a rough idea of what is lurking around the corner.

What are friends for?

Here in the patch, we think you would be hard-pressed to find a newspaper as closely intertwined with the local power structure that it is supposed to be covering than is the Herald-Standard.

"With the help of our partner, the Herald-Standard, we have launched a major “Buy Local” initiative that emphasizes the important part that locally owned businesses play in our economy." That's a quote from Stephen Neubauer, taken straight from the 2009 annual report of Fay-Penn Economic Development Council. It is readily available online at

In the same annual report, Neubauer, Fay-Penn's chairman, also states, "For the first time in fifty years, Fayette County has finally arrived to the point where there are abundant job opportunities. This seems to contradict the local unemployment statistics. No longer
can it be said that the problem with Fayette County is the lack of jobs."

We don't recall the Herald-Standard ever investigating this bold claim, but hey, maybe that's what "partners" are for.

The love goes both ways, apparently.An April 22, 2011 story titled, "Buy Local -- Program celebrates one year anniversary," featured a prominent color photo of Neubauer seated with Fay-Penn head honcho Mike Krajovic, Connellsville Chamber of Commerce president Bryan Kisiel and Herald-Standard publisher Val Laub.

Here is a section of that story, unedited and printed verbatim:

The Herald-Standard, said (Fay-Penn's Bob) Junk, has been a key partner in the development of the Buy Local initiative which evolved from the newspaper's Spin It program.

Val Laub, Herald-Standard publisher, said that program participants, whether a business or consumer, benefit from it.

"Everybody wins," he said. "Everybody gets something out of it. Community members save money through the support of local commerce and business owners are able to support their families and provide jobs."

Teamwork, said Laub, will help Fayette County. "We have to work together," he said.

Most newspapers strive to remain independent and to eliminate any appearance of "teamwork" with those they are supposed to cover. During Watergate, we can't imagine Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham sitting on a stage next to President Richard Nixon, saying, "Teamwork is needed to move the country forward. We have to work together."

When it comes to county government, the Herald-Standard's willingness to form partnerships manifests itself on two very visible fronts.

First, there is the funnelling of county hotel tax dollars -- currently $70,000 -- toward the operation of Fayette County TV. There is no hiding the fact that this money is being used to help make productive use out of the former HSTV studio and building. Nor is it a secret that the newspaper has been effusive in its praise of the two county commissioners that support this arrangement, while condemning the one who has raised questions.

The second front is self-explanatory if you just read the headline of this May 29 story: "County, H-S teaming up for charity softball game." Right off the bat, we won't dispute that this game benefits a good cause, fighting cancer, and we hope this year's game sets an attendance record.

But we find more than a touch of irony in the fact that editor Mark O'Keefe and county commissioners Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky have decided to officially play on the same team .(It is also interesting that Zapotosky is now in that mix, since the managers for this game have long been O'Keefe leading a newspaper team and Vicites leading a county team.)

“It’s going to be different playing with the commissioners instead of against them, but it should be a lot of fun and we’re really looking forward to the game,’’ said O’Keefe in that story.

Again, we repeat that this game is for a good cause and we have no quibble with that. But using our Watergate analogy, we also have a hard time imagining Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein "teaming up" with White House officials John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman for a charity softball game.

This annual softball game is O'Keefe's brainchild, and he has long partnered with Vicites in pulling it off.

Back to the primary proponents of the Buy Local program, which encourages Fayette County residents to spend their cash on local businesses:

1. The Herald-Standard's corporate headquarters are located in Levittown, near Philadelphia.

2. The preparer of Fay-Penn's 2009 Form 990 IRS tax form, readily available online at the Guidestar website, is a firm located in Pittsburgh.

3. When the Herald-Standard did a story earlier this year on Neubauer's flower shop being selected to provide flowers for the inauguration of Gov. Tom Corbett, it said he was checking out floral shop supplies in Atlanta when he got the news.

Buy local, indeed.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fair and balanced?

