Thursday, July 28, 2011

The good old days

In praising the completion of the southern end of the Mon Fayette Expressway, the Herald-Standard brought up a name we here in the patch haven't heard for years: Mike Ellis.

In its July 17 editorial, the paper said: Mike Ellis, former executive editor of the Herald-Standard, in particular, was tireless during his tenure in promoting the benefits of completing the expressway.

In doling out credit and praise, though, the paper also took some time to generically pat itself on the back, noting: We've also been a big backer of the project since its inception and like to think that our support has played a role in its success.

Other people singled out for credit, in addition to Ellis, were state Sens. Richard A. Kasunic and Barry Stout, late U.S. Rep. Frank Mascara and soon-to-be-ex-Commissioner Vince Vicites. (Never mind that it is virtually impossible to find a local elected official in the past 30 years who DID NOT support the expressway with all that he or she had.)

Back to Ellis. We here in the patch had some friends in the grassroots Fayette Expressway Completion Organization (FAECO), including its late chairman Jim Marzullo, both of which played key roles in keeping the highway project alive. (But neither of which got a mention in the editorial.)

We vividly recall those FAECO connections telling us that among the battles Ellis faced as editor was tremendous resistence from within the local political and community establishments. Some of these "leaders" did not think it wise to rock the boat after the project was mothballed during the administration of former Gov. Bob Casey.

Making a stink, and especially a big stink, might mean the road would never be completed, they said. They wanted Ellis to lay low and keep quiet, and stay away from generating what could be perceived as -- gasp! -- negative news.

The most instructive part of this story is that Ellis did not succumb to these pressures. He and our friends Marzullo and FAECO refused to accept the status quo -- and they refused to accept no for an answer.

Because of that stance, today the link to Route 68 in West Virginia is completed, and the Uniontown-Brownsville link will be open shortly. For the first time in history, a limited access, modern highway will run through Fayette County.

But that was in the good old days, when the newspaper was less interested in forming partnerships with the people it is supposed to cover, and more interested in calling it as it was and letting the chips fall where they may.

We will let you decide whether the paper was better under Ellis than it is under his successor. But we know who we would take in any stare-down with the establishment.

Just mail it in

Those seeking facts to support the oft-mouthed contention that Fayette County is "on the move" might want to chew on the list of possible post office closures that came out this week.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke down the closure list by county, which enables a quick comparison and analysis. You can check out their chart here:

Forty-eight post offices in the six-county region are being studied for closure, based on an assessment of floor traffic. Floor traffic, as everyone in the patch knows, means people. Fewer people usually means less floor traffic, because if you have to move away get a job, you're buying stamps in North Carolina, not in West Leisenring.

Guess which county is number one on the local post office closure list?
As hapless Marine Gomer Pyle would say: "Surprise, surprise!" It is Fayette County, with 16.

That's twice the number (8) for Washington County, which has a larger population than Fayette.

That's five more than the number (11) for Allegheny County, which has a much larger population than Fayette.

That's a whopping 11 more than the number (5) for Westmoreland County, which has a larger population than Fayette.

In Greene County, which has about one-third of Fayette's population, 7 post offices are slated for closure. In Butler County, where there has been significant population growtth, only one post office is on the hit list.

The Fayette County post offices that could be headed for extinction are: Cardale, Chestnut Ridge, Dickerson Run, East Millsboro, Hibbs, Isabella, Martin, New Geneva, Ronco, West Leisenring, Wickhaven, Downtown Uniontown, Brownfield, Fairhope, Gibbon Glade and Lake Lynn.

Here in our patch (which may or may not be one of those on the list), we do not doubt the need to close inefficent post offices. One look around, or one look at the most recnt census figures, provides all the evidence we need to conclude that when it comes to population, Fayette County is not on an upswing.

Once again, Fayette County leads an unenviable list, on this one ranking number one for slated post office closures. It will be interesting to see how local leaders spin this, if they are asked about it at all. Our guess is that they will come out en masse, calling on U.S. Rep. Mark Critz and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey to ride to the rescue and halt any closures. Or they will attempt to mitigate the bad news by saying that other areas of the county are growing, so stamp-buying has merely shifted elsewhere.

One thing is certain: No one can solve this problem by encouraging people to "buy local." When it comes to stamps and packages, they have already been doing that, and it apparently isn't enough.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Constituent feedback?

Now that state Rep. Tim Mahoney has put forth the big and bold idea of administratively consolidating Fayette County's public school districts, in an attempt to save money, boost academic performance and have greater all-around accountability, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the man he replaced in office is flapping his figurative gums.

