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Virtual civics series bridges residents and leaders

Both representatives agreed the [school funding] problem is rooted in Pennsylvania’s property tax-based funding system, and said they’re willing to push for reform in Harrisburg.

By Jamie Wiggan


-McKees Rocks-


Readers turned off by the chaos surrounding this year’s presidential debates may find a better outlet for civic discourse closer to home.


Since early September, Sheraden resident Terri Minor Spencer has presided over a series of virtual info-sessions focusing on the local issues at stake on Nov. 3.


“The presidential election is not the most important election,” Minor Spencer said. “Local offices affect our lives 365 days a year.”


Minor Spencer kicked off the series with a Sept. 9 conversation with State Rep. Dan Deasy (D-27) focusing on issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic.


“We’ve been trying to help our residents navigate the system and the challenges of unemployment,” Deasy said of his office’s recent priorities.


Since then Minor Spencer -— with operational support from the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (MRCDC) — has mediated discussions with a range of other state and local officials.


Among others, State Sen. Wayne Fontana, and representatives from the Sto-Rox school board are slated for upcoming sessions.


The struggling Sto-Rox School District has featured prominently in the discussions, several times at the instigation of audience members, who are invited to share questions and comments.


“It’s a sticking point for me – I don’t like the inequity I see in my district,” said State Rep. Anita Kulik (D-45) while fielding questions during the Oct. 7 session.


Deasy — who represents districts as varied as Sto-Rox, Montour and Chartiers Valley — said the pandemic has further highlighted existing disparities between schools.

“Some schools have a lot of technical equipment for students to learn from home, others are challenged, so that’s been a very difficult part for us over the past few months,” he said.


Both representatives agreed the problem is rooted in Pennsylvania’s property tax-based funding system, and said they’re willing to push for reform in Harrisburg.


Minor Spencer has also pressed officials for their positions on social issues like prison reform and racial injustice.


Bethany Hallam, one of two Allegheny County at-large commissioners, was able to comment on the penal system from personal experience.


“One of my favorite parts about my job is that I serve on the jail oversight board,” she said. “The wildest thing about that is that four years ago I was sitting in the Allegheny County Jail – I was incarcerated there as a result of my substance use disorder and some run-ins with the law.”


Hallam said since joining the council a year ago she has persuaded her colleagues to approve a $50 monthly commissary account budget for all in-mates and would one day like to pass an “incarcerated bill of rights” — securing for inmates access to health care, nutritious food and communication with loved ones.


Beyond the issues themselves, civic participation and understanding has been at the heart of the weekly series.


“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this particular cycle… that we find ourselves in 2020… I encourage everybody, please do not sit it out,” said State Sen. Pam Iovino during a session in late September.


Minor Spencer launched West End P.O.W.E.R. (Providing Opportunities with Effective Resources) about five years ago in an effort to turn residents into effective citizens.


Over the past five years, she has been leading civic sessions with a variety of elected officials and office-seekers around the Pittsburgh region. After attending one last year, Taris Vrcek, MRCDC executive director, invited her to lead a series in McKees Rocks to engage the community there.


“This is what it looks like when you get together to help each other, from the office level and the community level,” she said.


Similar to Hallam, Minor Spencer’s desire to effect change was forged by the trial incarceration that resulted from a drug addiction many years ago.


While she’s an unapologetic critic of injustice, she’s more than willing to work together with powerbrokers of all backgrounds and creeds.


“We’re non-partisan,” she said. “If you’re on the ballot we’re gonna ask you to come out to our community and teach us.” Access to ongoing sessions held Wednesday nights at 6 p.m. is available on the events section of MRCDC’s Facebook page.

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