Give a gold star to Middletown School Board for its budget persistence

Middletown Area School Board, which has taken some  serious heat in recent months from taxpayers over a proposed 5.68 percent tax increase, deserves some credit for bringing that rate down to 1.6 percent – and for making some excruciating decisions along the way to do it.

First, let’s do the numbers.

Middletown lost:

• $1.1 million in federal stimulus funding.

• $324,000 in state funding.

• $500,000 to increased health insurance premiums.

And that’s just part of the picture.

Tax revenue fell about $537,000 thanks to reduced earnings brought on by the recession and reduced property reassessments.

When the budget process started, the school board warned it would take a 10 percent tax increase to close a $2.5 million budget gap. It was at that point the district rolled up its sleeves. The cuts began and the rate was reduced to 5.68 percent – still well above the state’s 1.8 percent index rate.

The district kept at it to answer the demands for fiscal responsibility and reality. In response the district furloughed 14 employees, many of them teachers; offered an early retirement incentive that resulted in the loss of another nine teachers; and cut programs, such as driver education.

Last week, in a final push to bring the tax increase down to 1.6 percent, the board furloughed eight kindergarten aides. The move is expected to save the district about $230,000 in wages and benefits.

No doubt about it, this was a brutal budget with no real winners. Some taxpayers may be happy to see the tax increase lowered, but what impact will the deep cuts in staffing have in the long run on our children?

Consider this: The board honored 19 retiring employees at its last meeting. Those workers take 439 years of experience with them when they walk out the door – that’s irreplaceable.

And what happened here is happening in Steelton-Highspire, Lower Dauphin, Central Dauphin, West Shore, and most, if not all school districts across the state. Lawmakers in Harrisburg need to learn from this crisis, set politics aside, and re-examine the way we do public education – from its outdated reliance on property taxes to mandates that lead to top-heavy management.

Meanwhile, we offer our appreciation to the district staffers who crunched these numbers, and the board members who had the courage to make such painful decisions.


Think you have no stake in local elections? Think again.

We voters are a fickle lot.

We love to complain about our elected officials, but when it comes down to it, many of us, it seems, don’t care enough to leave our homes to vote.

“It’s slow – very slow, and we don’t like ‘very slow,’ ” said Vince Varankar, the judge of elections at the Middletown Fire Department’s fire hall on Tuesday afternoon.

By 4 p.m., he said, only 104 voters had cast ballots – that despite a contest for the Republican nomination for two seats on Middletown Borough Council  in his ward next fall.

The turnout is disappointing given the dissatisfaction we here at the Press And Journal hear often from readers and friends about conditions in the borough.

Did these critics vote? The numbers suggest most probably did not. That’s sad because it means contests are decided by a handful of voters  –  often those motivated by a single issue that is important to them but may not be important to you.

Case in point: Scott Sites, incumbent Republican council member from Middletown’s First Ward, won his party’s nomination for another term by 14 votes. He defeated challenger Mike Bowman. Only 154 votes were cast in the contest.

So, do voters not care? Don’t they know what is at stake? We’ll never know, but we can guess.

Voter apathy is especially high in municipal election years, even worse during the primaries. Local races aren’t as sexy as a contest for president or governor.

Middletown, Highspire and Steelton also have a high percentage of residents living in apartments. Perhaps those who don’t write a check to pay taxes are less likely to take ownership of their local government.

Maybe they think their vote doesn’t count?

Then there is the youth vote – or lack of it. With the exception of President Barack Obama’s ability to get the twentysomethings to the polls, young Americans are among the most apathetic of voters. Studies have shown the number of voters between the ages 18-29 has decreased nearly every year since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. This is another group that seems to think it has no stake in local government.

The truth is they do and votes count, as the Sites/Bowman contest shows.

No form of government has more impact on your life than the one closest to you – the borough councils, township supervisors and commissioners, school boards, and county commissioners. They are the ones who provide the services we use most – education for our children, police protection, water and sewer service, court systems, snow removal, and road maintenance.

They are also the ones responsible for determining what the community will look like in the future.

