Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Busy Night at Blue Ridge - 3.9.2009

The Blue Ridge School Board covered a lot of ground at its meeting on March 9th, including a brief concert, an executive session, notes on budget preparations, and even a couple of mildly contentious issues on the main agenda.

The meeting began with a new tradition started by High School Principal Scott Jeffery, who introduced two seniors with outstanding records of achievement and nominated for recognition by the faculty. Briana Whitehead and Jason Bennett recited long lists of accomplishments during their Blue Ridge careers. Ms. Whitehead plans to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania next year. Mr. Bennett hopes to attend Lockhaven University.

Eight fifth-graders under the direction of Elementary School Music Teacher Kristen Small next entertained the board with 4 songs – 2 of them sung together as a “partner song.” Ms. Small accompanied the members of the 5th Grade Girls’ Select Choir on piano and guitar, and all were warmly applauded.

The formal meeting was actually preceded by a gathering of the Board’s Activities Committee, whose members heard a proposal to establish a “Diversity Club” in the High School (and perhaps the Middle School) presented by a most articulate and self-assured young lady, Amanda Rispoli. Committee members Mr. Jeffery, Dawn Franks, Activities Director James Corse, and others gave the idea serious consideration, concerned only about the possible expense of adding another advisor to Schedule B.

According to Ms. Rispoli, the club would be open to all students, and would offer speakers and workshops in an effort to “Make Blue Ridge a more accepting school to all minorities,” and “promote tolerance and understanding.” One of the major objectives of the group would be to “help students struggling with bullying behaviors and/or harassment due to diversity issues” using the techniques of “peer mediation,” which would expect trained students to intervene to minimize the impact of bullies and promote awareness.

Ms. Rispoli’s name appeared again later in the agenda when she and fellow sophomore Sarah Parsons were named to the District’s Strategic Planning Team.

And still before the business meeting could really get under way, Board President Harold Empett called an executive session that he said would consider an “employee compensation issue.” When the Board reassembled to resume the public meeting, an item was added to the formal agenda, to pay teachers $21 per hour for “lost planning time.” The same measure was rejected by the Board in January nearly unanimously.

Under the teachers’ contract, the faculty are allowed 40 minutes each day to plan their lessons. Occasionally a teacher will be asked to fill in when a regular substitute cannot be found, often using this planning period. Apparently the teachers asked the Board to reconsider its prior decision. Mr. Empett did not say why he felt it necessary to rehash the matter in a closed executive session, except that it involved his discussions with the solicitor.

In any case, with the matter before the Board a second time, all but Joel Whitehead this time voted to approve the compensation. There was no public discussion prior to the vote this time.

The Board has been energetically revising its book of policies recently. This time they adopted a policy covering background checks for volunteers, and use of Internet facilities at the campus by members of the community. Mr. Whitehead had some concerns about details regarding the conduct of meetings in another policy, enough so that his colleagues agreed to postpone further consideration. He also asked for a minor change in another proposed policy that defines the authority of individual Board members.

The Board approved a new budget for the North-Eastern Intermediate Unit #19 which will raise Blue Ridge’s contribution to the IU’s overall budget of some $26 million by about $400.

Members also approved a contract with public broadcasting station WVIA to provide the “V-Media” program at a cost of $1,200. The V-Media package offers a number of “enhancements” to the curriculum through competitions, professional development seminars and a variety of TV and Internet-based programs available only to educational subscribers.
Mr. Jeffery announced that WVIA also selected senior Devin Smith as winner of the “Great Teachers” essay contest. The TV station will visit Blue Ridge in April to interview Mr. Smith as well as his subject, science teacher Alec Mazikewich. They are expected to receive their awards on a program to be aired in May.

The Board renewed the District’s agreement with Lackawanna College for next year. Under the memorandum of understanding, Lackawanna will offer college-level courses to high school students in a broadening variety of courses. Mr. Jeffery reported that enrollment in the program may reach 100 students next year.

A representative of the Lackawanna College New Milford office was on hand to answer questions. He also offered to help find instructors for a driver education program, should the District decide to offer it again. A parent attended the meeting to ask the Board to consider resuming driver training, which helps keep down the cost of insuring young drivers and better prepares them for local winter road conditions. The District discontinued driver education a few years ago when it became difficult to find certified instructors, particularly for on-the-road training in the summer. Mr. Empett listed the many qualifications required of a certified driver-training instructor. And Superintendent Chris Dyer said that he was interested in offering the program again.

