Wilkes-Barre Area in a fight to save our schools.

        I would like to say this is a good story,  but it is not. This story is the setup for the final death knell for a crumbling city.  Wilkes-Barre was a coal mining city.  It is right next to the Susquehanna River,  the polluted part.  It has always been a home to the working man. I was born here in 1974 in a hospital that closed.  Anyone from the area would remember Mercy Hospital.  My 2 kids and my wife were also born in this hospital. Wilkes-Barre was a good city.  Over the years drugs,  crime,  corrupt politicians,  corrupt judges and recession has decimated it.  It is a shadow of its former self.  The mayor is proud of the service jobs he “created”,  while the city hemorrhages good jobs and people.  We are the home of the Kids for Cash Scandal,  the one where the judges put juveniles in a facility for a kickback and the home of the gas scandal.  67,000 gallons of gas went missing and not a soul was prosecuted.                      

        I graduated from one of our 3 high schools,  Meyers,  my wife graduated from our rival,  GAR. The other school in our area is Coughlin.  Meyers and GAR are neighborhood schools and Coughlin is downtown serving the outskirts of our city and the northern part.  There are about 42,000 people in Wilkes-Barre.  The median income is $20,000 below the Pennsylvania average. We are such a poor area,  every child gets a free lunch in school.  The kids cafe and other programs for poor kids are packed full.  My home is struggling.

        The Wilkes-Barre Area School District serves an estimated 82,000 people.  It has about 6,800 students,  about 40% of which are minorities.  We have 9 schools and 1 charter school.  Elementary schools are: Kistler,  Dodson,  Heights,  Dan Flood,  and Solomon,  which also has our only middle school.  Bear Creek Community Charter School is a public charter,  that just built a new school.  Our high schools are Meyers,  GAR,  Coughlin. Mackin,  a school that was closed,  is being redone and will temporarily house Coughlin 9th and 10th graders,  unsure of its later use. In 2007 we ranked 128 in the state in testing.  In 2011 we dropped to 423 out of 501.  Around 2006 Meyers was in danger of closing.  The engineering firms deemed it unsafe.  But a concerted effort by citizens saved it and money was thrown at it. It was a band aid.  The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board has had corruption issues as well.  Several years ago board members were caught accepting money for teaching positions,  among other things.  Very trustworthy group.

          Fast forward to 2014. At some point the superintendent was informed of safety issues at Meyers.  They quickly went to work to determine the extent of damage at all schools.  It was deemed the Meyers and Coughlin were in bad shape.  The district conducted a feasibility study.  They also had 2 groups working to look for a solution.  One was made up of teachers and school employees.  The other of citizens.  The 2 groups started their work,  looking for new sites and ideas of how to build schools or school to better serve our kids.  A couple weeks after the groups started meeting,  the board informed them that they had a $100 million limit and could 9nlt choose from existing school properties.  Essentially the groups had 2 properties to choose from. Coughlin is about 2.4 acres and Meyers is 7.7 acres. Coughlin is in downtown,  Meyers is a bit out of the center city. The groups came up with 3 proposals. 
1) keep all 3 schools.  Rebuilding or renovating Meyers.  Rebuilding Coughlin at its current site or at the Solomon site.
2)rebuild Coughlin and merge it’s students with Meyers. 
3)rebuild Meyers and put Coughlin students there.

            The feasibility study said Coughlin was shot.  The estimated rebuild was between $65-$75 million.  Meyer was estimated at at a rebuild cost of $75-85 million. Meyers renovations were estimated $85 million.  The parapet was falling down and the steel knuckles above the windows were rusted and needed replacement.  They said the floor shifted 12 inches,  yet there were no cracks anywhere.  It turns out the shift happened as it was being built. GAR needed $20 million worth of renovations. Tops for the 3 was $180 million.  The cap was put at $180 million to avoid referendum for exceeding maximum tax allowance. 

           That is the general story.  Here is where it goes a little awry.  On June 8 there is a board meeting.  The board decided to close Meyers,  build at Coughlin and put an extension on Kistler to house 7th and 8th graders. They threw out every suggestion and came up with a whole new plan.  They also were going to vote to submit Plancon funding on June 10. Plancon is Pennsylvania’s system for reimbursement for school building.  On June 10 the board voted 7-2 in favor of this plan.  This plan goes against all current literature and what all experts agree is best.  It goes against what countless University studies determined was best for children.  But here is where our story gets interesting.

