Slag Heap | Pittsburgh City Paper

Friday, August 26, 2011

Delay in hearing for police officer accused of insurance fraud

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 5:29 PM

A preliminary hearing was delayed today in the case of a Pittsburgh police officer whose conduct was the subject of a City Paper report in March. 

City officer Garrett Brown did not appear for a preliminary hearing on charges of insurance fraud and theft by deception -- both third-degree felonies -- and making false reports. The hearing has been rescheduled for Oct. 21.

The allegations stem from a Nov. 19 incident recounted in the City Paper story. During that incident, deliverymen Blaine Johnston and Matthew Mazzie claimed they ran afoul of Brown at around 4 a.m.

After they passed Brown's truck heading the opposite way, the two men contend, Brown did a U-turn and began chasing them down. They allege that Brown subsequently punched the side of their van at a stoplight, and later rammed their delivery truck. Johnston, who says he was afraid of a physical confrontation, drove to Children's Hospital and called police. Only then, the drivers say, did they realize that Brown was a police officer.

Brown's side of the story, as recounted in a report filed by Officer William Kunz, was that he was sitting at a red light when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, told Kunz he pulled up to the next stop light "so as to exchange information," according to the report, but Johnston kept driving.

"Damage to both vehicles was consistent with statements by Mr. Brown that a collision ... occurred between them," Kunz wrote in the criminal complaint.

But Brown's insurance company, at least, believes the collision didn't take place the way Brown had described.

According to the police complaint against Brown, Brown filed an accident claim with Erie Insurance on Dec. 1, in which he said "his vehicle was struck [by Johnston's van]." The company initially paid Brown $2,137.24 for damage to his vehicle; Erie also paid $445.80 for a rental car to use while the damage was repaired.

But in January, the complaint continues, an Erie insurance agent "receieved information indicating that Mr. Brown may be committing insurance fraud," which prompted further investigation.

During that investigation, "forensic examination of the two vehicles" suggested "that the truck driven by Garrett Brown struck the van in the front driver's side and that his vehicle was not struck from the rear as he had stated."

Brown, who has been on the city police force for a decade, has been accused of providing false information before. In a federal lawsuit stemming from another roadside confrontation, lawyers for truck-driver Leonard Hamler claimed that Brown had previously been brought up on a departmental charge of "lack of truthfulness."

The charges against Johnston have already been dismissed, after Brown did not show up for four preliminary hearings. And as the Post-Gazette noted earlier this month, the bureau's internal-affairs division determined that the incident took place as Johnston and Mazzie has described. The Office of Municipal Investigations also ruled that Brown had acted unethically, the paper reported.

Johnston was on hand to testify at Brown's hearing before district judge James Hanley this morning, but says the officer did not show up.

"I feel great someone is finally recognizing what happened," says Johnston. "But it's not over yet."

Police bureau spokesperson Diane Richard says Brown is on paid administrative leave while the incident is investigated, and that he "will face disciplinary action per Chief [Nate] Harper."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pittsburgh school district poised to sell off shuttered buildings

Posted By on Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at 1:13 PM

In the market for an old school building? The Pittsburgh Public Schools may have just the deal you're looking for.

Last night, the city school board unanimously adopted a new policy for the sale of 17 former school buildings, including Oakland's beloved Schenley High School. The policy, which requires that requests for proposals and bid submissions be finalized by the end of this calendar year, is designed to help the school district dig itself out of a projected $68 million deficit.

According to the three-page resolution, "[T]he cost of maintaining [mothballed] buildings has become prohibitive and places undue strain on the finances and maintenance capacity of the District, which is in the midst of a severe budgeting crisis."

"Hopefully we will get a significant number of these off our books," district solicitor Ira Weiss told the board during last night's monthly legislative meeting.

While the district will not accept bids based solely on purchase price, preference will be given to bids that at least cover "the existing debt service attributable to the building," according to the policy. The district will also evaluate proposals based on how they may help the "long-term financial stability of the School District"; their "effect on student enrollment"; their "expansion of the tax base"; and their "impact on the surrounding community."

Schenley High School is arguably the most notable school building included on the list of buildings for sale. Despite parent and community outrage, the school board voted 5-4 in 2008 to close the historic high school after it was determined by administration officials that repairing the asbestos-plagued building would cost roughly $80 million. The move helped spearhead former Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's high school reform efforts.

