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02/09/2011

Economic Development Needed For A Vibrant School District

ZahorchakBy Allentown School District Superintendent Gerald L. Zahorchak, D.Ed.

As Allentown School District faces the worst loss of revenues it has ever known, it is important that we allcontinue to engage the people and propose the ideas we think will make a long-term difference in not only oursurvival but also our ability to thrive and reach the academic goals set for our children. We will not retreat fromour mission to provide highest quality education for the students who are here seeking the education they deserve.The increased investment in our students over the past few years produced remarkable results, so we cannot retreat.

I have been working in the City of Allentown for eight months. It is a city that is beginning to see a Renaissance.There are new corporate buildings in key anchor spots. There are new restaurants. The arts are flourishing. The Allentown School District has done its part, with phase one of the district's comprehensive facilities programcompleted and totaling over $155 million in capital investment. It includes two new school buildings and fourother expansions located throughout the city's neighborhoods. Phase two is beginning and we hope to have theold school building at 4th & Allen Streets in operation this fall, among many other exciting ideas we will sharewith you as the time is right.

The loss of federal stimulus funding, and the cuts in basic education funding from the Pennsylvania Departmentof Education, totaling more than $27 million, place even more emphases on the city finding new economicdevelopment strategies to offset the loss of these funds with increased revenue from new taxing sources.

This does not mean more home construction that sends more students to our schools is warranted. Think about it:an average homeowner in Allentown pays $1,183 in school taxes, but the cost of educating a student averages$8,528, many times the tax. Large developments, multi-family housing and high-density apartments actuallyhinder academic progress by flooding schools with students and increasing the size of classrooms, and addingunrecoverable costs. We do support the conversion of apartment dwellings to home ownership in the city, whichprovides a stabilizing influence on neighborhoods and the schools that serve them.

Right now, the district must find a minimum of $27 million to recover from reduced local tax revenue and stateand federal funding losses. Additionally, the district is about $130 million in underfunded, inadequate support.Anywhere between these figures would vastly improve the quality of student performance here with bettereducatedstudents while easing the burden for local taxpayers.

I have a vision for Allentown and it includes these many utopian ideas so necessary for this city to reallytransform itself into a world-class industrial power:

  • Attract regional, national or foreign industrial investment in energy and environment, the health caresciences and heavy industry to retrofit such empty spaces as the old Western Electric Building, GE plant,the Mack plants, old sewing mills and the Neuweiler Brewery to name a few.
  • Sell the Queen City Airport to a Fortune 1000 company, such as an innovative technical concern lookingfor a northeast location. By not selling it for non-residential development, we are pitting the interests of afew who use the airport against the financial well-being of 20,000 plus homeowners in the city whoshoulder the local school tax burden. With so little land available to develop within the city's limits, thereis surely a way to work out a solution.
  • Gentrify Hamilton Street -- all that beautiful architecture -- with small businesses and retail outlets notunlike Manayunk, Harlem or any other city core that we have seen populate itself with highlysophisticated shops, artisans, small businesses, restaurants.
  • Attract the likes of Bill Strickland, president of Manchester Bidwell, who can bring successfulindependent training programs for the poor and outcast.

Allen-Streets-School-Restor Allentown needs to increase the effort to market the city. There are plenty of incentives to be a part of our city,including the beautiful park system, a strong pro-business Lehigh Valley environment, tax incentives, manycolleges and universities, and of course, our proximity to major markets and major east coast roadways. Thisshould take priority now that the economy is returning to robust for much of the for-profit marketplace.

Allentown School District continues to do its part. The next capital investment will happen when we renovate theold school at 4th & Allen Streets, at a restoration cost of $11 million. We have some exciting plans coming up forthis facility in fall 2011. We are implementing many integrated college and career services -- and proposing asizable scholarship program -- in order to retain the value of our product, our students, so that this is a city that isnot only stabilized but thriving.

So, despite the difficulties ahead, I am very optimistic that Allentown indeed is ready to court some bigpropositions related to economic growth. I am hopeful such economic ideas will help soon to offset the schooldistrict's possible restriction of significant education services -- adding optimism for our students and less relianceon government funding. We can and must chart our own destiny together in the coming decade.

We can be stagnant no more, but must dream of skyscrapers and beautiful architecture again. Thank you.

Comments

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as usual the ones in the trenches pay the price. it is about ime that high priced administrators are laid off or have their salaries cut. Now Dr. Z wants to turn ASD into a bare bones school district. He is doing more harm than good. The once proud ASD will suffer form Dr. Z's thinking. No wonder he was removed from state office.

the asd needs to do something whith the football program.people do not want to send their children to a school that loses all the time they move out mostly good quality people. can't you see how succesfull other schools are . because they have good sports programs that draw kids. and homeoners

I agree with this one. City and Country planning must also consider a school district when planning for expansion.

I agree with your main point. Having a school district cluster will be beneficial to the surrounding economy as well. Not only that, but you raise education in the said location.

There are plenty of rewards to be a part of our city,including the wonderful playground system, a strong pro business Lehigh atmosphere, tax rewards, many colleges of course, our closeness to significant marketplaces and significant new England highways.

Never seems to get done, though. Plenty of people are just fine with pushing aside what needs to be done for our children's educations.

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