Octorara Area School Board and the “Cracking” of Parkesburg Borough Voters

Voting

PARKESBURG, PA — In 2019, municipal government and school board elections will be held across Pennsylvania. However, some Borough of Parkesburg residents believe they are not fairly represented on the Octorara Area School District Board of Directors. They feel that the splitting of Parkesburg voters between two different regions is intended to  “crack” Parkesburg’s voting power and “pack” the voters from less populated communities into the regions. This is otherwise known as gerrymandering, but is this true?

What we know is that Parkesburg is split between Octorara’s Region 1 and Region 3. Atglen, Christiana, West Sadsbury Township and Parkesburg-North is the largest region, with an estimated 6814.5 citizens. Region 3 consists of  Londonderry, Highland and Parkesburg-South, and it is the smallest population with 5217.5. The difference between the two is 1597 citizens or 30.6%. These population numbers were obtained, along with other documents used to create this article, from the District through a Right-to-Know request.

Last year, another Right-to-Know request, and an article published on MyChesCo, motivated the Octorara Area School Board to ask their legal counsel, “[What] action, if any, is the school board required to take to comply with applicable law?” As previously reported, based on the School Code, the District could do something but is not technically compelled to do anything, regardless of any perceived disenfranchisement of voters. As happened in 1997, change may come down to voters filing a legal action.

Regardless, the District’s legal counsel did state that, if not done already, then someone should “eyeball” the apparent population numbers based on the 2010 census numbers. They should then use those numbers to determine the overall fairness of the existing regions and try to determine what the court would determine was “nearly equal as possible.” He also advised them of possibly creating a committee to formally study the situation and the latest available census numbers. They held two closed-door meetings in executive session, a Committee of the Whole Board, to discuss their obligation under the law.

The first meeting discussing the Board’s obligation and overall voter fairness was on March 19, 2018. The board members were presented with multiple alternatives to the structure of the existing regions, created by Mr. Brian Fox (Region 3). Each variation devised regions that were far more equal in population and could also reunite the Borough of Parkesburg. Yet, the Board rejected these alternatives and ultimately decided that the existing regions conformed to the law and proclaimed them to be “nearly equal as possible”. But, are the current regions actually nearly equal as possible?

In the below example of alternative regions, the outcome would unite Parkesburg Borough voters and create a population difference of roughly 330 citizens.

Alternative Example
Region 1 Region 2 Region 3
Atglen 1406 Sadsbury Twsp 3395 Londonderry 2149
Christiana 1168 West Sadsbury 2444 Highland 1272
N. Parkesburg 1796.5 W. Fallowfield 2566
S. Parkesburg 1796.5
Totals 6167 Totals 5839 Totals 5987
This first meeting concluded with Dr. Newcome being instructed to follow up with legal counsel regarding the legal requirements if the Board decided to leave the three existing regions intact and if the Board of Directors needed to take any action. The attorney’s response was denied the Right-to-Know, citing the information as privileged legal counsel communications. However, since past legal communication stated nothing compelled them to take action, leaving it up to voters to file a legal action, it is probably safe to presume what was stated.

On April 9, 2018, after reviewing the solicitor’s second response, the Board decided to create meeting minutes from their review, reflecting a consensus opinion that the regions are “nearly equal as possible and no changes are currently warranted”. They also decided that the Board President would provide a report during an open public meeting, with the understanding that the Board of Directors would review the matter again after the 2020 census information is made available. Therefore, the soonest the regions would potentially be redrawn is for the 2023 municipal elections.

READ:  Redistricting Delayed Is Representation Denied

MyChesCo did reach out to Octorara Area School Board members Brain Fox (Region 3) and Samuel Ganow (Region 2) for comment. After initially responding and seeming willing to participate in an interview, follow-up attempts to reach both Fox and Ganow were ignored. Therefore, there is only the official Board Statement from last year, which reads:

“Over the past few months, the Board of Directors have discussed briefly in open public meeting and less briefly in the Committee of the Whole the Three Region Plan which was brought into place by a 1999 ruling of the Court of Common Pleas, Chester County, Pennsylvania, Civil Law Action, No. 97-00801. Our present discussion sprang from concerns that the present system is a type of gerrymander that disenfranchises specific entities, specifically Parkesburg Borough.

“Our discussions have all been centered on the Board Director’s responsibility according to this law and our obligation as elected officials toward the spirit of the law. With clarity provided by our solicitor, the Board had found what we have not been negligent in any manner to the exact application of the law and that in fact we are compliant to the law in our present practice. However, we believe that a review of the parameters set within the law is a responsible task for this Board. In that spirit, we have discussed in a Committee of the Whole Board on two occasions the population numbers based on the 2010 census and the implications of those numbers. It is our belief that the regions are nearly equal as possible and no change is necessary at this time. We also believe that a review of the census numbers after the 2020 census is a logical and prudent step and we will undertake this task after the 2020 census is published.

READ:  Redistricting Delayed Is Representation Denied

“The Board Directors are in consensus that fair elections and fair representation is important. Board Directors represent all residents in the Region but more importantly all children and the needs of these children for a positive educational experience. We will continue to do this whatever electoral process is used.”

So, much as the Octorara Area School Board did in 1997, they have decided to defend what some believe is voter disenfranchisement.  Moreover, there is an unwillingness to explain to the public how they came to the conclusion that “the regions are nearly equal as possible and no change is necessary,” especially when more nearly equal alternatives are clearly available and were presented to the Board.

The Octorara School Board of Directors has rested on the idea that “the exact application of the law” does not require them to do anything, forcing voters to potentially take a hostile stand. We can only speculate why the law does not compel school boards to correct voter inequities, but should it always come down to voters petitioning the court to get fair representation?

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Mel Keen
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Mel Keen
February 19, 2019 1:04 pm

Tim- Parkesburg was divided into North and South for voting purposes early in the 20th century and should not play into contemporary thoughts about gerrymandering. It is illegal for elected municipality officials to participate in or call for redistricting for voting purposes. I suspect it would be illegal for school board member to call for or participate in voter shuffling. It would certainly not be ethical.