Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Inquirer. Aug. 20, 2021.

Editorial: School vaccine mandates are key as Philly families prepare for in-person classes

With less than two weeks to go until the Philadelphia School District’s roughly 125,000 students return to five-day-a-week instruction for the first time in 17 months, the key to a successful start to the academic year is going to be trust in district leadership.

That may prove to be a tough pill for many parents and teachers to swallow. Even before the pandemic, trust was a major challenge. In fall 2019 and winter 2020, the district was forced to temporarily close one school after the other because of toxic asbestos conditions. The closures reopened old wounds around class, race, and privilege, with students and parents questioning the decision-making by school officials.

It is against this backdrop that the coronavirus led to an unprecedented transition to remote learning.

In response to district policies throughout the pandemic, in September the union for school administrators made the unprecedented declaration that they had lost faith in district leadership. The lack of trust that many parents have in the district is underscored by a lawsuit two community groups filed over the Board of Education’s new policy for public comments at meetings. The suit alleged that the board’s limits on speakers violated the state Sunshine Act.

In a meeting with The Inquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and school board president Joyce Wilkerson talked about the steps they’ve taken to prepare for this school year and to build back trust with parents and teachers, which Wilkerson called “a work in progress.”

The coronavirus has pushed school districts all over the country into an impossible situation. There are a lot of things that the district got right: It managed to distribute 81,000 laptops to students, ensured students got breakfast and lunch, and made vaccines for students more available.

But there is still more work to be done.

While the School District has not yet required vaccines for all employees — a measure supported by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest union — the Board of Education is expected to vote on a mandate proposal as early as Tuesday. We hope the Board of Education approves the vaccine mandate as soon as possible. And while any mandate will require a period of time for vaccine stragglers to get the shot, the district should encourage as many employees as possible to get their vaccinations before the first day of school.

The sooner vaccine stragglers can get shots, the safer all students, teachers, and their families will be, especially as delta variant cases continue to increase in the city.

Beyond COVID-19, the district is also grappling with a change to school start times, which has rankled many parents who face child-care issues because of the swap. While the district is making admirable strides in systematizing bell schedules across the city — an effort to minimize the time students spend in school and to respond to a bus driver shortage — it’s understandable that parents feel caught off guard by the change.

The district deserves credit for aiding some families with free on-site child care at K-8 schools where the start time has moved earlier. However, there should also be a commitment to reevaluate start times after a period of time, with transparency about any decisions.

Meanwhile, in the background of this extraordinary return-to-school situation, the district is also in the midst of negotiations on teachers’ contracts, which are set to expire at the end of the month. After 17 months of the Herculean challenges of teaching virtually, then teaching simultaneously in person and virtually, all while juggling the demands of COVID-19, Hite and Wilkerson acknowledge that most teachers are exhausted before this school year even begins. It’s hard not to wonder what lengthy and contentious contract negotiations would do to an already weak morale. The district owes teachers a fair contract, resolved quickly.

The district is asking parents to trust them with the safety of their children. The district is also asking teachers to trust them to keep them safe, and to treat them with respect after months of unimaginable challenges. They’ve taken some laudable steps toward rebuilding this broken relationship, but for the 2021-22 school year to be a success, more can be done. A vaccine mandate and a clear process for evaluating the new school start times are first steps.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. Aug. 22, 2021.

Editorial: All aboard? Not just yet

Amtrak released its preliminary report Friday on the potential economic benefits of restoring passenger rail service between Scranton and New York City, and it makes the prospect all the more tantalizing.

Local rail and economic development advocates have attempted for decades to restore the passenger service, which ended in 1970. It was only this year that Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger service, included the Scranton-New York service in its proposed expanded route map, along with potential lines from Reading to Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley to New York. Optimism for restoration also has risen with the election of President Joe Biden, an ardent rail advocate who has included $65 billion for Amtrak in the new infrastructure package.

Amtrak estimated that a one-way trip to New York would take 3 hours, 25 minutes, with Pennsylvania stops at Tobyhanna, Mount Pocono and East Stroudsburg, and New Jersey stops at Dover, Morristown and Newark Liberty International Airport.

A major advantage over previous plans is that the service would arrive directly at Penn Station in Manhattan, so that passengers would not have to change trains in New Jersey.

According to Amtrak, the service would generate $87 million a year in economic activity on top of $2.9 billion from initial development of the line.

It cited congested traffic around New York City as a key incentive for the service. And it identified multiple work and recreation travelers to New York City, and New Yorkers seeking outdoor recreation in the Poconos and the Scranton area.

The report is encouraging but it is just half of the ledger. Ultimately, the yet-to-be-determined cost of operating the service likely will be the key to its restoration. For now, the benefits are a strong incentive to proceed.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 23, 2021.

Editorial: Court rules the Steelers can paint the words ‘Heinz Field’ on a section of seats

Not all of the home-team victories at Heinz Field are recorded by the athletes in black and gold. Sometimes the Pittsburgh Steelers get a win on their home field with the help of the legal system.

State Commonwealth Court recently upheld a lower court ruling that will allow the Steelers to paint the words “Heinz Field” on seats in the lower part of the stadium. The victory comes after a two-year legal battle between the team and the city’s zoning board.

And the ruling comports with a similar and previous approval by the zoning board in another matter. More on that later.

Regarding the case at hand, in 2019, the Steelers first proposed painting the seats in the lower portion of the 68,000-seat stadium to spell out the name of the facility. The name would be visible in aerial views of the stadium and from areas throughout the city, including parts of Downtown and Mount Washington.

The city zoning administrator determined that painting the seats would amount to a sign that would be visible from outside the stadium and would require a variance. The zoning board ruled that such a sign was not permitted under the zoning code, and the Steelers appealed to Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, which sided with the team.