Our district is going forward with this consolidation despite public outcry, statistics citing the utter failure of consolidation, the fact that they are flat broke and the fact that their plan changes daily. The are telling us they are broke but are paying for architects, engineers and the renovation of a school from their general fund. The money meant for the kids and teachers. About $11.5 million of the general fund has been spent on this. Throw on top of this the budget impasse in Pennsylvania and that the District must pay its charter school by November 1. Also that the $100 million bond is not guaranteed, in fact who would loan to anyone who is maxed out. This is a mess that will get worse.

A group of us, part of which is the Wilkes-Barre Area Save Our Schools, are trying to educate the public, while trying to to get the board to slow down. They are not listening to reason, in fact the board president got so angry at the last meeting the solicitor had to quiet him down. At the moment this board is drunk with power and does not believe the public has the right to question them. The board dismisses, makes fun of and general looks at anyone who doesn’t agree with them as the enemy. How can the public work with elected officials who view the public as the enemy? We have tried reason, pointing out the flaws, exposing untruths, forcing answers and trying to find their financial bottom line. They are reluctant to let the public see the books.

The last meeting was revealing. We found out quite a bit with a concerted effort by the public. People asked questions, people behind them asked follow up questions and any question not answered was asked again. The pressure is on. A process that should take 9-12 months is being shoved into a 6 month window. We are making process but it does not feel like it is enough. If we fail Wilkes-Barre fails. The exodus will continue and a once great city will fall into complete ruin.

A non-profit youth sports organization targeting underprivileged youth. Great idea. But can I do it?

        I live in a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It is a lower income city, in the northeastern  part of the state. We are about 15 minutes from Scranton and about 90 minutes from Philadelphia. At one point it used to be a nice place to live but over the years it has become crime ridden. In fact it is number 18 on the list of top murder cities, did I say that right. Everyday the drug use and crime seems to sucking up another kid and spit them out. There isn’t an inexpensive   place for a kid to play and learn fundamentals in a sport. The cheapest  basketball is $50 bucks at the CYC, a place where the refs told me if they called every foul there would be no score. This is an instructional  league. Any type of travel team or AAU  team gets very expensive. Many of the kids around here are unable to play because of their financial  situation. You would think the YMCA or CYC or someone  would offer a spring program or summer program at an affordable  price. They do not. Nor does the city. I wrote my Congressman Matt Cartwright  several days ago asking him for some direction  and he never responded. Who is there for these kids?

         I want to start a non-profit  youth sports organization  for underprivileged  children. I want to concentrate  on 2 sports, basketball and soccer. Those are the 2 sports you need the least amount of equipment for. Less money for families to spend. I want to offer these kids an option other then drugs, drinking, fighting, gangs or whatever else they may get into. I want to offer a kid the same opportunity  a wealthy kid gas, why punish a child for a parents station in life. I see so many incredible athletes who lack the fundamentals of their sport. For basketball at the CYC, you get 1 hour of practice a week. You get the privilege of playing school teams who practice quite a bit more. Many kids spirits are crushed because of this. A kid who I’d fundamentally sound can compete with less talent, causing that kid to carry better grades, stay out of trouble and stick with their commitment. I don’t think we should be getting wealthy off of kids playing sports, AAU and travel soccer teams. Why aren’t the kids coming first?

          I want to be able to defer cost through federal, state and corporate grants. I want this to focus completely on the forgotten youths of a dying city. Anyone who has played a sport will tell you that it helps you in many other aspects of life. You learn a work ethic, discipline, teamwork, confidence and make lasting friendships. Through all of this you avoid trouble or you cannot play or be with these friends. Some kids can get an athletic scholarship because of this, some will get an academic  scholarship because they work harder to keep good grades because they want to play and go to college. It changes how many kids life daily. Why not offer a program that helps them?

