Assorted School Updates and Silliness

As another school year reaches its stride, it is becoming populated by all manner of disagreements about issues both important and trivial, handled in ways both sublime and ridiculous.

Safety vs. the School Day

This past Monday, Quaker Valley Middle School was used as a landing zone for a patient at Heritage Valley Sewickley that needed air transport. This was the first use of the Middle School LZ since August 8, and the first in a long time during school hours.

The presence of emergency vehicles and the aircraft was apparently enough to generate some concern on the part of certain community members. After what was probably a number of phone calls to the school and district offices, QV’s Communications Director Tina Vojtko sent an e-mail list notification:

Emergency response vehicles including a helicopter are currently on-site due to a non-school emergency in the nearby area.

Students and staff continue to be hard at work in their classrooms.

It’s nice to see the process put into place in April continue to function well with all stakeholders, including those responsible for communicating with citizens.

South Williamsport vs. Monty Python

In 1977, the Quaker Valley Band traveled to South Williamsport (Pa.) High School to do a joint concert band appearance. The band director there at the time was a QV alumnus. I remember the majorettes from both schools dancing the Charleston onstage while the combined bands played a nice, jazzy arrangement, along with an overture that legendary QV band director Walter Iacobucci had composed especially for the occasion.

Apparently South Williamsport still has a robust performing arts tradition, which stirred a bit of controversy over the summer when the school principal vetoed the drama director’s choice of Spamalot for the annual spring musical, after actually paying for the rights to stage the production.

The dispute simmered over the summer months, fueled by the release of emails obtained via a Right-To-Know request, which seemed to indicate that the reversal of the approval to stage the production was due to “homosexual themes”.

As the school year was getting underway, the disagreement between the drama director, the principal, and the school board was brought to a head with the director’s dismissal by the board, and the subsequent resignation of her husband from the school board as a result.

Combined with the obvious civil liberties issue, the gay rights implications have focused much unwelcome media attention on a town whose only usual exposure to the spotlight is the annual Little League World Series. When heavies such as the New York Times weigh in, you know there’s a need for effective crisis and communication management.

With what is sounding like a standoff between a small school district and a mix of students, instructors, activists, and the commercial theater establishment, let’s hope no one entity starts looking like the Ministry of Silly Walks, or the Upper Class Twit of the Year.

West Mifflin vs. The State and Duquesne

The Post-Gazette reported last week about the West Mifflin School Board retaining legal counsel to explore the feasibility of suing both the Pa. Department of Education and the Duquesne City School District. High School age students from Duquesne attend West Mifflin and East Allegheny High Schools, and the state pays those districts tuition for those students.

The state’s payments are less than what West Mifflin estimates their cost per pupil is, and they want the difference.

Based on the amounts quoted in the story, West Mifflin is being shorted just under $1.1 Million per year, or just over 2 percent of the total district budget.

Depending upon the billable hours charged by Mr. Levin and his firm to do the research, and the additional hours and court costs required to conduct a lawsuit and any subsequent appeals of the outcome, this may or may not be a financially advantageous proposition for the taxpayers in West Mifflin. The lawyers may end up being the only ones making money from this.

Regardless of who is right or wrong, or whether or not the district has a case, perhaps it is an accounting firm or financial advisor who should be doing the research as to whether or not the end justifies the means in taking this to court.

Also regardless of any outcome, it’s apparent that Duquesne needs an exit strategy, just like Sto-Rox.

Sto-Rox vs. Propel – Round 2

In what sounds like the beginnings of a 12-round brouhaha (complete with Michael Buffer and his signature, trademarked introduction), the P-G reported yesterday on the state Charter Appeals Board denying Sto-Rox’s request for a stay of Propel Charter School’s plans to build a school that could eventually house 800 students in grades K-12.

Sto-Rox Solicitor Ira Weiss, whose firm is so prolific in its representation of school districts that he could fairly be called the Michael Buffer of school solicitors, is readying an appeal to Commonwealth Court to stop what he and his clients perceive is a “death blow” to the school district. No doubt Mr. Weiss’ meter is running as well.

A fair question for Sto-Rox voters – how much is enough? When do you say “No mas“, or negotiate a truce?

Maybe it’s just an eerie coincidence, but they face Quaker Valley on the gridiron tonight.

Easton vs. the ACLU

The above question is probably something that the Easton Area School District should have considered before appealing a court decision against them involving the placement of restrictions on bracelets in support of breast cancer. This is more commonly known as the I Heart Boobies case.

Easton appealed lower court decisions in favor of the students all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the district’s appeal. Easton is now on the hook for ACLU attorney fees to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, money that local media is lamenting and the ACLU is defending.

The district, while also stating the payments are unfortunate, also brought up the excellent point that the costs associated with taking an intractable dispute into the courts are unreasonable, and often preclude someone with limited resources from seeking an equitable resolution.

Rather than making rich lawyers richer, perhaps we should be focused more on playing nice, and knowing when compromise makes more sense.

Moon Area School District vs…Moon Township

Thursday’s Tribune-Review contained a curious story about the Moon Area School District’s efforts to disengage themselves from the Moon Transportation Authority, which leverages shared property tax revenue to help finance transportation infrastructure to support increased development.

The school district has taken its argument directly to the public in the form of an open letter detailing its differences with both the Transportation Authority (of which 2 members were appointed by the School Board) and Moon Township itself.

It sounds as if the school district wants its money back because it feels it needs it for its first mission – to educate students. This probably has something to do with their stated desire to explore swallowing up Cornell.

The Transportation Authority is a great idea, and has performed a great service to citizens by helping to assure that responsible development is accompanied by traffic management systems and highway improvements capable of handling the impact of that development.

Despite this, perhaps their greatest work has yet to come to fruition – one is the planned redesign of the I-376 Thorn Run interchange, arguably one of the most confusing in the area. The other relates to current and future development planned for University Boulevard, and the capacity of that roadway to handle any expected increase in traffic loads as a result. I covered this at length in a post from last year.

By virtue of the recent expansion of its campus along University Boulevard and the subsequent impact on this area, Moon Area School District needs to continue to support the Transportation Authority’s efforts to improve transportation infrastructure to facilitate greater development, and with it the payoff of an increased tax base.

The $3.5 Million that the school district is insisting be returned amounts to just over 5 percent of its current $68 Million budget. If the school district truly wants to “avoid the unsightly spectacle of litigation between governmental entities” (as they state in their letter), then they’ll forget this foolishness, continue to participate, and make sure that taxpayer funds are spent in some way other than lining the pockets of lawyers and the courts.

Jefferson County School Board vs. American History

No chronicle of recent school craziness would be complete if I didn’t digress back to Colorado, and the interesting attempts by the school board in Jefferson County to establish a “Curriculum Review Committee” to review the Advanced Placement History curriculum along what appear to be blatantly political lines, modeled after similar efforts in Texas.

The protests, which have been well covered by both local and national media, are likely to continue after the school board voted yesterday to modify their attempts at review, but to proceed with the process. That doesn’t seem likely to appease the bulk of those opposed.

