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Pittsburgh Public Schools' Board Tables School Closure Conversation

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

One day after the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ administration recommended the district close six schools over two years, the board tabled the conversation.

The board voted 7-1 in favor of tabling during a special meeting Tuesday, with board president Sylvia Wilson abstaining.

Several board members said their constituents had asked them to vote against the closure plan, though the board was voting not on the plan itself but on initiating a public-comment process to discuss  it. Board member Sala Udin said the community should have had a chance to weigh in before the plan was presented.

“Even though we are just requesting authorization to request a public hearing, that’s not how [the community is] receiving the information,” Udin said. “Many people think we’re going to vote on this tonight and that is not the case. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and take into consideration the best knowledge and thinking we have to best introduce this notion.”

The administration outlined its plan to “modernize the district’s footprint” Monday night. The city school district faces a $39 million budget deficit, and as enrollment continues to decline, administrators told the board that they wanted to invest dollars in a smarter way.

Mike McNamara, the interim director of operations, said many district buildings are old and under capacity, while others are over-enrolled and can’t be expanded because of the constraints of the property.  McNamara estimates the initial closures would result in a net savings of $46.1 million, with an additional $2.5 million annually in reduced workforce, utility and transportation costs.

The district’s proposed plan called for closing Woolslair K-5 in Bloomfield, a partial STEAM magnet, at the end of this year. The remaining 5 proposed closures would have taken effect at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

By law, the school district would have to hold a public hearing no less than three months before deciding to permanently close a school. Administrators said they introduced the plan when they did to allow a vote on the Woolslair closure before the end of the school year.

Such reasoning wasn't enough for board member Devon Taliaferro, who motioned to table the vote.

“If you have a majority of people telling you that the plan is not good … I just wonder if we haven’t done our jobs," she said. "There’s some work that we need to do before we put families in this city through any more pain and discomfort. I think that we deserve to regroup and get our act together as a board and as an administration."

Board member Pam Harbin noted that 60 percent of the students enrolled in the schools proposed for closure are Black. Taliaferro said she was not in favor of closing schools with high populations of Black students “if I know that it’s not going to benefit our students in the end.”

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet asked board members when they wanted the administration to come back to the conversation.

“We have a $39 million deficit that we need to eat into in some form or fashion,” Hamlet said. “At some point we have to open the process to have a conversation. There will never be a good time to have this conversation.”

Bill Gallagher, the lone no vote on the board, said tabling the dicussion on closures merely kicked the can down the road. He said the board was to blame for not addressing budget issues. The board rejected a tax hike in December saying that the district hadn’t made enough cuts before asking taxpayers for more money.

“I feel we were negligent tonight,” he said.

Board member Terry Kennedy said it was a public relations issue.

“I personally think we need to do a better job to educate the public on what this was about,” she said.

Other members said that closing schools is just one way to eliminate the deficit. Board member Veronica Edwards said she didn’t want to talk about closing schools when a vast majority of students have been learning remotely since March.

“Once we get those schools open again then we can solve this,” she said.