This website is maintained by Worcester residents who are concerned about our community and its future.
Its purpose is to inform all Worcester residents about matters of interest and concern.
Throughout the never-ending (but actually soon-to-be ended) Conditional Use Hearings which will allow lights to be installed
at Methacton High School, we have kept silent. This is a quasi-judicial process and it is important to avoid attempts
to influence the outcome one way or the other. But based on recent comments appearing online, we can no longer remain silent.
One of the justifications for strong athletic programs at our schools is that competitive sports build character – honesty, perseverence, hard work, fair play on and off the field, etc. These are admirable goals which we assume everybody shares and which most of us would agree can, in fact, be attained through participation in team sports.
Contrary to the misinformation spread online in social media, this is not a contest between those who want lights and those who don't. The two sides represent those who believe the School District should have permission to do whatever it wants to do, without any conditions, and those who would like to impose some reasonable conditions on nighttime activities, as required by Worcester's Conditional Use Ordinance.
Despite the rather obvious fact that installation of two lighted fields at the high school for nighttime events absolutely WILL have negative impacts on neighborhoods around the high school, not one of the "reasonable conditions" parties has spoken out against installing lights on fields at the high school. Most of these people are parents, many of them with children already playing sports in Methacton's public schools. These individuals, YOUR neighbors, are doing no more and no less than what any of us would do to protect our rights to the reasonable use and enjoyment of our property.
The hearing process has been long and frustrating, but there is not one single public example of even the most innocuous negative comment being directed by the "reasonable restrictions" camp against individuals in the "no conditions" camp.
What about the "no conditions" crowd, those who would like Worcester Township to give permission to the School District to use lighted fields at the high school with absolutely no restrictions of any kind? How is this group doing when it comes to displaying the kind of character we are sure they would claim competitive sports help to build? They would like to use their numbers as a fundamentally un-American excuse for trampling the rights of other citizens. The misinformation they continue to spread about the hearings and everyone's role in them has been disgraceful – either deliberately false or woefully uninformed. They have accused YOUR neighbors of not caring about the safety of student athletes, presumably including their own children. They have abused and threatened anyone and everyone who disagrees with them, sometimes by name, most recently referring online to YOUR neighbors as "terrorists" and "disgusting scum" (yes, really).
Is this the kind of "character" we want our children to see on display?? Does this group include parents responsible for their children's character development?? What are they thinking??
So, we ask you to decide: WHO ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS??
At the August 5 School Board meeting, one of the topics under discussion was how to raise more money to
offset the falling tax revenues for the
school district. There is no doubt that school districts everywhere in Pennsylvania are under tremendous financial
strains, due to the cost of pensions and the recession which began in 2008. Unfortunately, the money required to run
our public schools comes overwhelmingly (about 78%) from local property taxes and it is just those sources that have
been hit hard by the recession.
|(See 2014 Methacton School District sources of income.)|
The pro-development argument is currently being made in ways both general and specific by your School Board. At a "special meeting" on August 5, 2014, the agenda included discussions about how to raise revenues. What should be the role of Lower Providence and Worcester's governments? One of the suggestions was to work with township officials to encourage them to support more "economic development." Another suggestion was to offer tax abatements for new businesses, although that seems to fly in the face of using development to generate new and increased revenues. (In fairness, this appeared to be more in a "thinking out loud" mode than a serious proposal.) Superintendent Zerbe commented that the School District should develop partnerships with large employers to attract more residents to the district. Chris Nascimento said specifically that the more residents we have, the more revenue we get.
Jim Phillips (Worcester resident, married into the Sparango Construction family with development interests in Worcester, no children in public schools) offered this comment about Worcester: "you take Worcester, their whole movement has been green as long as we can, keep it green forever, open space." everytime they've blocked development rights in that community that's reduced our revenue in this school district. So when they put in whether it's act 319 which may reduce their taxes by 60% by keeping it a field, that takes away from our revenue. I remember times before you [Zerbe] arrived, we were losing $500,000, $750,000 a year to development rights being bought or stuff going into act 319. Soon as the market started taking a dive and they weren't developing land anymore, the property owners started putting their properties into act 319 to get the tax benefits. And we saw where we had a $500,000 on the negative side for our revenues. So we need to have a dialog with the townships and remind them. You go to Plymouth Township where they have all the malls, their taxes are cheaper. The same house in Worc. that's $15-20,000 in taxes is $3500 to $5500 So, it's just the mantality of the townships and we have to say, look, you guys aren't helping with this because here we're getting more kids in and our expenses are going up , but our revenues, we got to keep raising taxes. We have to put some burden on them also. It really comes down to their planning of the communities also. So I think it's something we should have a dialog to see what they're doing. "
First of all, Worcester doesn't "block" development rights! No municipality can do that. Municipalies have their own zoning codes, which reflect the wishes of their residents, and they must abide by state laws regarding the rights of property owners. Through a comprehensive community development plan (which Worcester has), municipalities can encourage certain kinds of development and discourage others, but saying they can "block" development is a gross misrepresentation of the facts, sounding like something a developer would say whenever he doesn't get everything he wants. And, we find it interesting that Phillips referred to Worcester as "that" community and not "my" community and that he apparently views "all the malls" as something that would be a good thing for our community!
|Municipality||Municipality Millage||Local Millage||Total Millage|
Rates for any school district evolve over many years and Plymouth's current rate may or may not be due entirely or even mostly to the commercial development in that township – there is no way to do a "with and without" analysis in retrospect. Methacton's current school tax millage rate and increase over the last decade is roughly in the middle of all Montgomery County school districts, as shown in this analysis done last year by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In any case, the school property tax difference is decreased once you take into account local property tax. For the same house, the local plus school tax would be $5532 in Worcester (a difference of only only about $9 due to local property taxes) and $3924 in Plymouth because of the nearly $300 in local property taxes assessed there.
It is true that some owners of larger land parcels in Worcester have put their land into Pennsylvania's Act 319 agricultural preservation program. That Act dramatically reduces their property taxes indefinitely, as long as the land is maintained and used as required under the program. This negatively impacts property tax revenues. But Worcester Township has absolutely no control over this program. The program makes it possible for property owners who want their land to remain undeveloped to obtain tax breaks that makes it financially feasible for them to do so. There is no evidence to support Phillips' congtention that landowners used Act 319 during recent years because they couldn't sell their land to developers. Landowners across the state have taken advantage of this program for many years, in good economic times and bad. The more likely explanation is that those property owners simply do not want to open their land to development under any circumstances. No property owner should be criticized for keeping Worcester open and green, regardless of his or her motivation. Although Phillips didn't actually criticize landowners in his comments, it seems obvious that pro-development interests would much rather have property owners sell their land for development than take advantage of Act 319 or put their land under a conservation easement.
Act 319 tax benefits are limited to parcels of 10 or more acres, which severely limits its use even in Worcester. Locally, by far the biggest single impact on property tax revenues has come from downward reassessments requested by commercial property owners and homeowners and granted by Montgomery County. Once granted, reassessments represent a permanent loss of income. Upward reassessment of individual properties is not allowed; only a county-wide reassessment can do that.
In Worcester, the largest single revenue loss has resulted from multiple downward reassessments
granted to Morris Road Investors LP for what is popularly
known as the "Ford/Visteon" property on
Morris Road. (See Montco County property records
website.) In the table below, the bottom row, in bold font, shows the current assessment and the school taxes paid at the current 27.9
millage rate. The other rows
show previous reassessments since 1998 (when the last county-wide assessment was done) and the school taxes that would
be paid at those assessed values, at the current rate.
Thus, the current loss to the School District is more than $600,000 per year – money that cannot be recovered
through an individual upward reassessment even if an improving economy causes this property to once again increase in commercial value.
|Date||Assessed value||Taxes to School District|
What about the argument that each new residence increases property tax revenues to the School District? Yes, it does. But, that is far from the whole story! the difficulty with depending on residential development to solve a school district's revenue problems is that the property taxes paid by individual homeowners do not come even close to offsetting the cost to educate the children of the families who own those homes.
If one makes the modest assumption that each residence permanently adds one child to the public school system, every 25 new homes represents, over the long term, a classroom (with staffing both direct and indirect) which must be added to existing school facilities. Even assuming only 1/2 student per residence doesn't balance the revenue vs. cost equation. This means that by far the most likely scenario over time is that increasing the school population will result in increased property taxes without providing long-term solutions to the revenue problem. Even if this is a simplistic analysis, it nevertheless clearly indicates that building more homes while at the same time keeping school property tax rates constant is a losing strategy which will never solve revenue problems for Methacton School District! In fact, it is much more consistent with the facts to conclude that the more population increases, the higher property taxes will be.
What about commercial development? It is true that a new business generates tax revenue that wasn't there before. But for the development-centric argument to work, the "more money" generated by more development must produce a net financial gain to the community. That is, it must be shown that the gain in tax revenues from development will outweigh the costs associated with that development. There are direct financial costs of development to any community, but there are also less tangible but equally important costs of losing open and green spaces, community character, and quality of life.