         When the kids would enter are program there will be certain obligations  they must meet for us to defer their costs.
1) They must maintain a B average in school. If I a kid needs help, I would like to offer a tutoring program. Education is the key.
2) They must stay out of trouble. Any detention or suspension will be met with the same at our program. If it us a continuing problem we will refer it to a facility to help. We will try not to leave a kid behind. But they must realize there are repercussions for your actions.
3) They will be required to do volunteer work at a soup kitchen or any other program that requires volunteers to help the needy. To teach them empathy, compassion  and remind them that there are people who have it worse. After my daughter did these with the Key Club at G.A.R. High School she couldn’t wait to go back to help again.
4) To participate and help organize community outreach programs periodically. Several times a year. Anything to reach out to help those less fortunate, even if it is a free basketball or soccer tournament. Through this they will hopefully take pride in their community and look for ways to help improve it.
5) Summer programs and clinics that the kids can help teach. Teach them to give to others in order to help them improve their situation.
Most importantly I want to keep them off the street and out of trouble. Have impromptu  3 on 3 basketball  tournaments, 5 on 5 soccer tournaments. For those that want to play AAU or travel soccer, we will offer those programs but ask the kids to hand out flyers or participate  in fund eaising, all with a qualified adult present. I would like in the summer to offer child care to low income families. Several hours a day. Introduce them to a sport, get them outside and active. Have dodge ball tournaments. We need to fight childhood  obesity  as well.

            I would also like to offer affordable clinics for coaches. Youth coaches effect a child more then many people realize. It would help if they had proper training that didn’t eat up a lot of their time or money. Youth coaches are typically volunteers. They deserve some thanks in this grueling process. The better the coach, the better chance a child has. I want to build a facility  with several indoor courts, several outdoor courts, 2 high school size soccer fields and 2 small children soccer fields. Maybe I am being naive, but I believe this is needed where I live and in most other areas. Why can’t we be the template everyone else follows? I know some areas offer something similar to this. Now is the time for Wilkes-Barre  to offer it.   If you want to take your community back, wouldn’t this be a great jumping off point? Now to figure out how to get it done. Any ideas?

Martin Luther King Jr., his dream has stalled.

             50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. incredible speech, civil rights seems to have hit a wall. It is not the will of the majority that has become a stumbling block, but the will of a small but growing group of zealots. These zealots are intentionally stalling American progress, for the sake of power.

Today there are some elected leaders who are just as bigoted as those that fought the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Rand Paul said he supports it, but owners of restaurants and stores should not be forced to serve people they don’t wish to. That statement makes you think he wants to head back towards segregation. The Republican Party supports voter restriction laws that intentionally target minorities. They call themselves purists and Constitutionalists. So do they want the 3/5s law back in place or to take away a womens right to vote.

The Voter I.D. laws a especially focused on minorities in larger cities. These are places where people do not normally drive, therefore many do not have photo I.D.s. A Republican official in Pennsylvania said it would ensure Republicans would win Pennsylvania. Their hopes were that it would remove about 800,000 urban votes. President Obama won Pennsylvania by about 800,000 votes, give or take a few. So in order to regain power they are willing to wipe out 50 years of progress for a group of people treated horribly by the white majority.

Democrats have not fought nearly hard enough to keep MLK’S dream alive. It is a fight that they cannot lose. It destroys progress from a half century in the time it takes to write a bill. Why would anyone sacrafice the rights of the people they represent to be in power? Aren’t we supposed to be the shining example of Democracy for the world to see. We are the example for them to follow. But this is how we treat our own. If they are allowed to remove these rights from people who fought so hard to get them, what will stop them from taking mine because I don’t make enough money. Corporate Feudalism is not our system of government, we are a Democracy by all the people, not just the chosen few.

Martin Luther King Jr. speech was an incredible example of the true American spirit. In the 50 years since we have seen some of his dream come true. We have our first African-American President, an African-American Attorney General and segregation has d gone to the history books. But the last 5 years alone show the shaky ground upon which the Civil Rights fight stands. A Conservative agenda has tried to gut everything that so many have worked so hard for. I hope to see MLKs dream a reality in my lifetime, but our progress seems to have been ground to a halt. I hope my children see the dream come to fruition.

Governor Corbett has to defend another pro-business law.

                Governor Tom Corbett is yet again defending another of his Bills. Several of his Bills, which helped make up his conservative agenda, have been found unconstitutional or dismissed by the Commonwealth Court. This time it is his Gas Royalty Bill. Another pro-business Bill from a man who refuses to tax Natural Gas Drilling Companies and gave businesses another $310 million tax break in his new budget. While at the same time cutting funds from Education and Health Care.