Another school on the list: Hazelwood's former Burgwin Elementary. Burgwin, you may recall, became the subject of intense controversy after the district ignored an offer to buy the building for $350,000 from someone affiliated with a charter school company.

In a November 2009 e-mail, URA real-estate director Kyra Straussman told the bidder that district policy prohibits considering "charter-school proposals for the reuse of closed Pittsburgh public schools." The board eventually scrapped that policy in early 2010, after it was criticized by charter-school advocates.

Weiss and school-board members acknowledged that some of the 17 buildings may be more marketable than others. And according to the resolution, "In the event an acceptable proposal is not received by the School District, the Board may consider demolition of the structure."

"We need to get rid of them," school-board member Jean Fink tells City Paper. "The buildings are a financial drain on us."

Other structures that may go on the block include:

  • Belmar
  • Beltzhoover
  • Burgwin
  • Columbus
  • Gladstone
  • Homewood
  • Knoxville
  • Madison
  • Mann
  • Miller
  • Morningside
  • Overbrook
  • Prospect
  • Reizenstein (available 9/1/12)
  • Ridge
  • Rogers
  • Schenley

Fink notes that buildings like Reizenstein (which won't be available until next fall), in East Liberty, and Schenley would attract lots of interest, even though the latter may require significant remediation. Reizenstein, she says, is perfectly located in a burgeoning neighborhood.

And Schenley?

"Wouldn't that make a beautiful hotel?"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Foreign students visit Pittsburgh, tell of bitter experience at Hershey chocolate (UPDATED)

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 3:20 PM

Zhao Huijiao, a student from Dalian, China, thought she knew what her job in America would be like. 

"They told me were just packing chocolate. I think, chocolate is sweet."

Bittersweet, perhaps. 

Zhao was among some 400 students who have spent this summer packing Hershey's chocolate at a distribution facility in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. She and her foreign-born coworkers -- who hailed from countries as far-flung as Ukraine and Turkey -- came to the States on a J-1 visa. The J-1 is a student visa that allows foreigners to "participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs" intended to "foster global understanding through educational and cultural exchanges." 

For Zhao and her coworkers, though, the opportunities proved somewhat limited. In the Hershey distribution center, Zhao, a slightly built 20-year-old, found herself toting 40-pound boxes onto a conveyer built, putting in an eight-hour shift. "All my friends would have blue-and-green [burises] on their arms," she says.

"The first day is horrible: It's 'faster faster faster,' and production never stops" says Roman Surzhko, a Ukrainian student who, like Zhao, was on hand for a demonstration in Downtown's Market Square this afternoon.

The demonstration, which drew support from One Pittsburgh and a some labor activists, attracted only scattered attention from the luncthime crowd. Students and supporters conducted a brief skit in which they got an English lesson in words like "justice" and "courage," and then defied orders to work from an actor wearing a Hershey Kiss costume.

That bit of street theater may be one of the few cultural activities they've had a chance to engage in. Coming to America, the students say, required them to pay as much as $6,000 to the J-1 program sponsor, a California-based non-profit called Council for Educational Travel-USA. Once here, their wages were docked for expenses including the price of their housing -- which they say frequently had four students bedding down in a two-bedroom apartment, paying $400 each per month.

After "a week of hard work," Surzhko says, he'd earned just $70, working eight-hour night shifts. After a summer working in the plant, he says, "no one has even $1,000" in earnings. He found himself too poor, and too tired, to engage in much travel and cultural exchange -- and anyway, the students were living "in the middle of nowhere."

And what about the educational opportunities he came to find? Surzhko, an aspiring computer engineer, smiles sardonically: "I've maybe learned a little Spanish." 

"The last three months have been one big sarcasm,"  he adds.

According to the National Guestworker Alliance, which represents foreign workers in the U.S. and has filed a complaint with the State Department about conditions in Palmyra, those experiences were typical. The organization charges that while students were paid between $7.85 and $8.35 per hour, once rent and other costs were deducted, they typically had less than $150 in a 40-hour week. 

"When ... guestworkers have complained," NGA charges, "they were threatened with deportation and other long-term immigration consequences to coerce them to remain quiet." 

So Zhao, Surzhko, and other workers made national headlines by staging a walkout at the plant. State Department officials have pledged to investigate. 

The facility they worked at, Eastern Distribution Center-III,  is a linchpin of Hershey's distribution network. The plant has won a coveted -- I assume -- Golden Pallet award from Food Logistics magazine, which cited its high productivity and efficiency. But Hershey doesn't operate the plant; day-to-day operations are handled by a contractor, Exel North American Logistics. Exel apparently contracted with another firm, SHS Onsite Solutions, to hire the workers. SHS, in turn, contracted with CETUSA. 

CETUSA has issued a statement asserting that the agency was communicating with students prior to the sit-down. "We are continuing to reach out to students to explore ways to meet their concerns, including seeking new cultural experiences," CEO Rick Anaya said in the statement.

In a follow-up release,  CETUSA asserts that students have bus passes that allow them to "travel throughout the Harrisburg metro area," from which they can visit New York City and other locations by train or bus. "It is likely that some students do not yet realize the true extent at which they are being exposed to American culture."

The release also says that students are given job descriptions in advance, and that the distribution center work "continues to be a job often requested by our exchange students." As for the rents, while CETUS acknolwedges that rents are higher than average, the agency attirbutes this to the fact that landlords "request a higher rent for short-term leases" -- and that the rent includes utilities.

For its part, Hershey has directed reporters to Exel, noting that Exel handles management of the facilty. 

Not everyone finds that a satisfactory response. Neil Bisno, president of the SEIU Healthcare PA union, says he and other labor leaders tried to visit the Palmyra plant when they heard what happened. When they arrived, he says, "We were met by Hershey security. This is a Hershey operation."

"This is exactly what's wrong with this country," Bisno adds. "Corporations are taking advantage of every loophole they can."

UPDATE: Other union officials are more forgiving of Hershey, most of whose operations are unionized by Chocolate Workers Local 464. Diane Carroll, the local's financial manager, tells me that she was "stunned" by the news. 

"We've only know about this for two or three weeks," she says. "And I'm still asking myself, 'Has this really been going on in my own backyard?'"

Although the distribution center is "a stone's throw away" from other Hershey operations, Carroll says, it is not reprresented by the union: Carroll says that when Hershey built the facilities, "They said, 'This isn't Hershey; it's Exel'" -- much as the company is saying now. "We haven't been able to organize it, and so we don't know exactly what is going on over there." 

Carroll says her own union, while "supportive" of the students, is not "spearheading" the charge. Part of the reason, she candidly acknowledges, is that the union doesn't want to jeopardize its relationship with the company. "For the most part, they work with us. We think the students are being treated unfairly, but we're not trying to bash Hershey. I don't even know whether Hershey knew or not."

Carroll, a 26-year company veteran, says she started working at the plant when she was about the same age as the students -- and she did much the same sort of work."When I first started, I thought, 'Oh my God, I hate this work I hate this work I hate this work.' It's hard on your body, and you learn to adjust -- you learn how to use your legs and other parts of your body. What they were telling me about doesn't sound like jobs that are that horrible, but these are college students who probably aren't used to that sort of work."

I have a call in to Hershey's public-relations department, and will post a response as soon as I get one. In any case, Hershey boasts of having a strong Corporate Social Responsibility  policy -- which includes having a "Supplier Code of Conduct" for its subcontractors:

Suppliers should provide wages at least equal to the applicable legal minimum wage and any associated statutory benefits. If there is no legal minimum wage, suppliers must ensure that wages are at least comparable to those at similar companies in the local area or to prevailing industry norms.

The code asserts that "The Hershey Company reserves the right to monitor, review and verify compliance with the Code."

It's all part of what Hershey says is it's commitment to "provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner."

In fact, Hershey's largest shareholder is The Milton Hershey school, which the company's founder created to help orphans. The home provides free lodging, education, healthcare, and support to at-risk children.

It all seems just a bit ironic.

Surzhko, for his part, says that the distribution plant's participation in the J-1 program needs to be stopped -- not just for the sake of international students, but because "it's better for all workers." Hiring foreign students "is cheap," he says, "but American citizens need work." 

And while the foriegn students say they want justice -- as well as their four-digit-entrance fees back -- they say the experience hasn't soured them on the American people..

"United States is good; Americans are really kind to us," says Zhao. "But the jobs there [at the plant] are another America."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Op-ed: Let's just shut up about Santorum being shut out

Posted By on Thu, Aug 18, 2011 at 3:27 PM

Last week, I had a little fun with Rick Santorum's appearance in a GOP presidential debate in Ames, Iowa. Santorum whined about how he hadn't been asked enough questions in the debate, faulting the "national media" for overlooking him. Given that Santorum had, until announcing his run, been enjoying a cushy contract at Fox News itself, I thought that was a little rich. 