Here in the patch, we are starting a drive to collect old telephone books to donate to the Herald-Standard. That way, its reporters would have no excuse for not calling and including all sides in a news story.

The impetus for our altruism? Monday's story titled, "Mining operations near historic church resume without county authorization." It detailed how a company operating a strip mine near the Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church and cemetery in Dunbar Township has revived that work, even though the Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board still has not granted it the required special exception permit to conduct such activity.

In order of appearance, here are the sources quoted in Monday's story regarding the resumption of strip mining: Nathanael Parker, the attorney for the strip mining company.

That's it. A grand total of one source, who predictably poo-pooed the situation. "They can't leave a strip cut like that. DEP (the Department of Environmental Protection) sould have cited us. We have a situation here," said Parker.

Thus, the public is left with the impression that this poor little strip mining company had no choice but to resume its illegal activity, lest a big state agency come down hard. But is that true?

A simple phone call to the DEP could have verified or debunked Parker's explanation. Does the DEP have the ability to trump local zoning laws? If so, did it order that this be done in this instance? Or is Parker just dishing out some BS?

A second phone call should have been made to the Fayette County Zoning Office, which is charged with enforcing the county's zoning laws. The question to ask them would be, "Can or should this company be investiated or fined by your office for operating without the required special exception permit?"

A third phone call, for any news operation seeking to be fair and balanced, should have gone out to someone affiliated with the Laurel Hill Prwesbyterian Church. As the other side in this controversy, one would think that their perspective would be vital.

In a prior story on May 8, the Herald-Standard quoted these pro-church sources: the Rev. Peter Malik, church member Karen Babyak of Perryopolis, church member Tom Fosbrink and church member Alberta Herber. It took us all of three second to find this story on the Internet.

It took another three seconds to find the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's story on the same public hearing. That story identifies and quotes the church's attorney, Thomas Earhart.

If you are going to call the company's attorney for comment on a story, shouldn't you also call the church's attorney for his side? That seems pretty fundamental to us.

But even if we didn't feel that way, at least one person of significance says he does. Herald-Standard editor Mark O'Keefe informed the reading world, in a Dec. 5, 2010 column, that, "Our aim is to give all sides a fair airing of their views."

We will let you judge whether that happened with Monday's story.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jive Talkin'

Throughout human history, one of the things that totalitarian regimes seek to do is stifle dissent. That's why political opponents are eliminated or sent to Siberia, why books (and the ideas contained within them) are burned, and why great emphasis is placed on controlling the flow of information.

So it was with great interest -- and more than a chuckle or two -- that we here in the patch listened to WMBS talk show host Mark Rafail on Friday, as he attempted to explain away the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's story on the firing of his predecessor, the iconic Bob Foltz.

Engaging in a brand of intellectual contortionism that would have won him a gold medal if there were such a sport, Rafail first attempted to make the story about HIM, even though his name was mentioned only in passing. He then proceeded to bad-mouth the Pittsburgh newspaper, calling it "an outside entity writing articles about Fayette County without the facts."

The Post-Gazette, crowed Rafail, doesn't even deliver its newspaper in Fayette County on Monday through Friday. And its reporter, said spinmeister Rafail, erred by writing that the Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board (of which Rafail is an alternate member) aids people in getting special exception permits to conduct natural gas drilling.

Rafail trivialized the role of the Zoning Hearing Board, making it sound like obtaining a special exception permit is a perfuntory process. It is not. The Zoning Hearing Board is a quasi-judicial body, and its proceedings are quite formal, with all testimony being transcribed by a trained stenographer. There is no guarantee that anybody who seeks a special exception will get one; and two people seeking the same special exception using the same logic are not guaranteed the same outcome.

The only reason someone seeks a special exception permit in the first place is because what they want to do with their property falls outside of its zoned uses. There is a list of things you can do with the property when that happens -- these are the "special exceptions" -- but it requires approval of the three-person Zoning Hearing Board.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with the firing of Foltz, or the legitimacy of the Post-Gazette story. We agree that if Rafail were mentioned in the story, even in passing, that he should have been called for comment. But what was he going to say? "I can't comment on why Foltz was fired, but let me give you a civics lesson on how the Zoning Hearing Board works. And by the way, keep your stinkin' paper out of Fayette County. We don't like outsiders round these here parts."