The most entertaining aspect of this issue has been the assault on the school board position via Twitter. Some tweets using this hashtag were downright hilarious.

Perhaps the smartest thing I read came from my former hometown newspaper, which stated in an editorial last week:

While we applaud the anti-censorship sentiments behind the protests, we want to remind these impressionable students of another important civics lesson: School board elections matter.

Groups such as the Concerned Taxpayers of Quaker Valley know this, which is one reason why the “establishment” slate of candidates for the last school board election was largely defeated.

While I’m not optimistic for a general return to civility (at least not until after the election), I believe that compromise and common sense will somehow find a way to triumph over all this posturing and expense.

Have a great October. Play nice…

Posted in Censorship, Civil Liberties, Government, Local, Public Safety, Schools, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Local Asides and Updates – Play Nice

There are plenty of little issues swirling around the area this week that garnered more than the average amount of my attention span.  Rather than dive into one and try to flesh it out for all it’s worth (as has been my usual recent practice), I thought I’d just list them here. All have a common theme.

Gridiron Glory and Life Lessons

There will likely be a little more public and media attention as Quaker Valley’s football squad takes the field vs. Carlynton tonight in Leetsdale. The Cougars’ first year head coach, Mauro Monz, resigned earlier this week after his team encountered significant hardships over the first three games of the season. Mr. Monz cited his concerns over player safety after several were lost to injury, dropping his roster to 23 players.

Coach Monz, who has been an assistant coach in many area college football programs, also cited the team’s move up from Class A to AA this season, after male enrollment at the high school creeped just over the PIAA cutoff for Class A. This makes Carlynton the smallest school statewide in Class AA.

The coach has been roundly criticized for this move. Tribune-Review columnist Kevin Gorman got down to the basics about it -

Quitting has become a problem permeating WPIAL football. Wilkinsburg had four players quit at halftime of its 86-0 loss to Clairton on Sept. 5. For a head coach to do the same sends the wrong message. Sports are supposed to teach us life lessons. First and foremost, that quitting isn’t an option.

Mr. Gorman embellished his remarks in a post the next day, recognizing Coach Monz as “a good football coach” despite throwing in the towel when other coaches have endured what Mr. Gorman felt were greater hardships.

His post also included a picture of Steeler wide receiver Derek Moye addressing the Carlynton team. This is significant in that Carlynton counts Bill Cowher among its football-playing alumni. Carlynton High Principal Michael Loughren, in a statement to KDKA, tried to put the most positive spin he could on the situation.

I believe that Coach Monz could have done better by his kids, but I also believe that his actions bring to light a disturbing trend surrounding high school athletics. They receive far too much media attention. Too much hype equals expectations that can be unreasonable, perhaps even negating the positive impact of some of those life lessons.

In any event, Go Quakers – Don’t underestimate them, and play nice.

My Charter School Ate My School District

Propel Charter Schools wants to open what will eventually be an 800-student school, eventually serving all grade levels, in the Sto-Rox School District. According to a Post-Gazette report, total enrollment in Sto-Rox schools is around 1400.

Considering the demographic of Sto-Rox and districts like it – struggling post-industrial tax base, stagnant or declining enrollment, and financial challenges related to these – it isn’t surprising that the district is trying to fight this expansion. Their solicitor equates the charter school’s establishment as “death blows” to the district.

If you follow the media reports about other school districts in the county, such as Wilkinsburg and Duquesne, and the various struggles they are engaged in to survive, I’m wondering why these districts along with Sto-Rox just won’t recognize that they may be outmatched in their efforts to provide a quality educational experience.

Some districts saw the handwriting on the wall and acted, or are in the process of acting – Monaca’s merger with Center Area to form Central Valley, and Cornell entertaining a merge offer from Moon Area are examples of this.

Cornell appears to be a healthy district that cooperates with other districts to allow its students quality opportunities in both athletics and academics. Cornell seems to have a realistic approach toward the future viability of their district, while maintaining a sense of identity and pride – despite the fact that the district doesn’t have a football team. They’re rooting for the Quakers tonight as well.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to be Sto-Rox in this situation, especially with the confounding nature of the way charter schools exist. I have to pay them to educate students that would otherwise attend my schools. They operate with what may be a more efficient business model than I do. They may indeed be the death of me – what do I do? Perhaps they will need to play nice with neighboring districts, like Cornell is.

As it happens, I am living something like this, only in a different arena. More about this in a future post.

Sto-Rox, along with other small struggling districts, may need an exit strategy. Distressed and/or miniscule municipalities in our area should take note.

North Allegheny – The Road Not Taken

The Post-Gazette reported Wednesday that the North Allegheny School District looked carefully at the pros and cons of dealing with Highmark and UPMC, considering that their current health benefits provider is Highmark and there are two UPMC hospitals in immediate proximity to their district.

When faced with the choice of the region’s two feuding health giants, they chose the road less traveled by – United Healthcare. The P-G story cited lesser premium increases in 2015 by this insurer over that which were forecast by Highmark.

Hopefully service provision won’t suffer – according to my doctor, insurers such as United, Cigna, and Aetna require a lot more authorizations for diagnostic testing than the local big guys.

Not wanting to leave its employees in a lurch by denying them affordable access to as many providers as possible, NA appears to have made a wise choice. I think that Robert Frost would approve.

If it works, perhaps more business groups can send a much-needed message to both UPMC and Highmark – Play nice…or else.

Progress on the “Tacky Buzzer”

In the “play nice” department, it’s good to conclude on a positive note. This week’s Sewickley Herald and the Sewickley Fire Horn Petition site both contained positive information about the manner in which the horn is utilized in the age of improved notification technologies, a subject that I covered in July.

In both accounts, Cochran Hose Chief Jeff Neff was reluctant to elaborate about exactly what hours the horn will sound and when it will not, although the Herald reported that “the horn still will function during business hours”.

I’m not an expert on updating this type of technology – colleagues have told me that other fire departments have spent thousands to rehabilitate the electronics of old sirens at their stations. Thinking in terms of the simplest possible solution, I’m guessing that a commercial grade programmable timer, similar to this, could be used to allow power to the horn only when desired.

I’ve been in the Village once in recent weeks when the horn went off – on a Sunday morning after church. Whether or not that’s considered “business hours” is not as important as how many firefighters show up when needed, something that Chief Neff has stated he will keep close tabs on.

Those behind the horn petition appear cautiously satisfied with the efforts to make Sewickley that much more of an attractive community, while not compromising the public safety system already in place. It’s nice to see the fruits of respectful discourse, even if the jury is still out on both sides as to whether the fix will be satisfactory to all.

Have a great weekend. Play nice.

Posted in Government, Health, Local, Media, Public Safety, Schools, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Join The Fight!

Originally posted on Old Road Apples:

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Cable companies want to slow down (and break!) your favorite sites, for profit. To fight back, let’s cover the web with symbolic “loading” icons, to remind everyone what an Internet without net neutrality would look like, and drive record numbers of emails and calls to lawmakers.  Are you in?

https://www.battleforthenet.com/sept10th/?t=dXNlcmlkPTUyMzcxNzMxLGVtYWlsaWQ9OTAzMg==

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View original

Posted in Civil Liberties, Government, Internet, Politics, Technology | Leave a comment

QV Update: School Year Starts Without Resource Officer

Students and staff wait on the field of Chuck Knox Stadium while Quaker Valley High School (at right) is searched after a bomb threat on October 29, 2013.

