The Superior Court of Pennsylvania on Wednesday reversed the Post-Conviction Relief Act’s court order granting a new trial for Letitia Smallwood.
Though the theme involved compromise, Halie Thornton would not bend on the details and thoroughness of her National History Day documentary.
“I’m very picky,” the eighth-grader from Eagle View Middle School said Friday. “I have very high standards because I’m so proud of this project.
“There were times of emotional breakdown,” she said. “But I would step away and relax and think about the pride and how much effort I put into this. It’s really worth it.”
Thornton was among 21 Cumberland Valley School District students who participated this weekend in the National History Day state competition at Carlisle High School. The event drew about 700 students from 120 middle and high schools across Pennsylvania, state coordinator Jeffrey Hawks said.
Hawks is education director of the Army Heritage Center Foundation outside Carlisle that sponsors and manages the statewide National History Day program. As coordinator, he provides oversight to 12 regional competitions that send the top three entries in every category to the state competition. State entries are judged and the top two in each category advance to the national level competition scheduled for June near Washington, D.C.
Participating students chose a topic that fits the annual theme, which for 2018 is Conflict and Compromise, Hawks said. The students research primary and secondary sources to develop a thesis that they then have to provide evidence for and defend before a panel of judges.
The project can take the form of an individual research paper or as an individual or group performance, documentary, exhibit or website. There is a junior division for middle school students and a senior division for high school students.
Thornton teamed up with classmate Mackenzie Graham to produce a 10-minute documentary on the life and work of Temple Grandin, an American professor of animal science and consultant to the livestock industry.
Born with autism, Grandin had the ability to think visually in ways similar to cattle, pigs and horses being led to slaughter. “She can feel their pain and notice things that are making them scared,” Thornton said. Grandin made it her mission in life to modify the machinery to lessen the distress and make the process of butchering animals more humane.
“She had multiple conflicts and compromises,” Thornton said of Grandin. This included autism and being a female in a male-dominated industry. Yet her work is now accepted as the standard worldwide.
To research the topic, Thornton and Graham started by reading books authored and co-authored by Grandin before moving on to other sources. All that work formed the basis of a script and the imagery they used to tell the story. It was not an easy endeavor.
“We had over 100 narrations recorded,” Thornton said. There are so many early versions, it clutters her computer desktop. “Even if I cry or have software glitches, it was all worth it.”
One of the big draws of National History Day is the flexibility given to students to pick topics that interest them, said Sabrina Lindsay, social studies supervisor for the Cumberland Valley School District. What they learn are the research skills needed to tackle the complex projects they will face in a career.
“That grit … that determination is all part of the process,” said Kevin Wagner, social studies department chair for the Carlisle Area School District. “It’s that ability to persevere and produce a final product. National History Day helps them develop that passion for their subject and take ownership of it. They have that innate drive to want to learn more.”
It was that kind of drive that set two eighth-graders from Good Hope Middle School on a path to develop a 10-minute dramatic skit exploring the complexities of Japanese internment camps of World War II.
The sneak of attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized the American public but it also drove the U.S. government to force the eviction of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast into internment camps. Classmates Sharanya Vishganavhuni and Ananya Kurup were drawn to the topic and to the story of one man in particular.
Through their research, they developed a script where Vishganavluni played the role of the man and Kurup took on the part of two characters — the man’s mother and his wife. “We started from a happy moment and then went on to show the different phases they went through as they went through the internment process,” Kurup said.
She said the most challenging part of the experience was perfecting the performance so that the costumes, makeup, set and script matched up to the 10-minute time limit in the competition rules.
Samantha Martin, a sophomore at Carlisle High School, has participated in National History Day since the sixth grade. She developed her passion for journalism into a website project that focused on the conflict and compromise Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to face in using anonymous sources to expose the Watergate scandal.
“I’ve always wanted to be a journalist since I was in middle school,” Martin said. “Watergate was such a major event in the history of journalism. It changed the way we report on political topics.”
Her research included interviewing two journalists who work at the Post including the longest serving reporter on the staff. That journalist was in the newsroom before Watergate took place.
