Big questions confront area in elections, schools

In election 2012, what will voters care more about: ideology or competency?

By Mike McGann, Editor,
So many things to write about this week in Unionville from what should be an interesting primary race in a local state Senate race as well as what is shaping up to be another “interesting” conversation about the relationship between taxes and education.

Before we wade into the tax/eduction discussion, let’s talk bare-knuckle politics first.

To but it mildly, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi isn’t exactly the most popular guy on this side of the Chester County-Delaware County line. Thanks to the ongoing fiasco with the Chester-Upland School District, the senator is slightly less popular than leprosy in the city of Chester, where he once served as mayor, and has been hurt in surrounding areas, as fears that neighboring schools districts such as Penn-Delco will have to pick up the pieces if Chester-Upland goes under.

Although Pileggi’s issues are less visceral in Chester County, he’s got some serious issues, here, too. Between his support for having Pennsylvania opt out of the Electoral College, and the recent embarrassing mess with redistricting, a number of people are asking whether the once-unassailable Senate Majority Leader is ripe for the picking.

From here, his biggest hurdle to reelection is the primary, where Unionville’s Roger Howard, with local Tea Party support, is challenging him for the GOP nomination. Between comments on this site and other conversations I’ve had with local Republicans, the good senator is going to have to mend a lot of fences — and many of his problems come not from ideology, but from questions of competency. The senator’s very public misadventures have more than a few wondering whether he’s really up to the job.

The winner of the primary will face Democrat Patricia Worrell of Chester. I suspect that Worrell, a community activist, may be competitive in some of Delaware County — especially Chester, where’s she’s publicly battled Pileggi on issues from Chester-Upland to the lack of supermarkets in Chester city. But, as she has ties to the controversial ACORN group, she’s likely to have trouble getting traction from Chester County moderates looking for an alternative. It is disappointing that a more mainstream candidate did not step forward to run — at a time when the political argument could have been moved from a left/right argument to one of basic capability.

Elsewhere, in terms of state legislative races, there’s probably less drama. Susan Rzucidlo, a Democrat, will again challenge State Rep. Chris Ross in the 158th District — and while I think it will be a race of ideas, both are smart and well-versed in policy — the demographics of the district make it tough for a Democrat. But Ross’ HB 1580 bill to support solar credits has linked him uncomfortably to Solyndra — and as that issue is likely to be a major talking point during the presidential race, a number of local Republicans are saying now that they’ll have trouble supporting him. While that could change between now and the fall, a big Democratic turnout to support the President, potentially lower GOP turnout and then down ballot undervotes — Republicans voting at the top of the ticket, but skipping votes for both incumbent state legislators — could make this race closer than expected in November.

One other factor: Democratic voter turnout is going to be surprisingly strong in 2012. Much like GOP turnout was off the charts in 2004 and probably made the difference in a number of elections, the constant partisan attacks on President Obama are motivating Democrats who might otherwise stay home to come out and vote this November. We saw this in 2004, when what many of us inside politics called the “Move On effect” ended up backfiring on Democrats and turning out a lot more Republicans who felt attacks on President Bush were out of line.

Elsewhere in Unionville, state Sen. Andrew Dinniman is facing East Fallowfield Supervisor Chris Amentas in the 19th District (Newlin and West Marlborough) while State Rep. Steve Barrar (R-160, Chadds Ford, Birmingham and Pocopson) — after having two opponents in 2010 — appears to have none in 2012.

* * *

So the battle for “hearts and minds” is under way in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, after Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Sanville told the school board this week that cutting the tax increase in Chester County (Delco is actually getting a cut because of a change in relative valuation) below 3.71% — the Act 1 Index plus exceptions — will mean layoffs. Going all the way down to 1.7% will mean the layoff of 10 teachers or 20 support personnel.

Although there will be the typical amount of sturm und drang, with the anti-tax mavens arguing for no tax hike, and the pro-education advocates fighting for the current preliminary “maintenance budget,” I suspect a compromise number, somewhere in the middle with some moderate trims to be the final result — certainly under 3%, and probably closer to 2.7%. Neither broadbased personnel cuts nor the amazingly unrealistic suggestion of givebacks from the teachers union less than six months after concluding a deal are going to withstand the public outcry.

In fact, I would go as far to argue that those seeking to moderate and slow tax increases might be wise to abandon extreme hard-line positions and messages — lest voter anger as seen in 2011 make another, even messier, return in 2013, leading to the election of less fiscally attuned board members.

I continue to be amazed at how some local school board members seem to be intent on providing cover for Gov. Tom Corbett and the state legislature — both in terms of the long-term impact of the proposed changes and the failure to look at the mushrooming state pension issue. Is it a partisan issue? A GOP governor, Tom Ridge, and a GOP legislature caused the mess, voting themselves big benefit hikes (along with all other state employees and even retirees) without increasing pension fund revenue — in fact the state and local school districts got to pay less into the fund. And now, it’s payback time.

Instead of insisting that our local legislators — who voted for the pension increase — do something about it, some board members seem inclined to blame the teachers, the only ones who never saw a reduction in what they had to pay. That’s a lot like the police showing up and arresting the car (teachers) and giving a pass to the driver (the state government and school districts) after running over a pedestrian (us taxpayers).

Because the state must cover the cost of pensions — and they cannot be reduced under state constitution — the problem is two-fold for local schools. First, pension contributions will continue to increase before finally leveling off. Second, as the state’s pension obligations for non-education employees increases and you have a governor and legislature that sees tax hikes as off limits, there will be less money for state aid, meaning more cuts — meaning either cutting staff at the local level or raising taxes.