Consider the issues before these boards right now:

• Londonderry Twp. supervisors are considering development plans – School Heights and the Lytle Farm project – that will forever change the landscape in their community.

• Middletown Borough Council is looking for ways to revitalize its downtown.

• Lower Swatara is working with developers and Penn State Harrisburg on plans that will increase student housing, a move that has some residents concerned about traffic, safety and the possible disruption of their neighborhood.

• School districts are grappling with an economic crisis unlike anything they’ve seen before. Some responded by eliminating busing for some students, and all have eliminated teachers, cut programs, and opted not to replace retiring workers.

So, it may not be sexy, but it is important.

So vote.

The candidates for the November general election are in place. Meanwhile, congratulations to the winners, and thank you to those who braved the wind and rain to cast their ballot.


All we need is love? It’s here, in Middletown

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
1 John 3:17-18

At a time when Christianity is too often represented by its mentally twisted adherents – Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church and Terry Jones, the Quran burner come to mind – it’s refreshing to be able to report on a community that understands its faith’s core teaching: love.

It’s a simple concept – followers are called to care for the poor, the prisoner, the diseased. And that is the goal of ecumenical outreach programs like Middletown’s Human Needs Fund. The organization operates a food bank and a thrift shop, and provides emergency rent assistance and even housing.

In the last two years, the need was exacerbated by the recession, said the Rev. Don Potter, pastor of the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown at Union and Water streets and a leader in the HNF.

The economy has improved since last year, Potter said, “However, there are still a lot of needy people in
Middletown, and there will always be those who are sick or just down on their luck who also need assistance.”

According to the website city-data.com, nearly 1 in 10 residents of the Middletown area live below the poverty level – $22,190 a year for a family of four (2010 Census data).

The economy also pushed the Harrisburg region’s unemployment rate to 7.3 percent, up nearly four percentage points from pre-recession days, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Human Needs Fund wasn’t immune to financial losses during the hard times either. That’s why the group staged a unique fundraiser last year – a concert featuring choirs from five local churches. The Interfaith Ecumenical Choir Concert shocked organizers by raising more than $2,200, twice what they expected.

The concert will be repeated at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at Wesley United Methodist Church on Ann Street. Last year about 300 people turned out for the show. Here’s hoping this year’s concert will be just as popular and that those who attend will be just as generous when the plate is passed.


Police must remember: ‘and justice for all.’

Editorial from May 4, 2011, Press And Journal.

A $100,000 settlement has ended the federal civil rights lawsuit Deana Perry filed against the Middletown police, the borough, and the Dauphin County Drug Task Force.

Perry, who alleged in the suit that police sought to humiliate her during a drug search at her home on May 15, 2008, will receive the cash settlement.

The suit may be over, but the issue it raised – are our police acting professionally in their dealings with the public? – is not.

A little background: Perry’s suit alleged she was sexually harassed during a drug raid at her home. According to the complaint, she was roused from bed along with her husband, handcuffed, and forced to sit on a bar stool in the living room of her Emaus Street home wearing only a T-shirt and panties in front of several children. She also alleged officers placed a nude photo of her, found during the drug search, in the window of her home for passersby to see.

The suit also claimed her civil rights were violated when a Middletown police officer placed a bumper sticker in her window that read: “Say ‘NO’ to Drugs . . . BUSTED . . . Middletown Police Department.”

All drug charges against Perry were later dropped and a charge of endangering the welfare of children was dismissed. Her husband pleaded guilty to drug charges and was sentenced to 12 months probation by county Judge John Cherry.

What’s troubling about this case is not only what Perry alleged, but what police admitted to in their response. They admitted placing her on the barstool. A Steelton officer on the drug task force admitted placing a photograph of her in her window (though he denied she was naked in the photo.) A Middletown officer admitted placing the bumper sticker, which in effect labeled her a drug dealer without the benefit of a trial.

No doubt there are some who will dismiss Perry’s complaints because, in their view, she’s guilty – otherwise why would the police be there? But, thankfully, our legal system was designed by people who understood the danger of vigilante thinking.