October 29, 2013 – Students and staff wait on the field of Chuck Knox Stadium while Quaker Valley High School (at right) is searched after a bomb threat.

This past February, I detailed some of the changes in the offing for Quaker Valley Schools as the 2013-2014 school year was moving toward a close.

The new artificial surface at Chuck Knox Stadium was installed in late June and early July. It is a decided improvement over the previous surface – there is a definite grass-like feel and cushioning that will no doubt be welcomed by athletes, marching bands, and citizens alike.

Another nice touch is what isn’t there – the end zones are plain green, without any adornments such as the mascot name emblazoned in large, pretentious block letters. The only decoration is the school district logo at midfield.

The new surface appears to be a quality installation that speaks to both safety and fiscal responsibility.

There’s a new Superintendent who is a familiar face, riding on a reported groundswell of community support and a reputation for reaching toward compromise. As efforts quietly begin to build toward planning to do something of substance with the high school, this will be important as stakeholders with their own points of view, from concerned taxpayers to adjacent property owners, will undoubtedly be watching and taking action.

The new school year is in its infancy, and already in a nearby district the youngest of students has brought a gun to an elementary school.

As reported in February, QV’s Resource Officer, Robert Wright, retired at the end of the last school year. A review of School Board meeting minutes since then has failed to show any action to hire a new officer. I inquired of QV Communications Director Tina Vojtko as to the status of the recruitment, and what contingencies were in place to provide officer coverage at the high school. She replied:

 Attached please find documentation regarding the district’s agreement with the Leetsdale Police Department. This arrangement will continue until a school resource officer is hired and on-staff.

I do not have a projected hire date for the school resource officer. The school resource officer position is crucial. What’s more important is finding the right school resource officer for QV. We are re-advertising the position in order to extend the applicant pool. Until the position is filled, our local police departments will continue to provide assistance.

I confirmed this with Leetsdale Police Chief James Santucci, who added that an agreement was also in place for a police presence at other Quaker Valley facilities by the respective agencies (Edgeworth, Sewickley) that serve where those buildings are located.

I’m curious as to what the district believes is the “right” kind of resource officer. Having known Bob Wright since before I left the area in the 90’s, I know that his shoes are difficult ones to fill. His personality and disposition seems to suit the nature of the job, and he was also a part-time officer with a local department.

That kind of legacy shows to me that not every police officer has the necessary skill set to excel as a School Resource Officer (SRO). According to a guide to establishing an effective SRO program published by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, there are eight essential criteria for the selection of an SRO:

(1) likes kids, cares about and wants to work with kids, and is able to work with kids;
(2) has the right demeanor and “people skills”, including good communication skills;
(3) has experience as a patrol officer or road deputy;
(4) is able to work independently with little supervision;
(5) is exceptionally dependable;
(6) is willing to work very hard;
(7) is—or can become—an effective teacher; and
(8) has above average integrity.

While it’s unknown what exact criteria Quaker Valley is using in their selection process, chances are it’s something approaching the above. It’s important to note that the QV officer can function independently of local police, and can write citations and file criminal complaints. So within those legal requirements, QV can place greater emphasis on criteria that they value more when considering potential candidates.

Despite these differences, the arrangement works for most of those agencies with a stake in the process. A 2012 report by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) stated the following:

The successes of interagency collaboration, in all of its applications, are well-documented, including its downstream effect on reform in other areas of law…The school safety team is an object lesson of this collaborative approach. By now, all 50 states as well as local authorities authorize–and often mandate–a version of the team approach to insure that public schools are safe, secure environments where educators can teach and students can learn.

A check of the Quaker Valley job listings page does not show the position advertised as of the date of this post. It’s possible that the district may be using other job listing services, including those that focus on public safety and police employment, to get the “right” kind of applicant pool together.

Unfortunately, in some districts these criteria may also include the officer’s ability to function effectively in an atmosphere where politics or intransigence may trump common sense – witness the incident in South Fayette earlier this year. This dovetails with misapplied confidentiality rules that are too often used to suppress effective and appropriate citizen awareness of school district operations.

In some cases the school itself is left out of the loop. The recent firing of a security guard at Franklin Regional High School, who distinguished himself during the mass stabbing incident in April despite being himself stabbed, has school district officials feeling blindsided, and the Robinson-based private security firm that fired the guard hiding behind some stone walls of its own.

Effective communication and/or cooperation is not aided or embellished when barriers to transparency, accountability, and citizen awareness exist. It is made even more difficult when public safety and other stakeholders are complicit in these efforts.

A culture of secrecy and subterfuge infects the body and soul of an institution like nothing else can, and is even less appropriate in an environment where education is supposed to be taking place.

I’m hopeful that Quaker Valley will find an excellent individual to serve as its Resource Officer. The extra time taken to do it, and the cooperative effort with local police to assure that adequate security is being provided in the interim, will hopefully pay dividends in enhanced understanding and effective coordination when needed.

I also hope that Dr. Ondek extends her stated commitment to accountability beyond the educational process, and into how a school co-exists with a community during the best and worst of times.

Have a good Labor Day weekend.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Local, Public Safety, Schools, Security | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Ambridge’s Last Picture Show? Maybe Not…

Credit: CBS Pittsburgh

Photo Credit: KDKA

I suppose it’s fitting that the 1971 film classic The Last Picture Show is playing this month on Sony Movie Channel.  Aside from the obvious, almost trite use of the title to describe the gradual decay of small-town America in the years before and since its release, there is a sad irony to the timing of finding it on TV.

Last week, the owners of the Ambridge Family Theatre announced the closure of the small, intimate, aging movie house, due ostensibly to the failure of a plastic cam on their film transport table, a component of the equipment that enables them to use one projector with multiple reels of 35mm film, and to speedily rewind the large reels of film for placement back into the cans they come in.

The Ambridge Theatre site includes a well-written history of the place. Founded in 1967, Leslie and I have been familiar with the theatre since the 70’s. I first went there with my father to see Man in The Wilderness starring Richard Harris. Leslie took her kids there several times for the family-friendly movie fare. Most recently, Leslie and I braved threatening skies on a Sunday afternoon in July to walk there from Leetsdale, to catch the latest installment in the X-Men series.

To hear owners Rick and Glenda Cockrum tell the various media that came to report on the announcement, the old projectors run just great – there are just no parts to be had to keep the rest of the works going, what with a decided push by the movie industry to convert to digital projection.

I thought about that damaged cam that drives that transport table, and wondered why in the age of computer aided drafting and design, automated machine tooling, and 3-D printing, if a functional copy of that cam could be fabricated without a great deal of difficulty. However, the more I read the local media coverage, the more I realized that little part was a metaphor for what has been largely a labor of love for the owners, in both the literal and figurative sense.

