PARKESBURG, PA — The 2019 Municipal Primaries are fast approaching. While turnout for these off-year elections is typically light, they tend to be more impactful to citizen’s everyday life. Municipal Elections influence and can reshape issues from police coverage and trash pickup to the quality of local public school districts and property taxes. These elections directly impact concerns such as affordable housing, local job creation, and even whether or not your child is reading at grade level. For some Parkesburg Borough residents, the biggest issue at the forefront of their minds is fair Octorara Area School Board elections.
Currently, Borough of Parkesburg voters are split between two separate voting regions, Region 1 for the Borough’s northern voting district and Region 3 for the southern. This began in 1999 after the Court of Common Pleas in Chester County found that the Octorara Area School District was violating the rights of Lancaster County voters. In that decision, the court approved a Three Region system, allowing for a significant population deviation to give Lancaster County voters a voice. Since that time, things have changed and some believe the splitting of Parkersburg Borough voters no longer makes sense.
Brian Fox, Octorara Area School Director for Region 3, insists that the existing Regions work in the best interest of the Borough of Parkesburg. He states, “Each municipality belongs to a Region and each Region has three board members. In a sense, every municipality has three board members representing them.” Yet, as we know from the past controversy with the gerrymandering of State election districts, simply having a representative to represent a community is not the same as having fair elections.
The Pennsylvania School Code states school district regions must be “nearly equal as possible”. There is also a prime focus on and exceptions made for maintaining boundary lines of communities. The 1999 court opinion referred to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that variations of up to 10 percent are minimal. However, the court also cited precedence that allowed for variations in a Region’s population of up to 60 percent in order to maintain boundary lines of communities.
When looking at other Chester County school districts, maintaining boundary lines of communities seems to be a priority, especially when the community is a population center.
- West Chester Area School District includes all of West Chester Borough in their Region 1;
- Coatesville Area School District places all of the City of Coatesville within their Region 1;
- Downingtown Area School District holds all of Downingtown Borough in their Region 7;
- Kennett Consolidated School District includes all of Kennett Square Borough in their Region A;
- Great Valley School District keeps Malvern Borough whole within their Region 2;
- Unionville-Chadds Ford School District divides none of its municipalities;
- Oxford Area School District does split Oxford Borough but has three Directors serving at-large to compensate;
- Owen J. Roberts School District utilizes all at-large School Directors;
- Phoenixville Area School District includes all at-large School Directors;
- Tredyffrin/Easttown School District’s Tredyffrin Township fills their Region 1, Region 2, and half of Region 3.
Many school districts maintain boundary lines of communities, except when those communities are so large they simply cannot be contained within one region. Others use either all or some at-large School Directors to ensure fair representation. Avon Grove School District is a unique outlier, splitting West Grove Borough and placing part in a non-contiguous region.
Fox did insist the existing regions do work in the best interest of the Borough of Parkesburg because, “The board, administration, our teachers and students have supported and continue to support several organizations and activities within Parkesburg.” Mr. Fox also noted the school district’s annual concert to benefit the Octorara Area Food Cupboard. the Jr/Sr High School Band and Chorus’ participation in Parkesburg’s Memorial Day parade and events, and the District holding their Safety Summit at the Point. Yet, he was unable to link support of these regional organizations and activities with fair elections.
Regardless, Mr. Fox maintains a belief that the existing structure appears to provide balanced representation. “As we learn about changes to our population with the 2020 census, the board and school administration is now fully aware of the need to revisit the organization of our representative Regions upon every 10-year federal census,” continued Fox. “I expect we’ll form the reapportionment commission with opportunities for representation from all municipalities, agree [to] a methodology and process for going about our work, and proceed from there.”
Essentially, this means Parkesburg will have to wait through two more elections cycles before the possibility of a thorough review, which may or may not include representatives from local municipal governments. The Court of Common Pleas in Chester County ordered the Octorara Area School District to adjust its regions in 1999 and did not wait for the 2010 census figures. On the other hand, Mr. Fox feels no sense of urgency, holding that waiting is both prudent and sensible. Do you agree?
Over the course of several days, MyChesCo conducted an email interview with Brian Fox, Octorara Area School Director for Region 3. This interview’s intent was to uncover why, in March and April of 2018, did the Octorara Board of Directors decided to kick the can on reapportionment? Ultimately, Mr. Fox appeared unwilling or unable to answer this important question. When asked why more weight was given to contiguous groups than maintaining the boundary lines of communities, he talked about what he believed rather than what he knew. When reminded that the court allowed deviation of up to 60 percent to maintain boundary lines of communities, he changed the subject.
On the issue of what factual information shaped his and the Board’s decision to wait until after the 2020 census before potentially making a change, the Board is standing on “the exact application of the law” for their authority to wait. But, Mr. Fox was unwilling or unable to explain precisely why waiting four years is the better choice for voters. Moreover, all evidence could lead one to believe that the Board did not do a very deep dive into alternative voting regions. In my opinion, it looks like there was much more focus on if the law forced them to take action. So, as previously reported, fixing the issues may require yet another legal action on behalf of the communities impacted.
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