Issues for Community Services
Education and Schools
- With rapid population growth throughout Chester County, schools have become overcrowded. These school enrollment increases are requiring new and expanded facilities. School districts are faced with planning for expansion. Cooperation between school districts and municipalities is important for sharing information about proposed development to assist school districts with projecting and accommodating future enrollment changes.
- New schools are not always welcomed by neighboring property owners. The location of new school facilities pose many impacts on the local community. Municipal cooperation with school districts is important through the subdivision and land development process, to locate new schools where they meet the objectives of both parties. The relationship between school properties and surrounding neighborhoods is very important. The location affects transportation and access to schools for students, staff, and residents. The local municipality may lose some taxable land while providing services to a new school, and there are traffic impacts on the neighborhood to consider. However, they will gain a valuable community facility for students and local residents.
- It is difficult for school districts to keep pace with rapidly advancing technologies. New technology demands affect school building design and construction. Computers, communication, and other technology have created a need for additional space for new and existing schools. Internet connections and utilities need to be installed and classrooms need to be reconfigured in existing schools. The design of new schools must be forward thinking and flexible to accommodate rapidly changing new technology, and to avoid obsolescence and costly revisions.
- Alternative approaches to education create the need for cooperation among school districts. New and alternative teaching programs have resulted in creative ways of organizing schools and sharing resources. New programs and technology are permitting schools to reconsider building design, grade configurations, and course offerings. Secondary schools are beginning to work closely with colleges and universities. Communications technology enables students in different schools and school districts to take the same course from one teacher. This may make it possible to justify offering a course that would not have enough students in any one facility.
Finance and taxation
- School enrollment increases, new technology, and new programs are requiring tax increases. The desire to maintain top ranked schools and provide technical proficiency and job skills sometimes conflicts with the ability or willingness of the community to provide funding for them. Many families are stretched financially and some have sought reassessment of their properties because of high property taxes.
- School districts are facing strong community opposition when proposals for expanded facilities require a local tax increase. The state share of school costs is far below the national average and ranks Pennsylvania near the bottom. In 2006-07, the state share of school costs funded by the state budget amounted to 35.5 percent. Nationally, the average is closer to 50 percent paid by the state.
- As a result of insufficient state funding, public education in Pennsylvania is more dependent on local taxes than in most states, and school district property taxes in Pennsylvania are therefore among the highest in the country. Residents, especially households without children, oppose tax increases and construction projects. New legal requirements for voter approval of tax increases may increase this conflict. Many communities oppose residential developments for families with children, but support retirement communities that will not add children to the schools. This may lead to less diverse communities and perhaps different problems.
Because of great differences in both the assessed value of properties within individual districts and, in some cases, rapidly increasing enrollments, property tax rates and per student spending varies widely in the county. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has recently released a "Costing Out Study" that estimates the cost of educational services among school districts.
Source: Augenblick, Palaich and Associaties, Inc., "Costing Out the Resources Needed to Meet Pennsylvania's Public Education Goals", Pennsylvania State Board of Education, December 2007
- School busing has become more complex with population increases. Increased enrollment, longer trips, busing to private schools, dual enrollment programs, and after school activities have impacted school transportation services. The location of student bus stops is a critical safety concern. Many neighborhood schools that were within walking distance of students have been closed in recent decades, usually to be replaced by large consolidated schools to which students are bused. This is usually done in the name of efficiency, the need for modern facilities, and the desire for a campus-like setting.
- School sites must accommodate many different means of transportation in addition to school buses. Drop-off facilities are needed for parents who drive their kids to school. The increase in student drivers with cars has created a need for larger parking areas at high schools. School locations near neighborhoods and with pedestrian access can increase the number of students who walk to school. However, conflicts arise between ensuring the safety of walkers and accommodating the increases in vehicular traffic.
- Emergency service providers and trainers are faced with increasing demands for response and preparedness training. The importance and scope of disaster planning has changed dramatically since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. There are new federal Department of Homeland Security programs and requirements and new concerns over national security. The county must now plan on a larger multi-county and multi-state regional scale. This requires more time to coordinate with a wide variety of agencies. The county must be prepared to evacuate county residents, workers, and large facilities, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and the county prison in emergencies. The county must also be prepared to accommodate people who are evacuated from surrounding areas in temporary shelters in Chester County.
- There are new threats of biological incidents, such as an avian flu outbreak or an anthrax release, which the county must be prepared for. Incidents may require that mass clinics be set up to inoculate or treat the public in a short amount of time. Such an event could be the joint responsibility of the Emergency Services and Health Departments. There could be a need for thousands of volunteers for a single incident. Plans must identify distribution or treatment points, such as large high schools, with facilities, access, and parking for large numbers of people. The scope of these threats requires extensive training and simulated drills to be prepared for an actual event.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires the county to have "Continuity of Operations Plans" (COOP) in the event of a power outage at the EMS center. The Department of Emergency Services must be prepared with back-up plans and equipment to keep the 911 communications center and other emergency facilities operational during emergencies.
Equipment/Technology and Training
- Cellular telephones, while useful for reporting emergencies, have been difficult for 911 system operators to locate. New technology has evolved to properly respond to emergency calls. Landline telephone calls can be linked to an address, but cell phones currently cannot. Travelers often do not know where they are, or even which municipality they are in. New technology using Global Positioning System (GPS) helps emergency responders to locate cell phone calls. Sometimes the call center can determine the approximate location of the caller, but in other cases, only the location of the nearest cellular tower is received by the telecommunicator.