The Cockrums admitted as much in the local reporting, the best of which came from the Beaver County Times and the hyperlocal news and events site Ambridge Connection. In both stories they cited their age, health problems, and other issues with the building – particularly with the roof – as contributing factors in their decision to close. This was noticeable on our last visit, with a visibly damaged ceiling and the last few rows of seats roped off.

The public response to the closure announcement was full of encouragement toward engaging in fundraising to obtain digital projection equipment suitable to the theater’s smaller-than-average screen, along with repairs to the building’s roof.

To that end, a crowdfunding effort is under way. A group spearheaded by Ambridge Connection co-founder Felicia Mycyk has established a campaign on gofundme.com, with a goal of raising $80,000.  This effort has the endorsement of Rick and Glenda Cockrum, who re-affirmed their intentions in a post to the Theatre website:

We encourage your donations to the fundraiser. We want the theatre to continue functioning. It is an asset to the community. We want to be clear, though, that it will have to be in the hands of new owners. None of the funds donated will go to us, but to whoever is able to take the theatre over and continue it.

One question that has to be asked is what happens to these funds if new ownership does not step forward. I forwarded that question to the organizers of the effort this week – they replied that a few potential owners have stepped forward, and that whatever money raised will be used toward the desired upgrades, whether by new owners or the current ones.

I’ve followed the efforts to revitalize and support small town community theaters across the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere, especially in the wake of the film industry’s change to digital projection, and the considerable cost burdens to those facilities as a result.

Efforts are underway, continuing, or complete to create or revitalize community theaters in Sewickley, Oakmont, Mt. Lebanon, and Dormont, with at least one being transformed into a space for live performance as well. These proposed or existing facilities are seen as part of a coordinated effort to expand the existing vitality of the business districts in those communities. This is not something that is as present in Ambridge as it is in these other locations.

However, this has not impeded the continued popularity of the Ambridge Theatre, what with its movie programming that was geared toward families, and ticket and concession prices that were decidedly budget-friendly.

That’s an unfortunate difference between this little gem of a screening room and the rest of the target-marketed, business-planned iterations of the non-profit arts world. Rick and Glenda have been at the helm of a labor of love – from the sound of it, profit was important, but not the primary motivation.

Regardless of who may take it over, it will be difficult if not impossible to duplicate that kind of dedication.

Rick and Glenda have announced an Open House this Saturday. A chance to say goodbye, munch on some free popcorn, appreciate what was, and perhaps join in collective hope for a continuation of what has helped in a not-so-small way to keep a community together.

There is a post from the cartoon blog Zen Pencils that was published last year, not long after the death of the famed movie critic Roger Ebert. Using an old movie house as the setting for Ebert’s thoughts about kindness, artist Gavin Aung Than crafted something that has roots in the devotion and presence of Rick and Glenda Cockrum over these many years. It also offers what the future may hold for the foundation they helped to maintain for the Ambridge area.

Who besides God knows what is possible?

Heartfelt thanks to Rick and Glenda – we’ll miss you. Best wishes to those in the Ambridge community trying to keep a good thing going.

Updated August 22 with response to funding question, and a photo.

Gofundme page for the Ambridge Family Theatre

Posted in Business, Community, History, Local, Movies, Personal | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Chatham vs. Alumni – An Update

In late June I wrote about the disagreement between Chatham University administration and a vocal alumni group over the university’s decision to open its undergraduate programs to men.

At that time I expressed concern over what appeared to be Chatham’s attempt to unfairly silence those alumni through a questionable trademark infringement claim. I also expressed concern for those alumni still galvanized by the university’s decision to go co-ed, but were perhaps struggling for a sense of purpose or direction with which to take their efforts. I felt this was important to the group’s relevance into the future, especially considering the university’s seeming intransigence about the finality of its decision.

Since then what started as Save Chatham, and then became the Chatham College Independent Alumni Association, has yet again re-branded itself in response to both the trademark harassment by the university, and what appears to be a well-considered need to expand beyond the boundaries of their initial mission.

In a July 28 letter to Chatham’s President and Trustees, the newly named Filiae Nostrae Society made their intentions clear:

So take the family name. Chatham, as both an institution and a brand, no longer holds real value. Your daughters are breaking ties.

The letter expands upon this separation further, in similarly blunt language. It’s worth a complete read, if for no other reason than to appreciate the continued passion and discontent present among these alumni.

The group’s new, English-friendly website, ourdaughtersourfuture.com, explains the name change as having its origins in Chatham’s motto, Filiae Nostrae Sicut Antarii Lapides. This translates to an excerpt from Psalms 144:12 (KJV):

That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.

In a continuing search for feedback from interested alumni, the group received several ideas that they summarized in a blog post on July 30. These included serving as a connecting point of like-minded alumni through social media such as LinkedIn, but also to support those women-only colleges that continue to hold fast to that tradition, and to direct funding toward those institutions – and presumably away from Chatham.

So much for that symbiotic existence that I speculated about.

Disagreements about Chatham’s state of affairs spilled over into the pages of local mainstream media following a lengthy Tribune-Review story at the end of June.

The story detailed considerable turnover among university administrators, and difficulties that some had experienced with the organizational culture at that level. Chatham President Esther Barazzone, as well as current members of the Board of Trustees, declined comment for the story. The Trib also reported something that I believe is significant:

Many of the two dozen former Chatham employees contacted by the Trib…declined to comment for the record, citing a culture in academia that frowns on speaking out of place.

Two weeks later, the Trib ran an op-ed penned by three current Chatham trustees, criticizing the paper’s reporting on staff turnover, reiterating their reasons for going co-ed, and reaffirming that the university’s finances are “quite sound”. They concluded their comments by stating:

The quality of our faculty, students and programs is very high. These are the stories that should be told about change at Chatham.

Translation – The media should write about what we tell them to write, regardless of empirical and/or colloquial evidence to the contrary. The Trib included an Editor’s Note: On July 3, Standard & Poor’s Rating Services issued a negative outlook on a new BBB-rated $18 million bond issue for Chatham University.  That sounded to me like the Trib replying, “Thanks. We stand by our reporting, and we’ll report about what we want”.

To me this is the continuation of a disturbing trend among colleges and universities that attempt to frame and control the message, and try to silence those who dissent. This is an example of why the sidebar of this blog features news from FIRE, which specializes in identifying and shedding light on attempts to stifle free expression on campus.

This is not to say that I agree with everything being put forth on the other side of the argument.  I applaud the efforts of Filiae Nostrae to expand their scope of influence beyond what is probably a lost cause, but I’m still concerned about their approach.

The society’s most recent letter to Chatham makes reference to scripture as part of its criticism – specifically, the verse preceding the above verse from which Chatham’s motto is derived:

Rid me, and deliver me from the hand of strange children, whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.   Psalm 144:11 (KJV)

The letter seems to apply this as an ironic representation of what Chatham attempted to do with their threat to sue their own alumni for daring to disagree with them.