Many parents and teachers can expect to be surveyed soon. The Board was asked to allow the distribution of surveys covering special education and the technology-heavy “Classrooms For the Future” (CFF) sponsored by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Last month the Board was treated to a demonstration of a new library management system called Destiny Quest, that would help turn the District’s libraries into “media centers.” Members were a little concerned about the cost of the system, some $12,600, which was not budgeted. Administrators since found money for the computer package and the Board adopted it in 3 pieces.

First they accepted the contract for a total of $12,184.36 with the Follet Corporation for the software system, to be paid for in part from a Rural School Grant. Part of the rest was covered by a transfer of some $7,850 from the athletic fund. The remainder will come from a collection of other internal transfers from various accounts. The system will incur a cost of $3,500 per year for maintenance and licensing, but will replace an older system that presumably carried its own costs.
Mr. Empett was a little angry with the way the Destiny system purchase was handled and presented to the Board. Without being specific, he warned administrators not to try this approach again.

Business Manager Loren Small introduced Board members to the budget preparation process with some income figures and a schedule. At the next meeting, on March 30, a workshop will hear the principals’ requests for textbook purchases for next year. The principals will offer their full presentations at the only meeting in April, on the 20th. The Board should be able to give preliminary approval by May 11, with final adoption on June 15.

Mr. Small said that he expects many changes before the budget is finalized. Not least important is what the governor and the legislature will do about a budget. He estimated an increase of about $200,000 from the state, which covers over 58% of the District budget.

Local taxes account for about 38% and are not expected to increase much next year. He said that revenue from Great Bend Borough would be down significantly because of a decision on the status of the Kime apartment building, which would lower assessments there by some $700,000. One mill of property taxes in the District yields approximately $120,000 for the Blue Ridge School District. The Kime building is operated as a non-profit venture, and has been making payments “in lieu of taxes” for several years.

The federal government accounts for only about 3% of Blue Ridge income. Mr. Small said he wasn’t prepared to guess what the effect the “stimulus package” recently passed in Washington would offer the Blue Ridge District.

And finally, Middle School Principal Matthew Nebzydoski asked for the support of Blue Ridge parents during the upcoming PSSA testing period. The standardized tests are important for the standing – and the budget – of the Blue Ridge School District, and 100% participation is significant in the overall results. Board member Laurie Brown-Bonner reported that the legislature is considering dropping the idea of a “Graduation Competency Assessment” (GCA), a test proposed by the state Department of Education that would become a graduation requirement. The GCA is actually part of the PSSA system, and might be replaced by something called a “Keystone Exam” that would be voluntary. The PSSA tests will remain, however, and are part of the “No Child Left Behind” federal initiative.

The next public Blue Ridge School Board meeting will be on Monday, March 30, including a workshop. The full board will meet beginning at 7:30pm. Mr. Empett said, however, that his Facilities & Grounds Committee will meet at 6:00pm that evening. All meetings are held in the cafeteria in the Elementary School.

Hot Water in Great Bend Borough - 3.5.2009

Great Bend Borough is inside a large bight of the Susquehanna River. That’s why it’s called Great Bend, after all. Some of the town’s parks which are on the bank of the river can expect flooding every Spring. The rest of the town isn’t far out of the flood plain, at the base of some hills that drain into that river. So water has always been an issue in one way or another.
And so it was at the meeting of the Borough Council on a relatively balmy night in early March on the 5th. “Water on Washington Street” has been on the agenda for as long as anyone can remember. And now Council wants to do something about excess water at a location on Franklin Street that seems to be backing up into a resident’s basement. The cost of that may affect everything else they might want to do for the Borough’s streets this year.

Then there is the derelict property that appears to be occupied but that hasn’t been supplied with town water for some time. Council is at odds what to do about such a situation. Is it a health hazard? And if so, to whom?

Presumably whatever water might be used in the house would end up in the sewer system, even though the resident is not known to pay either for water or for sewer service. It might be hard to find out for sure as long as the Borough is without a representative at the sewer authority. The Borough’s seat was recently vacated by Maureen Crook, and Council is accepting applications from volunteers.