The city then appealed to Commonwealth Court, which agreed that the Steelers could paint the name of the facility on the seats.

The city made the rather dubious argument that painting the seats on the inside of the stadium would amount to an exterior sign, since it would be visible from the outside. The court shot down that argument, saying the sign would be entirely inside Heinz Field.

The court ruling also noted that Highmark Stadium on the South Side, home to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer team, has the word “Hounds” spelled out in the seating area, something the zoning board approved in 2012.

Promoting the name of the facility makes sense from a marketing standpoint for the Steelers. Heinz Field has people in the stands for home games for the Steelers and the Pitt Panthers, as well as the occasional concert. But most of the time the seating area is empty, so why not use the empty seats to identify the facility in photos or videos of the city? Is that any different than the Pittsburgh Pirates cutting the words PNC Park into the outfield grass when it is mowed, or the Steelers and Pitt Panthers having their names and logos painted in the Heinz Field end zones? No.

It was a waste of time and tax dollars for the city zoning board to have dragged this matter into court. Another appeal still could be launched in this case. Victory should be ceded to the Steelers, and the city should move on to more important issues.

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Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. Aug. 18, 2021.

Editorial: Maestro’s contract extension good news for him, our community

A contract extension for James Blachly, music director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, is great news for our region.

Blachly and the symphony announced a 3-year extension on Tuesday. The new pact runs through June 2024 – and we hope he’s in our midst for much longer than that.

In just five years, Blachly has helped this important local institution expand its reach and modernize its approach to performing and engaging with the community, while helping guide the symphony through the turbulence of a pandemic.

Symphony leaders say that under Blachly’s leadership, the organization has seen increases in season- and single-event ticket sales, while experiencing expanded recognition – in part because of Blachly’s Grammy Award in 2020 for a recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison.”

In announcing the contract extension, Mark Addleman, president of the JSO board of trustees, said:

“The maestro has shown time and again his ability to bring together all people of our communities through his innovative programming and creative use of venues. This partnership has made it possible for us to begin to realize our potential, and I’m thrilled to have Maestro Blachly committed to our symphony and communities for the next three years.”

So are we.

Blachly brought to the Johnstown region experience, vision and passion for his work that was immediately evident and has rippled through five years of creative music selection and staging – including shows in local industrial sites, outreach to community organizations and accessibility for music lovers of all ages and backgrounds.

He is an advocate for music in education, including the growth of the Johnstown Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Blachly pointed to “the artistry of our orchestra, the extraordinary team we have in our staff and leadership and the strength of the board” as among the motivating factors in his signing a contract extension.

“The music we perform is for everyone in this community, and we not only welcome the city and region to the symphony, we are bringing the symphony to the city and broader region,” he said.

“I believe in the unique power of music to heal and to inspire, and I believe that this orchestra can continue to be a galvanizing force to help our region continue to grow and thrive.”

We look forward to even greater presence and level of influence from the symphony and its maestro in the years ahead.

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Altoona Mirror, Aug. 21, 2021.

Editorial: Crime report for Altoona is incomplete

Altoona residents have not been sitting around for the past month pondering the contents of their police department’s 2020 annual crimes report, delivered last month by Chief Joe Merrill, who became head of the department in March upon the retirement of Janice Freehling.

Nevertheless, anyone who read Mirror reporter William Kibler’s article of July 13 about the chief’s presentation to the city council on July 12 — and who tried to digest all of what they were reading — should have felt somewhat troubled about what the report did not reveal.

The chief deserves no blame for that. Rather, the problem rests with the Uniform Crime Reporting process to which Merrill and other police chiefs are required to adhere.

UCR is — and always has been — a flawed reporting system that, in fact, has made some communities appear safer than they actually are, while in rarer cases has given some communities a black eye that they did not deserve.

A statistics framework constructed atop a foundation of incomplete information cannot provide the kind of guidance necessary to deal with such an important topic as crime. More importantly and very troubling is that a statistical charade does not focus on the remedial measures that really are needed to address what ought to be subjects of focus.

In the case of the 2020 UCR, the report fails to deliver the city’s need for a bigger complement of police protection, more in line with the 74-officer department that existed in the mid-2000s than the 62 officers budgeted for this year.

Meanwhile, the 2020 UCR charade does not in fact put pressure on Altoona’s competent, dedicated city officials to do a better job regarding their public safety responsibility.

And there is an extension beyond that — to the taxpayers who fund city operations, including the police department, by way of their taxes.

Are they in fact not willing to pay a small amount more for a safer city? Has anyone really tried to find out, by way of presentation of the true story that UCR fails to deliver?

Finally, will there be a serious attempt to turn some of the flexibility that will be possible, thanks to money coming from Washington, into meaningful improvement of the police department’s capabilities?

Regarding the report itself, the UCR’s “hierarchy rule,” which focuses on only the most serious offense in an incident involving more than one crime, makes a mockery of the crimes-committed compilation.

Couple that with a shortage of manpower that, as Merrill pointed out, forces the department to be reactive, rather than proactive, the city is missing opportunities to prevent some crimes from occurring.

All considered, that purported 1.78 percent rise in total crime in 2020 — the number contained in the UCR — is in reality meaningless because it is woefully inaccurate. Part of what needs to happen locally to reveal crime’s true picture here already exists.

That is the National Incident-Based Reporting System that hasn’t reached Altoona yet — a crimes-data-compilation that would do away with the hierarchy rule and provide many more details of criminal incidents.

Altoona and other communities neither need nor want empty, deceptive statistical reports having no bases for true conclusions.

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