I have to wonder, however, if the alumni group’s desire to steadfastly embrace women-only colleges could be interpreted as their desire to deliver those colleges “from the hand of strange children…”, that being the presence and/or influence of men, despite whatever hard data that may be out there to justify Chatham’s position that change was inevitable to assure their viability.

With that, I have the following observations before moving on:

  • Chatham has the right to pursue whatever legal course their governing bodies see fit for the continued survival of the institution.
  • Dissenting alumni have the right to dissent, in whatever form and under whatever name that dissent may take within the boundaries of law.
  • Chatham was wrong to try to silence the alumni by threatening litigation. Their move to hastily establish trademarks is bad form for such a ‘dignified’ institution.
  • The dissenting alumni seem to be tilting at the windmills of change in the higher education world, which may render their favored business model unsustainable under any set of circumstances. They need to be prepared to accept that.
  • Institutions of higher education that take steps to stifle the free, unfettered expression of ideas are working against the very reasons they exist in a society that values freedom and self-reliance.
  • I see area colleges and universities committing more and more financial resources to marketing their institutions. Print, broadcast, billboard, and other advertising mechanisms seem to feature ads from these institutions with increasing frequency – money that is perhaps being taken away from uses such as improved online options or better pay and benefits for adjunct faculty. It seems counterproductive, and not in keeping with the values inherent in a supposedly benevolent, not-for-profit institution.

The end of summer looms ahead, and with it serious business. Enjoy it while you can.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Local, Media, Politics, Schools | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

This Week in Personal History

Among several events being commemorated this week, there are two historical events that bring back some personal memories, and two events of comparatively limited significance to the world but of increased importance in my own personal and professional life.

Nixon Resigns – 40 Years Ago

The evening of August 8, 1974, my family was on vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Back then television and telephones were a homebound convenience, and if you wanted to watch TV there, you had to have an antenna atop about a 40 to 60 foot tall tower to pull in signals from Norfolk.

There was no TV or phone in the room at the motel we stayed at, which is not to say that it was a rustic experience. Not in the slightest – the Tower Circle in Buxton was an excellent place to stay, and apparently still is, having enjoyed a resurrection under new ownership after taking a hit from Hurricane Irene in 2011.

In the 70’s the motel office, with comfortable couches and a large old AM radio, had the only phone for guests and was thus the center of communication for those who populated the motel at any given time. I used to sit in the office with a book or magazine and listen to Bob Prince and Nellie King call the Pirates games on KDKA. I don’t care what anyone says – baseball belongs on clear-channel AM radio. This was brought home for me again last year, when enroute to Colorado we picked up the Bucs playing the Cardinals on KMOX.

That particular August evening, the bulk of the motel’s occupants were crammed into the office, listening to WCBS in New York as President Nixon announced he would resign the Presidency the following day. This was more of a foregone conclusion than a surprise to anyone in the room, although some adults were shaking their heads either in disbelief or disgust. The Watergate scandal, and the fallout that continued even after Nixon resigned, continue to resonate to this day wherever political power is misapplied or abused.

In my old newspaper collection, somewhere in an old box next to the stamps and sheet music, is a copy of the Raleigh News and Observer from the next day, with the obligatory big headline. Maybe my son will enjoy it someday.

Reagan Fires Air Traffic Controllers – 33 Years Ago

I was working at the front desk at a hotel near the Pittsburgh airport the day that controllers walked off the job. Chaotic doesn’t begin to describe the effect on the airline industry, and along with it business travelers and the hotels that depended on their business.

The hotel that I worked in had just under 150 rooms, and by the early afternoon of August 3rd over 50 cancellations of reservations had been received, because the air traffic system had been thrust into chaos by the controller strike.

By the end of the evening, those cancellations were offset by travelers stranded in Pittsburgh, which was then a major hub for what was at that time USAir, previously known as Allegheny Airlines. On more than one occasion, a quiet winter holiday was transformed into mass craziness by hundreds of passengers stranded in Pittsburgh by missing connections due to weather or other delays.

In the weeks and months that followed, things seemed to normalize from the result of the actions taken by the controllers and the President, but the airline-related chaos didn’t seem to subside until I left that hotel and went to work at another one in the North Hills. Events and people encountered there led me into a different line of work altogether.

APCO International Conference, Pittsburgh – 20 Years Ago

After venturing full-time into a career in public safety communications, one thing I tried to do was keep up to speed with what continues to be an industry trying to respond to rapid-fire change. This included active membership in the Association of Public Safety (formerly Police) Communications Officials, better known as APCO.

One event that I tried to get to as much as I practically could was APCO’s annual conference, held typically during one of the first two weeks in August. The first conference I attended was in 1986, in Milwaukee. It was definitely a no-frills trip – I took the Greyhound there, stayed in a discount motel out by the airport, and took public transportation into town. The educational experience was invaluable to a neophyte and radio geek.

I managed to attend two more conferences in Baltimore and Boston before the announcement was made that the 1994 conference would be held in Pittsburgh. The Conference Committee was comprised largely of volunteers from the state chapter where the conference was being held.

I volunteered and was assigned to handle Special Activities, which largely consisted of coordinating tour activities for spouses and children of attendees, as well as after-hours events for everyone.

A contract with a tour company had been signed early on, and a menu of tour activities around the Pittsburgh region had been published, including an Pirates night game. Pre-registration was tepid, but interest became brisk for all of the tours when people started to arrive in town.

This was especially true for the baseball game, as it was to be one of the last games of that season before the anticipated strike that eventually canceled out the rest of that year in baseball. Five busloads of attendees went to the August 10 game against the Montreal Expos.

For the entire week of the conference, my days started at 6:00 AM and didn’t end until after Midnight. Accompanying the tour groups during the day, and attending conference events in the evening kept me moving all the time.

It also didn’t leave much time to attend presentations, or peruse all of the lovely new toys in the exhibit hall. One thing that did happen at this conference was the formal establishment of the Common Air Interface for APCO’s Project 25 trunked radio standard.

This standard has shaped the development of state-of -the-art radio networks into the present day, despite not being accepted by everyone in the industry back then. I wrote a more detailed and technical post about this a little over 4 years ago, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

I was able to establish positive relationships with many of my peers around the state during that conference. It was my hope at the time to perhaps leverage that into career development opportunities elsewhere. Little did I know that by the following August my career would have developed me right into the Intermountain West.

A No-Hitter – 38 years ago

On August 8, 1976, my family and I attended a Sunday afternoon Pirate game. I decided that I wanted to come back the next day, and bought a ticket before leaving.

John Candelaria was pitching. They handed out little Clark Bars (made next door at the time) to everyone entering the gates at Three Rivers Stadium because “The Candy Man” was to be in action.

The rest is baseball bliss, the end of which you can see here.

Let’s hope that the current edition of the Pirates can be entertaining and competitive for years to come.

Have a great week ahead.

Posted in History, Local, Personal, Politics, Public Safety, Sports, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sewickley Landing Zones – A Turbulent Journey

QVMS Field

Quaker Valley Middle School Field, Sewickley Borough. There is a gate for vehicle access located at the north end of the field, which adds to its attractiveness as a landing area for medical helicopters. Credit – Google Maps

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Valley Ambulance Authority landing zone, adjacent to the headquarters building on University Blvd. in Moon Township.                                          Photo taken February 2012.