In the last 15 years across Montgomery County, there have been only a couple of instances where school district taxes actually went down, temporarily for a year. Even holding down increases in school property will inevitably be more than offset by increased local taxes to pay for the services demanded by development. Several studies of the net costs of development in and around Montgomery County have been done in recent years. The financial argument against using residential development as a "silver bullet" for school finances, as set out above, is straightforward. But more than that, the studies invariably show that the overall financial costs of residential and commercial development are always higher in the long run than the gains from tax revenues. Those studies also show that it is predominantly developers who benefit from development, while the costs of that development are disproportionately borne by residents. Simply put, developers never really pay their own way and sooner or later residents (taxpayers) get stuck both with the financial bill and the depreciation in their community's quality of life. Despite what you are told by pro-development interests, new commercial development never has never provided, and never will provide, a financial "free lunch" for communities.
Finally, there are the quality-of-life issues. There have been attempts to quantify the economic value of open space, for example. But, those of us who appreciate Worcester have made a conscious choice to live here because we appreciate its unique quality of life. We do not need to have "proof" that open spaces have economic value. We simply do not want to look like or be like the mall-supported communities that surround us. Those who do not share that view are welcome to live elsewhere.
Is a "pro preservation" position biased in its assessments? Possibly, but it is compelling in its reliance on facts rather than living in the thought-free zone where "more development" is automatically accepted as the solution to every revenue problem. A few school districts have examined the facts, accepted them, and found alternate solutions.
The election on May 20 has chosen the Worcester Republican Committee. This was not the primary election for these eight positions, but the election, with the results effective immediately. Thankfully, the Committee remains in the control of people who share a commitment to and a collaborative vision for our community.
|District||Candidate, votes||Ballot position order|
|East 1 (Bethel Hill United Methodist Church)||Hayes, 104
|East 2 (Variety Club Camp)||Mollick, 201
|East 3 (Central Schwenkfelder Church)||Bustard, 113
|West (Worcester Community Hall)||Steigerwalt, 141
It is interesting that, in every case, the person with the top ballot spot won. This was not true for the second highest
vote getter. Most election observers consider ballot position to be extremely important, especially in local elections
where it is often the case that there is poor name recognition for at least some of the candidates. However,
the margins between the top and second vote counts here indicate that more was at work in this election than
ballot position. The top vote getters need to be given credit for diligent work among their constituencies.
There is some good news and bad news for everybody in these results. The bad news from our perspective is that the Republican Committee will have to tolerate James Mollick for another four years. But, there is also good news. It is clear that the Mollick/Phillips/Quigley camp viewed this election as an opportunity to take control of Worcester's Republican Committee. (The abnormally high voter turnout in Mollick/Phillips' district, East 2, supports this conclusion.) They failed.
At East 1, Supervisor Steve Quigley came in second behind Wini Hayes, a surprising result given Quigley's large base of support in and around the Milestone development. Why did he run for this seat? Previously, when he was first elected to Worcester's Board of Supervisors, he resigned his seat on the Republican Committee, declaring that he believed it inappropriate for a Supervisor also to serve on the Republican Committee. So much for that principle! This may or may not be a legitimate concern but, in any case, it is common for individuals to hold both positions, especially in small townships. Art Bustard, the current Chairman of Worcester's Board of Supervisors, serves on the Committee with no apparent conflicts.
We believe the obvious answer to the Quigley question is that he sought this seat only in the hopes of joining Mollick and Phillips in taking over the Republican Committee. Serving on the Committee requires some work and it also requires supporting Republican candidates, especially those endorsed by the Committee – a requirement that is at considerable odds with Quigley's support for Democrats in the recent past. (We might be tempted to admire Quigley's willingness to take a more bipartisan approach if it weren't so obvious that his motivation was to undermine the Board of Supervisors and if the Democrats he supported actually had anything positive to contribute to our community.
In East 2, the one-vote victory by newcomer Jay McKeever over Jim Phillips should be applauded by anyone who cares about our community. McKeever, a long-time Worcester resident with an impressive corporate-oriented resumé, deserves tremendous credit for undertaking and prevailing in a very hard campaign. We wish that Rick Weed, another long-time Worcester resident active with our fire department, could have joined him on the Committee.
The most stunning result of this election was Cathy Sobocinski's decisive loss to Jeannie Steigerwalt in West. Sobocinski was widely considered to be unbeatable because of the large network of supporters from her church. The problem with Sobocinski is that she has expressed absolutely no interest in Worcester, its residents, or its issues. She has been replaced by Ken Fichtner, another person who has no apparent interest in Worcester. He is reportedly a far-right member of Montgomery County Young Republicans. What this will mean for the Worcester Republican Committee remains to be seen.
Faced with the prospect of an out-of-control Methacton School District budget and a planned $5.5M(!) loan to upgrade Methacton
High School's athletic fields, it is worth repeating this "old news" from the July 21, 2013, Philadelphia Inquirer. (At that time, by the way, the field
upgrade budget was "only" $4.5M!) In an article titled
"Taxes soar, schools still struggle," this article points out that "Overall, school taxes in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery
Counties have increased more than 40 percent in the last decade, in some cases two or three times the inflation rate." The table below shows
increases for Montgomery County schools over the past decade, with rankings in rate of increase relative to the other three suburban counties.
With its 39% increase since 2003-04, Methacton is already in the middle of the pack when it comes to tax increases.
What do you think is going to happen when the debt and debt service comes due on the currently contemplated borrowing?!
Hardly anybody denies that MHS' athletic fields are in need of upgrades. However, the School District's insistence on building two new synthetic turf fields with a lighting system that nobody but Musco's salesman believes is justified (see previous posts) has driven the project cost far beyond original estimates. Even worse, the School District's unconscionable refusal to work with Worcester Township on its land development plans (required – not optional) and its egregious handling of its Conditional Use application continues to saddle taxpayers with additional and easily avoidable expenses. Legal costs just for the Conditional Use hearings already amount to many tens of thousands of dollars with no end yet in sight. This is great news for the District's attorneys but, of course, terrible news for taxpayers and our district's students. These are YOUR tax dollars that are being wasted. It is YOUR children who suffer while this project is being delayed because YOUR School Board continues to act irresponsibly. The School Board will change direction only if YOU demand that they do so. What are you waiting for?!
The 5th edition of the contentious Conditional Use Hearing about lighting MHS athletic fields dragged on again on January
23. Almost all of the three-hour hearing was devoted to cross-examining Musco sales representative Bob Zoeller. Although he was accepted
by Worcester Township Solicitor Jim Garrity as an "expert witness" in order to allow his testimony in the first place (over the objections
of the neighbors' attorney), it is increasingly clear that Zoeller's testimony
has had little to do with expert advice and everything to do with a salesman doing what you would expect a salesman to do –
trying to sell an expensive system that cannot be justified
on the basis of independent expert opinion and Worcester's lighting ordinance. As noted in previous posts, the School District's request for 50/30-footcandle
lighting on both fields (the football stadium and the new auxiliary field) has been dismissed as excessive in three independent reviews.
The School District itself has never claimed any expertise in lighting requirements and is, instead, going along with the "recommendation"
from Zoeller that appears to have no foundation in reality and which, more importantly, does not take into account Worcester's lighting
ordinance provision that calls for the minimum lighting levels required for safe play.
The School District's apparently indefensible position on field lighting levels is now further aggravated by a subpoena from the neighbors' attorney ordering Zoeller to appear at the next CU hearing with all the data used in the preparation of proposed lighting plans submitted as part of the SD's CU application. Because Zoeller is not a registered professional engineer and does not even have an "LC" (lighting certified) certificate, he cannot speak directly to the data and methods used to prepare the system plans. The plans, from Musco, did not carry a professional engineer's seal. As a result, it is not possible to independently verify those plans.
According to Jim Garrity, Worcester is required to issue the subpoena, regardless of how the supervisors feel about its motivations, usefulness, or wisdom. The problem from the SD's perspective is that Musco apparently consistently refuses to release information about their systems that is routinely provided by other sports lighting manufacturers. Hence, when the SD's attorney protested at the end of the hearing that Zoeller "can't" provide the requested information, we believe that what he actually meant is that Musco, through Zoeller, won't release that information as a matter of policy.
What next? Is this one project worth the time that Musco's sales representative has spent on it? (Zoeller claimed to have worked on the design of 80 fields during 2013.) Will Zoeller's entire testimony be stricken from the CU record because the subpoened data won't be provided? Will the SD be able to get a judge to stop the subpoena? Will Musco simply decide to back out of this project in order to protect what it believes (in contrast to the rest of the sports lighting industry) is proprietary information? Stay tuned...!
The "sports crowd" has already jumped back on their favorite "blame Worcester" bandwagon over this latest turn of events. As usual, this attitude has little to do with the facts. Our guess is that, given a real choice, Worcester's supervisors would not issue the subpoena. They, like everyone else, want to move forward with this matter. We will say it one more time: The delays in the Conditional Use Hearing process are caused by, and ONLY by, the School District's refusal to negotiate with Worcester residents as asked by Worcester Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Bustard. By refusing to do this, the School District has delayed this portion of the fields upgrade project by many months and, in the process, is wasting YOUR tax dollars on attorneys' fees that simply cannot be justified.
