A look back, Part II — Coach fired and political vandalism a hallmark of 2020
By Jamie Wiggan
Editor’s note: Join us as we look back on the highs and lows of the second half of 2020. News of note from January through June was previously chronicled in the Dec. 24 edition and is available online at gazette20.com.
State Rep. Anita Kulik's Carnegie office was chalked with the phrases, "Blue Lives Matter" and “Marxist” on Aug. 8, 2020.
McKees Rocks council accepted a 20-year agreement committing the Allegheny County Housing Authority to voluntary cash contributions each year in lieu of property taxes on its new administrative headquarters on Chartiers Avenue.
The agreement ensures the borough will continue to receive $5,860.25 annually while the housing authority – exempt from property tax payments as a county authority – remains the primary tenant of the new building.
The Sto-Rox School District approved a similar agreement during its July legislative meeting, accepting $14,905.69 annually over the next 20 years.
By approving a virtual reopening plan July 14, Carlynton was among the first area school districts to commit to starting the 2020-21 school year remotely.
The plan developed by Carlynton officials included three tiers depending on the severity of local coronavirus spread, however, the board committed to remote-only instruction for the first four and a half weeks out of an abundance of caution.
Carlynton later reopened on a hybrid basis (where students alternate between remote and in-class learning), however, pivoted back to all-virtual as cases started spiking again in late November.
Sto-Rox Head Basketball Coach Ryan Hughes was let go as part of an athletics reshuffle led by incoming program director LaRoi Johnson.
A Sto-Rox graduate, Hughes coached basketball at the district for more than 20 years and ended his tenure with an impressive playoff run that was ultimately cut short by the onset of the coronavirus in March.
Former Aliquippa head coach Dwight Hines was later named as the program's new head.
Among the unanticipated setbacks of the coronavirus pandemic, a national coin shortage began to impact local and regional businesses during the summer months.
Local gas stations, general stores and supermarkets running low on coins posted signs on their doors requesting customers pay by card to ensure they’re not overcharged.
Describing the problem on a national scale, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said the various economic shutdown measures had disrupted the flow of coins through the economy, resulting in an overall shortage.
Crafton’s council approved the hiring of a new assistant manager during a rocky public meeting July 27, where they also voted not to retain a police officer upon the completion of his 12-month probationary period.
Residents and two councilmembers opposed to the hiring protested that the deal – not publicly advertised – had been worked out largely behind closed doors.
The decision not to retain a probationary officer – which cleared council 4-3 – also drew flak in light of protests against law enforcement that remained a feature of national headlines during the summer period. One councilmember referred to the move as “defunding the police.”
An already heated election campaign ramped up further when the husband of State Rep. Anita Kulik accused her political opponent Danny DeVito of defacing her Carnegie office Aug. 9.
DeVito shot back, insisting his campaign was not in any way involved with the incident and pressed Kulik to release security video footage to reveal the perpetrator.
The perpetrator, who chalked “BLUE LIVES MATTER” and “MARXIST” along the sidewalk in front of Kulik’s office, was never identified.
The McKees Rocks borough agreed to carry out lead testing on its rental housing stock as part of a regional pilot program overseen by Pittsburgh-based nonprofits Allies for Children and Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh.
Speaking at council’s public business meeting Aug. 11, Laura Stephany, policy director at Allies for Children, said testing by Allegheny County found elevated lead levels in 3.3% of children living within the square mile borough.
The aim of the fully-funded program is to pool data from McKees Rocks and a handful of other participating municipalities and spark conversations around common solutions.
Striking a balance between the risks of in-school participation and the costs of prolonged remote learning, the Cornell District approved a hybrid reopening plan during its Aug. 10 business meeting.
The plan divided students into rotating groups, with each spending half a day learning from home and the other in the classroom.
While many schools have flipped back and forth between online and in-school learning models, Cornell has stuck to the hybrid model throughout the fall term, except for a brief interlude of online-only days in early December.
'Back the Blue'
At the end of a summer dominated by protests against racially-motivated police brutality, the Kennedy Township Republican Committee held an event Aug. 20 to rally support for law enforcement.
The “Back the Blue” event drew a crowd of around 50. The speakers, including a number of local office-seekers, focused on local and national issues, with several weighing in against adopting a police review board for Allegheny County.
As census counting efforts drew close to the national deadline, local census advocate groups targeted “hard-to-reach” communities, including Zip code areas 15136 and 15204.
McKees Rocks-based Zellous Hope Project joined with other community organizations to help residents respond to the census survey and understand the significance of doing so.
“[I chose to do this] because of the importance of the impact that having everyone counted has on the funding we receive in the community,” said Director Denise Zellous.
While discussion on term lengths for federal offices is a well-worn talking point, many local officials retain their seats for several decades without drawing the same scrutiny.
We spoke to local residents and officeholders to get their take on the issue.
Although many area municipalities are under the thumb of long-time politicos, those we spoke to argued for new blood at regular intervals.
A local chapter National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was launched in Coraopolis following a summer infused with racial strife.
Chapter founder Carter Spruill described a vision for change that entailed people of all colors fighting together to raise living standards for all. Spruill said his mission is broader than that of the Black Lives Matter movements and emphasized a desire to work alongside local law enforcement.
For the second year running, Gazette 2.0 made it to the finals of the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s Golden Quill award ceremony.
This year, Dave Ficarri’s column “Diversions with Dave” caught the judge’s eyes, landing Gazette 2.0 among two other finalists. The team celebrated with Ficarri during a small gathering while the awards ceremony was broadcast remotely Sept. 3.
Photo by Jamie Wiggan
President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Moon Township just 6 weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Just six weeks before the presidential election, President Donald Trump stirred up a large crowd in Moon Township, promising economic growth and new jobs across the region during a campaign rally Sept. 22.
Before Trump touched down on Air Force one, a slate of other speakers including Sean Parnell, the Republican nominee who failed to unseat Democrat Conor Lamb from Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District.
The event, which drew supporters from far across the region, also attracted several local residents, including political hopeful Tristan Yoder, a McKees Rocks resident who intends to challenge State Rep. Dan Deasy (D-35) on the Republican ticket.
During the first school board meeting of the fall term, Sto-Rox parents complained that a new academic policy excluding students from school athletics after failing a single class was overly harsh.
Although the policy required the high school football team to forfeit a scheduled game against Carlynton, school board directors maintained it was necessary to ensure high academic standards.
Further down the line, school officials reported student-athletes stepped up academic efforts in response to the policy.
Responding to the national scrutiny drawn by George Floyd’s death in May, local police departments began pushing for body cameras as a means of helping all parties stay safe and accountable.
Several area municipalities approved body camera purchases during the summer months of 2020, while others, including, Stowe, McKees Rocks and Kennedy, were eyeing up funding avenues to acquire cameras for their departments.
During interviews for the story, local police chiefs emphasized cameras protect officers as much as they do crime suspects.
Allegheny County police were called in to investigate a convenience store in Stowe after a mother reported her 14-year-old child came home with several sexual enhancement pills mixed in with her purchase.
According to the child’s mother, when confronted in the store with the pills in hand, an employee said they were intended for another customer. The store’s owner declined to comment on the incident.
Allegheny County police confirmed they were investigating but released no further details.
More than six months after the borough stopped submitting police blotters to Gazette 2.0 for publication, McKees Rocks Councilwoman Liz Delgado inquired about the policy during a public meeting Oct. 13.
Delgado said it reflected badly on McKees Rocks that subsequent issues of Gazette 2.0 include a note informing readers the borough is withholding the reports, and said the decision had been made without council’s approval.
McKees Rocks first began withholding police reports after the publication of an incident in February involving a McKees Rocks councilwoman.
As chilly weather began to set in and efforts to pass relief bills stalled in the house legislature, local restaurant owners voiced fears they might not survive the winter.
Joe Caliguire, owner of Sarafino’s in Crafton, said he had held on through the first seven months of COVID-19 restrictions by accommodating diners in an outdoor tent, but with the costs of gas heating he felt he couldn’t depend on that during winter.
Joe Willet, owner of Lynn’s Cafe in Stowe, said for him survival is a question of how long he can hold out until restrictions are lifted again.
Both restaurant owners said they felt abandoned by the government officials, who had failed to distribute meaningful financial support.