- New emergency equipment is very complex and requires sophisticated training. New federal programs have helped to fund new technology, but it may not be available for equipment maintenance and updating. Computers and safety equipment, such as protective suits for hazardous or biological threats, are aiding the work of police and other emergency service workers. Volunteers must dedicate many hours to training. The training is complicated and involves greater numbers of participants.
- Increased flooding puts greater demands on emergency responders. The county Department of Emergency Services is experiencing a higher percentage of water-related emergencies and flooding is occurring in areas that never flooded in the past. Roads must be closed. People need to be rescued and evacuated. Some of these areas are flooding due to impervious surfaces and are not in an actual floodplain. Those areas and residents may not be covered by flood insurance.
- The volunteer core for emergency services is shrinking. New residents often come from more densely developed areas and they have higher expectations and less interest in volunteering. Some municipalities need to hire paid staff, especially during the daytime, when residents are away from home at distant jobs. This can create conflicts with long-time volunteers, who are assigned to the same tasks.
- Response time to emergencies is increasing due to congested highways and distance. Volunteers have trouble getting to stations and emergency sites. The state police cover large areas in the northwest and central portions of the county from the Embreeville Barracks in West Bradford and southern portions of the county from the Avondale Barracks in London Grove. The state police also must provide part-time coverage to municipalities that are without 24-hour coverage.
- Access to trauma care is complicated because there is no trauma center located in Chester County. The existing trauma centers in nearby areas, such as Lancaster, Reading, Philadelphia, and Newark, Delaware, may adequately serve the county. However, this works only because of the availability of medical helicopters, which can transport victims quickly over long distances. This transportation service is very expensive and is often not covered or only partially covered by insurance.
- Fire and ambulance companies must depend on fund raising to operate and purchase new equipment. They compete for the same dollars in the local community. There may be overlap and duplication of equipment among nearby companies while other needs may go unmet because there is no coordination of resources.
- Municipal finance issues can impact police services. During years when municipalities have budget shortfalls, police departments are vulnerable to layoffs or cutbacks in coverage time. This can increase the responsibility of the state police or require greater cooperation among local police departments. Although police services are generally well coordinated, the existence of many separate municipal police departments makes coordination difficult.
Human services funding is remaining steady, while the demand for services has grown. This increasing demand is partly due to the increase in the county population. The demand is also growing because of greater awareness of programs and more enforcement of regulations. There are more clients in the ten to thirteen age category, as children with developmental disabilities receive services earlier. State and federal funding has remained constant and the county government is expected to meet the increasing demand. Human services now constitute about 40 percent of the county budget. There is a need to get more support from private foundations.
Limited public transportation creates challenges for human services clients. The human services community needs transportation to access service providers and employment. Although Chester County is a wealthy community, there are numerous pockets of poverty scattered throughout. Rural residents without cars are especially isolated because public transportation in those areas is very limited. The SCCOOT bus line serves the southern portion of the county, but the routes and stops are limited. This makes it difficult to get to services and jobs, which are scattered in many different locations.
Housing for human service clients is difficult to find, especially in desirable locations. Many clients have low incomes, have a disability, or have special needs. Locating in rural areas often makes it difficult for residents to access needed services or employment opportunities. Affordable housing in urban areas may be located in unsafe neighborhoods. Some settings present bad influences for people with special needs, such as mental health or dependency problems.
Transitional housing opportunities for clients that are homeless or in unsuitable housing are limited. There are homeless elderly in Chester County and shelters often do not meet the special needs that they may have. Mental health clients may be homeless or may be in prison and not receiving the treatment they need. Transitional housing that keeps clients off the street and in a supportive environment is needed until they can secure permanent housing.
Concentrated housing for the disabled may serve to marginalize and stigmatize residents. Mental health, mental retardation, and substance abuse clients are better served by living within the community as part of mixed income and diverse neighborhoods. Stable, supportive housing can permit the disabled population to live within and make positive contributions to the local community.
Disabled residents often have difficulty securing employment. People with disabilities need an opportunity to demonstrate that they are reliable workers. Steady employment is critical for clients to stabilize their lives and maintain or improve their housing. A partnership between human service agencies and the business community could be a win-win situation by providing jobs for people and quality, reliable workers for businesses.
Staffing needs of human service agencies and provider organizations are becoming harder to meet. Employers have a steady need to replace older, retiring workers. County agencies and service providers need a diverse, qualified workforce and bi-lingual workers to serve non-English speaking clients. High school and college graduates need better outreach and information about job opportunities in the human services fields.
Facilities and community support
Finding quality, affordable office space is difficult, particularly for human services providers. Office rents around the county are often too high for a government agency or non-profit budget. Also, there is a stigma for human service agencies, as well as their clients, and sometimes there is local opposition to them being in the area.
The lack of transportation is a major barrier for many human services clients who need access to services. Clients may need to make multiple trips to human service providers that are scattered in different locations. Public transit is available, but limited. There is also a need for in-home services for the elderly and disabled who have trouble getting out to service providers. Without access to services, some clients are not able to continue to live independently.
The "at risk' youth population is especially vulnerable. Prevention programs are needed to reduce the future demand for services. These youth need a support system to transition into adulthood. Without early interventions and support, "at risk" youth may drop out of school or become involved with drugs, crime, or other problems. Many communities are in need of programs that provide activities, supervised places to gather, and after school jobs.