Critics of the Bill contend that it undermines landowners negotiating rights. It gives an unfair advantage to Natural Gas Drilling Companies. Many landowners in Pennsylvania have negotiated drilling contracts so companies can get at the Marcellus Shale.

The Bill enjoyed overwhelming support from the Republicans who control the Pennsylvania legislature. Democrats fought against, but like many issues they have fought against the Republican majority will dismiss Constitutional rules to get what they want. Corbett signed the Bill without public comment. Corbett believes the law enhances the efficiency of oil and gad drilling. He also says the Bill will limit environmental damage and protect landowner rights. Governor Corbett said fracking doesn’t cause pollution, in fact the EPA stopped investigating it. That is odd he mentions pollution.

This law like most of Corbett’s other proposed laws, is pro-business. Corbett uses rhetoric to disguise them as helping people. This is designed specifically to help drilling companies get at all of the Marcellus Shale natural gas. The Fracking process which is used to bore horizontally underground that extend thousands of feet from the vertical well bore. This law allows them to cross property lines as well. Fracking is widely known for causing environmental pollution, as well as making people sick. There are at least 23 known carcinogens in the fluid used to Frack. Why isn’t the EPA investigating Fracking Companies and chemicals? Could it be lobbying companies have bought off the top levels of government?

Governor Corbett’s education budget is preferential treatment masquerading as broad based supplements.

             Recently Pennsylvania gave an extra $1 million in state money to a school district through an unusually specific supplement. Only one district, Hazleton Area School District, recieved the $1 million. As much as that cash strapped district can use the money, so can almost every other School District in Pennsylvania.

There was a bit more than $30 million handed out to a few schools under titles like Small School District Supplement, Small Rural School District Supplement and Third Class County School District Supplement. There are 154 districts in the states 12 third class counties, designation is determined by population. But to qualify for the piece of the $1 million supplement, a district had to have a stare calculated “Aid Ratio” that fell in a very narrow range, leaving only 24 qualified districts. 6 of those districts were in Luzerne County, 5 of them, as well as 18 out of the 24 did not meet the last requirement based on enrollment for the supplement. It seems as if the supplement was tailor made for the full $1 million to go to Hazleton.

There were 12 supplements, 6 went to single districts. With the rest divided by 2 and 3 to 5 districts. The $500,000 Rural School District Supplement went to Phillipsburg-Osceola School District in Clearfield County. The $500,000 Small School District Supplement went entirely to Penns Valley Area School District in Centre County. If size was the only consideration, requirement was 1,600 students or fewer, it could have been divided between 166 districts, 152 of which were smaller.

This is not a reflection on the School Districts who recieved these supplements. With all the cuts Corbett and his Republican supporters made to the Education Budget, any and all schools needs this money. This is a direct reflection on Governor Corbett and his ludicrous policies. All of the School Districts are suffering with him as Governor. Instead of focusing on Education, he has focused on Privatizing Liquor Sales, Privatizing the Pennsylvania Lottery and another Anti-Abortion lawmaker. He has Pennsylvania ranked 49th in the country in job creation. Good job Governor.

A recent poll shows how Pennsylvanians feel about Governor Corbett. 43% of Republicans believe he will be reelected. 25% of Independents believe he should be reelected. Democrats just plain want him outvof office. He is as much as 10% behind his probable Democrat challenger for Governor. Things are not looking peachy for Corbett and it is his own doing. To sacrafice Education and Seniors to give large Tax Breaks to corporations does not endear you to the people.

With Prop 8 and DOMA out of the way, the grassroots movenent for legalized marriage in all States begins.

           The Supreme Court in two 5-4 decisions, paved the way for legal same sex marriage. The spouses now will recieve the Federal Benefits of their partner in only the States where same sex marriage is already legal. These are landmark decisions for the LGBT community and a big win for civil rights.

Now efforts to ban same sex marriage are now intensifyig. As well as those trying to repeal those bans. Lawsuits by the LGBT community for the right to marry are also expected to intensify. The rulings set up State by State battles for same sex marriages. In Arizona supporters of sames sex marriage began circulating petitions to repeal the 2008 ban on same sex marriage by way of a ballot measure. Arizona is one of 29 states with Constitutional Amendments limiting marriage to one man, one woman.