Gas drilling in the area will need a lot of water, and Council member Jerry MacConnell reported that he was contacted by a representative of Chesapeake Energy scouting for access to the river. It has been reported that Chesapeake has a permit to draw up to a million gallons per day from the river. What everyone wants to know is how will their trucks get to the river to drink? It’s not likely that the Borough would offer the use of their riverside parks no matter how much money was offered.
On the other hand, Borough Secretary Sheila Guinan, who also happens to be a Supervisor of surrounding Great Bend Township, said that one of the energy companies is preparing a site off old Route 11 in the township north of the Borough. She said that her township is contracting to have all of its roads posted so that, should any unusual damage result from the operations, the township can go to the gas companies for money to fix them.

Water makes grass grow, of course. And the grass overgrowing the sidewalks along Main Street have been a nagging concern of Mr. MacConnell for some time. Council President Rick Franks reported some conversations about the topic and asked Council to thrash it out once and for all. The debate got a mite warm for a while, with Mr. MacConnell and Councilman Mike Wasko insisting that, since Council had voted last summer to have the sidewalks on Main Street edged and cleaned up, they expected it to be done.

Council member Joe Collins, who supervises the maintenance of the streets and parks, told his colleagues last Fall that the job was too big for Borough employees alone. He also thinks that edging sidewalks, like shoveling snow from them, should be the responsibility of the homeowners; the Borough, after all, does not own the sidewalks. Others were concerned that doing such work on Main Street would lead residents elsewhere in the Borough to expect the same service.

Many residents not only don’t edge their sidewalks, they don’t clear the snow from them either, despite an ordinance requiring it. The ordinance has never been enforced. Nevertheless, Mr. MacConnell reminded Council that the sidewalks were installed by the Borough at a cost of about $30,000 (mostly paid by a grant) at the time the sewer was put in. He is concerned that the vegetation will eventually ruin the concrete walks and imperil that investment.

In the end Mr. MacConnell dropped his demand for the edging. But then, when the annual Spring street sweeping came up for discussion, it occurred to Mr. Franks that the Borough has paid to have all the streets in the Borough swept EXCEPT Main Street. Last year Council experimented with a collaborative community effort to get the gravel accumulated over the winter collected and disposed of, with mixed results.

Most of this is an effort to spruce up the little town, make it look better, especially for travelers passing through … along Main Street. Council is still considering ideas for replacing welcome signs at both ends of town, and hopes to get better pricing on some nice signs similar to those at Kirkwood, up the road in New York, which are said to have cost about $1,000 apiece.
The rest of the signs in the Borough will probably have to be replaced over the next few years, at a cost the Borough will be strained to afford. Federal regulations adopted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 2006 require all street signs be larger and more reflective. Stop signs also need higher reflectivity. Replacing all these signs by the January 2012 deadline could cost the Borough more than $5,000.

But where to put the stop signs? There is some dispute about the placement of stop signs at one intersection on Washington Street, which all agreed would probably be ignored anyway. Some say that the corner is a safety hazard, yet Mr. Collins said he observed the intersection on several occasions at different times of day over a period of several days and saw no traffic to speak of. He said that placing new stop signs can require a formal survey, which the Borough is ill able to afford.
If they had more – or more reflective – stop signs, who would enforce them? Mr. Collins asked Council if a letter might be sent to the Montrose Police asking them to reconsider their decision not to lease some of their officers for patrol in Great Bend. Last month a representative of New Milford Borough, which uses Montrose police occasionally, attended a Great Bend Council meeting and said that reports of questionable patrolling practices in New Milford were unfounded. Mr. MacConnell said that from what he was still hearing, “that’s not straight skinny.”

Council did decide to build a salt storage shed near the Borough garage this summer. Salt for use on town streets can be hard to come by, and bagged salt is expensive. A storage shed would allow the Borough to purchase in bulk; but the shed has to be built to rigorous specifications so that the salt doesn’t leach into the ground water. There it is again.

And Council voted to adopt the recommendation of Tony Conarton to purchase a defibrillator unit for the Borough building, which doubles as the Blue Ridge Senior Center.