We suggest that, intead of continuing to buy into the entirely spurious "blame Worcester" game, Lower Providence AND Worcester residents should let their School Board know in no uncertain terms that they need to do their job. They need to sit down with neighbors, go through the Quinn/Harris Document, listen to unbiased experts about an appropriate lighting system, and come to the Worcester Board of Supervisors with a mutually acceptable plan. The terms of such a plan are already in place and, if implemented, could end the Conditional Use fiasco in a matter of minutes rather than many more months. WHY DO THEY REFUSE TO DO THAT??
Up to now, we have avoided comment on this very unseemly incident. For those of you living in a cave somewhere off the grid,
last February police in Pinellas County, Florida,
stopped Joyce Petrauskas (Methacton School Board President at the time, lower left in the photo below) for driving erratically. She
was subsequently found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.14, well over the Florida limit of 0.08. Locally, nobody was aware of this incident
until October, when based on information from we know not where, Ms. Petrauskas was challenged at a School Board meeting by a member of the
That challenge led to Ms. Petrauskas at first denying the charges and subsequently giving various versions of what had happened, centering around claims that she is the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. However, this appears to be delusional, an outright lie, or a truly impressive conspiracy involving the entire Pinellas County legal system. Others – not us – have dug up the court records. Here is the link to the Pinellas County court docket. Logon as a Guest.
Yes, we understand how the U.S. innocent-until-proven-guilty system works, but the blood alcohol level result just by itself is either part of the giant conspiracy or sufficient cause for concern. Ms. Petrauskas has requested a jury trial. For all we know, this is standard practice by attorneys specializing in DUI defense. We understand that people make mistakes and sometimes, perhaps uncharacteristically, perhaps not, behave in ways they should not. For all we know, Ms. Petrauskas will be acquitted. But, the first rule of crisis management is to get out in front of the issue by telling the truth, followed by apologizing as appropriate and taking remedial action. Ms. Petrauskas seems oblivious to these rules. As a community, we cannot afford to give a pass to people in positions of responsibility who decline to take responsibility for their own actions.
It is not so much the nature of the incident itself (which, if it did happen, is bad enough), but Ms. Petrauskas' handling of the incident that we find immensely sad and disturbing. C. S. Lewis is credited with having said that "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching." It appears that Ms. Petrauskas has failed this test! The School Board has at least removed Ms. Petrauskas as its President at its organization meeting yesterday, but when alcohol and other substance abuse is an issue for every high school in our country, and when personal integrity is a message that every responsible adult wishes to convey to our children, we believe it is inappropriate for Ms. Petrauskas to continue to serve on our School Board in any capacity.
If Ms. Petrauskas wishes to challenge this conclusion, we invite her to do so. If we are wrong, we will not hesitate to admit it. But absent a plausible exculpatory explanation,
Joyce Petrauskas should resign from the Methacton School Board, effective immediately!
Yes, there really was an election yesterday. We haven't had much to say about it because there hasn't been much worth saying. The unofficial results from the Montco voter services website are depressingly predictable.
|Methacton School Director|
|Herb Rothe III||4418|
|S. Christian Nascimento||2830|
The evolving conditional use hearing for lights at Methacton High School completed
its third night of testimony. The three hours were taken up almost entirely with trivia about the need for upgraded fields and
details, pole by pole, of where the School District/Architerra/Musco team would put lights around the two fields. The only
useful testimony from Architerra's David Horn made clear that the Architerra/Musco
relationship has precluded input from any other potential
vendor for the lighting project (which everybody who has been paying attention already knew) and that the latest price
tag on the lighting system for two fields is $705,000. Of that sum, $185,000 is being "blamed" on Worcester for their limiting of the height of
poles (requiring more poles, in Musco's view), and requiring that the housings of light fixtures mounted below the top row
be coated with a flat black coating to minimize reflected glare from lights on the rows above. Whether either of these amounts
is accurate we do not know, but in any case they are not directly relevant to the conditional use hearing except for determining
whether or not the School District has sought the least intrusive lighting system, consistent with the provisions of Worcester's
lighting ordinance. (It has not.)
After nearly 9 hours of hearings, only two School District witnesses have been heard! Our response to this ongoing slow-motion train wreck is to ask, "Where are the adults?" Certainly not on the School District side, which is continuing down the road of trying to get a lighting system which, as we have noted previously, has already been deemed inappropriate for Methacton High School by three independent reviews of the School District's conditional use application. (And this is even before testimony from lighting experts representing the neighbors' interests at these hearings.) The School District's position on this matter (or what we believe will be their continuing position when the Musco representative testifies) seems to us to be indefensible.
On the other side, the cross-examination of witnesses by Mr. Jonas, representing neighbors, has been painfully slow and most often obscure, toward what end we do not know. But, it is important to remember that MHS neighbors, whose property values and quality of life are at stake, have repeatedly stated their willingness to agree to use restrictions as defined in the November 2012 version of the "Quinn/Harris document." The School District refuses to accept or even seriously consider this offer, despite Board of Supervisor Art Bustard's insistence that they should negotiate a settlement.
The bottom line is that without a change in tactics by the School District, these hearings will continue for months, well into 2014. This delays the field upgrade project – all of the badly needed improvements, not just the lights. In the meantime projects costs will rise (because they always do) and Methacton School District and Worcester taxpayers will be billed for thousands of dollars per month in unnecessary legal fees.
This should NOT be happening and we ask again, "Where are the adults in the room and when will they stand up and do their job?" Once they do stand up, these hearings will be over in minutes rather than months.
The second night started with Marc Jonas' cross-examination of Dr. Miller, now Methacton's former
Acting Superintendent. This exchange revealted Dr. Miller as unengaged with and almost totally uninformed about the
Conditional Use Application which is the subject of these hearings. He did not sign it (it was submitted by the School
Board) and clearly he has not even read it. It is safe to conclude that this topic was not even on Miller's
radar and the current situation has been driven entirely by the School Board and its attorneys. The only item of
interest was Mr. Jonas' repeated attempts to solicit comments from Dr. Miller about how lighted fields would be used
and by whom, and Mr. Bartle's repeated objections to this line of questioning. For the most part, Jim Garrity let
Jonas ask the questions even though Miller had no answers. At one point Bartle tried again to narrow the scope of the
hearing to lighting levels and not field use restrictions, but Garrity responded that this narrow view of the hearings
was just his opinion, not shared by everyone. This is a critical point, as the Conditional Use Permit must
include not just a definition of the lighting system, but also reasonable restrictions on how the lighted fields are used. This
is a discussion the School District does not wish to have, but it seems apparent that it will be had over their objections.
Next on the agenda was testimony by David Horn, Architerra's President. His credentials were challenged by Jonas, based on the distinction between an "architect" and a "landscape architect." It seemed that both Horn and Bartle were caught off guard by this challenge, but in the end Garrity allowed him to testify, as probably he should. Horn spent a lot of time explaining the obvious – that MHS fields are badly in need of upgrades and that the School District is planning to light two new turf fields. The nature of that lighting system was discussed only in passing.
There was much to object to in Horn's testimony, and it is clear that these objections will be raised during Jonas' cross-examination. The next hearing is scheduled for 7:00, October 28. We assume the School District's next witness will be the salesperson from Musco Lighting, which prepared the proposed field lighting plans.
We understand that these hearings (this one lasted three hours) can be long and tedious. But, the stakes for Worcester residents are very high, and will impact out community for decades into the future. We urge you not to lose interest. Public attendance is important even if public input (other than by designated parties) is not part of these proceedings.
Our last comments on the lighting issue were in the spring of 2013. Between then and now, after Worcester's new
Lighting Ordinance was passed,
Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Bustard made it clear that he expected the the School District to reach
a consensus with neighbors concerning
use restriction and field illumination levels for one or two lighted fields at Methacton High School. In his opening remarks at the CU hearing, Bustard referred
to this as the parties' "homework assignment." However, this did not happen because
the School Board was admonished in April by attorney Eric Frey to hold no further discussions with neighbors, thereby setting the stage for
a contentious Conditional Use hearing for which the SD has refused to do its homework.
Instead, the School District submitted its CU application in June, at which time it asked for 50-footcandle field lighting and the right to hold lighted events 6 nights per week, year round. Although the 6 nights provision is in the ordinance, Chairman Bustard has made it clear that this was supposed to be a negotiable number. The ordinance contains no provisions limiting field illumination levels, leaving that critical matter to the CU hearing.
The SD and a group of neighbors were represented by Frank Bartle and Marc Jonas, respectively. (Until recently, Eric Frey, also a partner at Bartle's firm, has been handling the SD's case, so one has to assume that Mr. Bartle believes Frey isn't now up to the task of representing the SD's position.) As expected, the attendance was large, including several students with their parents, responding to admonitions from the SD and its coaches that this meeting was critical to their chances to get lighted athletic fields. This was, to say the least, a misleading message for students. The SD will get lighted fields under restrictions to be included in the required Conditional Use Permit. As Worcester's solicitor Jim Garrity put it in his opening statement, "that [field lighting] ship has sailed."
A CU hearing is a judicial process, with parties and testimony. What did happen on the 25th was first of all a lengthy procedure to determine who would get "standing." Standing is reserved for parties who are actually impacted by the proposed conditional use. This is fundamentally a matter of how far one's property is from MHS property boundaries. Everyone who asked for standing and who lived within 1000' of a MHS property boundary was granted standing. Mr. Bartle wished this limit to be set at 500', but was overruled by Mr. Garrity. Individuals with standing have a right to testify, to cross-examine witnesses, and to be represented by an attorney if they so choose.
