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Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education Bill Introduced

I am proud to announce that Senate Bill 157 (SB 157), legislation calling for the creation of a Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education, was submitted to the Secretary of the Senate this past Friday for introduction. The bill, jointly sponsored by myself and Senator Pippy, boasts another 21 Senators as co-sponsors reflecting bi-partisan support of the effort. It is expected to be considered by the Senate Education Committee in early February.

The 17-member task force created by the legislation would be charged with conducting a study of the homeless child population in the Commonwealth and their educational needs. The bill calls on the Department of Education to develop the surveys necessary for obtaining the information and to identify not only the numbers, but also the length of homelessness, number of episodes of homelessness, their living situation, ages and grade levels, school attendance rates and gaps in enrollment, access to services and after school programs, and the causes and signs of homelessness. Perhaps more importantly, the legislation charges the task force with assessing what barriers exist and stand in the way of serving the needs of children; identifying successful strategies for serving homeless students; targeting strategies for informing parents, students and school districts of the educational services available to homeless children, and finding best practices used in other states to educate homeless students. From that information, the task force will issue a report that includes recommendations on how the Commonwealth can use this data and information to improve educational opportunities for homeless children in Pennsylvania.

In Allegheny County, the number of children receiving homeless services increased more than 38% to 875 in January 2009. The average age of these children is 7.5 years old. The report for 2010 is expected to show a further increase. In the nine-county region served by the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit’s Homeless Children’s Initiative, the number of homeless students increased by 64% to 2,146 students in the 2008-09 school year. Across Pennsylvania, an estimated 12,438 homeless children were enrolled in our schools during the 2008-09 school year. Nationwide, the number of homeless children enrolled in school districts has grown by approximately 17%.

We must act now. The sooner such legislation is enacted, the sooner we can begin identifying ways to protect these children, ensure that they have access to education and services at their most vulnerable times and position the Commonwealth to become a leader in the advocacy for and the provision of services to these children.

Homestead Exemption Assistance

If you are a homeowner, you are eligible for property tax relief just by filing for a homestead exemption with the county by March 1st. In Allegheny County, many property owners have already filed for the homestead and won’t need to do anything further to relief made possible by gaming revenue.

If you are unsure of whether you have a homestead exemption on your property, you can contact any one of my districts offices and my staff will be happy to assist you. In the event that you have not applied for a homestead exemption, they can also provide you with an application and assist you with its completion. For more information, including how to check for your homestead by yourself, visit my website.

Under the Gaming Act, property tax relief money for individuals who have filed for the homestead exemption is sent directly to the school district and is credited against your property tax bill. By law, the amount of the homestead must be noted on the school property tax bill each year. Some property owners who have mortgages do not receive those tax bills; instead, they go directly to the mortgage company. If you do not receive your tax bill, but want to see the amount, you can contact your mortgage company or school district for a copy of that tax bill.

Students Receive Certificates of Merit

The students of the 42nd Senatorial District are an amazing group of youth who always impress me with their accomplishments. Just this past month, I had the opportunity to recognize 40 students as Merit Scholars. All students within my district, these young men and women received some of the highest SAT and ACT scores in the state.

This is a tremendous accomplishment for the students and their families. Education is the key to success and achieving high scores on the SAT or ACT will help them tremendously in their quest to get into the college or university of their choice. They have challenged themselves to rise to a high level of academic excellence and their accomplishments do not go unnoticed. As a Board Member of the PA Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), I was proud to congratulate them on this accomplishment.

Identity Theft Scam

There is an identity theft/jury duty scam alert out for residents of Allegheny County. According to the District Court Administrator of Allegheny County, the scam involves people posing as court employees. These imposters will call and inform the victim they have missed jury duty and an arrest warrant has been issued as a result, or ask the victim to take part in jury duty. The caller will then request personal information such as date of birth, a social security number, credit card numbers or bank account information.

Don’t become a victim of this scam. Court employees do not solicit participation or request any information from jurors over the telephone. In addition, they will never request credit card or bank account information. If you do receive a call like this, do not provide any information. Instead, hang up and contact the Office of Jury Management at 412-350-5336 or local police.

Local Project Benefits Schoolchildren

The Storehouse for Teachers, a non-profit organization that serves the community by providing a center where teachers shop for classroom and school supplies for their students at no cost, is opening its first location in Pennsylvania in the West End. While the classroom supply organization is renovating a building on Corliss Street for their facility, it hasn’t stopped it from helping children in Pittsburgh. The Storehouse has been handing out school supplies, including backpacks, to students at several Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Storehouse for Teachers provides an important resource at a time when school districts are cutting back. In addition to providing helpful materials students can use in the classroom, it saves teachers from spending their own money to purchase these same supplies. Storehouse for Teachers relies on donations from individuals, community organizations, corporations and businesses. If you are interested in participating, you can get more information on the needs and how to make a donation, by visiting the organization’s website at www.storehouseforteachers.org.

Mine Subsidence Insurance

Did you know the Commonwealth provides insurance to residents whose homes sit above abandoned coal mines? Approximately 1 million homes in the state are on top of abandoned mines, including many in Allegheny County, yet most homeowner’s policies do not cover such damage.

The state’s Mine Subsidence Insurance (MSI) program insures property against subsidence-related damage that can include cracked, buckling, sinking and collapsed foundations as well as cracked mortar and collapsed brick and block work. The insurance covers buildings, fences, retaining walls, paved or improved patios, walks, driveways and in ground swimming pools, as well as buildings that are under construction. An average policy of $130,000 costs $85 a year (or about $7 a month). Senior citizens 65 or older will receive a 10 percent discount on coverage for their primary residence only. Pennsylvanians that live above an active mine do not have to buy insurance because the operators are responsible for subsidence damage.

You can apply online for MSI by visiting the DEP’s information page, or call the MSI Help Desk at 1-800-922-1678 to apply over the telephone or to have an application mailed to you. As always, you can also contact any one of my offices for assistance. If you’re not sure if your home sits above an abandoned mine, the DEP provides maps by municipality.

Around the District

This week was a busy one with meetings and work sessions revolving around legislation and issues important to the district as the legislative session gears up. Thank you to representatives from some of our local labor unions for their time and interest this week.

Tobacco Free Allegheny also visited my office this week to talk with me about their plans for 2011 as well as their concerns for the budget. Work also continued on the legislation to prohibiting private transfer fees with several work sessions this week as the bill is reviewed and strengthened by the many stakeholders. It is my intent to have that bill introduced by the end of the month. On Friday, my legislation amending Act 202, the New Home Construction Tax Exemption Act, was also submitted to the Secretary for introduction. Now numbered as Senate Bill 158 (SB 158), the legislation easily passed the Senate Finance Committee last year and I am hopeful that it will receive quick consideration by that committee again this year.

The Inauguration of Governor Tom Corbett and Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley was held earlier today in Harrisburg. With the administration in place, and the General Assembly already sworn in, the legislative session is ready to begin. I look forward to working with my colleagues, from both parties and in both chambers, as we work to address the issues that are of interest and concern to you.

Fontana Fact

Not to be outdone by the Steelers, four players from the Pittsburgh Penguins are all-stars this year. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all selected this month to participate in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game.

The last time the Pens had at least four non-replacement players in the all-star game was back in 1992 when Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens, Jaromir Jagr and Bryan Trottier traveled to Philadelphia to represent the team.

Congrats to Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury – and Let’s Go Pens!

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana