DONNIE COLLINS: It’s Not Just Their Problem

January 27, 2019

Scranton School District administrators and five elected school board members who skipped state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s town-hall meeting regarding the district’s sorry state probably figured they saved themselves aggravation by spending Wednesday night anywhere besides Lackawanna College.

They missed a lot, though. Including the quandary of Jonathan Nasko.

The wide-eyed sixth-grader remembered his time at McNichols Plaza, dreaming of sitting on the big stage, playing in the band like his father did less than 20 years ago. Back then, Scranton’s concert band stood 300 kids strong. The 250-member marching band rocked crowds at football games, too. Jonathan grew up being told that band is as much about family as it is about learning the notes and hitting the marks under those Friday night lights. As much as he pined to learn those notes, young Jonathan wanted to create those bonds of friendship, too.

Then he walked into South Scranton Intermediate School, and reality. There would be no instruments for him in the school. There would be music classes, but they’d teach him concepts he learned in first grade, in some cases. There’d be no Christmas concerts. There’d be no prepping to join the marching band once high school beckoned. No bonds. No memories.

“I went into it thinking, ‘I’m ready for band; I’m ready for concerts,’ and then we get told there’s nothing,” Jonathan said. “It just drained me down. It was really sad for me, because we had a lot of people in band with me in elementary.”

There is a line dividing wants and needs.

But the hundreds who showed up to talk with DePasquale sounded as reasonable as they did fatigued by what has beaten down this school district in a decades-long spiral toward rock bottom.

Students such as Nasko want what kids should expect. They want what others their age get if they happen to live in Dunmore or Clarks Summit or Archbald. They want an open library where they can study. They want a classroom that isn’t so jam-packed a teacher can offer one-on-one attention working a difficult math problem. They want their favorite German teacher to not feel like she has to take a job 10 miles away to teach their neighbors the Ah-Beh-Tsehs and Eins-Zwei-Dreis, just so she can earn a competitive wage.

They aren’t asking for filet mignon Fridays in the cafeteria or gold-embossed pencil cases on top of their desks. They just want a decent chance.

DePasquale said he’ll take the suggestions he heard Wednesday, then make proposals on what the state’s recovery for the district must include once it is presented to the district in the spring. Nasko gave DePasquale a petition asking for renewal of the orchestra, band and chorus programs, all drastically cut by the school board as part of a plan to stanch a deficit the firm monitoring the budget says could grow to $26.5 million by 2024. Nasko walked in with 261 signatures online and 106 on the clipboard he clutched in his hands as he nervously spoke. DePasquale became the 107th, and by the time he walked out of the building, Jonathan proudly said he surpassed 300.

If he went door to door around the city, he might get 30,000. And, here’s guessing reinstituting the middle school band program will be on DePasquale’s list of recommendations for the state, for whatever that’s worth.

But you shouldn’t have to beg the state auditor general for an opportunity to receive a well-rounded education. Over the long term, the Scranton School District isn’t going to be able to provide that without major changes. From those in charge to the voters to the surrounding communities that have a major stake in this, too.

Six years ago, Ro Hume left her native Australia and wound up here, in a Scranton home two blocks from where my mother grew up and where my grandparents lived, a part of town so different today, they might as well have lived on different planets. The neighborhood looks different. It feels different. It faces a more urgent crisis.

More than 21 percent of students in the district require special education services, a 17 percent increase from just three years ago. About 80 percent qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch this school year, and in 2017, Scranton School District students spoke 36 different languages, and 9 percent of the total school population received English support.

These are not numbers that promise to decrease, either. They make for a terrible situation worsened by the mismanagement, malfeasance and old-fashioned cronyism that is the trademark of city politics, by school boards that have inherited their share of problems and still proven more proficient at shoving shady transportation contracts through the pipeline and holding midnight votes to approve unelected board members than making themselves agents for meaningful change.

“For the community to get behind the Scranton School District, for the work to be done that we need to do to make this district fiscally sound and focused where it should be, on the educational outcome of every one of those 10,000 children,” Hume said, “the community has to have trust in the school board.”

It doesn’t take an MBA or an EdD to recognize the sad state of Scranton’s public schools, or where this whole area is going if this can’t get righted. Perhaps some volunteers from outside the district can help create more library time for Scranton students. Maybe there are some private music teachers who can do something to help kids like Jonathan Nasko get the education they want. Maybe, for once, those who don’t live in Scranton might be OK with a few more tax dollars out of the paycheck going toward building a better future for the students who are absolutely vital to the area’s future.

President Barack Obama once said that caring for our children should be our first priority. “If we don’t get that right,” he said, “we don’t get anything right.”

The state has underfunded the Scranton School District for far too long, and that makes no sense. But the only way this gets fixed is if the community rallies around the principles it brought to the fore. It has to hold the administration and the board consistently accountable, not just at meetings, but at the ballot box.

If Scranton wants better, it’s going to have to demand it. If it doesn’t, no amount of anything else is going to save it.

DONNIE COLLINS, a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune, lived his dream because of public schools. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.

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