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Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
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‘Help us’: First witness in Pennsylvania schools trial puts state on blast

The superintendent of a rural school district that largely subsists on grants and charity spent two days on the stand in the closely watched trial over education disparities.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — After a day of testimony focused on leaking roofs, handicapped ramps cracked past the point of functionality and classroom-heating headaches, a school district superintendent resisted efforts by the state Tuesday to paint the situation in Panther Valley, Pennsylvania, as adequate.

Panther Valley is one of six school district plaintiffs in the case, filed in 2014 and led by the William Penn School District. Joined by individual parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and Pennsylvania’s chapter of the NAACP, the districts accuse the state of failing to maintain equal education standards as required by the U.S. Constitution. Because local taxes make up more than half of all funding for public schools across the state, the districts note that richer neighborhoods can spend an average of $5,000 more per student per year than what is spent in poorer districts. 

A prime example of this disparity is on view in the former mining community of Panther Valley, according to its superintendent of schools, David McAndrew, who was the first witness called to the stand in the trial that began Friday with opening statements.

McAndrew testified that 56% of students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged, and that the district struggles to raise enough money to support them.

“I'm sitting here, and I'm asking the state of Pennsylvania to help us. Who else is there to ask? We can't keep asking our taxpayers or local taxpayers. We can't ask our teachers to work for free,” McAndrew had said Monday.

Much of McAndrew’s first day of testimony described a school district that was understaffed and struggling to keep its facilities in good repair, often turning to charitable donations or grants to fix problems. 

“We need a revenue source to give these kids an education,” he said. “That's what the Constitution says we should have, and we're just not meeting that need.”

He said district can't afford a librarian or even substitute teachers. When a teacher call out, the students are sent to study hall. Once school dress codes forbade hooded sweatshirts, but McAndrew noted that the district recently modified that rule to compensate for unreliable heating. 

Attorneys for the state began cross-examining McAndrew on Monday afternoon and continued Tuesday, confronting the witness with videos of the elementary schools classrooms taken by teachers and posted to social media, depicting shiny gym floors, long classroom hallways and desks spaced apart for social distancing.

McAndrew pointed out that the videos did not show the leaky roof or the kindergartner-sized bathrooms too small for the upper-elementary students who currently inhabit the building.

The superintendent was also quick to counter emphasis from the defense on his district's array of course offerings, including art, language arts, math, physical education, reading and science at the elementary level. 

“These are courses that are offered but not always available,” McAndrew said, noting that the school has a guidance counselor teaching the classes, which wind up canceled on days that the counselor cannot be there.

McAndrew added his own narrative to many questions while on the stand, ultimately earning an admonishment from the judge to wait for a question before speaking.

“I think it would be better if you answer the question, and then you'll ask on redirect any gives you the opportunity to explain any answer that you don't believe was complete,” Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer indicated gently.

The state’s attorneys also pressed McAndrew to confirm that all Panther Valley schools have heat, that its teachers are all certified teachers, and that 111 out of 119 of them had been marked as "effective" during evaluations.

As to McAndrew’s testimony Monday that Panther Valley struggles with teacher turnover, the state's attorney noted that the average teacher has worked at the district for 13 years.

McAndrew insisted, however, that no evaluation changes that teachers in the district are overwhelmed.

And they are not the only ones. McAndrew also testified about the struggle children in the district experience with the state’s standardized tests. “Every single year,” he noted, the children test below the state averages on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), given to students in grades three through eight. 

As the students progress up through middle school and high school, they may be pushed to pursue more vocational education — regardless of what they want to pursue — because they can't catch up academically.

“You're taking this test, and you have no idea the stuff that's on the test,” McAndrew recounted. “It's like a foreign language to these kids because they're so far behind. It kills their whole morale.”

The witness has been superintendent since July 2020. During his cross-examination, the state's attorney read from several documents penned by a previous Panther Valley superintendent, who argued that standardized tests failed to measure the district's talent and student learning records.

“His beliefs do not reflect everyone at Panther Valley’s” McAndrew said Tuesday.

The state attorney stressed Tuesday meanwhile that “PSSA and Keystone exam scores have no tangible effect on students grades or standing within the Panther Valley School District.”

Speaking to to Panther Valley's weak property tax bases, McAndrew noted that the community falls below half of other districts in the state for amount of money spent per student. Panther Valley's is the 10th highest tax rate in Pennsylvania, but the superintendent said local property taxes can’t fill the gaps they’re experiencing.

“We are in one of the highest taxed school districts in this area of Pennsylvania with high poverty rates,” McAndrew testified. "If we keep doing this, they are going to lose their homes or stop paying them.

“We can’t keep thinking that local tax money is going to fix this problem,” he continued.

Panther Valley’s attorney asked McAndrew on Monday what the district could do with more funding.

“It would help us get the resources we need for our students. It would help us lower class sizes. It would help us to add reading specialists and help us to deal with the social, emotional needs of our students better,” he said, adding that they could also work toward lower truancy rates.

“I know our students can achieve at a greater rate, and they're just not able to do that,” he added. “Everything continues to be stacked against these kids. And it's just unfair. And it's not just a Panther Valley thing. It's a systematic thing.”

The trial in Harrisburg is being conducted in person but public access is available only via livestream due to Covid-19 precautions. On Tuesday, the proceedings attracted more than 85 viewers. The trial is expected to take eight to 10 weeks.

Attorneys on either side did not identify themselves before court proceedings Monday or Tuesday, and court records do not indicate who was tasked with questioning.

Katrina Robson with the firm O'Melveny & Myers made the opening statement for the districts Friday. For the defendants, Dilworth Paxson attorney Patrick Northen spoke at opening statements for Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Anthony Holtzman of K&L Gates spoke for Jake Corman, the Republican president pro tempore of the state Senate. 

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Categories / Education, Government, Trials

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