But there's been some sympathetic cooing about Santorum's treatment. And his complaints have been noted repeatedly at Early Returns, which has touted the Santorum franchise on a daily basis.

OK, I get it: Santorum may have been overwhelmingly rejected by Pennsylvania's voters back in 2006. He may be a knuckle-dragging dweeb. But he's our knuckle-dragging dweeb. He's got to be at least as credible a candiate as pizza baron Herman Cain, right? 

But let's back up a second here and ask: By what standard is Santorum -- or any candidate -- entitled to coverage? He can't claim a mandate from the people. Polls frequently show him trailing the field. A recent Rasmussen poll, for example, showed him drawing just 1 percent. Given that the poll has a 3 percent margin of error, you have to say that statistically speaking, there's a chance that Rick Santorum may not actually exist. That would explain why so few questions get tossed his way. 

And if we're gonna start feeling sorry for overlooked candidates, who deserves our sympathy more? The guy who feels like he doesn't get asked enough questions in debates? Or the guy who hasn't been invited to the debates at all

Gary Johnson, a former governor who skews toward the liberatarian end of the GOP spectrum, didn't even get a podium at Ames -- not the first time he's been ignored. Salon's Glenn Greenwald decries his omission, along with the continual slighting of similarly liberatarian Ron Paul:

Coverage of these presidential campaigns has even more pernicious effects than mere distraction. They are also vital in bolstering orthodoxies and narrowing the range of permitted views. Few episodes demonstrate how that works better than the current disappearing of Ron Paul, all but an "unperson" in Orwellian terms. He just finished a very close second to Michele Bachmann in the Ames poll, yet while she went on all five Sunday TV shows and dominated headlines, he was barely mentioned. He has raised more money than any GOP candidate other than Romney, and routinely polls in the top 3 or 4 of GOP candidates in national polls, yet ... the media have decided to steadfastly pretend he does not exis ...

That the similarly anti-war, pro-civil-liberties, anti-drug-war Gary Johnson is not even allowed in media debates -- despite being a twice-elected popular governor -- highlights the same dynamic.

So save your sympathy for someone who deserves it. Like the former New Mexico governor who wants to legalize pot and prostitution while slashing corporate taxes.

Greenwald's argument, essentially, is that Johnson and Paul are ignored because their views are too unorthodox. They just don't fit the narrative of what today's GOP is supposed to be about. But the problem with Santorum, by contrast, may be one of style. And it may be that he isn't unorthodox enough.

I mean, look at him up there, talking about how sometimes compromise is necessary. "You can't stand and say, 'You give me everything I want or I'll vote no.'" he told the audience in Ames. "You need people who are good at leadership, not showmanship."

Which tells you right there why he isn't getting traction. In today's GOP, being a showman is what leadership is all about. 

Unlike Michelle Bachmann, Santorum isn't hot, and unlike Rick Perry, he doesn't pack heat. He's boring, with a presentation that is pure high-school debate squad. But GOP candidates aren't being rewarded for winning debate points. They're being rewarded for promising to shove their rivals' heads in the toilets and give them swirlies. 

Santorum just doesn't get that. He still thinks ideas matter, the nerd.

How, for example, did Santorum respond when Perry came damn near to leveling the charge of treason against Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke? By saying this:

Well his comments about Ben Bernanke, they were completely out of bounds. I don’t agree with Ben Bernanke’s policies ... We don’t impeach people, we don’t charge people with treason because we disagree with them on public policy. You might say that they’re wrong, you might say lots of things about how misguided they are, but you don’t up the ante to that type of rhetoric. It’s out of place, and hopefully Gov. Perry will step back and recognize that we’re not in Texas anymore.

But Rick, we are in Texas. That's just the thing. 

Democrats know this all too well. I mean, some of Santorum's fellow Fox News personalities -- like Ann Coulter -- have been accusing us of treasonous activity for years. The fact that Santorum sounds so surprised by this rheotric all the sudden suggests that he's either disingenuous or an idiot. 

Back in Santorum's political heyday, of course, this kind of rhetoric was confined to Rush Limbaugh and the right wing cheering section. The candidates themselves were happy to benefit from that talk, but they didn't need to use it themselves.

But now the cheerleaders have become the candidates -- literally so in Perry's case. Or more accurately, the Republican party apparatus has diminished in importance, while the influence of Fox and Limbaugh has increased. As a result, GOP presidential candidates dare not depart from the talking points they have crafted. And those talking points were crafted not to drive policy but to drive ratings. 