Our system presumes a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That is the standard the vast majority of our police officers uphold, but it must be demanded of all.

In this case, the admissions by police cast a shadow on the Middletown and Steelton forces. It is up to mayors Robert Reid and Tom Acri, working with their police chiefs, to ensure that the culture within their departments is positive, and their officers meet the highest professional standards.


A wine snob in the making

So, it seems I’ve become a wine snob.  This comes on the heels of being a beer snob for decades.

This feels different though. Being a beer snob was ok. People didn’t think of you as snooty, picky maybe, but not snooty.

It all changed during a 2008 trip to northern California when my wife and I visited the Benziger Family Winery near Glen Ellen,

The vineyard at Benziger Family Winery near Glen Ellen, Calif.Tasting the fruit is a highlight of the fall tram tour at Benziger's.

Sonoma County. It was one stop on a day of wine tastings – it’s what you do on vacation in the Bay Area. Maybe it was the way the fruit seemed to glow in the warm afternoon sun, or the crash course in biodynamic wine making, or perhaps it was  the mysterious flash of light followed by the angelic voices singing ahhhhhhhhh when their sauvignon blanc hit my  virgin tongue.

This was my epiphany. Wine was more than the syrupy White Zinfandels I’d been exposed to at wedding receptions when a decent beer wasn’t an option.  (Beer snobbery. Told you.)

I was 54 years old and was only now learning how complex winemaking was.  I’d wasted decades thinking wine was for sissies. That’s a lot of Chardonnays, Cab Sauvs, Zins, Pinots and Vigoniers I could have been drinking.

So, now Peg and I are making up for lost time. We’ve discovered the joy of searching out good, cheap wines. And we’ve found more than a few. Personal tastes vary, but for drinkers on a budget, Glen Ellen or Table Leaf Chard, Shannon Ridge Vigonier, Rodney Strong zinfandel, anything by Gnarly Head, Funky Llama sauv blanc, and Fish Eye have enhanced everything from grilled salmon to spaghetti and meatballs. You can find these wines in Pennsylvania for  less than $20 a bottle, some for as little as $3.99 .

Hunting for wines – that’s what it’s like – can lead to surprises. Recently, we stumbled across a bottle of Benziger Sauvignon  Blanc at Circle Liquors in Somers Point, N.J., for $11.99. It was like stopping for a grilled cheese at Cracker Barrel at 2 in the morning and running into that friend from high school you haven’t seen since graduation.  It’s unusual to find Benziger in the Harrisburg area where we live. But Circle is in Jersey, beyond the reach of the PLCB, and is known for stocking hard-to-find quality wines. We start every visit to Ocean City, N.J. with a stop at this landmark shop to look for a special bottle. (btw – they are going to have to change the name since the new bridge project has done away with the round-about that gave the store its name.) Benziger’s Sauvignon blanc is crisp and fruity, perfect for rushing summer from  a sunny  balcony overlooking the Atlantic.

It also brought back the memory of those vines nestled below Sonoma Mountain. And that’s something you can’t put a price on.


A life of music & faith

Copywrite: The Lebanon Daily News
April 29, 2011

By Garry Lenton
For The Lebanon Daily News 

You never know when destiny will seize you.

Just ask Clyde Spangler. The 57-year-old musician was only 12 when it tapped him on the shoulder. He can thank his brother, Larry – he’s the guy who gave Spangler his first guitar, a cheap no-name instrument, for his birthday.

“It practically took a vise grips to get the strings down, but it developed callouses on my fingers,” he said.

The same year Spangler formed his first band, The Outcasts.

“I taught a neighbor how to play drums and another to play bass,” he said.

This was the 1960s, when rock was in its infancy. Back in the day, you didn’t need a degree from Berklee College of Music to land a gig. Before long, his grandmother’s house on North 12th Street in Lebanon – where Spangler spent much of his early years – was groovin’ to tunes like “Hang On Sloopy” and “Louie Louie.”

Fast-forward several decades and you’ll find Spangler still playing guitar – he owns seven now: two acoustic, five electric. He added keyboards along the way and now performs his own songs.

