17 December 2010

Charter school makes first hire

The York Academy Regional Charter School, a new charter school in York that will bring city and suburban students together starting in September 2011, hired its first staff person. Kathleen Eshbach was approved Dec. 13 as the school's first chief academic officer. She is assistant principal at Spring Grove Elementary School in Spring Grove School District. She will assume her new position Feb. 1. A York Daily Record story this week provided more details.

The hiring marked another significant milestone for the school, which emerged from YorkCounts' Metro-York process as a way to deal with the education challenges posed by concentrated poverty in the city. The public charter school came about through the collaboration of the three chartering school districts - York City, York Suburban and Central York.

School officials are also preparing for the effort to enroll the first group of students. The school will open with three grades - three classes each for kindergarten, first and second - with a total of around 225 students. To fill those slots, the school will soon begin the process of distributing brochures to families in the three chartering districts. Brochures and applications will also be mailed to families that had expressed an interest in the school earlier this year. Parents that want to enroll their kids in the school will be able to do so early in 2011.

Around the same time, the school will begin advertising for the first teaching positions. About 50 staff members will eventually be employed by the school, which is located in the heart of the Northwest Triangle project a short walk from Central Market, the Strand-Capitol and Sovereign Bank Stadium.

Finally, the school continues to add more information to its Web site, http://www.yorkarcs.org/. Go there and get a sense of the mission and vision of the school, see the backgrounds of the people running it, or learn about the admission process. You can also download a copy of the student application.

- Dan Fink

07 December 2010

Mayor Bracey: Another way to protect civil rights in York

York Mayor Kim Bracey, writing in an op-ed in today's York Daily Record, defends her recent position in the discussion of York's 2011 budget calling for changes to the funding of the city's human relation commission.

She points out the enormous budget difficulties that all Pennsylvania cities have, with soaring costs related to public safety, health care and pensions, while at the same time seeing the tax base continue to erode. At a recent city council meeting, as reported by Lacaster Online, she wondered if city residents could be adequately served by the state Human Relations Commission and urged a community discussion of the question.

But in the op-ed, she took a couple of more forceful positions. First, she called out the newspapers:

"Our local print media has called for the continuation of funding. It has been suggested the specific allocation of tax dollars to the York City Human Relations Commission should continued if for no other reason than based upon the ongoing strained race relations in this geographic area. Meanwhile, the same newspaper rarely depicts stories of the lives of people of color as being part of something other than criminal mischief in the greater York area."

Then she said it was simply unfair for the city alone to have to carry the burden of civil rights protection for the community.

"In an ideal world, either the state Human Relations Commission or a county-wide commission would take on the tasks our city commission admirably has done through the years. Instead of the poorest residents in our county subsidizing the county's only human relations commission, a countywide human relations commission would more effectively serve all citizens in one of the fastest-growing counties in Pennsylvania.

Our county has grown to now over 410,000 people, becoming more racially, culturally and socially diverse each year. On a per 100,000 population basis, York County, according to a 2006 study, ranks second in the entire state for reported bias-related incidents. That is in a state of 67 counties."
Finally, she proposes a fourth way - not the state HRC, not a city commission, not a county commission, because she understands the political and fiscal realities. She offers an idea that would bring together a coalition made up of groups that could all have an interest in reducing discrimination in York County.

I extend an open hand to the county, the bar association, our faith community, and the private sector to collaborate on a fully functioning county-wide commission in the future.

Can we build on what we have to make our commission more effective without burdening our county's most economically challenged citizens? Can, for instance, the fact-finding or discovery work of the commission be handled by local attorneys doing pro bono work on behalf of civil and human rights?

Since Sunday morning often is the most segregated time of the week, is there a collaborative role for the York County Council of Churches, their member churches, and church youth groups? Can we work on a Metro York pilot program where costs are shared by a foundation, federal grants, the city and the county?
YorkCounts spent considerable time over several years working to establish a countywide human relations commission through York County government; it was a recommendation in the 2004 YorkCounts Action Plan. The commissioners ultimately decided they didn't have the money to pay for it.

But Mayor Bracey raises some intriguing questions. And YorkCounts would be happy to play whatever role might foster the community conversation that the mayor is looking for.

How about it York? Is it time to talk about this?

- Dan Fink

Public pension primer from Brookings

OK, so the workings of public pensions isn't exactly a sexy topic for holiday party conversation. But I've Tweeted about them a few times recently, noting that state and local governments across the country are dealing with growing shortfalls in their pension funds - meaning that government money going into the pension fund isn't keeping up with the amount of money that's due to be paid out.

And because the problem isn't going away anytime soon - unless there's a miraculous boom in the stock market - you can expect to hear about more strained government budgets and more calls for public pension reform in the coming months.

To help make sense of the rhetoric around what can be a hard-to-understand topic, the Brookings Institution published a primer on public pension funding deficits - how big is the problem, what caused it and how it can be solved.

The first few pages are full of some pretty dense explanations of how pension obligations are calculated. The basic point is that there is a wide range of estimates on the total shortfall of all U.S. state and local pension funds, and no matter which one you pick, the problem is serious and getting worse.

Starting on page 10, the report explores the causes of the problem, identifying several factors:

  • Bad accounting. The actual liability, meaning the forecast of what will be needed to pay all future claims, has been underestated, which has led to more generout benefits packages and lower funding.
  • Risky investments. If pension funds invest too heavily in higher-interest products like stocks, the returns could be higher, but you run the risk of weak stock markets wiping out pension funds. That's what happened across the country during this recession.
  • Short-term political horizons. "Pension deficits can be easy for politicians to hide or ignore for their four- or eight-year term in office, which was likely a factor in the growth of the problem over many years," the report states. Some states even made the deliberate choice of skipping minimum contributions, either because the fund had plenty of money (in good times) or because budgets were tight (in bad times).
Possible solutions include:
  • Cutting benefits or raising employee contributions for new workers
  • Reducing inflation indexing for existing benefits
  • Switching to a defined-benefit plan, like a 401(k)
  • Raising taxes and increase contributions
  • Cutting general government services and use the money for increased contributions
  • Seeking a federal bailout

Read the entire report and this York Daily Record story from November on Pennsylvania's pension shortfall, and you'll be able to offer some informed opinions on public pension deficits that might actually turn some heads at the next holiday party.

- Dan Fink