She also visited the University of Texas website and downloaded all the notes Woodward and Bernstein compiled during the investigation that culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“I love researching and interviewing. … It’s why I want to be a reporter,” Martin said. “I love learning as much as I can about a topic and writing a story to make sure people understand the truth behind it. Regardless of how famous the truth is, it should be understood to its fullest. … That’s why I do this.”
HARRISBURG — Three candidates are seeking the Republican nomination in the May 15 primary election to run for Pennsylvania governor — commercial litigation attorney Laura Ellsworth, former health care systems consultant Paul Mango and state Sen. Scott Wagner — and contest the re-election campaign of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. A look at where they stand on some key issues:
All three said they oppose abortion rights and support legislation vetoed by Wolf last year. The bill banned elective abortions after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, compared with 24 weeks in current law. It kept in place exceptions under current law for when a mother’s life or well-being is at risk, but it did not add exceptions for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities.
Opponents said the bill effectively outlawed the most common method of second-trimester abortion. The bill’s sponsor disputed that.
Wagner would institute a private-sector concept called “zero-based budgeting” in state government that he said he expects will reduce costs by $1.5 billion to $4 billion.
Mango would work to reduce the state workforce to 50,000 or 55,000 employees. The number of employees under the governor’s jurisdiction is about 72,800, according to the governor’s office. Mango also said he would end the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars in highway construction funds to underwrite state police costs.
Ellsworth would eliminate a system in which state agencies support themselves through regulatory fines and task every agency with reducing expenses 3 percent every year.
Mango opposes limits on campaign finance. Ellsworth supports limits on campaign donations, and Wagner is open to the idea.
All three support the death penalty and would sign death warrants. Ellsworth’s campaign said she supports the death penalty in situations in which it has a deterrent effect. Mango’s campaign said he would sign a death warrant for those who commit the most heinous crimes.
Wagner said he would pursue a mandatory death penalty for any school shooter who kills someone, although legal analysts said laws like that have been unconstitutional for decades.
All three said they would seek to address the need for skilled labor through Pennsylvania’s schools and colleges and to reduce taxes and government regulation.
Ellsworth said she would create a 10-year business plan, with input from the private sector, to guide budgeting and economic development. She also would ask the state’s big pension systems to invest in Pennsylvania’s economic development programs.
Mango said he would travel aggressively beyond Pennsylvania’s borders to attract business to the state.
Wagner supports banning former lawmakers from lobbying and prohibiting lobbyists from doing campaign work for politicians.
Mango supports “pay-to-play” legislation limiting political contributions from government contractors. Mango also would prohibit lobbyists from doing campaign work for politicians, prohibit elected officials or their businesses from winning government contracts and double a “revolving door” lobbying ban to two years and expand it to cover all state government entities.
Ellsworth would impose a “no nepotism” rule for lobbyists.
None of the three supports more restrictions on gun ownership or gun sales or an expansion of background checks. Mango and Wagner oppose an expansion of background checks on gun purchases, although Ellsworth said she supports “more universal background checks” to adequately capture adjudicated instances of mental illness and dangerous conduct. Mango said the state needs to add resources to screen, diagnose and treat mental illness to ensure people who sufferer don’t have access to guns.
Wagner and Ellsworth support “right to work” legislation, a measure that would prohibit labor unions from collecting dues from employees who refuse to join the union or pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. Mango said he would not support a blanket “right to work” law and would draw the line at unions representing private-sector trades, firefighters and police.
Wagner and Ellsworth support current legislation in Pennsylvania that’s designed to bar discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing because of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Mango said that he opposes discrimination but that the legislation would compromise religious freedom of conscience and the privacy and security of children in public bathrooms and school locker rooms, claims the bill’s backers say are baseless.
None of the three supports the full legalization of marijuana. All three support Pennsylvania’s 2016 legalization of medical marijuana.
None of the three would end Pennsylvania’s 3-year-old expansion of Medicaid’s income guidelines under former President Barack Obama’s federal health care law.
All three said the program must become more efficient and they would seek a federal waiver to institute a work requirement for able-bodied adults on Medicaid and possibly other changes. Mango also would seek a federal waiver to establish a high-risk pool for the sickest enrollees and health savings-style accounts for others.
Mango and Ellsworth oppose raising it from the current federal minimum of $7.25. Wagner said he would support raising it to around $9.50 an hour.
Wagner would seek to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers, limit the number of pills in opioid prescriptions and increase state funding to lengthen in-patient addiction treatment stays.
Ellsworth supports training more narcotics agents in the Pennsylvania State Police and taking a “two-strikes” approach that would require someone revived with naloxone twice to enter an in-patient treatment program.
Mango would seek to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers and organize communities into task forces, but said the state should focus resources on prevention, not treatment.
Mango and Wagner said they support a move to a full 401(k)-style benefit for new state government and public school employees, rather than the traditional pension benefit or a hybrid.
Wagner would push to fire pension system investment managers over lackluster returns. Ellsworth would privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor store system and use the proceeds to help pay down the pension debt. Mango would lower obligations by reducing employee ranks through early buyouts and attrition and by fighting the abuse of voluntary overtime.
Mango and Wagner each support the elimination of school property taxes under the design of current legislation that would raise rates on Pennsylvania’s personal income tax and sales tax to make up for disappearing property tax revenue.
Ellsworth opposes eliminating property taxes, saying it would destroy local control over school funding and destabilize school finances. Ellsworth says property taxes should be frozen for people who have paid them for 35 years.
All three support expanding taxpayer-funded options for public school alternatives, including legislation to create taxpayer-funded “education savings accounts” that divert state aid for public schools into accounts that parents can use for tuition at private or parochial schools.
Mango and Wagner said they are not inclined to devote more money to public schools. Mango said he would invest more in education if there’s proof it would improve student achievement or it would drive more students into skilled labor professions.
Ellsworth said that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is not fair or adequate, and that making public schools compete for money with public school alternatives is holding back achievement.
Ellsworth supports the creation of an independent redistricting panel. Mango and Wagner support the current system in which state lawmakers draw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years.
None of the three gave an explicit pledge not to raise taxes or fees, but all three say they intend to avoid it. All three want to cut Pennsylvania’s 9.99 percent corporate net income tax rate.
Ellsworth supports providing local governments more taxing options so that property taxes don’t have to be the primary funding source.
All three declined to release a copy of their tax return.
Wagner and Mango said they support President Donald Trump and would campaign with him. Ellsworth said she supports Trump’s tax-cutting legislation and appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Wagner and Mango said they voted for Trump; Ellsworth said she voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
In a purely symbolic gesture, Carlisle Area School Board members are saying that taxpayers should not have to shoulder the maximum possible burden to offset a projected $4.8 million budget deficit for 2018-19.
District administrators had recommended the board use a combination of a 3.1-percent tax hike and a drawdown in savings to offset the shortfall.
That recommendation called for a .4351-mill increase in the real estate tax from 14.0365 mills to 14.4716 mills. Under that scenario, property owners would pay an additional $43.51 on every $100,000 of assessed property.
The 3.1-percent is the maximum increase allowed by Act 1 without special exceptions or a voter referendum. The administration’s proposal would generate an estimated $1.3 million in new revenue for the district to reduce the deficit to $3,502,000.
Rather than go for the max, a straw poll Thursday of board members at the budget and finance committee decided the proposed tax increase for 2018-19 should be 2.9-percent. It appeared the change caught off-guard administrators who now have to recalculate to account for the 0.2-percent cut.
The original recommendation called for the board to completely exhaust three reserve accounts and significantly reduce a fourth account to transfer $3,502,000 in savings to the general fund and offset what is not covered by the 3.1 percent tax hike. Now that the board may vote on a 2.9-percent increase, another $80,000 in savings would need to be transferred from the unassigned fund balance.
The three accounts to be wiped out include the retirement reserve of $1 million, the medical reserve of $297,000 and the liability insurance reserve of $500,000. The fourth account affected by the drawdown is the unassigned fund balance. The original plan was to transfer out of that account $1,704,010 to help bridge the deficit. A 2.9-percent tax hike would mean about $1.8 million would need to be transferred.