The sports crowd has maintained that it is only a handful of misguided neighbors who object to field lighting with no restrictions, but the meeting on the 25th should have put that argument to rest. Of the 20 or so people who were given standing (by attending the meeting and asking for standing) at least 18 of those were in the group of people who want only that their Supervisors do what Chairman Bustard has promised they would do: minimize the negative impact of lighted fields on residents' property values and quality of life. As far as anyone can tell, NOBODY from this group is opposing the field upgrade project, including lighted fields. It may well be that there will be objections to actually spending money for this project from many residents of Methacton School District, but that is a completely different matter, over which the Township has no control.
Following the granting of standing, Bartle attempted to suppress a memo from Matt Schelly, from the Montgomery County Planning Commission, to the Township rendering an opinion on the SD's CU application. Bartle's tactic was to claim that Mr. Schelly was Marc Jonas' "subordinate" because Jonas is Chairman of the MCPC Advisory Board and also that Schelly was unqualified to render an opinion on a proposed lighting system because he was not a qualified lighting professional. Bartle's objection was overruled. The real reason for the objection was – no surprise – that Mr. Schelly's memo disagreed with the SD's request for 50-footcandle lighting on the athletic fields. The Township also entered into evidence a memo from the independent lighting consultant it hired, as required by the ordinance, in which she reached the same conclusion about the inappropriateness of the SD's proposed lighting system.
Then, Bartle tried to claim that Supervisor Caughlan should recuse herself from any CU decision because of her alleged activities working against the field lighting project. Bartle even requested that Caughlan and her husband be subpeonaed to testify about these alleged activities. Mr. Jonas noted the chilling effect such a tactic would have on everyone's free speech rights were it to be successful. Apparently there is ample case law in Pennsylvania denying the application of such arguments to elected officials and their spouses. Caughlan gave a spirited defense of her position, noting that she has supported every BoS decision which led to the passage of the new Lighting Ordinance. Garrity denied Bartle's request.
The evening concluded with testimony from Acting Superintendent Miller, in which in response to Bartle's prompting, he of course said that in every instance, the SD's CU application would meet every provision of the lighting ordinance and also of Worcester's Conditional Use code. Mr. Jonas objected on several occasions when Miller was asked to respond to more technical issues raised in the CU application. The situation with Miller is awkward because the SD has hired a new superintendent who has not yet started in that position. It is hard to see how any representations made by Miller about what he and/or the SD are or are not going to do can have any value because he will not be here to carry through on those representations. The meeting was adjourned before Mr. Jonas' cross-examination of Miller. Stay tuned for that...
We believe that the School Board deserves failing marks for how they have handled this entire matter. They have been given ample opportunities to be the "good neighbors" they claim to be, but they have chosen not to take advantage of those opportunities.
On the heels of the cost escalation for the Methacton HS field project (see below), we note the article in the Sunday Inquirer which discusses rising property taxes in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. The numbers in the left-hand column rank property tax increases for the four-county area. At number 19 in the ranking for increases in property taxes over the past decade, Methacton is just in the top third of this group of 60 districts. Would this be less a matter of concern if those increased taxes were going toward the improvement of Methacton's academic performance rather than for $4.5M in athletic field improvements? That is for taxpayers to say!
At the July 16, 2013 Board of School Directors Meeting, there was a presentation on the status of the athletic fields upgrade project. The "Concept K" version of this project includes a new synthetic turf field and replacing the existing the natural grass football field with synthetic turf, plus lights for the stadium and the new field. (Yes, the concepts really did start with "A" many moons ago!) As of March 2011, this project was budgeted at roughly $3.0-3.5 million dolllars.
Currently, the project cost has escalated to a MINIMUM of $4.543,434 (why people give estimated costs for million-dollar projects to the nearest dollar escapes us!). Add another $332,000 for an alternate second restroom facility. Some of the cost escalation is due to the need to fix storm water runoff issues. Although the School Board's typical reaction is to blame Worcester for forcing them to fix any problem with facilities, the fact remains that the water runoff problems have existed for many years and nobody has forced the School District to deal with them. At this point, considering newer and more stringent regulations from Pennsylvania's DEP and others, Worcester probably couldn't overlook these problems even if they wanted to. And, why would they want to? Improperly handled storm water causes problems on our roads (especially freezing in the winter, which is obviously dangerous), and it floods and erodes abutting residential properties. There is no reason why Worcester residents should have to put up with either of these problems.
The presentation also notes that the School District has filed its Conditional Use Application with Worcester Township -- required in order to install field lights. In complete disregard for previous "good neighbor" meetings (which we believe former Superintendent Quinn really did take seriously) and literally months of work to reach a consensus about how lighted fields should be used at Meethacton HS, the School District's application asks for virtually unrestricted nighttime use of both proposed fields along with a lighting system that is brighter than can be justified by any rational interpretation of industry standards. Shame on them!
Worcester residents need to be involved in the Conditional Use hearing process when it is scheduled in the next few months. You have a stake in the outcome -- on both financial and quality-of-life grounds -- regardless of where you live relative to the high school! Like nearly everyone else in Methacton School District, we agree that our high school's athletic facilities are badly in need of work. But, we also understand that the legitimate concerns of Worcester residents cannot be ignored. It is up to YOU to make sure that doesn't happen!
The author of the May 24 email suggests that the 3rd paragraph be modified:
"The administration also objected to 20% of its busing cost going to busing of non-public students. It is noted that while they were silent on the percent of resident students attending non-public schools, that percentage is 15%. Their parents pay school taxes and tuitions. Wouldn't their busing cost be 15 percent if they were Methacton students? So it's 1/3 more costly; big deal! Also note that busing is a pedestrian safety issue." We do not understand the argument that the cost to transport x% of Methacton students to non-public schools outside the district translates to an additional x% in costs. We believe it makes more sense to consider out-of-district busing as an "extra" expense because that x% of students would not need the same extra number of buses to transport them to public schools within the district. That is, the 20% extra cost required to transport 15% of students to non-public schools would largely be eliminated unless one assumes that are essentially no empty seats on the buses being used to transport students to public schools.
We present this e-mail from a reader unedited and in its entirety. We have inserted a few comments, in red font.
Finally, the Methacton administration presented a detailed budget on May 14. Some on the Board were noticeably pensive that it raises taxes by 2.09% (with a possible small cut before final adoption on June 25). Some ideas were presented for lower increases. I claim 2.95% [sic] is NOT “fiscally responsible to the taxpayers”. On the other hand, only three taxpayers attended the meeting. The first number, 2.09%, is the proposed increase. It takes advantage of some exceptions that allow an increase in excess of the 1.7% allowed under Pennsylvania's Act 1. Details about the budget can be found on the District's website.
It was stated pension costs (a rising percent of salary) are exploding and are unsustainable. I agree, but that’s out of school board control. Methacton School District, and many other districts, have been kicking this can down the road in the hopes that the folks in Harrisburg would fix the pension problem. They haven't, and the can has now been kicked into what is essentially a dead end from which there is no painless exit for taxpayers.
The administration also objected to 20% of the busing cost, just to bus non-public students.
Wouldn’t it cost the same if they were Methacton students?
This comment refers to the fact that public school systems are required to transport students to private/parochial schools within a specified distance. This requirement means more buses (possibly nowhere near filled?) are needed for out-of-district trips that are longer than in-district trips and that would not otherwise be necessary, so it does not seem logical to suggest the costs would be the same if these students were going to Methacton's schools. This is, in fact, a classic example of an "unfunded mandate" tossed into the laps of taxpayers.
What can our Board control? One answer is the number of teachers. While other districts with rising taxes have rising enrollments, our enrollment is falling.
This fall enrollment will be about 5000 students. That’s an 8% decline from the peak of 5454, in 2006, and on the way to 4500 by 2020. Yet the budget calls for a drop of only 10 teachers (6 this fall), or 2%, to 423 from 433 in 2006. A detailed study, presuming perfect scheduling, calls for 20 fewer teachers, just in the high school. Despite any program changes and better efficiency, it seems ignored by the administration. Now, it is up to the Board to be fiscally responsible. Nevertheless, one Director, Mr. Rothe, wants to keep his daughter’s class size at 21; seemly irrespective of the local, miserable economy. (Interestingly, the only times in this century that required enrollment projections were publicly presented by Methacton were to 'sell' Skyview and Woodland expansions. The 2013 and 2020 projections shown above are independently developed and use accurate methodology).
Classrooms and buildings are also under local control. There will be 1460 empty seats this fall; that is 23% of available seats. With even lower ‘vacancy’ rates, other school districts (Chicago and Philadelphia, both under Democratic control) will be closing schools to save money.
Dr. Miller, as Superintendent in 2004, claimed we needed 6300 seats this year. Now as the Acting Superintendent he was silent
on this issue, of course.
Following the departure of Timothy Quinn several weeks ago, Dr. Miller was appointed as Acting Superintendent. The active search now apparently underway for a permanent Superintendent indicates that the School Board (and perhaps Dr. Miller himself) wants Dr. Miller's tenure as Acting Superintendent to be short. The author of this e-mail is correct in his criticism of the deeply flawed student population projections that were made several years ago under Dr. Miller's watch. We, and others, pointed out at the time that those projections were mathematically flawed and would have produced erroneous results even if student populations really did increase – which, as this reader points out, they never did.