Cutting tax hikes here — and I’ve said this before — enables the continued irresponsible behavior of the state government — aside from causing a slow erosion of the school district. The school board could very convincingly suggest that local hikes be laid at the feet of the governor and legislature as “pass-through” tax hikes, something that would gain a lot of public traction and put heat on those sent to Harrisburg to actually find a solution — whether it be selling the state liquor stores, or coming up with other sustainable revenue sources (the recent fiasco with Marcellus Shale being a prime example of an opportunity the legislature and governor botched).

* * *

Stephanie, the wife, natch, and I had the most amazing meal at Foxfire at the Stone Barn the other night. We both went for old-school gourmet standards, she getting Lobster Thermador, while I went for Beef Wellington.

Both entrees were nothing short of amazing. Add in the fact that all of the food is locally sourced and about as fresh as possible on any restaurant table, and a meal at Foxfire is clearly something not to be missed.

The ambiance — with a roaring fire — was casual but classy, the perfect grown-up dinner solution for parents burned out on “family dining” when we finally get a night out away from the kids.

I’ve been lucky enough to eat marvelous meals around the world, and I can’t say how impressed I am to find such a world-class meal down a winding road in Unionville. If you haven’t been there, you need to check it out.

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  1. D. Randle says:

    “Cutting tax hikes here… enables the continued irresponsible behavior of the state government”

    Conversely, does not increasing tax hikes here enable continued irresponsible behavior by the school district, such as:

    -Spending tens of thousands of dollars to build high school tennis courts that begin sinking into the ground a few short months after construction, and then covering them over with blacktop because “the high school needs more parking.”

    -Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to relocate Administration to the Ponds Edge development, only to spend millions more dollars a few years later as part of a six-year high school expansion project whose goal was to provide more classrooms and to allow Admin to move back in to the high school. A project, which, by the way, neglected to include air conditioning.

    -Spending millions of dollars to build the mansion at Pocopson.

    -Spending thirty million more to expand the high school again. The board completely ignored taxpayer wishes on this one, but at least they remembered the air conditioning. It’s worth the money to know that audiences in the “performing arts center” will be able to watch their kids perform in comfort

    These are just a few examples of the irresponsible behavior by various UCF school boards and administrators that I’ve witnessed over the past thirty years, and, in my opinion, the higher my taxes go the more irresponsible their behavior becomes.

    D. Randle

  2. Observing says:

    “Because the state must cover the cost of pensions — and they cannot be reduced under state constitution — the problem is two-fold for local schools. First, pension contributions will continue to increase before finally leveling off. Second, as the state’s pension obligations for non-education employees increases and you have a governor and legislature that sees tax hikes as off limits, there will be less money for state aid, meaning more cuts — meaning either cutting staff at the local level or raising taxes.” So Mike, what you are saying is that, either way, we pay. Because the State paying for it is also US paying for it. At least we only pay OUR share at the local level. I think the state government and teachers need to start receiving defined contribution plans (401(k) or 403(b)) instead of defined benefit plans such as pensions. This would have to be applicable to “new hires” only. I do agree the state needs to sell the liquor stores.

    • Mike McGann says:

      Yes. But, the commonwealth has a much broader tax base and, in theory (even if practice suggests otherwise) the opportunity to fund public education in the fairest way possible, much as roads and bridges are paid for over a larger base (again, less successfully than one might hope, based on our horrific infrastructure).

      I personally question state spending beyond schools, police and roads/bridges — which is pretty much what the state is supposed to do. But I also question why as a small business owner, I am expected to pay a larger percentage of my operating profits (somewhat theoretical with a start up, granted, although 2012 looks to be the year we move firmly into the black) than multi-national corporations operating in the commonwealth.

      As an actual fiscal conservative — we’ve seen entirely too much recklessness from both parties — and entirely too much posturing. Corbett’s fiscal priorities seem no less politically driven than Rendell’s (we can’t fund education, but we can build ball parks, give millions to movie makers and continue a forced “welfare” program for the state’s newspaper industry) and neither governor (or Ridge for that matter) seem to have a plan designed to foster long-term economic growth or investment in the future, just continuing more than a decade of moving deck chairs around the deck of the Titanic.

      When we can’t educate kids, pave the roads or keep our people safe, it’s not a failure of ideology, but a failure to lead, manage and plan. Ideology makes great headlines and campaign slogans, but governing comes from moderate, careful consideration, and Pennsylvania has lacked that for at least a generation in state government.

      • Observing says:

        Mike: certainly the state’s tax base is “broader” in the sense that more people pay income taxes to the state. However, in terms of our community, increases in state funding means more money coming from our residents as we live in a wealthy/higher earning community. That means we continue to pay RE taxes at current levels (or higher) while our state taxes go up. If we pay more in state taxes the amount of money UCFSD “gets back” will decrease as a percentage of state income tax dollars we paid – because more of our community’s dollars will go to poorer school districts via Harrisburg. There may be some who will argue that this is fine because we are helping the less fortunate – but this is an inefficient solution to our school district’s financial problems. Think of how many millions UCFSD resident taxpayers pay NOW to the state and what comes back in the education budget. Adding more money from tax dollars to the state education budget will just mean less coming back as a percentage out of what we pay.

        • Mike McGann says:

          Observing, I think you are assuming I advocate increasing the net spending of the state. I do not. I actually favor thinning the herd and refocusing state funds on only a few key areas: schools, road/bridges and police.

          The current spending plan is a bit like an old growth forest that desperately needs a good lightning strike. It needs to be severely cut back to its basic elements, so it can grow in a more intelligent, managed way.

          • Observing says:

            Forgive me for making that assumption. You and I certainly agree on the need for a more transformative change in what government should do.

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