Here's what Rafail actually DID say on the air Friday: "I don't see how any of this is relevant to life ... In Fayette County, we want facts, we don't want fiction ... If you want to write about Fayette County, write about the good things."

And our favorite Rafailism, concerning the Fayette County commissioners: "If they're doing something wrong, I'm going to say it." We have a sneaky suspicion that listeners will wait a long time to hear any criticism of substance from Rafail, who on Friday suggested that his listeners "can talk about how nice the weather is today."

Oh, and the guy who wants people to write only about the good things in Fayette County also wanted his listeners to share their views on the "Ice Cream guy," who had reportedly gotten into an altercation with another ice cream truck driver, then reportedly got into a confrontation with his boss in a separate incident.

Let's get this straight: On the one hand, you want only those stories that show Fayette County in a positive light, but on the other hand you want to promote the type of story that makes folks on the outside laugh at us?

On Friday, we also heard Rafail challenge his listeners by asking them for suggestions for a new theme song for his show. We have one: "Jive Talkin' " by the Bee Gees.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don't call us, we'll call you

You would think that a newspaper story bearing the headline, "Fayette radio host says shale criticism led to firing" might be something of interest to folks in Fayette County, Pa. And you might guess that any newspaper claiming to best serve that readership would be the likely source of that story's publication.

Guess again.

The aforementioned story, on last month's pre-election firing of long-time WMBS radio talk show host Bob Foltz, appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 30.

That it did not appear in the Herald-Standard has left more than one person here in the patch scratching his head. After all, we did read this boast from editor Mark O'Keefe, in his Dec.5, 2010 column "Ethics issues taken seriously": It's paramount that our newsroom maintains its independence and covers stories objectively. It's what we're trained to do. Our aim is to give all sides a fair airing of their views.

Independence? Objectivity? A fair aiting of all views?

Then why, pray tell, have O'Keefe and the newsroom he ostensibly leads played deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to any coverage of what happend to Foltz? Certainly they cannot pretend it was unnewsworthy, when a big metropolitan paper 50 miles away sees its news value. If this head-in-the-sand approach keeps up, perhaps the Herald-Standard should change its motto to, "Ignorance is bliss."

Over at the church bingo Friday night, one of our neighbors, who has a cousin who knows Foltz pretty well, found out that the affable ex-talk show host sent a letter detailing his side of the firing to ALL area newspapers, including the Herald-Standard. The cousin says that while the Post-Gazette used the letter as a starting point and quickly put a reporter on the story, all Foltz got from the Herald-Standard was a phone call from O'Keefe, saying the Herald-Standard couldn't run his letter.

Fayette Countians should be asking themselves one simple question: If the Post-Gazette can do ""what we're trained to do," and "give all sides a fair airing of their views" -- to borrow O'Keefe's own phraseologies -- what is keeping his newspaper from doing the same thing?

In the Post-Gazette story, Foltz is quoted thusly: "It amazes me that the station took this stance. It was a combination of politics and (comments on) the drilling" that forced him out.

The Post-Gazette, doing the job as it should be done, also printed this rebuttal by WMBS station manager Brian Mroziak: "The natural gas stuff had absolutely nothing to do with Bob being let go."

We doubt that entirely, but what's more interesting to us is that Mroziak apparently didn't rebut Foltz' belief that politics was also a factor. When we turn on the radio and in Foltz' old spot hear Mike Krajovic, the head of Fay-Penn Economic Development Council who gets a $180,000 a year compensation package, blather on about high gasoline prices and the national energy picture, the handwriting on the WMBS wall becomes a tad more visible. Especially when the "host" of that particular show is Fay-Penn employee Bob Junk.

What is keeping the Herald-Standard from doing a news story, other than an unwillingness or inability to tackle any real controversy?