It is the current Board’s responsibility to realize that empty seats are unsustainable and divert resources. We do not need to use the Skyview building. A return to five K-to-5 schools would be better now, educationally and fiscally.
The budget affects taxes. After 30+ years of tax increase and enrollment in decline, Methacton taxes should be cut, not raised, IF this Board is fiscally responsible.
Directors need to see and hear protesting taxpayers at the June 18 and 25 meetings. 7PM, be there! We echo this sentiment and remind our readers once again that, in a democracy, we get the government we deserve. Deserving a better government entails being engaged in the process of government, as boring and time-consuming as that can sometimes be.
As expected, there was a very low turnout for this primary election. School Board Director is considered to be a nonpartisan position so candidates can and do cross-file with both parties. Here are the as yet unofficial results from the Montgomery County website.
Of interest specifically to Worcester residents is the primary election for a seat on Worcester's Board of Supervisors. Unfortunately, regardless of your party, you are faced with poor unopposed choices – Kevin Dunbar on the Democratic ballot and current Supervisor Steve Quigley on the Republican ballot. Kevin Dunbar has never expressed the slightest interest in our community and we must view this as simply at "place holder" because Democrats have no real candidate to offer. Steve Quigley's performance during the past nearly 6 years has been very poor. As far as we have been able to determine, he has made not one constructive contribution to our community, and we fail to understand how he has managed to retain whatever popularity and support he has. Our position: We urge you not to vote for either candidate, in the hopes that a lack of support will somehow have an impact on these two individuals. For those of us who care about the future of our community, this is a VERY discouraging time!
At its April 2nd meeting, Worcester's Board of Supervisors passed its new lighting ordinance. The ordinance specifically requires
that the School District must present their plans for lighted athletic fields at Methacton High School and their proposed uses at a conditional use hearing. Following the vote
of the Board, Chairman Art Bustard made
it clear that he expected the School District and Worcester residents living close to the high school to reach an agreement
that was satisfactory to all parties BEFORE the conditional use hearing. This is in line with Bustard's oft-repeated promise to protect
the property rights and quality of life of Worcester residents and to avoid unnecessary delays in completing the process.
This seems like an entirely reasonable request, especially considering that a comprehensive set of use conditions has already been negotiated between a representative of neighbors (John Harris) and former Superintendent Timothy Quinn. This document, on the School District's website, strikes a balance which meets the needs of Methacton athletics and minimizes the intrusions on neighbors. Both sides offered compromises that indicate a genuine desire to work together to reach a consensus.
How has our "good neighbor" School Board responded? They never responded to what has become known as the Quinn/Harris document. Instead, they hired an attorney, Eric Frey. He was the School District's spokesperson at the ordinance hearings and he is now responsible for the District's presentation at a conditional use hearing. At the April 23rd School Board Meeting (see this link for the video), Frey's and presumably the School District's position became abundantly clear. Rather than reaching out to the community, as Art Bustard has requested, Frey continues to misrepresent the neighbors group as an enemy of lighted athletic fields. In the process, he has misled the School Board in numerous ways, made some significant factual errors, and appears determined to involve the School District in litigation which could easily be avoided.
The most egregious misrepresentation is that a small group of neighbors has threatened to block construction of a lighted athletic field no matter what happens at the conditional use hearing and that the issue will end up in the courts. The public record indicates otherwise. The neighbors' position, in evidence at several public meetings, has been to reach out to the School District in an attempt to expedite the process by eliminating the most serious points of contention about lighting levels and conditions of use. These are the actions of a group seeking to avoid litigation, not promote it!
As for the facts, Frey continues to insist that an athletic field lit to a level of 50 footcandles (not "lumens," which is the term Frey used incorrectly several times) is required for the "safety" of players. Since Frey obviously has no expertise of his own on this subject, it is clear that he has been "fed" this position by the School District's "expert," a representative of Musco Lighting. However, Musco Lighting is a potential vendor for this system and their representative should not be the sole source of input to the School District about field lighting levels. Architerra, the firm hired by the School District to oversee the entire field upgrade project, has in the past dealt exclusively with Musco as a supplier for field lighting systems, which (as noted in the April 12 posting) places them in the position of acting as a "manufacturer's rep" rather than a source of unbiased advice to a client.
In fact, at the ordinance hearing, testimony from an independent lighting expert and documentation provided by the attorney representing residents living around the high school demonstrated that there is ABSOLUTELY NO justification for a 50-footcandle field at Methacton High School. This matters because a 50-footcandle field will cost much more to install than a perfectly adequate 30-footcandle field. It will be more expensive to operate and maintain, and it will significantly increase light pollution from the system. An overlit field can also cause problems for players because of excessive glare. Stating over and over again that a 50-footcandle system is required for our students strikes us as a classic example of hoping that a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as the truth.
More than once, Mr. Frey erroneously referred to the conditional use hearing taking place in front of Worcester's Zoning Hearing Board. For example (times are minutes and seconds from the beginning of the recording of the meeting),
According to Mr. Frey, the conditional use hearing is a zoning matter and "Zoning law is litigation." (15:14) In response to a question from Jim Phillips as to whether pro-lights groups can make a presentation at a conditional use hearing, Mr. Frey responded that "Most Zoning Hearing Boards would let that happen." (19:10)
Conditional use hearings have nothing to do with the interpretation of zoning ordinances, which is the responsibility of a Zoning Hearing Board! Conditional use requests are heard by Worcester's Board of Supervisors. All affected parties will have a chance to be heard. One has to ask – why would the School Board employ the services of someone so uninformed about the conditional use process?
Mr. Frey also misrepresented (or poorly represented, to put the kindest possible interpretation on what he said) the decision made in Commonwealth Court which overturned the Common Pleas Court upholding of the approval of a variance allowing lighted athletic fields by Worcester's Zoning Hearing Board 20 years ago. At that time, the School District sought a variance to allow installation of lighted fields (with light poles taller than 12 feet) based on the assertion that without the variance they were being denied the reasonable use of their facilities. Approval of a variance requires that the applicant show a "hardship," a term which has a very specific legal definition. While local zoning boards are often lax about applying this definition, the courts actually have to follow the law and therefore they tend to be more rigorous in their interpretation of what constitutes a hardship. According to Mr. Frey, the Commonwealth Court ruling somehow prevented reasonable use of Methacton High School athletic facilities. Here is what the Commonwealth Court actually said:
"The record reveals that... there is no threat to Methacton's football or band programs if these activities are conducted in the daylight hours. We see no hardship... We have not refrained from upholding the denial of variances in many instances, no matter how wholesome and salutary the purposes for them. Our Supreme Court has clearly and consistently stated 'the high standards of proof necessary to obtain a variance'... [T]he testimony... does not indicate that, without the variance, Methacton would suffer hardship or otherwise be denied the reasonable use of its facilities. Accordingly, we are constrained to reverse the common pleas court's order."
That ruling is, of course, why the School District never again tried to obtain a zoning variance for athletic field lighting and it explains why the matter has now been dealt with through a change in Worcester's lighting ordinance. It is worth noting that even those Worcester residents who will be most affected by lighted fields and nighttime activities at Methacton High School have joined with others in our community to recognize the "wholesome and salutary" aspects of nighttime athletic events as a legitimate part of the educational mission of a public school system. But, this acceptance does not mean that the legitimate concerns of residents can or should be ignored or that the nighttime use of these facilities by community groups does not need to be constrained.
Frey has also discouraged School Board members from talking about field-related matters because he has put himself in "litigation mode" and is apparently trying to get School Board members to buy in to this mindset. But, since when does a "good neighbor" policy prevent residents and taxpayers from discussing matters of concern with their elected officials? At this meeting Jim Phillips wanted to know how he could find out who these residents are. One wonders why... Given Mr. Phillips' record, we doubt that his intent is to engage his constituents in a civil and neighborly conversation. We believe it is much more likely that he wants to intimidate them, following the lead of the overwhelmingly and depressingly nasty comments posted online by the "lights crowd," for example, this oh-so-charming post on the "Methacton High School Lights" facebook page, "One way to get some traction here may be for the kids themselves to start protesting at the homes of those who are stopping this. These are neighbors to the school gumming up the works. They knew there was a school there when they moved in - tough noogies." Or the reader commenting on a Times Herald article referring to OUR friends and neighbors as "disgusting small-minded scum."
Finally, Mr. Frey spoke about having an "executive session" to talk about the School District's conditional use application. Executive sessions (with no public attendance and not subject to public review or comment) can be held to discuss ongoing or potential litigation, but not just to discuss options about use restrictions. Claiming the need for an "executive session" used to be common in Pennsylvania as a way for public officials to avoid public scrutiny of their actions. However, to do so is a blatant violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. Why is the School Board insisting on treating the process of resolving the lighting issue as something that will inevitably lead to litigation. Even if they really believe this is the case, it is not at all clear that an executive session to discuss potential use conditions is even legal in the absence of any actual litigation or evidence that there is going to be litigation. Aside from the legalities, why would the School Board treat this as an adversarial process rather than making an honest attempt to address legitimate concerns? We would expect (some) lawyers to insist on taking an adversarial position, but it is not what "good neighbors" do! The actual good neighbors in this drama have reached out to the School District. Dr. Quinn apparently thought it was worth his time to participate in extensive discussions. The School Board has ignored that process. We deserve better!
