Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Altoona Mirror. May 29, 2024.

Editorial: Prison’s challenges adding up

Pennsylvania’s county prisons have been a hot topic in the news periodically for much of the past half-century, with county prison boards and commissioners often wrestling with issues like:

— Deterioration and whether to renovate the existing facility or build new.

— How to deal with temporary overcrowding.

— Whether to transfer inmates to counties with available space in their prisons.

— Investigations tied to successful escapes.

— Correcting “weak spots” and that provide a gateway for escapes and behaviors that can lead to troublesome inmate interactions.

— Developing or improving safeguards to keep drugs and other contraband outside the prison walls.

— Providing suitable meals as the cost of food keeps increasing.

Despite financial constraints in most counties, the elected officials responsible for running prisons have dealt with such challenges through planning and efforts aimed at minimizing the negative impact on their taxpayers.

In some cases, their taxpayers were forced to dig deeper into their wallets and pocketbooks to pay for the decisions made.

Meanwhile, the counties that delayed prison-related improvements, purportedly to avoid raising taxes, are still dealing with the issue of running out of housing for inmates and how to pay for the cost of a larger facility.

Over the years, Blair County has been among the counties that could have addressed its prison shortcomings by building a new facility.

But those in office chose to build additions and undertake renovations that created some more housing and helped keep taxes down. But those actions never resolved the facility’s overcrowding.

The temptation to reflect on prison history in Blair and other counties came to mind in recent days because of an issue that “jumped” into the spotlight during a recent prison board meeting — tied to what appeared to be a significant spike in the inmate population over an eight-day period.

The end result of that attention revealed that the prison has more than one way of counting inmates and that the population can change on an hour-by-hour and day-by-day basis.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the county prison still houses many inmates awaiting transfer to a state prison — and the state prison system remains the gatekeeper on those transfers.

Meanwhile, the dispute also brought to mind that it was almost two years ago — in August 2022 — when state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, announced a state grant award of $185,400 to cover the cost of a study for building a new prison in Blair County.

Commissioners said late last year that TranSystems Corp. — the firm hired to do the study — was focused on exploring potential construction sites. And since January, commissioners have convened more than one executive session to discuss potential land acquisition.

At this rate, it seems likely that it will take years to build a new prison. So perhaps our county leaders should embrace all suggestions for reducing the number of inmates — after figuring out how to accurately count them.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 3, 2024.

Editorial: Pa. should learn from creative W.Va. teacher recruitment program

A new teacher incentive program in West Virginia is offering a lot more than a job and some extra cash: The program offers community. It’s the latest innovation to boost rural teacher recruitment, and could offer valuable insights for other states with severe teacher shortages like Pennsylvania.

The “Teachers Ascend” program, funded through the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative and administered through West Virginia University, offers teachers $6,000 to take jobs in Monongalia (Morgantown and surroundings) or Preston counties, both adjacent to the Commonwealth.

But money is just the beginning. Each cohort of teachers enjoys chartered trips across the state, including free access to kayaking, skiing, backpacking and mountain biking. And back at their new homes, participants have access to weeknight social gatherings and community service projects in the neighborhoods they serve. Nearby WVU offers $4,000 tuition vouchers for teachers pursuing master’s degrees. The program even helps teachers land summer jobs.

A program offering more social support for teachers is overdue. As school staffs hollow out, the job description of “teacher” has expanded to include “therapist,” “secretary” and, in some cases, ersatz family. This is even more true in rural communities in West Virginia, where the opioid epidemic has frayed family structures for over a decade. This work can’t be done without proper support.

Although West Virginia’s median teacher salary is fourth-lowest in the nation, hovering around $50,000, the state’s cost of living falls into the same slot. The low cost of living makes the wages more tenable than in other states — and the perks more potent.

All of these perks add up. Integrating into a new community is a process that requires time, effort and luck. By launching a program that includes community-building, not just money, West Virginia may have cracked the code to make a move not just financially prudent, but personally desirable.

The stage had already been set by a larger public/private partnership program launched in 2021. That program, just called Ascend, offered remote workers $12,000 to move to select West Virginia cities. It also had most of the same perks as this Teachers Ascend spinoff. The initiative was backed by a Silicon Valley executive’s foundation as well as West Virginia’s governor. Large applicant pools and positive reviews have brought encouraging results.

Monongalia and Preston counties are along the Pennsylvania border, so some Commonwealth residents may be tempted to hop over the state line. It’s high time for Pennsylvania to look over at our neighbors for recruitment insights — and to share in their success.