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Dishing up kindness: Hagarty serves lunch to Washington students

Acting Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty visited Washington School District’s Washington Park Elementary School on Tuesday to serve lunch to elementary school students and to encourage Pennsylvanians “to do something kind for their neighbors and communities” as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.

Donning an apron and a chef’s hat, Hagarty worked alongside school food service staff during two lunch periods.

The visit also included a campus tour and discussions with Washington School District Superintendent George Lammay and WPES administrators.

“Today, we had an opportunity to serve lunches to students and to meet with school leadership to talk about ways we can help support them to continue their great work,” said Hagarty. “And we want to remind folks as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday to be mindful of those in need and to consider contributing to or volunteering at a food bank during the holiday season.”

Hagarty said the Wolf administration has long been committed to ensuring that students have access to healthy, nutritious meals both in and out of school.

In September, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a $21.5 million plan to provide universal free school breakfast for 1.7 million students across the commonwealth that began in October and runs through the school year.

All students in public schools are eligible, along with students at charter schools, intermediate units, career and technology schools, and child-care institutions that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

Students automatically qualify for free breakfast regardless of family income.

About 97% of eligible schools are participating in the program, which is funded with prior year funding from the School Food Services General Fund appropriation.

“It’s clear that food insecurity is a major challenge across Pennsylvania, and research studies show that it’s really hard to do well in school when you’re hungry. It’s like the Snickers commercial: you’re not yourself when you’re hangry,” said Hagarty. “Schools are such an important place for children to get nutrition.”

About 75% of students in Washington School District live under the poverty line; all students in the school district receive a free breakfast and lunch under the Community Eligibility Provision.

Lammay said the district places an emphasis on meeting all of the needs of children to ensure academic success, noting nutritional support plays a large part in that effort.

“There’s little question that children who are hungry are not going to learn as well,” said Lammay. “Not only is it an academic focus for us, it’s more than that we view our kids in a holistic way. Yes, we want our kids to score well on tests, but we take care of our kids in Washington. Our teachers and staff members are observant of our kids and do their best to see if there’s a student with needs, we find ways to meet their needs. Secretary Hagarty was very much on board with that.”

Hagarty said the DOE also has taken steps to address food insecurity at Pennsylvania colleges and universities by launching the Hunger Free Campus initiative that aims to build a coalition of colleges and universities focused on addressing hunger and other basic needs for their students.

PennWest University’s pantry program has been designated among the Pennsylvania Hunger-Free Campuses. The PennWest Pantry, with locations at all three campuses – California, Clarion and Edinboro – supports students who may be experiencing hunger or hardship.

“It’s not just the K-12 system. We find college students show up to class not in the best state to learn. For young brains to do well, they have to be nutritiously fed,” said Hagarty.

He and I spent some time discussing some concerns I have as super, he listened, his team was great, Dr. Fuller, person with major responsibilities, helpful with certification. They were so good with our kids and our staff, He served lunches, he wiped tables, it was a really neat day.

'Mane' Street sights

It was like a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. Those strolling Washington’s North Main Street around 11:15 a.m. Tuesday did double-takes as a horse-drawn carriage clip-clopped up the road and turned left at the courthouse. Chip, an 8-year-old Percheron draft horse, led his driver Jim Welsh, of Rostraver, through downtown as the pair waited patiently to carry a newly married couple from the Washington County Courthouse to an area restaurant, where Welsh said the couple planned to celebrate their holiday nuptials. The horse and driver are part of Mike’s Carriage Service, based in Cecil, which offers horse-drawn carriages for weddings, funerals and other events. Welsh will drive the white carriage as part of downtown Washington’s Christmas celebration Dec. 2.

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Media organizations move to unseal court records in Rostraver shooting

A nonprofit legal service filed an emergency motion to unseal court records connected to a fatal shooting in Rostraver earlier this month on behalf of the Observer-Reporter and other local media outlets.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Virginia, electronically submitted the motion to Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas on Tuesday, and expect a physical copy of the brief to be filed today. The filing asks a judge to unseal the arrest warrant of Keven Van Lam, 55, who is being held in the Westmoreland County Prison on unknown charges related to the Nov. 5 shooting death of Boyke Budiarachman, 49, of Rostraver.

The Reporters Committee is also representing the Herald-Standard and the Mon Valley Independent.

Budiarachman was shot and killed in the Rostraver Square parking lot. Though investigators have called it a “targeted, isolated attack,” they have not released any additional information.