Regardless of one's opinion about whether Methacton High School needs lighted athletic fields, the School District's recent actions raise serious concerns about its relationship with the residents of our community, including those who are most affected by activities at the high school, and our elected officials. Through Mr. Frey, as the School District's and School Board' spokesperson on this matter, the School Board is deliberately thumbing its nose at Art Bustard's request that the District reach consensus with neighbors prior to a conditional use hearing and he is actively promoting the notion that litigation is inevitable. Anyone who has followed this issue objectively understands that ligitation is NOT inevitable and that neighbors have worked hard over the last year to avoid that result, which serves nobody's interests. It may not be unreasonable for the School District to get legal advice for managing the conditional use process, but why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for poor and uninformed advice that will delay resolution of the field lighting matter and will waste taxpayer dollars that should be used more constructively?! It is not reasonable to use a lawyer to create problems that do not otherwise exist. Our township has 60 days after receiving a conditional use application to schedule a hearing. Suppose that the School District came to the township together with representatives from neighbors living around the high school with a set of conditions representing a consensus between the parties. This is what Art Bustard has requested and if that consensus were reached, there would be no reason to take 60 days to schedule a hearing. The process would be quick – problem solved! Are there no adults on the School Board or in the School District administration who see the problems with their confrontational stance and who do not recognize the value of behaving differently? We urge every Worcester resident to make clear to School Board members amd the School District administration that we do not want the School District to waste additional time, energy, and OUR tax dollars on unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive confrontation.
At a special meeting on April 2, our Board of Supservisors passed the long-awaited
lighting ordinance that will allow
Methacton School District to ask for approval to install lights on one or possibly two fields at Methacton High School. (The
text linked here says it is a "proposed" ordinance but it is, in fact the ordinance that was passed.)
Unfortunately, it is not a very good ordinance. It allows use of lighted fields up to six nights per week without restriction (!) and it
does not include limits on the maximum field illumination allowed. Both of these shortcoming were opposed vigorously by residents, who
hired their own independent expert to testify at hearings. Their opposition was ignored by our Supervisors, although Chairman Bustard
continues to insist that these issues will be dealt with in a conditional use hearing -- more about that below.
It should be noted that even though Worcester's solicitor claimed to have sought independent advice in the writing of the ordinance, the results certainly do not justify that statement. Improvements made to the original very poorly written draft were made only after testimony from an independent expert hired by neighbors around the high school. Other suggestions from that expert were ignored. As for the School District, its only "expert" input was provided by an attorney speaking on behalf of Architerra, the engineering firm hired by the School District to oversee the field upgrade project. Architerra has no in-house lighting expertise of its own and relies instead on input from Musco Lighting, a vendor so closely bound to Musco as to render their "advice" questionable, to put it very kindly. Architerra has never been involved in the design of an athletic field with lighting from a company other than Musco, which puts them in the position of serving as a "manufacturer's representative" rather than a source of independent advice for their clients.
The very fact that the only truly indepedent advice about the contents of a lighting ordinance came from an expert hired by Worcester neighbors is troubling. The responsibility to write sound ordinances rests with the Township. It is outrageous that this responsibility has been ignored. One would think that Worcester should have learned this lesson from its noise ordinance, which is a joke because it contains wording in a critical provision that renders it unusable for any kind of meaningful enforcement against noise sources. But, they didn't.
What now? As noted above, the lighting ordinance means only that the School District can now present a plan at a conditional use hearing for its field upgrades, including not only a lighting system but also the substantial amounts of work needed to resolve decades-old storm water runoff issues. In fairness to our Board, it is true that Chairman Bustard continues to insist, including on April 2, that this hearing will be responsive to residents' concerns about field lighting levels and conditions of use. Proposed conditions of use have been discussed extensively by neighbors and former Superintendent Tim Quinn, resulting in a proposed document detailing how lighted fields could be used. The conditions in that document are much more restrictive than what is in the new ordinance. They are designed to give our student athletes and community groups many new opportunities for using MHS athletic facilities while, at the same time, minimizing negative impacts on Worcester residents.
The issue of appropriate field illumination levels is technical, but very important. The School District, on the "advice" of Architerra/Musco, is insisting that MHS needs a 50-footcandle field. However, there is ABSOLUTELY NO, repeat ABSOLUTELY NO justification for this level. Independent sources that have spoken on this issue agree that a 30-footcandle field is entirely appropriate for high school athletics, regardless of sport! This is not just a matter of numbers. Vendors want customers to believe they absolutely must have a 50-footcandle field. But such a field is much more expensive to install (at least $75,000 more expensive), operate, and maintain. It increases light pollution problems that extend far beyond properties immediately adjacent to the high school and an over-lit field can cause problems for players, too, because of excessive glare. Vendors should NOT be allowed to saddle our community with a lighting system it does not need!
As troubling as our Township's dropping the ball on writing a truly effective ordinance is the ongoing disdain the "sports crowd" expresses for residents being asked to bear the negative effects of nighttime athletic events at MHS. These negative effects are indisputable, contrary to some claims to the contrary. Wherever studies have been done for neighborhoods in similar circumstances, the results are always the same -- there will be problems and property values will decline. The typical sports crowd reaction, on blogs and facebook pages, is "tough noogies" (an actual quote from one sensitive citizen). Neighbors have worked hard to reach consensus on this issue. By the time the ordinance was enacted, there was no longer any overt opposition to the lights themselves -- only pleas that neighbors' concerns be taken seriously rather than ridiculed and ignored. Good for them, and shame on the rest of you!
All of us need to keep track of this issue as it moves forward. The School Board has never taken any formal action on the use conditions document linked above. Right now, the School District has no permanent leader and is facing huge financial problems, with higher property taxes for all of us in the immediate future, to levels that require invoking exceptions to the limits on tax increases that can be imposed without approval of a voter referendum. Pretty much everybody understands that MHS athletic facilities need to be improved. But, these field upgrades cannot be done without including the expensive work required for fixing storm water runnoff problems. Stadium lights? Perhaps a luxury that school district taxpayers should not be asked to bear. In any event, we believe that this project will be stretched out over several years. This is no doubt a big disappointment to those who thought that passing a new lighting ordinance would immediately give them what they want. But, it is clear -- and we believe this is a good thing -- that the road to that goal is going to be much longer than they thought! Stay tuned...
At the March 26 Methacton School Board Meeting the resignations of Superintendent Timothy Quinn,
and Director of Curriculum Diane Barrie, effective in June, were announced. Why?
Because they were being investigated for an "inappropriate relationship." At least according to some,
this relationship led to Dr. Barrie being plucked from the classroom into a higher-profile and significantly
higher-paying job in Methacton's administration. Although Dr. Barrie was highly respected
as a teacher and apparently was well qualified to be Director of Curriculum, the whole business literally
screamed "INAPPROPRIATE," and no doubt created problems within the administration.
As for Dr. Quinn, whatever his professional qualifications, he came to our school district under the cloud of another "inappropriate relationship" with his administrative assistant which led to his resignation for "personal reasons" after barely six months on the job as Superintendent of the Elizabethtown Area School District in Lancaster County. Newspaper reporting of that 2008 incident is still available online, HERE.
Given that "giant red flag" history, which was well known at the time, why was Quinn hired at Methacton in the first place? The prevailing opinion at the time was that he was the best we could get because of the ongoing harassment of and legal challenges against the Board and School District from – yes, you guessed it! – Jim Mollick, a situation which made the job look very unappealing to potential candidates. You may, of course, treat this as pure speculation and nothing more. We tend to give it the weight of at least a half-truth.
The January 16 BoS meeting was predicted to be a knock-down battle between rabid "pro-lights" and "anti-lights" residents. What happened instead was a surprisingly civil and conciliatory public hearing in which it became obvious that there aren't really any rabid anti-lights folks left, or at least none in evidence at this meesting. The issue is no longer whether or not there will be an ordinance allowing lighted fields at Methacton High School, but only whether the very real quality-of-life concerns of neighbors will be addressed. The pro-lights crowd was much more restrained than they have been in the past, at least partly as a result of Township Solicitor Jim Garrity's reminder that the purpose of the hearing was not to discuss pro- or anti-lights issues in general, but only the contents of the ordinance itself. However, their ongoing tendency to believe that they are the majority and that the majority should always get what it wants was still very much in evidence. As noted below in previous postings, this is not the way representative government is supposed to work — a point which both Art Bustard and Jim Garrity, to their credit, made abundantly clear in their introductory comments.
