Friday, May 30, 2008

Venango County School Consolidation

(News-Herald, May 29) Valley Grove schools are struggling with administrative cuts. Oil City School District ranks on the undesirable end of the poverty scale. Franklin schools are whittling down staff a piece of teacher at a time. Cranberry School District has rejected a fact-finding report in current contract negotiations. And every school district is wrestling with bus fleet gas costs.

There are other challenges. Most of the county school building boom came in the sixties; districts are looking at aging school buildings that need serious attention, even as the population of those buildings is shrinking.

County schools carry more than the average state percentage of learning support students (what we once called “special ed”). Our regional reputation as a welfare mecca provides a steady influx of students from below the poverty line. Both groups bring special needs and challenges to school.

And lest we forget, the gummint wants every student to be above average within the next five or six years.

To meet all these challenges, schools need strong teaching staffs. That means recruiting the best teachers, but that requires money and creative aggressiveness in hiring. It also means getting the best out of the people we do hire, but that requires bold and clear leadership to train and develop staff.

Lately all of these issues are under frequent discussion, which means that it’s time, once again, to bring up the 800-pound gorilla that’s always in the room when we talk about local schools.

Venango County does not need four separate school districts.

Forty years ago, the picture was different. Franklin was considering building a separate Middle School, and the district was sending portable schoolrooms to Utica to deal with growing student population. In 1968, Franklin High School graduated 228 students; Cranberry, 184; Rocky Grove, 125. Oil City handed diplomas to 290 students. Thirty years ago, Rocky Grove still put out over 130 grads. Franklin easily topped 200, and Oil City graduated over 300.

But after another decade passed, the picture changed. RGHS graduating classes have not seen triple digits since; the current senior class is barely more than half the size of the group thirty years ago. Valley Grove is the one district of the four without a projected downward trend. Cranberry (125 seniors) and Franklin (under 200) both show downward trends for the next twelve years. Oil City (177 seniors) can expect some fluctuations, but no actual long-term growth.

In short, all four districts are maintaining facilities built for larger populations than they currently serve.

These are not easy choices. Trying to jam students into too-small facilities is ugly business, so districts must be careful not to lose capacity they could someday need. On the other hand, maintaining facilities for “ghost students” is expensive.

On top of that, the vagaries of PA school law lead to oddly-shaped districts; every morning many Venangoland students ride the bus through one district in order to arrive in another. At the very least, not very fuel-efficient.

How many districts do we really need? Two would be plenty. Oil City could absorb Cranberry and still serve fewer students than it did thirty years ago. Franklin plus Valley Grove would create a larger district than in the past, but in all cases, we would end up with a district with more than enough capacity, saving money now and preserving space that could be used in the event of a sudden influx of students.

It makes sense. Each new district could have separate high schools and middle schools—a major educational bonus. The combined schools could offer more programs, staff more efficiently, save money by cutting redundant administrative personnel. Transportation costs could be trimmed. And really—our students already play sports together, go to church together, even date across district boundaries.

Just as the common sense arguments in favor of merger are well known, so are the objections. The political wrangling between school boards would require divine intervention (Cranberry board members can’t even share power with each other—another board in the room might make heads explode).

And in a region where so many people identify for life with their alma maters, the state supreme court might be needed to settle the mascot question. Cranberry oil? An armored oriole?

There’s no question that small local schools with strong community identity are great, a luxury that local generations have been fortunate to enjoy. But it’s time once again to ask the question—how much do you really want to pay for it?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Summer Begins

For those of you who are actually in the neighborhood, just a quick mention/reminder that the Franklin Silver Cornet Band will kick off summers in the Franklin park with a concert tomorrow night at 7:30. The concerts are free and open to the public. Bring your own chair or blanket (we sell popcorn on the premises). It looks like it's going to be a good evening. If you've never enjoyed our little slice of small-town Americana, there's no time like the present. And if you are a regular, you should know that in addition to our usual acquisitions of new music, we've made it a point to pull out some music that hasn't seen the light of day in decades. It's practically like Christmas in the summer!

Friday, May 23, 2008

What I Learned This Decade

(News-Herald, May 22) Today’s column marks ten years of filling up this weekly space. I have voiced many opinions (about 416,000 words—almost double the number of words in Moby Dick) but I decided to mark my anniversary by stating as clearly and briefly as I can what I actually believe. So…

There is a God. However, a human trying to understand God is like my dog trying to understand my Hawaiian shirt collection. Any human who claims to know exactly what God is about is full of bologna.