Contrary to the wishes of just about everyone here in the patch -- and probably outside it, too -- Larry Roberts just won't go away. Maybe he dislikes Mahoney for defeating him in his comeback attempt, maybe he fears that his own 14-year legacy of do-littleness pales in comparison, or maybe he's jealous that Mahoney is showing leadership the likes of which he could never muster. (You're not going to make any big enemies promoting cable TV for Ohiopyle Borough, one of Roberts' signature accomplishments.)

But we suspect that the duplicitious Roberts thinks Mahoney could be on to something here, and wants to position himself as: A., The guy who can say, "I told you it wouldn't work" if the idea fails; and B. The guy who can say, "I would have done that, too" if the idea pans out.

We base that assessment on Robert's June 19 letter to the editor, "Caution recommended over consolidation study," published in the Herald-Standard. In it, Roberts reminded us of the following:

When I was a Representative in the General Assembly, I surveyed my district several times a year with mail-in questionnaires. I also held regular town meetings across the district each year. All this was designed to learn what my constituents wanted and needed. It also provided a way for my constituents to let me know how me and my staff were doing.

Several of his surveys included questions about school consolidation, said Roberts, and it was the topic of some of his town meetings. Personally, Roberts said, he felt consolidation was a "good idea," but when it was "overwhelmingly rejected" by survey respondents and town meeting participants, he didn't pursue the topic.

Had I received feedback suggesting my constituents favored school consolidation, I would have provided the information to the county commissioners, wrote Roberts in his letter. (We don't know why he would have given this to the county commissioners, who are politically impotent in such things since the state Department of Education and local school boards would be the big players on this.)

Not surprisingly, Roberts has already prejudged the study being spearheaded by Mahoney, saying he is "opposed to a study designed to convince us that we should consolidate school districts." (Never mind that Mahoney only wants the study to focus on the feasibility of consolidating the ADMINISTRATIVE functions of the county school districts.)

But we're very glad that Roberts is reminding us of how keen he was on getting constituent feedback, through mailed surveys (at taxpayer expense) and town hall mettings, and how he used it as a guiding principle during his tenure as a state representative.

Thus, we look foward to his next letter to the editor, where he can explain how that modus operandi helped guide him through some other tough decisions.

We are certain, for example, that before voting in favor of the 2005 midnight pay raise, Roberts surveyed his constituents, who overwhelmingly told him, "Take the money, Larry -- you deserve it. Just don't spend it all in one place."

When his then-wife got a job with the Laurel Highlands School Board, igniting a controversy that included allegations of Roberts throwing around his weight as a state legislator in order to get her hired, we're sure another constituent survey was conducted. The question probably was, "What criteria do you think school districts should use in hiring teachers?" and the choices likely were: A. Best qualified;, B. Relative of a school board member; or C. Relative of mine.

When Mahoney was first running against Roberts, we can imagine the town hall meeting where a constituent jumped up and said, "We don't want a two-man race, Larry. We insist that a 20-year-old carpet installer with a well-known last name be in the race, too, even if he is a high school dropout. Offer to pay him $100 bucks if you have to. The people have spoken!"

And it was probably at another town hall meeting where Roberts got the idea to appeal the tax assessment on his expensive new home, a move that started a chain reaction that led to Fayette County's first property reassessmentn in 40 years. We can picture the constituent feedback at that scene: "Forget about tax relief for us, Larry; take care of yourself first!" ... "I have been wondering about that 1958 rate book myself, but never got around to asking about it. Thanks for reminding me, Larry!" ... "I don't mind paying more, Larry, as long as I know that you're paying less!"

We don't know whether Mahoney's idea is a good one or not, but we are willing to wait for the study results and add them to the mix before we ultimately decide.

But we don't need to wait even a second to know that when Roberts starts talking, the BS machine is kicking into high gear.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A tale of two school districts

All those Fayette County school districts that engaged in the requisite hand-wringing and proclaimations of, "We did all we could do," apparently didn't get a chance to read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 15.

Take a look at this little informational gem, residents of those Fayette County school districts that got socked with tax hikes:

Sto-Rox school employees accept wage freeze
By Ryan Brown, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sto-Rox school employees -- including all teaching, custodial and office staff -- have accepted a one-year wage freeze in a series of contract agreements announced today.

Teachers' two-year contract deal includes a freeze for the 2011-2012 school year and a 3 percent raise the following year. Support and administrative staff agreed to wage freezes in separate agreements.

"I'm very proud and pleased with our entire staff," Acting Superintendent James Manley said. "Everybody right now . . . is taking a freeze."

The agreements follow a June 24 budget approval that managed to avoid furloughs by cutting open positions and spending in supplies, transportation and technology. Some long-term substitute positions also will be cut, Mr. Manley said.

Sto-Rox took a $1.3-million funding reduction in the recently passed state budget.

