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Opinion: Countywide school board idea is dead on arrival

One of our area’s newly elected state senators said that she is introducing a bill to have paid countywide school boards on a 10-year trial basis.

Several legislators to whom I spoke said there are so many hurdles for a bill of this nature to overcome that it is, essentially, dead in the water.

While municipal consolidation makes much more sense than something like this, I am trying to keep an open mind about how this might work. Taking Carbon County, for example, there are five school districts - Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Palmerton, Panther Valley and Weatherly. One of these districts includes a borough from an adjoining county - Coaldale in Schuylkill County, which is part of the Panther Valley district. Several northern Carbon municipalities - Beaver Meadows borough and Banks Township - are served by the Hazleton Area School District headquartered in Luzerne County.

Each of these districts has its own uniqueness and traditions that would need to be respected by a countywide body.

Brown, whose district includes a large swath of Monroe County where there are just four school districts - East Stroudsburg, Pleasant Valley, Pocono Mountain and Stroudsburg - is no stranger to politics since she had served in the state House of Representatives for six terms before her election in November to the upper house. Two of Monroe’s districts are broken into two - East Stroudsburg South and East Stroudsburg North and Pocono Mountain East and Pocono Mountain West.

In her proposal to seek co-sponsors for her bill, Brown wrote: “By consolidating local school boards at the county level, and by providing for full-time, paid school board members, my legislation will both foster enhanced collaborative decision-making among local school boards and ensure that school directors have the time to devote to the issues facing local school districts.”

Currently, school board members receive no compensation for their service, and, quite frankly, I do not find this equitable. While it is admirable that so many community-spirited individuals are willing to perform this service without compensation, modest payment is only fair, especially since many boards meet twice a month and members usually serve on one or more committees which also have their own monthly meetings.

Brown’s proposal would designate the state education secretary to choose one fourth-class county for the pilot experiment and to take tax burdens into consideration. Pennsylvania has nine fourth-class counties, including Schuylkill and Monroe. Monroe has the highest school property taxes per capita in the state at $2,089, according to the Independent Fiscal Office.

Schuylkill County has 12 school districts, the largest number per capita in the state. They are: Blue Mountain, Mahanoy Area, Minersville Area, North Schuylkill, Pine Grove, Pottsville Area, Schuylkill Haven Area, Shenandoah Valley, St. Clair Area, Tamaqua Area, Tri Valley and Williams Valley.

Carbon is a sixth-class county, so it would not be part of Brown’s “experiment” if her legislation is approved.

When asked about the proposal, newly elected State Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh and Berks, and a former member of the Parkland School Board in Lehigh County, said he is skeptical, because he feels that it would affect a parent’s impact on their child’s education. He suggested that bigger is not better and that such a move would lessen a community’s input,

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is similar to the one at play when we talk about municipal mergers - community pride. Although Brown is not proposing a merger of all of the districts in a county, the one school board approach might be viewed as a foot in the door to such a succeeding step.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com