Over the last few years I’ve been observing the manner and location at which medical helicopters land in the Sewickley area, specifically when transporting patients from Heritage Valley Hospital Sewickley (HVHS) to specialty care facilities in the Pittsburgh area and elsewhere.

Recent developments may have finally solidified the process by which these landings can occur in a safe and consistent manner. I say “finally” because the way in which that process was arrived at appears to have been fraught with unexpected turns and turbulence – much of it unnecessary.

A Brief Background

Two and a half years ago, I detailed the circumstances and challenges that resulted in multiple landing areas being utilized in what looked to me as a somewhat haphazard fashion. This was due in part to the reconstruction of Quaker Valley Middle School and its athletic field, which had previously served as the “regular” landing zone (LZ).

After this practical confusion about the location of an alternate LZ for the hospital, one was formally established at the Valley Ambulance Authority headquarters in Moon Township. Kevin Flannery, Sewickley Borough Manager, was cited as instrumental in getting the message out to all involved stakeholders – Police, Fire, EMS,  Hospital, and the area’s two helicopter services.

While the landing of medical helicopters in the Sewickley area is an infrequent occurrence, they are relatively easy to keep tabs on. The websites of both Cochran Hose Company and Moon Township VFC provide links to monthly incident activity.

By early 2013, the Middle School construction had been completed. However, the transition back to the Middle School LZ seemed to take much longer than anticipated.

In the course of tracking these landings during the first months of 2013, I noticed that the field at the Middle School was still not being used, even though there were no remaining signs of construction activity.

I attempted contact with several stakeholders by e-mail, including Cochran Hose Chief Jeff Neff, inquiring about what procedures were in place regarding landings at the Middle School. Chief Neff replied in an e-mail on April 13, 2013:

We are in discussions at the present time to reopen all of our landing zones on this side of the river.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

There was little or no landing activity in the months that followed. However, in September 2013 I noticed that the Valley Ambulance LZ was surrounded by construction supplies and equipment being staged for work on University Boulevard.

Valley LZ 09122013

Valley Ambulance Authority landing zone, taken Sept. 12, 2013.

I again made inquiries to those same stakeholders about the status of the landing zones on the Sewickley side of the river. Chief Neff replied with the following:

There are four landing zone sites available in our area. In order they are:

The middle school football field

The Osborne Elementary field

The YMCA field

The senior high school field

Most times the Quaker Valley Ambulance Authority chooses the site and contacts the necessary helicopter. We are then notified to set up the landing zone at the chosen site.

If Quaker Valley Ambulance Authority is in charge of the transport, especially if it is coming out of the Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital, they determine the landing zone.

J.R. Henry, Executive Director of Valley Ambulance Authority, replied:

…the Hospital decides which landing zone to use and makes all pre-flight communications directly with the flight services.  When notified by that HVHS – Sewickley, has requested a helicopter, we will respond to the designated landing zone and coordinate the patient and / or crew transfer.

To our knowledge, VAA Headquarters is still the primary landing zone as construction is ongoing at the Quaker Valley Middle School.  This landing zone remains open 24/7 in spite of the construction company which is staging equipment in our lot.

Seeing the difference in perspective from these two officials, I contacted Tina Vojtko, Quaker Valley’s Communications Director, in an attempt to clarify this from the property owner’s standpoint. She replied:

The QVMS field is available for use by emergency medical helicopters. This has been clearly communicated to the appropriate emergency response officials.

Ms. Vojtko also stated that a district administrator would re-communicate this information to all stakeholders.

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

From last September through the first months of this year the Valley Ambulance LZ returned to its normal condition, and no discernible helicopter activity occurred that would assess the effectiveness of the school district’s communication.

That changed this past April.

According to the Borough Manager’s report to Sewickley Council’s Committee of the Whole on May 13:

Approximately 2½ weeks ago, a medical team at the hospital called for a helicopter. It landed at the YMCA without 9-1-1 notification to our Police, Cochran Hose or Valley Ambulance.

After hearing about this landing, in late April I contacted the same stakeholders as before in an attempt to gather information about the reasons that the YMCA field was used instead of the Middle School or Valley Ambulance.

Chief Neff replied:

Yes the helicopter landed at the YMCA field the other night. We were called out after the helicopter was already on the ground so I’m not sure who made the flight arrangements.  A lot of the Pilots are able to land without our assistance as they are familiar with each of the sites.

The YMCA field is a landing zone, it is one of three in our district that can be used. It is not the best, but is able to accommodate the helicopters.

Valley Ambulance Director Henry replied:

Please feel free to contact the hospital for any and all of that information.

Valley Ambulance Authority is not involved in the decision making process related to the use of any specific aeromedical service and /or particular landing zone selections for aeromedical transports to and from HVHS – Sewickley.

I did not have the time to follow-up further with Borough Manager Flannery or a representative of Heritage Valley Sewickley, but the circumstances surrounding this last event were apparently enough to get their attention. Quoting from Mr. Flannery’s report to Council in May:

Linda Homyk, VP of Emergency Services at HVHS, and I organized a meeting with all parties so that procedures could be reviewed…First and foremost, anyone that is flying into Sewickley Hospital for care will be required to go through Greater Pittsburgh Airport and transported by ambulance service to the hospital. Should a patient need to be transferred out of Sewickley by air, the procedure will be utilized.

Getting it Down on Paper

The procedure that Mr. Flannery’s report refers to is comprehensive and well-written.  I obtained a copy from Sewickley Borough via a Right-To-Know request.

The document is a Valley Ambulance “Policy and Guideline”, and is dated April 29.   Among its key points are:

  • It assigns the bulk of the responsibility for selection of the landing zone, and coordination of associated resources, with Valley Ambulance Authority’s dispatch center. This makes Valley directly involved in the decision-making process for landing zone selection and other logistics for transports from HVHS Sewickley.
  • It establishes Quaker Valley Middle School as the primary landing zone for transfers from HVHS, with the Valley Ambulance LZ as a backup. Additional contingencies are also in place should these two locations be unavailable for use.
  • It identifies responsibilities across disciplines that have up to this point been somewhat difficult to pin down, especially with regard to the hospital.

The procedure is available to view here, save for one edit that I felt it necessary to make – removing what appears to be the personal cell phone number of a school district administrator. Perhaps in future revisions this can be changed to notify the district office, especially if this official is unavailable or no longer working for the district. Focusing on positions and/or resources, instead of individuals, helps to keep procedures relevant and up to date through personnel and other changes.

In the three months since this new procedure went into effect, there has been at least one landing at the Middle School. I’m sure that everyone is looking forward to effective communication and clear expectations when these landings do occur.

STAT Landing 080814_1350 Dated

A STAT Medevac aircraft lands at Quaker Valley Middle School with Cochran Hose Company, Valley Ambulance, and Sewickley Police standing by – August 8, 2014.