Most of human existence is wasted on silly junk that we just make up. We spend 95% of our time and care on things of no importance; only the other 5% has value or reality. Many people do not disagree with those numbers, but most disagree vehemently about what, exactly, constitutes that 5%.

Whatever you’re doing, try to spot the main point. This requires thinking and paying attention—the main point is almost never “to just go through the motions.” It is not necessary to be particularly smart. If you can just shut up and pay attention, you can fill in the holes in your smarts.

Comfort and convenience are the enemies of everything great and good. People go to great lengths to avoid anything difficult, uncomfortable or inconvenient. Everybody succumbs to this temptation now and then; that’s just human. Some people are ruled by it; they become truly bad people.

In every aspect of your life, you are always either getting better or getting worse. There is no standing still. If you think you have something mastered and no longer need to work on it, you are getting worse.

Life normally generates plenty of conflict, heartache and hurt. It is a foolish waste to make a special effort to add, on purpose, more hurt and heartache to the world. Our minimum responsibilities as human beings include looking out for each other and being kind.

Being kind is not the same as being nice. It is not kind to offer warm fuzzy affirmations to someone who is driving himself over a cliff. It is almost never kind to lie to someone, even though the truth can be hard.

Very few situations are improved by withholding the truth.

It is important to make judgment calls and to make the very best decisions that we can on any given day without waffling or flinching. At the same time, it would be a mistake to believe that you are so wise that you need never listen to another viewpoint. No good judgment was ever harmed by being re-examined. You can never learn too much.

Be a pessimist about the present and an optimist about the future. Be ruthless about confronting any ugly truth now, and always be certain that no matter how bad the situation is, the next moment could still bring something better. One of the great tricks of evil is the belief that if you have made ten bad choices in a row, the eleventh is sure to be bad and you might as well not bother to try. That’s a lie. No matter how many bad choices you have made, the next choice could be a right choice. Not only can you try to get it right, but you must try. Redemption is not just a possibility, but a responsibility.

There’s a long list of problems that government cannot solve. It’s a bad idea to use government as a tool to implement the horribly common human impulse to make other people behave the way we think they’re supposed to.

Life is like a card game. Fortune deals the cards, and those cards decide what choices you have. Within those limits, the outcome will be determined by your skill, wisdom, and nerve. Fortune (God, fate—pick your favorite) and human effort determine each outcome; to imagine it’s all fortune is lazy, and to imagine that it’s all human effort is egotistically foolish.

Every choice happens where the circumstances of your life intersect with who you are at that moment. Nobody can know what that intersection looks like but you.

Figure out what you believe the point is. Never stop figuring. At the same time, act as if you really mean what you say you believe.

Every moment in life is one of a kind. Filling it with spirit, meaning, beauty, purpose, use and sense is important. Growing and getting better, and helping others do the same, is most of what we are made for.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

This is what I've been up to this weekend. My daughter is now officially a college graduate.

Springtime in Venangoland

(News-Herald, May 15) After a quick and cruel tease, spring appears to finally be arriving in Venangoland.

To tell the truth, spring is not my favorite season; I’m much more of an autumn guy. But I’m glad to live somewhere that actually has seasons, particularly after nine months of weather reports from my son in Southern California (“Well, today it was warm and sunny. Kind of like yesterday. But I think tomorrow it might be sunny and warm.”)

Spring in Venangoland is a big reveal. For a few weeks, you can climb up on the hills, clear of snow and slush, and find spectacular views unhampered by leaves and greenery. A few weeks back I discovered that Franklin Heights is still growing, with a small batch of houses now built where you can stand in the back yard and throw a rock that will land on Sixth Street. It puts you right on the old dirt road that snakes around the top of the hill. One end comes out at the spot known as “back the Gurney,” site of decades of various teenaged misbehavior; the other end winds around to the Third Street hollow (does anybody know the story behind the foundation and lot perched halfway up the hill above Fourth Street?). The whole length of that dirt path offers a fabulous view of Franklin and the river. Or at least it did until the recent eruption of leafery.

Down by the river, spring reveals what the waterways have been up to. Down in my neck of the riverbank, the water chewed its way through a lot of riverside growth and dirt (we lost a wide swath of lawn in my neighborhood).