The specific purpose of the public hearing was to determine whether the draft ordinance in its current form was ready to be voted up or down. However, it was clear from the outset that it wasn't. Even the School District's attorney agreed that some changes needed to be made. The neighbors' group was represented by counsel and presented testimony from an independent lighting design consultant who pointed out several weaknesses in the draft ordinance, including:
At the Worcester Township reorganization meeting, required to be held on the first Monday of every calendar year, Art Bustard was re-elected as Chairman. Ken Dyer was replaced on the Zoning Hearing Board by John D'Lauro. Mr. D'Lauro is an attorney with deep family roots in Worcester. His presence on the board, along with attorney Michael Libor, will now allow the ZHB to manage variance requests in a professional manner — something that has not been true for far too long. Although one could view Mr. Dyer's removal as political payback for challenging Mr. Bustard in the 2011 Republican primary, the fact is that the ZHB was simply not able to deal with variance requests in a professional manner as long as Dyer kept his seat.
Membership on the Planning Commission is unchanged. Perennial Democratic hopeful Rick DeLello was unsuccessfully supported by (Republican??) Steve Quigley for a seat on either the ZHB or the Planning Commission. Although the general concept of "citizen volunteers" resonates with everyone, the fact is that the Planning Commission and ZHB both need members with applicable expertise in order to do their jobs effectively. Mr. DeLello's problem is not that he is a Democrat in a Republican community, but that he has no relevant professional qualifications for either job and a public record long on talk and very short on action.
There is currently an online petition being circulated in which supporters of lighted fields at Methacton High School are still indulging in their unending rants about how bad the current fields are and how much our community needs lighted athletic fields. They are still attacking their favorite targets — those pesky residents living around the high school who have the nerve to be concerned about the negative effects of nighttime activities at the high school! In a community as small as Worcester, all those residents are OUR neighbors and deserve to be treated with respect by everyone.
Comments about the petition are not only disrespectful, but they demonstrate an appallingly inaccurate picture of what is actually happening. The petition falsely conveys the message that there is still huge amounts of opposition to the lighted field project. Here is a badly needed reality check. We don't know ANYBODY, including our neighbors living closest to the high school, who doesn't agree that MHS's fields are badly in need of repair and upgrading. Neighbors living around the high school are NOT the enemy! Consider this comment on the petition from John Harris, who has been involved in negotiations with the School District for several months:
I would just like to set the record straight. To the best of my knowledge, there are no neighbors of MHS who are actively opposing the very-much-needed field reconstruction project, or the addition of lights on one or more fields. Our goal, since the discussions with Dr. Quinn started, has been to minimize the negative impact of the lights on our neighborhood, while the students get the nighttime use of the facilities they are requesting. There are very few examples of other municipalities where this sort of project has been achieved without major conflict between the district and the neighbors. But the use conditions that have been discussed recently by the administration and the neighbors appears to offer a common middle ground that will allow the school to have virtually everything that has been requested, while the neighbors get some comfort that there will be reasonable limits to the use of the lighted fields. If we can all make this project happen without the usual community conflict, we will have achieved a goal as worthy as the project, itself.
We do not know how this message could possibly be any clearer, nor do we see any rational reason to disagree with it. Neighbors are working FOR the implementation of this project, not against it!
At the Township level, nobody who has been paying the slightest attention to this issue can have any doubt that an ordinance allowing lighted fields at MHS WILL be passed, and soon. The current draft version of the ordinance needs to be aired in public and some badly needed changes incorporated into the text. The ordinance will then need to go through an additional advertising cycle. At that point, hopefully, the process will be complete. Then it will be up to the School Board to apply for a conditional use permit in which it takes into account the conditions that have been painstakingly worked out in detail over the last several months.
As the essay posted below points out, the function of our elected officials is not to follow a herd mentality that openly advocates tramplng the rights of individuals — OUR neighbors; its function is to work with all parties to find common ground that takes into account everyone's concerns. At this point we urge everyone in the "sports crowd" to take a deep breath, express some appreciation for the work that has been done to resolve this contentious issue amicably, and let the process work.
Recently in Worcester, there have been some contentious issues about which different constituencies in our community have very different opinions. The prime example, prominent in the 2011 campaign for Art Bustard's seat on Worcester's Board of Supervisors, was whether to allow the construction of a new lighted football field at Methacton High School. Such a project requires a new ordinance to replace Worcester's existing lighting ordinance. Because there are houses very near the high school, allowing the construction of one or more lighted fields for nighttime activities will undeniably degrade the quality of life for those living near the high school.
Those who are most eager to construct one or more lighted athletic fields at Methacton High School have argued publicly that our elected officials should simply allow "the masses" to decide such questions. The "sports crowd" is confident, rightly or wrongly, that Worcester's residents would favor changing our lighting ordinance and it has even suggested that this question should be addressed through a public referendum, the results of which should then determine how our elected officials act. Apart from the fact that Pennsylvania law regarding local referenda is very restrictive and would not allow such a question to be placed on a ballot, they believe (because they also believe they would be on the "winning side" of this issue) that this is how the American system of government should work. More recently, as a result of neighbors dropping their absolute opposition to lighted fields, and following many months of negotiations to reach a consensus about how lighted fields should be used in a way that minimizes problems for neighbors (see this link), the "sports crowd" has further asserted that a small group of neighbors (it is actually a pretty large group) should not even have the right to contribute their thoughts to the new lighting ordinance and any possible use restrictions that would be the subject of a conditional use hearing in the future to allow construction of one or more lighted fields based on the new ordinance.
In fact, ignoring minority (or even individual) views by allowing "the masses" to control our government's actions is a fundamentally un-American view of how our system of government is supposed to work. Our Founding Fathers were very suspicious of a "pure" democracy in which the majority controls all decisions, and they were fearful of any form of government in which a majority could trample the rights of a minority. Most of these founding fathers believed that the "tyranny of the majority" (a topic which the 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in detail in his famous book, Democracy in America) was fundamentally no different from the tyranny of an absolute monarchy — specifically the form of government they wished to avoid. Other 19th century writers expressed the same distrust of rule by "the masses." The British writer, politician, and historian Lord Acton was suspicious not just of the process, but of the belief that allowing pure majority rule was even a fair expression of the will of the people. In his The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877) Acton wrote::
"The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections."
Many political philosophers have objected to the idea that individual rights should be subject to public vote, and have asserted that the proper role of governments is protect minorities (including individuals) from oppression by majorities. This problem was addressed by James Madison in the famous Federalist Papers #10, published in 1787, in which he referred to "the violence of majority faction." Madison's "faction" is equivalent to what we would today call a "special interest group" which may be a majority or minority, in Madison's own definition, "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison considers the problem of "factions" to be not just a possible problem with pure democracy, but an inevitable one — "The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man" — which cannot be eliminated but which needs to be controlled:
"There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease...
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government." (emphasis added)
Madison believed the right of protection against majority rule flows from "rights of property." It is clear in context that he is thinking not just of protection against the literal taking of physical property, but also of what we might describe in modern terminology as "intellectual property rights" and other intangible rights including the right to enjoy one's property without interference. As Madison so elegantly wrote in March, 1792: "In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights." (http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s23.html)
Madison is very clear that a pure democracy in which the majority determines every action is not equipped to solve the problems arising from factions: "... it may be concluded that a pure democracy... can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction." Indeed, Madison and other political philosophers saw direct democracy as an actual danger to individual rights. Madison's cure for this problem is to form the United States as a Republic and not a Democracy. The difference is that in a Republic, citizens do not pass direct judgment on every individual issue that must be decided, but delegate this responsibility to elected officials who are expected to serve the common good by thinking for themselves.
"The effect is... to refine and enlarge the public views [on an issue], by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom... will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves..."
In context, it should be remembered that the "public good" does not include results which overrule the primary governmental function of protecting each individual's private property rights.
Madison was not naive enough to believe that forming a Republic rather than a Democracy was a perfect solution, nor that this form of government would not be subject to abuse. He viewed the Constitution not as a perfect solution, but as a "happy combination" that balances the common good against the tyranny of the majority. As a result, the word "democracy" appears nowhere in the Constitution and we "pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the Republic for which it stands..." This fear of a pure democracy, in which a majority is always able to trample the rights of minorities and individuals, explains why we have three co-equal and counterbalancing partners in our government — the executive, legislative, and judicial. It explains why we have a Bill of Rights, which enumerates rights specifically for the purpose of assuring that they cannot be overridden by any majority action. It explains why our legislative bodies have sometimes arcane rules to prevent the passage of legislation by simple majority votes.
It is only relatively recently, in the 20th century, that the distinction between a Democracy and a Republic has been blurred in the public mind. No student in a 19th century civics class would have made this mistake! (The Pledge of Allegiance was first published in a popular children's magazine, Youth's Companion, in 1892.) What does this principle of protecting the rights of all citizens have to do with Worcester's Board of Supervisors and football lights? First of all, it is not at all clear how to determine what the "the masses" want because citizens are not required to express their opinions even when there is a formal mechanism for doing so, and the overwhelming majority tend not to be involved in public discussion. As Lord Acton would have agreed, in this environment it is essentially impossible to separate the noise of loud voices on both sides of any issue from a fair determination of what "the masses" actually want.
But, the problem of determining what a majority wants is secondary to the more important point: the principle of not allowing any special interest group (Madison's "factions") to cause harm to other citizens. In the football lights issue, proponents think they deserve to get what they want regardless of whether they are actually a majority and, even worse, regardless of the consequences for others. This vocal group disregards the harm they will be doing to their fellow citizens living in the neighborhoods around Methacton HS. It is not possible seriously to argue that allowing lighted athletic fields at the high school will have any other result than eroding the quality of life and property values of families already living near the high school. The "sports crowd" frankly admits that a lighted field will not be used just for "Friday night football" plus practice time. The School Board's Property Committee has made clear its desire for lighted athletic fields to be a "community resource" in which many other groups not associated with the School District's legitimate educational mission will be encouraged to maximize the use of lighted fields in order to "prove" that they represent our tax dollars well spent.