His regular gig is as worship leader at New Life Chapel, 100 N. Ninth St., Lebanon. But on Saturday, April 30, you can catch him at Legends Cafe, the all-ages venue at 9 S. Ninth St., operated by Calvary Chapel, for a CD release party.

Spangler will take the stage at 8 p.m. to perform songs from his CDs “Old Gin Road,” a mixture of original rock tunes; and “Faith,” a collection of contemporary Christian faith and praise songs he wrote for


his church. He will be joined by congueros Carlos Borrero and Reuben Santos.Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. for dinner.

The CDs will be available for a minimum $5 donation. Proceeds from the “Faith” CD will go to the Independent Church in India, a group that works with lepers and the poor.

Spangler has paid his dues. Longtime Lebanon residents may remember some of his former bands – The Avengers, AURA, Elmer J. Fudd, Silver Creek, Mistress and Chance. There were others. Recently, he performed with the Tim Heiniman Band from Reading, until the band leader’s illness put their music on hiatus.

“I didn’t really fit in with the cliques in school,” Spangler recalled. “I wasn’t very athletic, so I found my niche.”

And his place in the spotlight. He performed at the former Pushnik’s (now Marabella’s) and the Red Maple, which recently burned to the ground.

In the late 1970s, AURA won a battle of the bands held at Elco High School. First prize was a gig at the York Fair before a large audience.

“I was so nervous I forgot to turn my amp on,” he said.

Spangler’s father, Clyde Sr., also was a Lebanon County musician who played around the region, mostly in country-and-western bands. He played violin and mandolin and was best known as a member of Ann’s Blue Ridge Rangers from Palmyra.

A decade ago, Spangler was diagnosed with hair-cell leukemia, a very rare cancer. The disease has been in remission, though he’s had scares. Recently, he said, his doctor advised him to get health insurance.

“But the last time he saw me he said everything’s OK,” he said.

The disease strengthened his Christian faith.

“I’m feeling really good,” he said. “I’m feeling like I was healed of this by the many prayers from our church.”

This brush with mortality also planted the seed for Spangler to go into the recording studio. He wanted to make a permanent record of the songs he has written over his career. “Old Gin Road” was the result.

One of the tracks, “Mr. Sun,” a song about unrequited love, was written when he was 16.

The CD is a mixture of ballads and straight-ahead rock. Some selections are reminiscent of Thin Lizzy and The Moody Blues.

“I thought, if I was going to do it, I’d go into a real studio and get it done professionally,” Spangler said. “I wanted to be sure to record these songs so my family would have them.”


Middletown has a gem: a great old public library

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’’ – Cicero.

Perfect, though we’d add a steaming mug of coffee to Cicero’s observation.

Public libraries are a treasure, and Middletown is fortunate to have the gem on Catherine Street that has served readers well for 85 years.

Its presence in town is enriching. And director Christine Porter, who has been building on the accomplishments of previous directors, deserves credit for making the facility attractive not only to adults, but to children.

The library is a part of the borough’s culture and history. People like Emily Evans underscore that point. Evans was brought to the library by her mother, Donalee Knaub. Last weekend, Evans, now an adult living in Jonestown, brought her 3-year-old son, Liam, to the facility’s 85th birthday celebration.

And so the cycle continues.

Access to books is critical, especially for children whose families may be unable to afford to buy them. Reading improves cognitive function in children.

“We don’t know yet what types of early experiences give us the biggest effect on brain capacity or IQ, but we know that early reading does have an impact,” says a report on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The Middletown Public Library was founded in 1926 by the Middletown Women’s Club. Since then, it bounced around from the old high school, to a house, to an old shoe store, before finding its current home in a renovated fire station in 1978.

Inside, the space is warm, and the reading areas beckoning. It has the feel booksellers like Border’s and Barnes & Noble strive to create, only here it comes naturally.

So, it wasn’t surprising and heartwarming that more than 300 people, many of them children, came out Saturday to help the library celebrate its anniversary.

“It’s really amazing how people love this library,’’ said Porter.

What’s not to love, Christine? The library is like a beloved member of the family.

The LIbrary

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