To really see what the river has been up to, you have to get out on it. Personally, I follow the 100 rule—if the air and water temperatures don’t add up to 100, I stay on land—so I only recently dragged the kayak out of the basement and started paddling upstream.

Now, I love my bicycle. I think the bike trail is one of the great local resources. I look forward to many fine trips up to Oil City and down to the Belmar bridge. Traveling out the Sandycreek spur toward Van or pedaling all the way down to Emlenton reminds me that I live in the middle of a gorgeous park the likes of which the poor, deprived urban dwellers can only dream of. An active biker can see most of the county without burning a drop of gas.

It’s not perfect. The Great Missing Link in Venangoland bicycling is the cities themselves. We could bicycle to one of the three sister cities to eat out or shop—if we could get around the cities on the bikes AND if we had someplace to put the bikes when we got there.

There have been attempts to even out some sidewalks—great, if you want to get off your bicycle and walk beside it. For riding, the street works much better (provided you can avoid getting smushed by traffic). Some bike racks are popping up here and there. I hope more appear, but I still love my bike.

As much as I love it, though, the kayak is my recreational vehicle of choice. There is nothing like being out on the water, watching the wildlife as the great green gentle valleys slip by.

I’ve seen kayak traffic increase over the years, so other folks must be catching on. My neighbors at Wiegel Brothers Marina have even launched an entire Big House Full O’Paddle Sport Stuff across the street from their regular shop. (Since I live across the river from Country Pedalers, I am happily located at the nexus of bikes and boats in Venangoland.) These days, kayaks are made out of materials that will last until long after the last cockroach has keeled over, so a careful kayak purchase can keep you entertained for years and years (though, as with bicycles, there are plenty of handy accessories that can add to your fun and make you look really cool, too).

It should be said that water sports have to be taken seriously; our local waterways are not the most treacherous, but a heedless weekend warrior at the wrong time under the wrong conditions can still get in serious trouble. But approached with respect, the region’s rivers and creeks (don’t forget the Clarion River) can be an enormous source of fun and relaxation.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Poor Oil City Schools

(News-Herald, May 8) What does it mean to say that Oil City has the tenth poorest PA school district?

That statistic is based on a formula using property values and personal incomes. But there are certainly other ways to calculate the economic health of a school district. If we look at poverty rates, Oil City didn’t make the bottom ten on the last census. 2006 figures for the district show about 35% economically disadvantaged students (compared to over 42% for Franklin). The state figure is 31%, so Oil City is on the high side, but not spectacularly so.

And there are districts like Forest schools which have to figure out how to slice a million bucks from their budget while handling the rising costs of transporting students enough miles to make a trip to Mars and back—every single day.

But poor doesn’t equal stupid. The bottom-ten ranking has to do with the district’s ability to raise money, and that’s a factor that’s only partly quantifiable.

No area school district has suffered a larger identity crisis over the past several decades than Oil City. When the current high school opened in 1968, the district had over 4500 students. Today, enrollment is just over 2300. In other words, Oil City School District could absorb all of the students from Franklin Schools and still be smaller than it was a generation ago (with room left over for Valley Grove).

To lose the position of regional giant is not easy, particularly in an area where folks identify closely with their school of origin and maintain loyalties based the building in which they slept through class fifty years ago. That’s why the economic picture is not just a matter of simple numbers. Supporting a school system is also a matter of will, and in this respect we are strangely conflicted.

On the one hand, it’s not hard to find folks around here who will be Oilers or Knights till the day they die. On the other hand, if the state made it legal, I believe you could muster much support for a ballot item to close the local school district.

There are many voices to overcome in the battle to fund schools.

“Don’t nobody need that fancy schoolin’. I didn’t.” This generally from the person who either retired or was laid off from the industrial job that is now gone forever. The argument works if the plan is to transport graduates via time machine to the past. For students who live in the present, competing for jobs with sixty gazillion Chinese and Indian students requires a bit more

Then there’s the ever-popular, “I don’t have kids going to school here. Why should I pay school taxes?” Let me be clear as I can be—that attitude is just stupid.

Do you want to live in a world where people can get jobs that allow them to be solid, contributing taxpayers? Do you want votes cast by people smart enough not to fall for any stupid thing? Do you want your neighbors, co-workers, employees, and people who serve you to be, well, not unedumacated boneheads? I’ll bet you answered yes to at least one of these. And that’s why you pay school taxes.