A faulty batch of 29,000 Allegheny County mail-in ballots prompted several affected residents to question the processes involved.
In total 32,318 ballots were sent out in October with incorrect address information. When it became aware of the error, the county issued new ballot applications to all affected residents.
Whether and how incorrect ballots should be counted in various scenarios became the focus of several lawsuits before and after election day. County officials maintained Cleveland-based printing company Midwest Direct was at fault for the mixup.
The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) board authorized staff to acquire the former Crivelli Chevrolet property in McKees Rocks during its Oct. 22 monthly meeting, despite pressure from local officials to consider alternative plans.
According to Borough President Paul Krisby, the sanitary authority’s Oct. 22 decision followed months of talks where ALCOSAN had assured of its willingness to work alongside the borough to find common solutions.
Krisby and other local officials including Sto-Rox School Board President Samantha Levitzki-Wright said removing the former dealership building from the local tax rolls would land a big hit to already tight budgets.
The Pittsburgh region drew international attention in the days before and after Nov. 3, as western Pennsylvania voters were expected to help tip the presidential race in favor of one of the two major-party candidates.
President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden both made campaign stops in the region during final days on the trail, while Biden capped off his event schedule with a drive-in concert and rally in Pittsburgh Nov. 2.
While voters across the nation anxiously awaited confirmation of a winner, batches of absentee ballots counted in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties finally tipped the scales in favor of Biden Nov. 7.
Prolonged absentee ballot counting in several states resulted in four turbulent days of waiting before Joe Biden was declared president-elect by mainstream observers.
The days of uncertainty added to the tension in national politics between Republican and Democrat voters, both of which turned out in unprecedented numbers to nominate their candidate this year.
Locally, the strain was no less visible. Some residents we spoke to breathed a sigh of relief when they learned of Biden’s eventual victory; others voiced disgust at what they saw as a compromised election process given the high number of mail-in ballots.
Having quickly brought the district up to speed on technology following the onset of coronavirus, Sto-Rox administrators adjusted the suspensions policy to require students to stay engaged with classwork online while they’re banned from the classroom.
Administrators, who have frequently discussed the role of punishments in changing student attitudes, said the new policy should show them their actions have consequences while keeping them engaged with school work.
After catching up on student technology access during spring and summer, Sto-Rox launched a new cyber option that will remain available to all students after the virus subsides.
Suspended students will be temporarily enrolled in this school during their disciplinary period.
We at Gazette 2.0. chronicled the paper’s third birthday on Nov. 5 with a short history of our three years in the local news business.
New employees commented alongside founding members, celebrating our accomplishments and voicing what it means to serve the community as a local news source in an ever-changing digital age.
Several months after a group of regional stakeholders presented a vision for redeveloping the former Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island, Beaver County-based Lindy Paving, Inc. bought the site for $5.5 million.
Officials from Lindy Paving confirmed the sale but said the company — which operates a separate facility on the island — had no fixed plans for the location.
United as the Shenango Reimagined Advisory Council, local stakeholders said they were blindsided by the move.
On the books earlier in the year, provisions to redistribute millions of dollars from charter schools to regular public schools were put aside when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a six-month spending plan Nov. 20.
Locally, several public school districts have attributed rising charter and cyber enrollment to current budgetary struggles. School districts are financially responsible for students who reside in their district that attend charter and cyber schools.
Officials from both the Sto-Rox and Cornell districts voiced support for charter school funding reforms touted by the Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf earlier in the year.
Crafton Borough officials approved a non-discrimination policy Nov. 23, with particular provisions in place to protect LGBTQ residents.
In approving the policy, councilmembers did not cite specific incidents of discrimination but hailed it as a gesture of the community’s tolerant outlook. Reported violations will be heard by an Equal Opportunity Board, established by the same ordinance.
Crafton is one of 62 municipalities in Pennsylvania with a non-discrimination policy in place.
In response to a recent uptick in violent crime in the Stowe community, Commissioner’s President Robin Parilla suggested the psychological costs of coronavirus restrictions may have played a role.
During a two-week period in late November and early December, Allegheny County police were called out five times to assist with violent crimes.
Nationally, data available for 2020 suggests violent crime fell during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic but soared in summer and stayed high during fall and winter.