"They're making a sacrifice," Mr. Manley said. "I hope our state leaders recognize that."

Now let's compare that to the July 14 story in the Herald-Standard, "Brownsville school board passes budget with tax increase":

Brownsville Area School Board passed a final budget Wednesday that calls for a 3.5-mill increase for Fayette County residents and a 19.74-mill increase for residents in Washington County.

That means a resident with property in Fayette County assessed at $50,000 will pay about $175 more in taxes than last year or about $828 next year.

Directors voted 5-2 on the more than $24 million budget that included the elimination of the district’s music program, requiring the furlough of music teachers.

Directors Andy Dorsey, Ron Dellarose, Andy Assad, Rocky Brashear and John Harvey voted in favor, while directors Nena Kaminsky and Stella Broadwater opposed. Directors Sandra Chan and Francine Pavone were absent from the meeting.

Broadwater said taxpayers could not afford the nearly 30 percent increase in taxes and that the district was $500,000 behind in delinquent taxes last year.

“How much in taxes do you really think you are going to get anyway?” she asked the board.

Brashear said while he does not want to raise taxes in the district, the district has cut everything possible.

“What else can we cut? I don’t want to raise taxes either, but we are elected to do our job however painful that is,” he said. “We cut everything we could cut.”

Dorsey said the millage increase was court ordered by the state to help bail the district out of $5 million in debt from a bond issue taken two years ago.

He said none of the tax increase is figured into next year’s budget.
To help balance the budget, the district cut the music program which includes chorus and band.

Two music teachers will be furloughed as a result.

Maybe we missed the part about all employees in the Brownsville Area School District, from top to bottom, taking a one-year pay freeze like their Sto-Rox brethren. So we read the story three times, thinking we might have skimmed over it. No dice.

In actuality, the Brownsville school board raised property taxes 26.77 percent, taking the millage rate from 13.07 to 16.57. We suspect, strongly, that if the state or federal government raised anyone's tax on anything nearing 27 percent in the midst of the current economic crisis, the Herald-Standard, as the supposed newspaper of record, would at least weigh in on that hike editorially.

We especially like how Brownsville board member Dorsey apparently tried to pawn off responsibility for this huge tax hike on the state. (But we don't discount the possibility that bad reporting may have muddled his point.) But who took out the $5 million in bond debt two years ago? It sure wasn't the state. No, the responsibility for taking out that debt -- and for paying it back -- lies squarely with the Brownsville school board.

We urge the local newspaper to take its head out of the feel-good sand long enough to scour the Internet to see what's going on in some other school districts, like Sto-Rox.

Then maybe they would be better prepared to ask some good, probing questions whenever someone says, "We did all that we could."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time to investigate, for real

We are waiting with baited breath to see how the Herald-Standard handles a real story worthy of investigation: yesterday's news that a state report has flagged two local school districts -- Uniontown and Connellsville -- for possible cheating on standardized tests called the PSSA.

Based on the story announcing this news, "PDE investigating report that flags districts for possible cheating on PSSA," the early prognosis for any tough probing is not encouraging. How can it be when that particular story doesn't even mention which Connellsville schools were flagged in the report?

All the Herald-Standard chose to divulge was that "Third-grade PSSA results from Ben Franklin School (in the Uniontown Area School District) were flagged on the report," and that "several elementary schools in the Connellsville Area School District" were also flagged.

See for yourself:

We had to check out the same story on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's website to find out that the Connellsville schools implicated in this report were: Bullskin Township Elementary School, Clifford N. Pritts Elementary School, South Side Elementary School, Connellsville Area Career and Technical School.

You would think that if you are going to name the one school building in Uniontown that has this potential problem, you would also name the four buildings in Connellsville that are alleged to have it too. Perhaps Herald-Standard editor Mark OKeefe has a good explanation for why that did not happen.

The Post-Gazette also provided its readers an important perspective by noting that the report flagged eight school districts and one charter school in southwestern Pennsylvania for possible cheating.

The Associated Press provided even better perspective: at least three dozen schools, or about 36 of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, were flagged in the report, prepared for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

No one is accusing anyone of wrongdoing at this point. But the perspective of a source quoted in the Post-Gazette story is worth giving to the public, especially since it was missing from the Herald-Standard story.

Andy Porter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed the report, and said this to the Post-Gazette: "If there's one flag, that's something to be investigated because to get a flag, you have to have a result that is just completely beyond anything expected to happen by chance ... I don't think we're talking about student cheating here at all. We're talking about adult cheating."

This certainly sounds to us like something the Herald-Standard should investigate. As a topic, it is at least on par with the fake letter to the editor the newspaper published from Ruth Thompson, the controvery over using tax dollars to launch and fund Fayette TV, criticism by one disgruntled member of the Marcellus Shale Task Force and the Connellsville Area School Board's threat to yank its legal advertising from the newspaper.