The board is scheduled to vote on the proposed budget on May 17, clearing the way for the fiscal plan to be advertised for final adoption on June 21. Aside from the budget, the May 17 agenda includes a recommendation from administrators to approve a formal budget for the McGowan Gym renovation project and to transfer $3,671,857 from the unassigned balance to the capital projects fund to pay for the work.
If the board approves the transfers and the 2.9-percent tax rate, there would be about $2.8 million left in the unassigned fund balance. One possible use of that money would be to offset future deficits.
The $2.8 million would not be enough savings to offset the next budget deficit, board president Paula Bussard said. She said the board in prior years set aside money in the retirement and medical reserve knowing those accounts would eventually zero out.
One of the prime drivers of cost is the annual contribution school districts make to the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System. Annual increases in the percentage of the contribution take up much of the new revenue districts can generate by levying the maximum allowed under Act 1.
“The tax increase barely covers the costs we have no control over,” board member Bruce Clash said.
Committee chairman Gerald Eby asked if the board could float a bond issue to finance the gym restoration project. But district Director of Finance Shawn Farr said that’s not possible because the project is underway and any bond resolution would have to be approved before work began.
However, there is $4.5 million the administration has set aside previously for the Mooreland Elementary School expansion and renovation project, Farr said. That project could be funded with bonds.
“We are going to be faced with serious challenges in future years as a board,” Deb Sweaney said. She said the district will not be able to address any of these long-term challenges within what remains of the current budget cycle.
Instead, Sweaney recommended the board do some hard strategic thinking in the months leading up to any decision regarding Act 1 and the budget cycle for 2019-20.
Under Act 1, school districts have the flexibility to pursue special exceptions and voter referendums to levy a tax increase beyond the maximum index. Carlisle School District has yet to exercise either option.
“It will be worse next year,” board member Rick Coplen said. “All of us, I know, are not happy with another tax increase. I am not happy seeing our reserves dwindle as they are.”
Gerald Eby, chairman of the budget and finance committee, was the first board member to suggest a 2.9-percent tax hike in lieu of administration-recommended 3.1-percent. Eby acknowledged it was a symbolic gesture meant to send a message.
Eby also suggested the board consider treating the PSERS contribution like the debt service payment on a building project and finance the cost by way of a bond issue to spread out the fiscal burden over a longer period.
“A year from now we either change our spending drastically or do something else,” Eby said. He said PSERS will be an issue for the district as long as it needs teachers to maintain the academic standards for students.
One thing working in Carlisle’s favor is that most of its building project debt would be paid off in about 10 years, Eby said. So the use of bonds to pay PSERS would just extend that debt out into more manageable annual payments.
That would be one creative way to handle annual pension costs, Coplen said. “It would be nice if our state legislators will come up with a solution to this problem.”
Board member Fred Baldwin questioned the wisdom of financing an annual operating expense with long-term borrowing. The consensus Thursday seemed to be to have the district solicitor examine the legalities of Eby’s suggestion.
“We can’t wait for them to do something,” Eby said, referring to the Legislature. Eby said he would like to see a plan formulated by Christmas on how to tackle 2019-20 and beyond.
A Carlisle woman who spent 42 years in prison after being convicted of setting a fire that killed two people is free.
Letitia Smallwood struck a deal with prosecutors last month pleading no contest to two murder charges and a burglary count over the 1972 blaze at a Carlisle apartment building.
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania on Wednesday reversed the Post-Conviction Relief Act’s court order granting a new trial for Letitia Smallwood.
In return, Cumberland County President Judge Edward Guido sentenced her to 19 to 40 years in prison, making her eligible for immediate parole.
The state Supreme Court completed the last order of business Thursday, dismissing a now moot appeal.
Smallwood was released from prison in 2015 after Guido voided her conviction and granted her a new trial. He cited investigators’ reliance on arson science that has since been discounted.
CARLISLE — A Carlisle woman sentenced to two consecutive life sentences might soon be home in Carlisle after spending the last 42 years behind bars.
Prosecutors eventually agreed to the plea deal.
Smallwood, now 64, has maintained her innocence.
CARLISLE — A Carlisle woman imprisoned for more than 40 years in a fatal arson case is about to stand trial again after a judge’s ruling Monday.