Moving Forward…Positively

I am still wondering why it took so long – and until an unexpected landing took place – for these stakeholders to get together and make such an arrangement. Mr. Flannery, who is also Sewickley’s Emergency Management Coordinator, seems to have a knack for bringing people together when necessary. It’s just that it was necessary about a year and a half ago.

As much as I am drawn to speculate about relationships, especially in the context of health care systems and how they relate to public safety and government (or don’t), I will instead try to focus on something a little more positive.

Four weeks ago, two trains collided on the Norfolk Southern tracks adjacent to Chadwick Street in Sewickley. I got to listen in on the first minutes of this incident from several perspectives – the railroad crews, fire department, and EMS responders.

This incident was a high-profile, specialized response which drew resources as varied as airport foam trucks, environmental protection agents, and elected officials to the scene – not to mention the news media, on the ground and in the air.

An additional challenge was presented by the fact that a complex transportation modality – in this case, the railroad – was attempting to interface with local personnel, with whom their daily dealings are somewhat limited.

The same can be said for incidents involving aviation resources, including medical helicopters. The air medical industry continues to strive for improvement in safety practices. This includes increased emphasis on advance interaction with local responders.

The response of our local emergency services community to the train derailment was exemplary, despite the potential lack of familiarity with incidents of this type, which don’t occur very often.

Is it reasonable to expect the same kind of due diligence when preparing to respond to a helicopter landing, which may present a similar risk and attention profile should something go wrong?

I think it is.

I just hope that I don’t have to write about this again.

Have a great August.

Updated 8/8/2014 to add active LZ photo.

Posted in Aviation, Government, Health, Local, Public Safety | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

‘Tacky Buzzer’ Stirs Emotions in Sewickley

Station 258 with Horn

Sewickley Municipal Building and Fire Station, Thorn and Chestnut Streets. – The fire horn on the building is circled in red. Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

After moving to Sewickley at age 11, one of my favorite stops while exploring on foot and bicycle was the Police Desk in the municipal building. Desk Sergeant McCandless presided over the various technical systems that allowed him to answer phone calls, communicate with officers by radio, monitor prisoners in holding cells, obtain information from state computer databases, and alert the fire department to incidents requiring their attention.

That notification included the sounding of the extremely loud and incredibly close fire horn atop the building.

A few years later, as an unofficial summer intern at the Sewickley Herald, I heard then-Editor Betty G.Y. Shields, who was also instrumental in planning Sewickley’s celebration of the 1976 bicentennial, call the horn the “tacky buzzer”, after a similarly sounding device featured on TV’s The Hollywood Squares.

The bicentennial celebration called for the ringing of church and other bells at 2 P.M. on July 4th. B.G. Shields said she would have some choice words for someone “if they set that thing off too”. One blast each day at noon was also part of the routine back then.

In the early 90’s, as a part-time dispatcher for Sewickley Borough, I got to push the magic button that would start the cycle of loud blasts, along with paging firefighters by radio. Not long afterward the horn blasts were reduced in number, but if you’re within a few blocks of the fire station it’s still enough to elevate you from the insoles of your shoes.

As the technology of notification has improved, and wireless connectivity within our society approaches ubiquity, increasing numbers of citizens are questioning the continued operation of Sewickley’s fire horn.

Longtime resident Matt Chapman started an online petition to get the borough and fire department to stop using the horn. This effort first appeared among comments to a February post on Sewickley Patch, but it appears the petition itself has only been online since mid-May. The campaign has gained sufficient traction in that time frame to warrant front page coverage in the June 26 Herald. 

Per updates on his petition site at Change.org, Mr. Chapman has been diligent in speaking before council and contacting several borough officials, including those at the Cochran Hose Company, whom both council and borough administration state is in charge of the horn and its operation. I do wonder who pays for the electricity to power the thing, however.

The latest update from Mr. Chapman summarizes the responses he has received from borough officials, and the reasons he has been given for the horn’s continued use. Some borough officials, such as Mayor Brian Jeffe, appear sympathetic to the effort. Borough Manager Kevin Flannery and Fire Chief Jeff Neff appear to be reserving judgment, while committing to a research period of 60 days.

I hope that this period brings a sincere body of information to the table, in part because the rhetoric from Mr. Chapman seems to be that of trying to reach some sort of compromise – this ranges from getting the horn shut down just at night to exploring a funding mechanism to help firefighters obtain better communications equipment.

Mr. Chapman’s complaint is almost conciliatory and resolute at the same time – trying to strike a balance between protecting the community and protecting his children.  I can’t speak to what I don’t know, however.

Here’s what I know:

Internet-based applications and commercial wireless messaging can keep firefighters and other emergency responders informed of requests for their services, but it’s not something that can be relied upon as a stand-alone method.

These systems are dependent upon complex connectivity, involving multiple internet service providers, telecommunication companies, and wireless networks. One server failure, cable cut, or power outage in any number of locations can mean that the message doesn’t get to where it needs to go.

This is why most emergency personnel carry radio pagers, augmented by sirens (also set off by radio) that alert personnel and the general public when emergencies occur. These radio-based systems are owned and operated by public safety agencies, and are reinforced by redundant transmitters and emergency power systems.

There are still emergency sirens in our area that serve multiple purposes to their respective communities. Edgeworth may no longer have its own fire department, but the siren still goes off every evening when curfew time approaches.

In Beaver County, there is a network of sirens that serve both local fire departments as well as the evacuation warning system for the Beaver Valley Power Station nuclear facility at Shippingport. This network of sirens covers a radius of 10 air miles around the plant -this extends to as far as South Heights, which is not so far away at all.

I spoke with one fire official in Leetsdale, where there is still an operating siren located along Route 65 near Ferry Street. He stated that there was once a second siren, located atop the former municipal building and fire station on Broad Street, which would generate complaints from nearby residents. This siren was taken out of service when the new municipal building was opened in 2007.

To his knowledge there have been no complaints since, and from my vantage point the Leetsdale Fire Department continues to be a dynamic, responsive organization, reflective of the community that supports it.

In most communities with volunteer emergency services, there is a routine to the mobilization of the townsfolk to an emergency. This system has an almost theatrical quality to it – the siren is the town crier, the pager the information source. For those with a loved one in the mix, or those with a personal or professional curiosity, the police scanner is the link to the pulse of one of the most essential services that a government can provide.

The local communities that depend upon volunteers for fire service have an excellent group of resources serving them. The response to Wednesday’s train derailment is indicative of the level of commitment to training and effective coordination among our area’s response agencies.

Public Safety is, by its nature, a reactive profession. Those who assume the mantle of responder attempt to prepare for all manner of emergencies through training, planning, and exercising those skills and plans regularly. Part of these challenges include leveraging and adapting to changes in technology that can alter and/or complement those skill sets and response plans.

Public safety agencies in most of the Quaker Valley area recently transitioned to new radio frequencies, which means new radio equipment and new capabilities that will impact existing processes. Firefighters must adapt to these and other changes when operating in simple or complex response environments.

I have difficulty with the notion that these dedicated individuals would be unable to adapt to a different type of siren.

