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Pittsburgh Council Bends Administration's Ear on Public Schools Task Force

A relatively small spending bill came before City Council Wednesday, but instead of focusing solely on the measure at hand, the legislators used the opportunity to bend the Peduto administration’s ear on the state of public education in Pittsburgh.

The bill would authorize the city to spend $20,000 to hire Preston C. Green as a mediator for the Mayor’s Public Schools Task Force. The legislation creating the body, which was passed in October and amended in April, requires a “trained mediator who shall serve as an ex officio member.”

John Fournier, Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the task force still has not met because the administration was busy performing an exhaustive search for such a mediator.

“We wanted to find someone who had familiarity with education issues,” Fournier said. “Cost is a big part of it (because) mediation services are not cheap and we wanted to find someone who could work within a pretty tight budget.”

Fournier attended the Council meeting and said Green, who currently teaches in the School of Education at the University of Connecticut, will be a valuable addition to the task force.

“Previously he’s been a professor of law and education policy at the Dickinson Law School at Penn State University, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and an education policy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,” Fournier said.

Members of Council didn’t have much to say about the selection of Green as mediator—though Councilwoman Darlene Harris did say she’d prefer a local volunteer mediator—but they did have plenty to say about the role of the task force and the state of Pittsburgh’s public schools.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who sits on the task force and wrote the legislation that created it, expressed concern about an e-mail she had recently received from C. Grant-Overton. Kail-Smith said the e-mail laid out two primary goals for the task force, the first of which is to attract 20,000 new residents to the city.

“I think there should definitely be a separate task force for that, and I don’t know that I want to serve on a task force that’s focusing on residency and education,” Kail-Smith said.

The Councilwoman said she was dismayed not only by the residency aspect of the task force, but by the fact that she had never heard of or been introduced to Grant-Overton, who is the Manager of Education Policy and Workforce Development for the Peduto administration.

Fournier said in a later interview that Grant-Overton has been working in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Empowerment for around two months now, so he was unsure why Council was unfamiliar with her.

Councilwoman Deb Gross, who is on the task force, piggy-backed off Kail-Smith’s comments, saying the process thus far has been “a little fuzzy.”

“The e-mail that we’ve been referring to is the only communication I’ve received from the administration about it, so I feel like we’re starting from ground zero here,” Gross said.

Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle also sits on the task force, and likewise expressed unease with the way the discussions were being initiated.

“I find it … more prudent to have an initial session where we throw our issues on the table, because I would argue that the serious and increasingly growing racial achievement gap within our school system is maybe one of the most important issues that we need to address,” Lavelle said.

Lavelle pointed out that the September 1 deadline for an initial report is rapidly approaching, and suggested that Council may want to consider extending that deadline.

But Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said she worried that waiting to release a report would prove ineffective, as the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors will likely begin making decisions about closing schools in September.

“I would hate to see a task force come out with a really good, robust report, but have not be useful as the school board starts making really difficult decisions in the fall of 2014 with regards to 2015, when we’re already starting to see some financial challenges within the district,” Rudiak said.

From there, the scope of the conversation broadened, as Council members shared their ideas about how to approach the challenges faced by Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he sees the issue primarily in economic terms.

“If we can build these mixed income, both racially and culturally diverse communities, I think that will … begin to attack the problem we have with schools,” Burgess said.

And Councilman Dan Gilman said that city government and the school board need to do away with a silo mentality, and recognize that they are fifty-fifty partners in the ultimate success of Pittsburgh.

“If we don’t have good public schools, no one is going to live here,” Gilman said. “And I don’t care if we have the best public schools in the country, if we don’t have a good police department, fire department, and paramedics providing public safety, and if we don’t have libraries for kids to go to and if … our streets are cratered … no one is going to live here.”

The influence of the education task force is uncertain because although Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane and two members of the Board of Directors sit on the task force, neither the mayor nor Council have any authority over the school district.

City Council gave the bill preliminary approval on Wednesday.