Not so incidentally, it is not at all clear that that an ordinance allowing lighted fields at Methacton HS can be written in a way that would permanently prohibit other organizations, whether public or private, for-profit or non-profit, or even individuals, from installing equally intrusive lighting. This would, of course, degrade the quality of life and property values of many more Worcester residents, including those who think a lighted football field is a good idea because they live nowhere near Methacton HS!
In addition to the "sports crowd" (a large portion of which is not even from Worcester) we continue to witness the actions of a very vocal group of individuals in Worcester, including political wanna-bes and elected officials, trying to use the "football lights" issue to their political benefit. Their self-serving "finger in the wind" approach to decision-making does not constitute leadership and represents, at the very best, lazy government rather than good government. Our Founding Fathers, with their strongly held beliefs about the fundamental role government must play in protecting the property rights of its citizens, would be appalled by the idea of an elected government body or political wanna-be deliberately taking or supporting actions that would degrade the quality of life and property values of any of its citizens, especially when there is not even any compelling benefit to the "common good." Even if such actions really do represent the will of a majority, our Founding Fathers would call that tyranny. We agree! At the December 2012 evening Board of Supervisors meeting when the advertising of the lighting ordinance was authorized, some students from a Methacton HS government class were in attendance. Chairman Art Bustard suggested that those students would do well to read about the tyranny of the majority in Federalist Paper #10. This is excellent advice for all citizens — advice which the "sports crowd" clearly has not taken.
On the other hand, the efforts of the School District Administration and Worcester residents over the past several months to define common ground that allows lighted fields to be built and used in a way that meets legitimate educational needs and also minimizes negative impacts on neighbors represents our form of government at its very best. We applaud, and our Founding Fathers would also applaud, those efforts at finding consensus rather than fueling confrontation and we expect the individuals we have elected to represent our interests to respect the work that has been done by embracing the conditions that have been accepted by both parties.
At the Board of Supervisor's meeting on the 19th, supervisors unanimously agreed to authorize the advertising of the new lighting ordinance that will allow the construction of one or more lighted athletic fields at Methacton High School. At the beginning of the meeting, Chairman Art Bustard criticized the Times Herald for erroneously reporting a few weeks ago that the Board would vote on the ordinance itself. (See previous two postings below.) After advertising, there is a 14-day period before additional action can be taken. So, there will be a public hearing on the ordinance no sooner than the January BoS evening meeting. The draft of the ordinance is available here.
Recently, it has been the Board's policy to make the text of proposed ordinances, especially controversial ones, publicly available before advertising them to allow public comment and to minimize to the extent possible multiple public hearings at which it is determined that the wording of an ordinance needs to be changed and, as a result, re-advertised. Why this was not done in this case remainds a mystery, as it appeared clear from the very brief discussion of this ordinance that it is going to undergo some revisions as a result of a public hearing next month. The supervisors seem to accept the re-advertising process, which costs several hundred dollars and results in another public hearing after 30 days as just the "cost of doing business" as a township. The Cedars Village ordinance was publicly accessible for many months before and after its initial advertising. But, in that case, substantive public criticisms resulting in changes were made only during public hearings AFTER advertising. Based on that recent experience our supervisors could reasonably conclude that the only way to get residents to pay attention to an ordinance is to advertise it and then proceed to a public hearing on its contents. This seems pretty inefficient to us, but it does have the benefit of moving this entire matter towards a conclusion.
After listening to the online recording of the December 4 School Board meeting, we see that the article in the Times Herald did not accurately reflect Mr. Phillips' comments in their context. So, Mr. Phillips gets our (almost complete) apology and the Times Herald gets our thumbs-down. What Phillips said was that at the previous Worcester Board of Supervisors' meeting, the Board did not vote to authorize advertising the ordinance, as required by law, but that they would vote on that issue on December 19th. As noted below, this is different from voting on the ordinance itself. Whether the ordinance is sufficiently well developed to warrant advertising is another question.
Our apology to Phillips is not entirely complete because Mr. Bustard cannot claim that the Board will vote to authorize (or not) the advertising of the ordinance. To make such a promise would imply collusion in private with another Board member, which would be a clear violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. We do not believe that Bustard would do this. The decision even to have a vote on this issue can be made only by the Board, not by any single member of the Board. Our guess (only a guess) is that Bustard might have said that this issue would be on the agenda for the December 19th meeting for discussion and possible action by the Board. What Phillips said was that the issue would be "on the agenda... for a vote." The wording is very misleading, but it is possible that Phillips was guilty of nothing more or less than trying to spin a conversation to his advantage rather than deliberately misrepresenting a conversation.
If you wonder why we trashed the idea of Jim Phillips becoming our state representative as the result of November's elections (which of course did not happen), you need look no farther than his recent foray into the public eye. Following the December 4, 2012 School Board meeting, he was quoted in a Times Herald article the following day:
"WORCESTER — The Methacton School District Board of Directors announced that the Worcester Township Board of Supervisors will vote on the ordinance regarding the lights on the fields at Methacton High School at its meeting on Dec. 19.
Board member Jim Phillips, who serves on the board’s Property Committee, made the announcement at the school board’s monthly meeting on Tuesday night after speaking with officials from the township.
“After speaking with (Worcester Township Board of Supervisors Chairman) Art Bustard, he said that it will be on the agenda for (Dec.) 19th for a vote on the light and field ordinance,” said Phillips. “I would appreciate it for people to show support for Methacton and make themselves available for that.”"
Anyone who draws the obvious conclusion from this statement, that Worcester is going to vote to approve (or not approve) a lighting ordinance in December, is going to be disappointed because it is simply not true. Whether Phillips' statement was deliberately false or based on ignorance of the facts, we cannot say; we would not be surprised in either case. (This ordinance, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with a "field" ordinance. Perhaps the quote should have been "lighted field" rather than "light and field.")
There is a process involved in passing an ordinance. The text of every proposed ordinance must be publicly advertised and opportunities must be provided for public examination and comments before it can be implemented or not. This process is not an attempt by Worcester to "drag its feet" on this issue. The legal requirements are what they are, and they are in place to protect everyone's interests. Although the Township is apparently working on an ordinance, the text has not even been made available to the public, let alone advertised as required by law. We do not believe that Mr. Bustard would have misrepresented this process, so we must place the blame for this flagrantly inaccurate statement squarely on Mr. Phillips.
We concede the possibility that Phillips was misquoted, although we are not inclined to believe that without additional explanation. In any case, shame on the Times Herald for not checking the facts. This is simply sloppy reporting regardless of what was actually said. If Mr. Phillips would like to clarify his comments, we would be happy to provide him with that opportunity.
Considering that, together, Lower Providence and Worcester constitute the Methacton School District, it is worth following what's happening
in Lower Providence. Toward that end, we recommend the Lower Providence Out Loud blog. The current entry deals with the recently revealed alleged affair between Methacton Superintendent Tim Quinn (who according to the Lower Providence blog makes about $175,000 per year plus generous benefits and a bonus) and former Arcola English Teacher
Diane Barrie, elevated to Acting Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment in December of 2011 and promoted this past April to Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment with a very hefty increase in salary to $103,500 plus generous benefits — much more than she could ever make as a teacher. For all we know, Ms. Barrie may be perfectly well qualified for this job (we do know that she was well regarded as a teacher at Arcola), but the present circumstances cannot help but raise questions about personnel policies within the Methacton administration.
This whole "affair," whatever the facts turn out to be, raises many questions about how the School District is being run and who's running it right now.
The School Board was already aware of this problem before the story made its way to Fox Channel 29 nightly news a couple of nights ago (it must have been a really slow news day!) and the Board had already hired outside attorneys to look into it. As tawdry as these kinds of indiscretions are, Fox TV reporting titillating e-mails in detail and chasing down the "culprits" with camera crews seems to us to be nearly as tawdry as the alleged affair itself. We do not know the source of this "news" leak to Fox but, as we all too often observe, nobody these days seems to retain any sense of shame about anything they do.
Aside from the waste of everybody's tax dollars now being spent by the School District on attorneys to investigate this unseemly business, there is probably going to be an impact of more direct consequence to Worcester residents. The diversion of everybody's attention over this matter considerably muddies the water regarding the future of upgrading Methacton High School's athletic facilities, which nearly everybody agrees is long overdue. Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere, you also know that these upgrades include plans for lighting one or two new synthetic turf fields for Friday night football and other nighttime uses. The decades-long controversy over lighted high school athletic fields appeared to be heading toward an amicable resolution thanks to the months-long negotiations between Dr. Quinn and Worcester residents who live around the high school. (See the October 20 posting, below.) Now, what will happen next is anybody's guess. We can only assume that whatever influence Quinn had with the School Board is going to be diminished in this and other matters, with the result that a resolution on the lighting issue and the field upgrades will be delayed — an outcome nobody wants, regardless of their position on this contentious issue. Sigh...