Lam was arrested the following day, and the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s office successfully had the relevant documents sealed. The judge’s order seals the arrest warrant for 60 days.

Attorneys for the Reporters Committee argue in their filing that the secrecy surrounding the case extends beyond the warrant, barring the public from seeing basic docket information, which includes the charges filed against Lam, his preliminary hearing date, bail amount and if he is represented by an attorney.

Lawyers for the papers argued that the seal is overly broad, and goes against the constitutional and common law presumptions that the courts should be open.

“This presumption – which is always weighty – has particular force here, where a person has been shot and killed in the parking lot between Lowe’s and Old Mexico Restaurant in a public shopping plaza and the entire case against the suspect has been sealed,” the filing states. “It is undeniable that the public has a significant, legitimate interest in timely access to the facts and legal proceedings surrounding this incident, which occurred entirely in the public.”

Reporters were able to learn from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts that the preliminary hearing is currently scheduled for 10 a.m. Dec. 19, but the Reporters Committee notes that the lack of a publicly available docket means media outlets would not know if the date changes.

“If members of the press and public do not have access to a docket sheet telling them when hearings are, they will be unable to learn about and attend those hearings, which will effectively occur in secret even absent a closure order,” the brief states. “Arrest warrants and their supporting applications and affidavits are likewise presumptively public judicial records.”

Paula Knudsen Burke, a local legal initiative attorney with Reporters Committee, said they disagreed with the rule of criminal proceedings the district attorney’s office cited to seal the case.

“The bottom line is court proceedings in the United States are not handled in secret, and what’s happening here in regard to Mr. Lam is puzzling, to say the least. It’s not clear why basic information is under seal,” Burke said.

The Westmoreland County district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment prior to the newspaper’s deadline.

Observer-Reporter staff writer Mike Jones and Mon Valley Independent assistant editor Kristie Linden each provided sworn statements detailing how their reporting efforts were stonewalled.

Inflation gives pay raise gift to top Pennsylvania officials
Inflation is gift-wrapping a salary increase for Pennsylvania state lawmakers, judges and top executive branch officials in 2023
  • Updated

HARRISBURG – Inflation is gift-wrapping another big salary increase for hundreds of Pennsylvania state lawmakers, judges and top executive branch officials in 2023, including boosting rank-and-file lawmakers and district judges into six-figure territory.

For many of these positions, it’s the biggest increase since the 1990s, when lawmakers passed legislation to give themselves annual salary increases by tying them to inflation rates.

Salaries across the board will rise 7.8%, a figure tied by state law to the year-over-year change in the consumer price index published this month by the U.S. Department of Labor for mid-Atlantic urban areas.

That salary increase is substantially higher – about 50% higher – than what federal data shows for average private sector wages in Pennsylvania during the same time period.

Rank-and-file lawmakers will earn nearly $103,000, or an additional $7,400. The Legislature’s highest paid officers, the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, will make more than $160,000, up $11,600.

Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro will make almost $230,000, up $16,600 from this year’s salary for governor, and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Todd will make about $252,000, up about $18,000 for the position.

It is the largest year-over-year inflationary increase for mid-Atlantic urban areas in October since 1981, according to the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the time, the United States turned to stringent fiscal policy to control “the Great Inflation.”

The increase applies to more than 1,300 positions, including the governor, Cabinet members, three statewide elected officers, all 253 lawmakers, and state and county judges. It takes effect Dec. 1 for lawmakers and Jan. 1 for judicial and executive branch officials.

They are already enjoying a substantial bump in pay this year, 5.6%, also juiced by inflation.

The highest paid position is the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The other six justices on the court will see their salaries rise to almost $245,000.

The highest-paid executive branch official affected by the increase is the governor, although Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has said he has donated the salary to charity every year he’s been in office, since 2015. Shapiro will be inaugurated Jan. 17 to replace the term-limited Wolf.

Lt. Gov.-elect Austin Davis will see his salary rise to almost $193,000, while whoever replaces Shapiro as attorney general will make $191,000. Auditor General Tim DeFoor and Treasurer Stacy Garrity also will be paid $191,000.

The state’s more than 300 county common pleas judges will see their salaries rise above $200,000 to about $212,500, while hundreds more district judges will see their salaries hit six-figures for the first time, rising above $106,000.

The salary increases come at a time of steady growth in wages for private sector workers – although not nearly as fast.

Federal data from October showed average weekly earnings for all private-sector workers in Pennsylvania increased 5.1% year-over-year to $1042, or by about $53.50, to about $54,200 over an entire year.

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