That said, schools like Oil City must face economic reality. If you don’t have enough money for a Lexus, you may have to make do with a used Yugo. You can’t spend what you don’t have. Still, within that basic economic reality, there’s a lot of room to maneuver. Individuals, corporations, and governments often manage to find a way to get what they want—if they really, really want it. There’s the will.

If the people of Oil City want to maintain a top-notch school system, they’ll find a way. If all they want is to provide just enough school system to avoid getting sued, then that’s all they’ll get. If the schools are led by leaders with vision and determination to get the best they can out of the resources they have, then the schools will still be excellent. If they’d rather not work that hard, then the schools will drift and decay.

It’s a delicate balance. Oil City schools can’t tax property owners to death. But “to death” does not mean “at all.” And no community ever attracted new citizens with the slogan “Our schools—As Cheap as the Law Will Allow.”

What does Oil City’s place on the bottom ten list mean? It doesn’t have to mean a thing.

Friday, May 02, 2008

In Praise of Mistakes

(News-Herald, May 1) I write today in praise of mistakes.

Being wrong has great value in this world.

First of all, negative examples can be powerful. The thing about people who do things right and do them well is that they make so much of it seem natural and easy. When you watch a perfect performance by an athlete or musician, you can’t imagine that it could have been done any other way. It’s hard to learn from perfection.

But while it often seems as if there’s only one way to be great, there are a thousand ways to mess things up. Each one of them is instructive. The managers of Oil City and Franklin hospitals undoubtedly did a thousand things correctly over the decades, and those decisions are lost to posterity. But the botched merger of the two facilities is a management manual of mangled – well, I’ve run out of M words, but you get the idea. Even Herb Baum claims to have learned from his gross mishandling of Quaker State’s business in Oil City.

Of course, these lessons are not always worth the cost of the actual mistake. Like many divorced men, I can say that I learned a great deal from my marital meltdown. I also learned a lot from the time I lay down on a bunch of bees and the time I picked up a white hot piece of charcoal. Yet as instructional as all these life experiences have been, I can’t say that I would recommend any of them to someone else.

There is another value in making mistakes. Oddly enough, Albert Einstein is a fine example of this brand of useful mistakenness.

Among his other many achievements, Einstein laid the groundwork for quantum physics (which we are not going to explore today, thank you very much). But Einstein didn’t like quantum physics, and could never shake the feeling that it was just wrong.

And so, having laid the foundation, he proceeded to toss bricks at the young scientists who tried to build the house. On numerous occasions Einstein confronted the young turks of physics with challenge after challenge—“If quantum theory is right, then how do you explain X?” Now, Einstein was always a scientist about this. The challenges reportedly never contained a hint of “You stupid jerk kids.”

But the challenges forced the young pioneers of quantum theory to refine their ideas, to correct their mistakes, and otherwise try to find answers for the smartest man in the world. In the end, with his spirited dissent, Einstein drove the development of quantum theory forward, even though every step forward suggested that he was wrong.

At various times, various people have dreamt of the beautiful, efficient glory of having everyone On The Same Page. If we just had everyone in agreement, we could rip forward with all resources focused with laser-like intensity on a clear, consistent goal.

It’s a beautiful and inspiring picture, but it only works as long as whoever is picking the page picks the right page 100% of the time. And the only thing that is 100% correct is the statement, “Nobody is right 100% of the time.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Grand Imperial Poohbah in charge of Frakistan’s Five Year Plan or the uber-bossy head of a roadside ice cream stand—if your plan is that you will never listen to anyone because you will always be right and they will always be wrong, you’re headed for trouble.

One of the things that has always made America great is the Right to Make Mistakes. Sometimes the only path to the bright sunny meadow is through the dark forest. Sometimes messing up is the only way to learn what we need to know to get things right. Nobody should want to be mistaken, but I’ve seen plenty of folks who were so afraid of making a mistake that they didn’t make anything at all. A caterpillar is not nature’s mistake in the attempt to create a butterfly; it’s just a necessary step on the way.

We need people who are mistaken, just as we all the need the flexibility to let go of our own cherished mistakes. When it comes to local development, we’re better off having many people try many different things. Some of them may well bomb, but that’s better than an endlessly paralyzed search for the One Right Thing to do.

From my Flickr