So all the sudden Santorum finds himself being drowned out in the clamor, just as we lefities have for years. Like us, he finds himelf beset by a tide of Fox-fueled, soundbite-driven know-nothingism. And that doesn't just threaten a particular policy. It's a threat to the very idea of policy-making itself, as we've seen most recently in the debt ceiling debacle.

In fact, Santorum's only hope may be that if that sort of shenanigan continues, the Tea Party brand will become so tainted that Fox, and the GOP, will need something new to sell.

The market in GOP frontrunners is already plenty volatile, of course. For awhile Palin was the frontrunner. Then it was Donald Trump. Mitt Romney seemed the default choice until Iowa's recent straw caucus. Bachmann now seems on top, though Perry may topple her. After that, who knows? Paul Ryan? Allen West? 

It's possible that none of the frontrunners' ratings will hold up into 2012. In that case, the GOP might well come back to a reality-based candidate like Romney. Santorum might get some juice as the thinking man's neanderthal, allowing him a shot at the VP post.

But for now, there's no point in complaining, Rick. You just don't fit into the line-up with the rest of Fox's fall schedule.

Continue reading »

Green initiative offers employers bragging rights for sustainability

Posted By on Thu, Aug 18, 2011 at 11:10 AM

Plenty of publications run a "Best place to work" contest. But now companies have another title to vie for: the most sustainable place to work.

The Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge will run through September until October 2012 for businesses in Southwestern Pennsylvania. This year's competition is a pilot program of Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative, but program manager Matthew Mehalik, of Sustainable Pittsburgh, hopes it will expand to other businesses and sectors in the future.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Citing philosophical differences, foundation, university part ways on Marcellus Shale online project

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 3:25 PM

Pittsburgh's Heinz Endowments is curtailing support of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, one of the key academic centers studying gas-drilling in the Marcellus Shale. 

Heinz's support of Fractracker, an on-line resource for following the expansion and potential environmental impact of gas drilling, will continue. But most likely with someone else.

Continue reading »

Monday, August 15, 2011

High expectations and low ratings (so far) at WDUQ

Posted By on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 at 4:02 PM

2011 has been a tough year for jazz lovers. First, jazz-and-NPR station WDUQ was sold off by Duquesne University. Then the new owners, led by fellow public-radio broadcaster WYEP, decided to drop jazz from most of the line-up, replacing  it with additional NPR and other news programming. Finally, days before the new format launched, insult was added to injury. Charlie Humphrey, a lead proponent for the NPR-heavy format, authored a Post-Gazette op-ed arguing that jazz fans were just a niche audience:

According to January 2010 Arbitron ratings ... WDUQ was ranked No. 5 among all local radio stations in the market during morning drive time, when NPR's Morning Edition is aired. During morning drive time, 90.5 is right up there with behemoths like WDVE and KDKA.

Now, what is WDUQ's ranking at 10 a.m., when jazz is in full swing? No. 15. You can practically hear radio receivers being turned off around Western Pennsylvania when jazz follows news and information.

So here's one for you, jazz fans:

WDUQ's Arbitron ratings for July, the first month with the new format, suggest that even more radio receievers are being turned off now.

Since June, WDUQ's "weekly cume" -- the number of listeners tuning in during the course of a week -- dropped from 146,200 people to 122,900. That's a decline of roughly 15.9 percent, the steepest of any local station pulling more than 100,000 listeners. As a result, WDUQ's overall ranking dropped from 15th to 18th in the local market. 

And removing jazz from the line-up has, it seems, played a part in that decline.

In June ,when WDUQ was mostly airing jazz between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Arbitron numbers show the station had a "weekly cume" of 62,400 listeners aged 12 and over. In July, with no jazz on during that time, the cume has dropped to 45,800. WDUQ ranked 22nd in that time slot -- seven spots below the Jazz Era ranking Humphrey's op-ed bemoaned.

So is it time to start dusting off the Art Blakey albums? Not necessarily. 

"An audience number drop was fully anticipated," says Lee Ferraro, general station manager of WYEP. 

For starters, this is just one month of results, and when a format change takes place, the old audience is going to leave faster than the new audience catches on. Plus I'm reliably informed -- by City Paper's publisher, whose family owns two area radio stations -- that summer numbers can be especially unreliable. Holidays and vacations can alter listening habits.