A scan of news stories related to this topic reveals that community conflicts about sirens can become more contentious than anyone would like. Last year in New Jersey, at least two sirens were moved in response to litigation.

In 2009, a Westmoreland County township threatened to remove the dispatch authorization for a fire department unless they changed the timing of their siren, which was described as “set at 92 decibels for 14 cycles at 15 seconds each”. That’s 3 minutes and 30 seconds of continuous siren. This department still shows as being in business, so I guess the siren got changed.

Sometimes Mother Nature intervenes, as is the case this past May in another New Jersey town, where endangered birds built a nest inside the siren. I wonder if any of those Crescent Township bald eagles are looking for a new home…Just kidding.

When the Herald posted their story from last week on their Facebook page, some of the numerous commenters vilified Mr. Chapman for even suggesting some type of change – something that I can only attribute to our growing societal inability to disagree in a civil manner. One comment tried to over-simplify – “Only in Sewickley”.

I’m afraid that’s not the case, but it would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if Village Green Partners got a comment from someone stating that the most memorable part of their Sewickley shopping experience was getting blasted out of their new shoes. I’m sure that their mission of making Sewickley “a vibrant regional destination” does not extend to vibrating visitors’ dental work.

As someone who has pushed the button to set off the ‘tacky buzzer’ as part of a lengthy career in public safety, I can see the reasoning on both sides. Some type of public, audible alert is still necessary, if for no other reason than to assure that no isolated single point of failure prevents firefighters from being quickly notified of an emergency.

However, the ‘buzzer’ has been too sudden, and too loud, for too long. Some type of adjustment, whether in the type of noise pattern, timing, and/or volume level, would be an appropriate compromise in changing times.

Considering the civil tone and growing support behind Mr. Chapman’s efforts, I can’t imagine how competent, responsibly operated organizations such as Cochran Hose and Sewickley Borough can refuse to consider changes.

Enjoy your Independence Day weekend.

Posted in Local, Politics, Public Safety, Technology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Chatham vs. Alumni – Evolution and Symbiosis

Over the past few months, there has been some occasional reporting and discussion in the Pittsburgh media on the May 1 decision by the Board of Trustees of Chatham University to open undergraduate admission to men beginning next year.

Chatham is one of the premier undergraduate colleges for women, founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania College for Women. The school prominently counts among its alumnae the biologist, conservationist, and Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson, who is generally considered a patron saint of the environmental movement.

Ms. Carson is recognized primarily for her book Silent Spring, which influenced public policy-making with regard to environmental issues, most notably with the banning of the pesticide DDT. Depending upon whose scientific account you believe, you can probably thank Rachel Carson for all those bald eagles we enjoy around here nowadays.

The university, which already offers graduate degrees to both men and women, is experiencing a period of growth and risk. They are presently undertaking the ambitious expansion of a new satellite campus in Richland Township, at the former location of Eden Hall Farm. This campus will serve as the home of Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability, and is being designed “using the latest in environmentally responsible technology, design and innovation”,  in part to honor the legacy of Ms. Carson.

The university cited financial trends and forecasts affecting single-gender colleges, and this expansion of its physical plant in the face of declining undergraduate enrollment, as among the factors influencing its decision.

There is also a vocal group of alumnae who are, as one might expect, not pleased with the decision to go co-ed. These alumnae leveraged several social media platforms, including a blog and website, under the name Save Chatham.

As you might expect, both sides of the argument bring forward lots of information to back their positions. I won’t go into all of the details here. The university says that Chatham needs to be co-ed in order to continue to exist. That’s an issue of contention for those who value their prior experience as students there, and want to see those traditions extended to future generations of young women.

Those alumnae that disagree have succeeded in gaining traction for their cause among a larger group of Chatham graduates, garnering as many as 2000 likes on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Apparently feeling a need to adjust the nature of their existence to a longer-term model in the wake of the decision by the school to go co-ed, they polled those who frequent their social media sites for ideas to rename the group for its continued purpose.

The winner – Chatham College Independent Alumni Association (CCIAA) – has generated some questionable and perhaps disingenuous legal activity on the part of the university.

The 4 alumnae who founded Save Chatham/CCIAA received a cease and desist letter from legal counsel for the university, alleging trademark infringement on the name “Chatham”, which according the Save Chatham blog the University applied for earlier this month.

It appears that the university is concerned about confusion between any “Independent” group of alumni using the word “Chatham” to advocate for positions that the Board of Trustees sees as “contrary to Chatham’s mission and interests”.

The reaction by the alumnae involved has been one of caution and preparedness. They secured their own legal counsel, which replied to the university’s letter last Friday, declining to change the name of the association.

Per the letter and the Save Chatham website, the trademark action that Chatham University took on June 6 identifies it as providing “Educational services, namely, providing courses of instruction at the undergraduate and graduate level; alumni organization services”.

There are lots of Chatham High Schools, and other educational institutions in this country sharing that name, who are engaged in largely the same activity – I don’t think they’ll be asked to change their names because a college in Pittsburgh feels threatened by the actions of some “rogue” alumnae who refuse to accept the university’s decision, and/or move on.

Regardless of what you think about the efforts of these alumnae, they have the right to dissent, and to organize others who are sympathetic to their cause. It’s hypocritical for the university to encourage reasonable, academic discourse within its walls, while attempting to discourage it elsewhere.

Considering the likelihood that many Chatham alumnae have expressed their displeasure regarding the change, and may continue to express themselves by withholding financial support, the university seems to be more interested in reducing the effectiveness of this new group of “independent” alumni, by attempting to use an overly broad definition of trademark infringement.

I’m no lawyer, but the university’s actions feel like a prelude to a SLAPP - a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Should the university sue, its underlying purpose could be just to intimidate this new alumni effort into changing their name or otherwise minimizing the impact of their mission, whatever that might eventually be.  There is legislation pending in the Pa. Senate to reduce the effectiveness of SLAPP suits.  Let’s hope it won’t be needed.

Both entities are in the midst of evolutionary change – Chatham University appears to be jumping into the race with other regional colleges and universities for students and education dollars. These campaigns seem to be taking up more advertising space, signaling another uncomfortable trend among what are supposed to be non-profit institutions. As we’ve seen locally, non-profits can be as nasty as their corporate counterparts.

CCIAA was created and energized in response to the significant change put forth by the university, but will also be challenged in the future to find issues worthy of discussion and advocacy beyond a conflict that may be moot once the first male freshmen matriculate in the fall of 2015. The group’s Facebook page contains a link to a form for interested alumnae to register their areas of interest, and provide feedback for the organization’s continued existence.

Will Chatham University and a breakaway alumni group be forced into a symbiotic existence, a close union of two dissimilar organisms? Perhaps a disjunctive symbiosis, where the organisms are not in bodily union but nonetheless gain some type of biological advantage from the relationship.

It’s either that, or the alumni that refuse to accept these changes in their beloved institution risk falling into a tragic obscurity, like the Ellen Jamesians in The World According to Garp.

It’s the kind of biological conundrum that might have impressed Rachel Carson herself.

Have a good week ahead.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Local, Politics, Schools | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment