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PPS Board of Directors, City Council Face Off Over School Closures

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith is calling for a moratorium on school closures in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district until the end of the 2014-15 school year.

She has introduced a resolution in council that would recommend the PPS Board of Directors halt any school closings.

At a rally in front of council chambers Monday morning, Kail-Smith invited parents, students, teachers, and community organizers to express their concern over a possible fourth round of school closures since the early 2000s.

Delaney Morgan, a junior at a PPS high school, said she is concerned about a lack of individualized attention at her school.

“Our schools that once flourished and provided me with hope and insight into my future are now being destroyed and turned into over-crowded buildings that don’t have the faces of the teachers that I love,” Morgan said. “I feel like a lost cog in a machine of classes that can now barely recognize my face in the crowd.”

The rally was followed by more than an hour of public comment, where more than 75 percent of speakers were supportive of Kail-Smith’s resolution.

One of those speakers was Ramona Jones, a PPS parent and community organizer with Action United.

Jones said Action United had recently conducted a survey of roughly 600 community members, and that the overwhelming majority were saddened by school closures and did not want to see any more schools suffer the same fate. She also said that school closures disproportionately affect low-income communities.

“Most PPS students live in poverty, many of them in severe poverty,” Jones said. “Respondents said that closing schools creates instability in the community and further perpetuates crime.”

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner spoke in opposition of the proposed council resolution, stating concerns about possible state receivership of the PPS in 2016 and stressing the need for the PPS to close its budget gap as soon as possible.

“I’m very, very concerned with setting a sort of precedent that makes it even more difficult for these school board members to do their jobs,” Wagner said.

After the public hearing, City Council held a post agenda meeting where they discussed possible solutions to the PPS budget problem.

Included in the meeting were PPS directors Theresa Colaizzi, Mark Brentley and Floyd McCrae, as well as John Fournier with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Rob Weil with the American Federation of Teachers, and Michelle Boyle, a Fulton Elementary parent.

Council members present included President Darlene Harris, Kail-Smith, Natalia Rudiak, and Bruce Kraus. Corey O’Connor and Bill Peduto were also present for part of the meeting.

The PPS directors did not all seem to be on the same page with regard to the possible council resolution.

Colaizzi said she felt that council was overstepping its bounds by holding a public hearing on a PPS issue and considering a resolution that would make a recommendation to the school board.

“I did not come here to engage in a dialogue on this subject,” she said. “This resolution has no merit to it. City Council has no authority over the school board.”

McCrea said after the meeting that he was “disillusioned” by the process, while Brentley seemed energized by the meeting.

“I welcome this step here,” Brentley said. “I can’t recall ever having a serious face to face with the other legislative body in this city and talking about the things that we have in common.”

While council members said they respected the separation of jurisdiction between City Council and the PPS Board of Directors, they felt it was important for council to participate in such a far-reaching discussion.

“There needs to be a broader conversation, and we need to have everybody at the table with the same agenda and the same purpose of creating great public schools,” Kail-Smith said. “We need to be making sure that the last place we’re cutting are places that would hurt our kids, our schools and our communities.”

McCrae said “everything is on the table” and even gave the example of cutting athletic programs at some schools.

Kail-Smith advocated idea of seeing if there was room to cut administrative positions and limit the use of outside consultants before cutting any academic or extra-curricular programs.

Rudiak and Kail-Smith both said that school closures are the business of City Council, because many districts in the city are currently trying to figure out how to utilize vacant school buildings.

“I think that when we’re asked to pick up the pieces after the fact, we should be a part of the equation prior to those decisions being made,” Kail-Smith said.

Peduto, Kraus and Rudiak all stressed that they did not want to foster a combative atmosphere between council and the PPS Board of Directors. Rather, they wanted to help the board find a way to stave off school closings while still balancing its budget.

Peduto said that PPS and the city are “sailing into a storm” and are about to face a “fiscal cliff” in 2016.

“I just hope everyone takes a breath today and realizes that a lot of the polarizing parts, the public doesn’t see. They just want good education for their kids,” said Peduto, the Democratic candidate in the city's upcoming mayoral election. “I promise you, that I will put everything that is necessary behind it to try to bring sides together next year if lucky in November.”

Rudiak said she was willing to roll up her sleeves and spend as much time on the PPS budget problem as necessary, citing previous examples of City Council’s commitment to solving big problems.

“My first year here, we were involved with the privatization of our parking assets with a state law that mandated that we close a pension gap of hundreds of millions of dollars,” Rudiak said. “We worked until New Year’s Eve to get that done and to find solutions to that.”

John Fournier, of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said he felt good about the meeting and is looking forward to working with both City Council and the PPS Board of Directors.

“Closing a school is a really big decision for the communities in the city of Pittsburgh,” he said. “I think the community needs to be involved in that decision, and City Council needs to be involved, and parents and teachers and community members, and of course the School district. The wider this conversation is, the better it’s going to be for the city.”