What's more, Arbitron ratings are based on "portable people meters" (PPMs). These are devices that are worn by survey participants, and that record all the radio signals within earshot. So if you're in a dentist's waiting room with a lite FM station piped in, for example, you are counted as a "listener" to that station ... even if you'd rather have a root canal than hear it at all. And generally speaking, talk radio of any stripe gets less background use than, say, inoffensive jazz. Some of WDUQ's decline, in other words, may reflect a change not in our own listening choices, but in the choices made for us. 

In a similar vein: People also generally don't listen to talk radio on at work. (Too distracting, too likely to aggravate a cubicle-mate who disagrees with the politics.)

Ferraro notes that the station has barely marketed itself yet, for the simple reason that it hasn't had time. The new WDUQ went on the air less than 6 months after its sale was announced. (Due to lags in the FCC approval process, the new station still doesn't have new call letters, which would complicate a marketing campaign.) By contrast, Ferraro says, a public radio station in Houston "took 14 months to do what we had to do in 5.5 months."

And while Ferraro didn't say whether a marketing campaign was in the offing, he added that  the new format's program schedule "is generating a LOT of buzz and 'word of mouth.'"

It's gonna take a lot of mouths to live up to Ferraro's hopes. Just weeks ago, station executives were predicting that the new format would "shatter" WDUQ's old ratings. "We think the potential is there, if not to double the listenership, then to go over 200,000 to 225,000 listeners per week,"  Ferraro told the Tribune-Review. He did add, though, "It's not going to happen overnight. We hope to be there by fall."

Of course, a case can be made that ratings are a terrible means of judging the success of a non-commercial station:

Public radio should serve a broad swath of the public. But it can be a fine line between that and the market-driven logic that produces so much of the dreck on the rest of the radio dial. 

For his part, Ferraro agrees that, "Public radio isn’t as much a ratings game as commercial since we don’t compete for advertisers." In any case, he says, the station's success will depend on "having an impact, engaging people [and] prompting dialgoue on issues among people, especially community leaders."

That said, he remains confident about the prospect for future audience growth. The station recently hired a program director, Tammy Terwelp,from Chicago's WBEZ, one of the strongest public-radio stations in the country.

"We do think the number of listeners will grow," Ferraro says. "[B]ut more importantly, we think the amount of listening to the station will nearly double within a couple years."

Of course, those two goals aren't the same: Mathetmatically speaking, you can double the amount of listening by keeping the same audience twice as long. Would the local market be better served by replacing die-hard jazz fans with die-hard NPR fans? Being a news snob myself, I think so. But I'm already on record as wondering whether the problem with journalism in this town is a lack of demand, rather than a lack of supply.

And in any case, if the numbers don't bounce back, I wouldn't fault jazz fans for feeling a bit of schadenfreude. Or for submitting a gloating op-ed piece to a newspaper someday.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rick Santorum: gay-rights advocate

Posted By on Fri, Aug 12, 2011 at 8:32 AM

If, at around 10:25 p.m. last night, you heard something that sounded like 10,000 monkeys shitting themselves, it wasn't your imagination. That was the sound of irony dying. It happened just seconds after Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum professed to be concerned with the fate of gays. As long as they live in Iran.

Santorum declared his allegience with Iran's LGBT community during a Republican presidential debate in Iowa, which aired on FOX News. Santorum, our former Senator (R-Frothy Mix) was attacking libertarian candidate Ron Paul, who'd been espousing a live-and-let-live approach to Iran. Santorum leapt to the attack, asserting that Paul, like Obama, believed in a foreign policy in which "[w]e have to go around and apologize" to other countries. Santorum denounced the human-rights record of the Iranian regime, which he said "tramples the rights of women, tramples the rights of gays." (See it for yourself here, at the 45-second mark.)

I mean, what's up, Iran? If anybody's gonna trample the rights of women and gays, it's going to be the GOP. (Indeed, Santorum also said he opposed abortion even in cases of rape, since letting a woman choose to terminate the pregnancy would just traumatize her all over again.)

But I kid Rick. He was actually one of the more mature candidates on the stage last night -- which tells you just how completely off the spectrum the Republican Party has gotten. At another point last night,  Santorum took issue with current Republican It Girl Michelle Bachman, who refused to support a debt-ceiling hike, and has staked out a radical Tea Party agenda. "You can't stand and say, 'You give me everything I want or I'll vote no,'" Santorum said. "You need leaders, you need people who are good at leadership, not showmanship."

