The Blues In QCSD Go Way Beyond Gowns

The Free Press    January 31, 2008

The news in Quakertown Community School District has been enough to make anyone blue. I'm not referring to the mini-controversy over changing the color of the girls' graduation gowns, which apparently don't hide enough. Or the dozens of Sunshine Act violations, which hide way too much of the board's shenanigans. Or Superintendent's Andrejko's illegal "contract" with a "solicitor", who privately advised directors how to avoid the Act. This sad news concerns another proposed large tax increase, and the latest findings by the PA Department of Education involving our PSSA's - those standardized tests that some board members, and administration, treat as the holy grail.

A mind-boggling 40.6 percent of last year's QCSD seniors graduated after failing the PSSA's in math or reading as juniors! Say it slowly - forty point six percent. State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak called their diplomas "empty", and the result of a system that tolerates "show up and shut up". Read this together with the 2007 Department of Ed study showing 11th grade PSSA scores to be a good predictor of college success, and our kids are in trouble.

Of the 64 school districts in the five-county Philadelphia area, only 24 were worse than QCSD. Many of those serve inner city or distressed communities like Philadelphia, Chester, Pottstown, and Norristown. Our performance fell right in the middle of the 13 Bucks County systems. But the division is obvious: those that were worse than QCSD - Morrisville, Bristol Township, Bensalem, Neshaminy, Centennial, and Bristol Borough - are all Lower Bucks. We are the poorest-functioning district in Upper and Central Bucks, and behind the nearby Montgomery County systems of Souderton, North Penn, Hatboro-Horsham, and Upper Moreland.

This just reinforces our 2007 SAT results, which show that we are dead last among the seven districts within a ten-mile radius. The academic disgrace gets even worse when read in conjunction with yet another Department of Ed report on teacher salaries: for 2006-07, QCSD residents shelled out for the ninth highest average in the state, and by far the most in this area, despite having the lowest household income.

Meanwhile, the QCSD administration has proposed a budget that raises school taxes another 4.9 percent, although they actually expect enrollment to decrease next year. For anyone who thought that Act 1 would control district spending, this is the fourth largest increase since 1995-96, and a continuation of the trend that has seen our millage skyrocket from 66 in '95-'96 to a proposed 126 next year, a jump of 90 percent in 13 years, more than double the rate of inflation!!! Meanwhile, enrollment increased less than 15 percent!

The district tries to excuse itself for piling yet another huge burden on the community by claiming that it has no control over more than $84 million in "fixed" expenses. Just not so. Our board is solely to blame for most of it, because of the outrageous four-year early-bird teacher contract, handed out in July, 2006, with no public notice, after everyone but the board had left the meeting. In addition to making our teachers among the highest-paid in the state, it also gives raises in excess of six percent every year, and provides for over $350,000 in additional bonuses if the students do well on PSSA's. Remember the forty point six percent failure rate? QCSD paid those bonuses anyway.

Five of those tax-and-spend directors are gone, but Kelly Van Valkenburgh, Linda Martin, Nancy Tirjan, and Zane Stauffer remain. Newcomer Kathy Mosley has joined them to create a majority that continues to empty your wallets in record amounts. This includes a planned $420,000 waste to build a full-production kitchen at Richland Elementary School, so that a few food items don't have to be carried 300 yards from Strayer (a system that works fine for two other schools). And there are $1 million in other "discretionary" expenses, like $130,000 for new band instruments and uniforms. All of this spending is in the shadow of the upcoming enormous tax increase that the district isn't talking about, to fund the $50-$80 million renovation of the high school. You'll wish then that the board had started saving years ago.

There are 38,000 residents in QCSD. Less than a dozen showed up for the January 14 special budget meeting. With such incredible apathy, the board majority has every reason to believe that they can do pretty much what they want with your money. If you don't complain now, don't complain when the tax bills arrive.

Reorganizing QT's Reorganization

The annual reorganization meeting in Quakertown Borough gave further proof that council members need to change some of the dark-ages practices they have inherited. The controversy started when three residents, all Republicans, were appointed to the planning commission - none of them named John Flynn, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for council.

David Zaiser, one of two Democratic council members, objected, pointing out that Flynn has valuable experience as a landlord at a time when the borough is considering the important Rental Property Inspection legislation. Zaiser is right. Flynn is qualified. But so are the others. The obvious question: how was the determination made? The answer is as troubling as it is simplistic...

Borough Manager Scott McElree sounded almost apologetic when he answered, "first come, first served". They merely accepted the first three applications! No screening, no interviews. Not the best, just the quickest. Does anyone out there other than council believe this is the proper way to run the government?

Apparently not even all of those members think so. Newly elected Ed Scholl (R), and Michele Scarborough (D), spoke with McElree about instituting a non-partisan procedure for all future appointments, not just new ones. The positions would be advertised; candidates must provide a letter of intent and resume; and the manager would interview all applicants, new and returning. Technical backgrounds will be preferred.

Although the borough's home rule charter dictates that the manager actually make the appointments, there will now be the opportunity for broader participation.