Gay rights activists supported by Democrats hope to repeal bans in several states. Oregon, Ohio and Arkansas hope to do so with ballot measures as early as next year. In Indiana and West Virginia, Republicans hope to institute Constitutional bans, being that they are more durable than laws. Hawaii’s civil union law, adopted in 2011, is hoping to make same sex marriage legal. They have the support of Governor Neil Ambercrombie, who supports the right to same sex marriages.

Indiana, with the support of Governor Mike Huckabee, will consider a ban in January. Possibly putting the question to voters later next year. Republicans in West Virginia suggested there is an urgent need for a Constitutional Amendment to ban same sex marriage. Lawsuits are threatening bans in several states. Michigan and New Mexico are both facing legal challenges to their States Constitutional ban on same sex marriage. New Jersey is facing a legal challenge to the law denying same sex marriage.

My home State of Pennsylvania is still in the dark ages. In fact Republicans enforced Gods Law when openly gay State Rep. Brian Sims (D) attempted to speak to the legislature about DOMA and Prop 8. I thought religion could not be forced on anyone, religion should have nothing to do with politics. Rep. Sims plans to introduce a Bill legalizing same sex marriage. Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that does not extend legal recognition to same sex couples. It us in fact 1 of only 5 states that doesn’t. The legislature in Pennsylvania is controlled by Republicans and Governor Corbett (R) openly opposes gay marriage. His 3 Democrat challengers ,who he trails by as many as 11 percentage points, all support same sex marriage.

These were huge victories for the LGBT community. But it is only the beginning of a larger battle. President Obama supports same sex marriage, so does Hillary Clinton. Republicans of course stand in the way of progress, but would you expect anything less. The party of no, is now the party of HELL NO!

Pennsylvania backlog on Food Stamp approvals caused by lack of caseworkers and focus on fraud.

                   Already being bashed for the amount of time it takes to process unemployment checks and home-energy assistance claims, Pennsylvania is also lacking in approving Food Stamp applications. It has compelled the Federal Government to order the state to improve its performance. Pennsylvania ranks among the worst in the country in processing Food Stamp applications within 30 days, which is a Federal Law. That is according to Enquirer examination of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA ranks Pennsylvania 39th on a list of 53 that includes the 50 states, District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Critics say the backlogs are caused by lack of caseworkers and emphasizing fraud prevention. Statistics say that Food Stamp fraud is quite rare. The results of the system being run this way is that families who are in need go withouts benefits they qualify for.

Anne Bale a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare in Pennsylvania acknowledged the problem. She said the DPW, which oversees Pennsylvania’s Food Stamp program is working on a solution. The USDA ordered Pennsylvania to fix the problem in December 2012. She said one reason for the poor performance was the amount of people recieving benefits. There are 1.8 million Pennsylvanians on Food Stamps. The state also rank s 49th in job creation.

Bale blamed the poor performance on program recipients, saying they waited until the last minute to submit paperwork. If you are applying for the program, are the people informed of a time limit to fill out the paperwork. That seems like a cop out, a bad excuse. It seems more likely the delays are caused by the lack of caseworkers and the time spent looking for fraud.

According to USDA figures New York had 3.1 million SNAP program recipients, yet processed 90.94% of its benefits in the proper time frame. Florids has 3.5 million recipients, yet processed 94.01% in the proper time frame. Pennsylvania’s most recent timeliness rating was 81.44%, far below that of other states with far more program recipients. Any state below 90% must devise a plan that brings its timeliness up to 95% according to USDA rules.

The way this program is run is a direct reflection on Governor Tom Corbetts’s attitude about out of work or poor Pennsylvanians. He said they are to lazy and most are on drugs preventing them from improving themselves. Although statistics have show his opinions to be way off base. The Republican party as a whole looks upon those in need with disdain and attempted to cut SNAP benefits by 25% in a recent Farm Bill that Democrats smartly defeated. President Obama and the Democrats realized during the Great Recession that people needed help and provided it. Republicans, who caused the Great Recession could care less. They are focused on manufacturing scandals to impeach President Obama. Shows who cares about the people.