He even cited his own ... bipartisanship. I mean, there was Rick Santorum, one of the ideological warhorses of the far right, portraying himself as a paragon of compromise and bipartisanship. Of course, the kinder-gentler routine only gets you so far: Santorum immediately asserted he wouldn't compromise one iota on a tax increase.

FOX's online broadcast included a handful of homunculi discussing the merits of the candidates, and the general consensus of the panel was that Santorum acquitted himself well. But he was clearly frustrated with how little airtime he was getting: During closing remarks, Santorum said, "As you've seen here tonight, national media may not pay a lot of attention to us, but we pay a lot of attention to the people of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina."

Oddly, he pronounced "South Carolina" with an odd southern twang. (I'm not the only one who heard it.) So apparently, he's not just become a bipartisan friend to the LGBT community ... now he's a southerner to boot. 

But Rick? The "national media" carrying this debate and allegedly ignoring you? It's your former employer, FOX News. Seems a little odd to be bitching about a lack of national media  exposure when up until a few months ago, you were been suckling from the wrinkled dugs of Rupert Murdoch.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Toomey placed on budget panel: This is how screwed we are

Posted By on Thu, Aug 11, 2011 at 10:13 AM

Hometown boy makes good, I guess. Pennsylvania's junior Senator, Tea Party favorite Pat Toomey, is going to be on the "super committee" that's supposed to hatch bipartisan solutions to the federal deficit by year's end.

What's this mean? Well, let's see. For starters, when Toomey announced this news online, his release included the somewhat cryptic injunction "let my people go" in its headline. Sounds ominous. So does the fact that Toomey voted against the debt-ceiling hike that created this committee in the first place.


No wonder lefties suspect "there's basically zero chance that [Toomey or the other Republican representatives on the panel] will support a marginally acceptable deficit reduction package." Acceptable, that is, to the majority of us who believe that some sort of tax increase on the wealthy -- or on anyone, anywhere -- has to be part of a defifict reduction plan.

Of course, Toomey insists common ground is possible. Coverage in the local dailies quoted him making vague sounds about bipartisanship. ("If this committee's going to be successful, it absolutely has to have bipartisan support," Toomey told reporters.)

But so far, the GOP definition of bipartisanship seems to mean that Republicans say "cut!" and Democrats respond, "how low?" There's little reason to think that will change when the "super committee" begins its deliberations.

After all, Toomey has signed a pledge, sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, that swears off any tax increase whatsoever. And the last time there was a bipartisan effort to cobble together a debt solution -- the Senate's "Gang of Six" -- ATR urged Republican participants to abandon the effort, for fear that it might lead to a tax hike. The fact that ATR head Grover Norquist is so enthusiastic about Toomey's participation in this panel tells you what the hard right's expectations are." (And of course, Toomey voted against the debt ceiling hike that Congress eventually did pass.)

But perhaps the best way to get a sense of Toomey's priorities is to read his own words about fiscal policy in his book The Road to Prosperity. This 2009 tome, essentially a campaign document to prepare for his Senate run last year, makes clear that tax hikes aren't an option. Toomey is so in favor of tax cuts, in fact, that he's actually willing to make deficits worse in order to get them.

In his chapter on federal spending, Toomey urges Congress to reinstate a variant of the Budget Enforcement Act -- a 1990s fiscal measure that impose "pay as you go" rules on spending. Under those rules, Toomey writes, "any tax cuts or new mandatory spending increases [would have] to be offset with other tax hikes or spending cuts in order to reamin 'deficit neutral'." 

The pay-as-you-go approach was abandoned during the administration of -- wait for it -- George W. Bush. Toomey credits it as "a reasonably successful measure" that "did help to restraing spending somewhat."

But the measure, he complains had a flaw: It required paying for tax cuts and spending increases alike. While he says "[s]trict caps on discretionary spending would be welcome," he opposes "restoring the restriction on cutting taxes. While offsetting lost revenue from a tax cut with spending cuts would be ideal, the restoration of the old rule would most likely prevent the tax cuts from being implemented at all. The last thing Congress needs is further obstacles to lower taxes."

In other words, let's not have deficit fears trump a tax-cut agenda. Those fears should only be used to curtail spending. 

Toomey's justification for this is that tax cuts essentially pay for themselves: When "properly designed," the cuts "accelerate economic growth," and thus revenues. But this is the logic that gave us the Bush tax cuts -- remember Dick Cheney insisting "deficits don't matter"? And those cuts account for a sizable chunk of the government's deficit problem in the first place.

