Bethlehem Area Proud Parents call for fair education funding

In 2014, Trisha Moller met with fellow Bethlehem parents at the local Wegmans to discuss public education policy. Now, 10 years later, the group has been to Harrisburg multiple times to push for fair education funding in Bethlehem Area School District and across Pennsylvania.

“I think this group is opening people’s eyes to what’s going on in our district and in our state,” said Moller, a mother of two and a member of BASD Proud Parents.

As the only grassroots parent group in the Lehigh Valley working to rally community members around the need for fair education funding, BASD Proud Parents is focused on celebrating public education, engaging with local legislators and raising awareness about chronic underfunding, not only during budget season, but year-round.

The first iteration of the group fell off, but with new members on board, BASD Proud Parents had a comeback in 2021. And they are still gaining traction as Pennsylvania simultaneously moves toward a potentially historic investment in public education.

Megan Angelo, a district parent, said she first joined the group following the height of the pandemic as a way to give back to BASD.

“I felt like my school had really gotten our whole family through COVID, like public schools had done that,” she said.

“Public schools are on the ropes so often in this day and age, and so it feels good to be like, ‘Well, they’ve done a lot for us. We’re going to push for them and represent for them,’” Angelo added.

BASD Proud Parents is composed of a core group of six parents, including writers, chemists and graphic designers, who manage the group’s website and social media accounts in their free time. Together, they send out calls for action to an email list of 300 residents and take turns talking to fellow parents about underfunding at school and community events.

Moller herself slowly began to realize the district was underfunded by being involved in the parent-teacher associations at her sons’ schools throughout the years.

“We would fundraise so much, and then I’m going, ‘Why are we fundraising for field trips and for resources and for the playground that’s broken?’” Moller said. “We don’t have money to fix it. These things are clicking in my brain.”

For Jayme Curet, who joined BASD Proud Parents last year, the district’s underfunding has been made clear through its facilities needs.

When her daughter’s classroom was in need of a paint job last year, she and another mother painted the room themselves.

And though the band program at her son’s middle school is top-notch, the auditorium can’t fit all the people who want to see them perform.

“The infrastructure is really lacking,” Curet said.

Angelo said parents are receptive to the group’s message when they talk about underfunding at BASD events.

“It’s a cause that cuts across the partisan stuff we have going on, because everybody cares if their kid is not getting $4,000 a year. You never even learn the rest of the other person’s politics,” Angelo said, referencing the per student adequacy shortfall in BASD.

(The exact shortfall is $4,178 per student, and is based on calculations by Penn State University professor Matthew Kelly, who testified in front of the Basic Education Funding Commission in September.)

Bethlehem Area is among the most underfunded districts in the state — in previous years, BASD qualified for Level Up funding, meant for the 100 poorest Pennsylvania districts.

Curet said she also hopes people in Bethlehem without children in the district get involved in the fight for fair funding and quality public education.

“Paying more attention to [education] would alleviate a lot of the other stressors that we’re finding in the community,” she said.

Once parents and taxpayers are informed of chronic underfunding, the Proud Parents aim to keep them up to date on what’s happening in Harrisburg. And when there’s an issue that needs attention, they call on their neighbors to contact elected representatives.

BASD Proud Parent Trisha Moeller, holds up the group's website, Background, L-R; Jayme Curet, Megan Angelo, Brian Mixtacki and Greg Vennemann, an advocacy group focused on public education and fair funding, met in the library Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, at Northeast Middle School in Bethlehem. (Jane Therese/Special to The Morning Call)
BASD Proud Parent Trisha Moeller, holds up the group’s website, Background, L-R; Jayme Curet, Megan Angelo, Brian Mixtacki and Greg Vennemann, an advocacy group focused on public education and fair funding, met in the library Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, at Northeast Middle School in Bethlehem. (Jane Therese/Special to The Morning Call)

Brian Mixtacki, another Proud Parent, said residents can help “give elected officials a push in the right direction and let them know where the public sentiment stands.”

Through phone calls, sit-down conversations and advocacy day visits, Elliot Tracey, another BASD Proud Parent, said the group lets legislators know when an issue should be on their radar.

“[We] just let them know that at the very grassroots level, we’re hearing concerns from teachers, parents, taxpayers … and we’re going to stay in your orbit until we’re getting more of the results that we think our kids [and teachers] deserve,” he said.

When the Basic Education Funding Commission was meeting last fall to figure out how to fairly fund public education across the state, BASD Proud Parents were encouraging their neighbors to submit public comments.

They subsequently held an information session for the community about the commission’s final report, which called on the state to invest more than $6.1 billion over the next seven years to fairly fund schools and provide local tax relief.

BASD Proud Parents will hold another virtual information session 7 p.m. Feb. 22 for Bethlehem Area residents to dive deeper into Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal for education with Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

Shapiro proposed a $1.1 billion increase in basic education funding and a $50 million increase in special education funding. His budget also calls for $50 million for school safety and security, and $300 million for environmental repair projects in schools.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Tracey said. “That said, we still need to shore up some of the dollars that are going to entities that are less than transparent and privatized.”

Group members said parochial and charter schools have a place, but their funding takes away from public schools without requiring the same level of accessibility for students or financial accountability. Group members are hoping concessions on school vouchers don’t enter into negotiation conversations.

As to how Shapiro’s budget proposal would impact BASD, the district would see a basic education funding increase of $9.6 million and save $2.3 million annually through cyber-charter reform, according to information from Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

For Greg Vennemann, another BASD Proud Parent, Shapiro’s education proposal means district construction projects can be prioritized, more teaching staff will be hired, student mental health supports will increase and educators will have the supplies they need.

“It’s something that we’ve been waiting for for a long time, and it’s really nice to see that downpayment get submitted,” Vennemann added.

“The one thing that we’re focused on as a group is that public education funding at the state level can be a leaky bucket,” he said. “So we’d love to see that bucket filled.”

Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at [email protected].

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