All of those topics were judged to warrant saturation coverage by the newspaper, generating front page stories and editorial commentary. But those were easy targets. This one's a little tougher, and even though it does not involve the newspaper's finances or reputation, it is certainly no less important.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Show us your money

Here in the patch, it took us all of two seconds to decode today's story, " begins metered paywall system."

We wondered what was up a while back when the newspaper made a big announcement that is was changing its official name to "" Now we have the answer: it is moving toward charging for its previously free online content.

What's disengenuous, though, is how the paper tap-dances around the most important fact concerning this change.

If written in the inverted pyramid style that is the building block of good news writing, here's a typical take on how today's story would have begun:

Starting today, will begin limiting online readers to five free stories a month, after which they will be required to register with a name and email address to view another five free stories, after which they will have to purchase a subscription to view more stories.

A 2-day subscription will cost $2.99, a one-month subscription will be $5.99, and a one-year subscription will be $59.99, with two free months included in that price.If you subscribe to the print edition, you can get a discount.

To get to this understanding, we had to put on our fishing boots and slosh through a river of pablum from publisher Val Laub, who tried to make it sound like the newspaper is only trying to strengthen its bond with readers by making them pay.

Judge for yourself:

“Our goal will be to continue to provide our readers with news and information as it happens within our communities. We are asking our readers to join us as we value the opportunity to provide news to our general public 24/7," added Laub.

"Registering will allow us to have a direct relationship with our readers," said Laub. “Not only will they be able to comment on stories, submit items of interest and create a dashboard based on their preferences, it will allow us to identify content of interest."

“Having feedback from our viewers and reviews from our online audience will allow us to grow well into the future. How we relay our news to our general public is about to get a lot more interactive," added Laub.

It remains to be seen whether this latest initiative will pan out, especially when there are days when this paper-thin newspaper paper has only five or six bylined stories to offer as content.

Given that the primary competition, in the form of the Tribune-Review and Connellsville Daily Courier, is generally providing better written stories and is not yet charging for online content, this move carries some risk.

But we believe one thing is absolutely certain: is way more interested in getting your money than your feedback. The way today's story is structured should prove that point.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unanswered questions

We here in the patch are used to seeing some weak "news" stories in the Herald-Standard, but today's effort regarding the new teachers' contract in the Uniontown Area School District takes the cake.

"UASD negotiators reach contract agreement" has left us wondering if the newspaper now has a prohibition against asking any probing questions, if it has expanded its list of partnerships, or if it simply relishes dumb-downed stories.

Check it out for yourself and see if you agree with this assessment.

This story shows a remarkable lack of detail. We learn that the school board voted 8-1 to approve a new three-year teachers' contract after 19 months of negotation. We also find out that the new deal "will afford some movement for lower step educators and a change in the health care plan."

But what, exactly, is "some movement"? And who are these "lower step educators"?

A newspaper's job is to make sense of jargon, deciphering it and boiling it down to words the reader understands. That clearly wasn't done with a passage like this:

The terms of the three-year contract state that teachers up to step 15 will receive a halfstep movement retroactive for the 2010-11 academic year. For 2011-12 and 2012-13, teachers up to step 15 will receive an increase of three percent of the payroll. Teachers over the 15-year mark will receive no increase for 2010-11 and 2011-12, but will receive $500 in year three of the contract.

What is step 15? What is a halfstep movement? What is an increase of three percent of the payroll? The only part of the above paragraph that's easily understood is that teachers with more than 15 years of service won't get an increase -- we are left to assume that means no pay increase -- in the first two years, but will get $500 in year three.

We also read that school board member Lloyd Williams is warning that the district will have to cough up another $1 million next year to comply with this contract. Any reporter or editor worth his or her salt should be able to translate that million-dollar figure into the projected millage-rate increase for 2012-13. But, alas, that takes some brains and a little work.

We also find out that: The new contract also offers teachers a lesser insurance plan that will require them to have higher co-pays and deductibles. According to Director Thomas George, teachers will not be required to contribute to the premium and the district will save about $190,000 this year on the total premium.

Before the taxpaying public can decide whether they like this deal or not, should it not be informed of what are these "higher co-pays and deductibles"? If the copay rises from $10 to $11, that is a far different animal than it if rises from $10 to $100. A deductible that rises from $500 to $1,000 is one thing; one that rises from $500 to $2,500 is something else.

We would also ask why the teachers won't have to contribute to the monthly premium, which is the norm for most private employers, and how much that move might have saved beyond the $190,000 cited by director George.

A school district story that leaves so many unanswered questions doesn't deserve any grade better than a D.