Rising Above the Trenches

Here’s a story honoring those usually anonymous ground troops of journalism, the dedicated scribes who devotedly fill those hard, front-row seats at township planning commission meetings, municipal zoning hearings, and local school board assemblies, and comb the halls of local government for stories. Once in a blue moon, their labors are rewarded with stories far more provocative than curb cuts, sewer connections and textbook purchases.

Consider the example of Vera Miller, staff writer for the Penn Hills (Pa.) Progress, a weekly in suburban Pittsburgh. Last month, Miller reported on a funding controversy brewing at the Penn Hills School District. Since the 2001-2002 school year, she wrote, the district has spent $100,000 to pay for three children of Sen. Rick Santorum enrolled in a cyber charter school. This year’s outlay amounts to $38,000.

Santorum and wife, who have six children, own a two-bedroom home in the school district — not the best place from which to raise six kids. The senator also owns a home in a Virginia suburb of Washington, assessed at $737.000. The Santorum family spends most of its time in the Virginia house, according to Miller.

Pennsylvania law requires local school districts to pay the tuition of charter school students who live in the district. The cyber school “attended” by three of the Santorum children is headquartered in Beaver County, Pa. Writes Miller: “The only way for Santorum to not pay for his children’s private education is [by] enrolling them in Penn Hills.”

Enter Jennifer C. Yates of the Associated Press, who, nearly a month after Miller wrote her story, jumped on it. Yates’ story added a few details, including the valuation of the Santorum family’s Virginia house, and then offered up some other minor details, such as the fact that Sen. Santorum “is the fifth-youngest member in a chamber where the average age is 64 and most of his colleagues do not have to worry about where to send their children to school.”

Yates’ story was published in Saturday’s Philadelphia Inquirer and yesterday’s Washington Post. Yates noted that Penn Hills school officials are reviewing whether the district should continue to foot the bill for the Santorum childrens’ education.

This may not grow into a mighty oak journalistically, but it certainly began as a small acorn, gathered by an enterprising reporter. Which, come to think of it, is how most stories start.

Meanwhile, Miller has moved on, reporting most recently on storm damage to municipally owned property in Penn Hills.

Such is life in the trenches of municipal journalism.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.