Spring will be nigh – and the river will be high – by the time the Great Bend Borough Council meets again, on Thursday, April 2, beginning at 7:00pm.

Blue Harford - 2.24.2009

New street signs should start appearing in Harford Township this summer, and they will be bright blue, with big, white letters. Deciding just what each would look like, and where to buy them, took up a lot of the time at the Supervisors’ meeting on February 24th.

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Bradco Supply had the original winning bid to make the signs, but then Supervisor and Roadmaster Terry VanGorden heard about a rebate program offered by the 3M company. Purchasers of signs made with 3M materials may qualify for a rebate of 30% or more. Chemung Supply did not win the original bid, but they do use 3M materials. The bids of the two companies were close enough that the rebate might tip the balance. What to do?

The rebate applies only to the cost of the reflective “sheeting” bonded to the aluminum sign backing, and the order must be for at least 500 square feet to qualify. As it happens, the 119 signs that Mr. VanGorden figures will be needed would use very nearly that much, given an average sign length of 30 inches. But then there’s the cost of the aluminum sign blanks, the posts, and the hardware to attach sign to post, not to mention the labor to create the lettering for each of the signs.

Mr. VanGorden asked Bradco to hold up an order for 58 of the signs pending a decision by the Supervisors. Now they have to consider whether the rebate deal is worth the cost of ordering all of the signs at once, since the township budget does not provide for replacing all the signs in one year. Federal regulations adopted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania require larger street signs by the beginning of 2012.

The Supervisors will refine their calculations and make application for the rebate through a 3M website to see if the change makes sense.

In the meantime, they have to decide what each sign will look like. They agreed that the lettering will be in UPPERCASE. For most signs, the “Road” or “Street” part of the sign will be abbreviated; spelling it out in some cases could yield a sign 5 feet long. They went over the list to ensure that spellings are correct. Then there are the intersections that might cause confusion unless the signs are placed just right; and some will have arrows pointing travelers in the right direction.

There are still some cases where even the name of the road is in question. A resident of the Kingsley area, whose home actually sits on part of the old path of U.S. Route 11 was given an address on Route 11. The road now has no sign at all, but Supervisor and Township Secretary Sue Furney said that county maps list “Old Route 11” in an index. The resident would like to have the name changed to Ross Road, if possible, for a family that owned a Kingsley feed mill and lived on the road in the past.

The Supervisors decided to table this one for the time being. Ms. Furney isn’t anxious to start a rush to rename roads again, although she allowed as how this road might be a special case. So that’s one sign that will remain blank for now.
The Supervisors were asked for the status of the project to replace the sluice under Stearns Road at the outlet of Tingley Lake. During the flooding of June 2006, the sluice, which has been gradually collapsing over the decades, could not handle the volume of water coming from the lake, resulting in flooding of a few homes on the lake’s shore. Stearns Road was also threatened with washing out because of the high water.

The Supervisors engaged an engineering firm to develop a design to fix the problem, but have been preoccupied with the bridge replacement on Pennay Hill Road, another consequence of the same disaster. Supervisor Garry Foltz said that he would undertake to familiarize himself with the project again, to see if the cost (estimated by the engineers at over $200,000) could be cut. For one thing, the engineering plan calls for a bypass to be built for use while construction is under way. However, it might be possible to simply close the road for the month or two the project might take to complete. Both Richardson and Wilcox Roads can be used to get around the site, with some little inconvenience.

The grader that the township decided to buy a few weeks ago has already been delivered, even though the financing hasn’t yet been arranged. Mr. Foltz is concerned that the 30-day warranty on the machine – used, but new to Harford – might run out before the township has a fair chance to put it to work. Mr. VanGorden hopes to have the bank paperwork completed by the next meeting. In the meantime, he said that the vendor, Bradco Supply, was willing “to work with us.” The township will get $30,000 in trade-in value for two old pieces of equipment. The remainder of the $60,000 price will be financed with a 3-year note at a friendly local bank.

Mr. Foltz is developing some grant applications that he hopes will help pay for part of the Stearns Road project, as well as for a new and better township web site. The grants he is working on will require 50% matching funds.
The next meeting of the Harford Township Supervisors will take place on Tuesday, March 10, 2009, beginning at 7:00pm, at the township office. Does anyone know why Tingley is a street and not a road?

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