Unlike some other Republicans, Toomey at least sounds willing to consider closing some tax loopholes. By the standard of today's GOP, that would actually may make him more moderate than some other Tea Party faves

But fundamentally, Toomey's inclusion on the panel is just one more reason to think Democrats are being set up for another mugging. Brace yourself for more heartache, Congressman Doyle!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

City schools make headway in test scores

Posted By on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 at 7:08 PM

Last week, Pittsburgh school officials delivered the bad news: The district plans to close seven city schools to help reduce a projected $68 million deficit. Today, however, came some good news.

Superintendent Linda Lane smiled proudly during a press conference this morning as she announced the district's mostly positive 2011 state test results.

"We feel good about this report," Lane told an audience filled with media, administrators and school principals during a press conference held today at the district's Professional Development Center, located in the West End. "This is a good-news story for the most part."

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Lane walked the audience through the preliminary results of the 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, a yearly, state-mandated exam taken by students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 that tests students in subjects including reading and math. She began by noting that the percentage of Pittsburgh students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" in reading increased in all but one grade level (6th) from 2010 to 2011. Similarly, the percentage of district students scoring the same in math increased in five of the seven grade levels.

As a result, Lane's presentation pointed out, the percentage of students scoring "below basic," a designation signifying less-than-average performance, decreased in every grade level for reading and all but one grade level (3rd) in math.

Here are some other test-result highlights by grade level:

  • The percentage of 3rd-graders scoring proficient or advanced in reading (63.1 percent) increased by 3.5 percentage points from 2010, and by 4.1 percentage points since 2007.
  • In contrast to the gains made in other grade levels, the percentage of 6th-grade students scoring at least proficient in reading decreased by 1.4 percentage points from 2010. But that percentage (51.5 percent) represents a 5.6-point increase since 2007.
  • Reading proficiency for 8th-graders increased only slightly, from 70.9 percent in 2010 to 71.6 percent in 2011. However, that's an increase of 13.8 percentage points since 2007.
  • Reading proficiency in grade 11 (56 percent) increased by 5 percentage points from last year.
  • The percentage of 3rd-grade students scoring at least proficient in math decreased slightly, from 73.9 percent in 2010 to 73.5 percent in 2011.
  • The percentage of 5th-graders scoring at least proficient in math increased by 4.9 percentage points, from 61.1 percent last year to 66 percent this year. That represents an 8.3 percentage point increase since 2007.
  • Repeating the bad news for 6th grade, however, scores show that the percentage of 6th-graders scoring proficient or advanced in math decreased slightly (0.9 percentage points) from 2010.

Although students in 11th grade showed slight gains in reading and math, Lane acknowledged that the district has a long way to go to improve test scores at the high-school level. After all, more than one-third of the district's 11th-graders are still scoring below basic in math.

"Eleventh grade has been our toughest nut to crack," said Lane. "Eleventh grade is not where we'd like it to be, but we did see some movement."

What about the pesky achievement gap between the district's black and white students? The district appears to be making at least some progress in that area. The disparity in scores between black and white students in reading decreased by 1 percentage point from 2010 to 2011. The gap, which now stands at 27.7 points, stood at 32.3 in 2007.

The racial-achievement gap in math, meanwhile, also decreased by 1 percentage point since last year. The gap for that subject is now 25.9 percentage points, down from 31.1 points in 2007.

Lane ended her presentation by praising the success at Arsenal K-5 and Perry High School, both of which saw significant achievement gains in both reading and math. The percentage of students at Arsenal who scored at least proficient increased from 35.4 percent in 2010 to 53.6 percent in 2011. The school also saw a 9.4 percentage-point increase in math-proficiency scores since last year.

Perry students too showed much-improved scores. The percentage of students at the school who scored at least proficient in reading increased from 44.9 percent in 2010 to 52.4 percent in 2011, an increase of 7.5 percentage points.

The district, however, did not release scores for any other individual schools. (Officials said they would be released during an Education Committee meeting next Monday.) During a question-and-answer session with reporters after the meeting, I asked Lane if there were any schools whose scores dropped since last year.

She responded by saying that the district have targeted schools that need to improve. "They'll get more attention," she said. In particular, she said Westinghouse suffered from "low achievement."

It's another setback for Westinghouse, which has been the site of a controversial district experiment in single-sex education.

District officials said they won't learn until next month whether the district made Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.


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