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Education

Upcoming School Board Elections Could Mean ‘Potentially Huge’ Shift For City District

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Sarah Schneider
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Five of the nine Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors seats are up for election this year, and education advocates say the outcomes could mean a “sea changing” shift for the district — one that could result in a board that is more skeptical of the district’s leadership.

Tracey Reed, one of the challengers seeking a board seat, says the district must be held to higher standards. “What are we doing if we’re not able to get kids up to a place where they can read with proficiency and do numeracy with proficiency?” she asks. “We have to think about outcomes not like ‘this is inevitable’ but ‘this is what’s possible.'”

Reed is on a slate of candidates being backed by Black Women for a Better Education, a newly formed PAC created in response to what members called a slow and inadequate move to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. In June more than 50 individuals — parents, alumni, former PPS employees — signed a letter asking the board to not renew Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s contract.

But the board did renew his contract, with provisions for performance bonuses and annual salary increases. Board members Sala Udin and Bill Gallagher voted against the renewal.

Hamlet, however, said that because the district is in negotiations with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and because educators have not received raises, he will not accept a bonus or raise until the teachers’ union contract is signed.

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Katie Blackley

Reed, who is seeking the District 5 seat currently held by Terry Kennedy, is joined on the BWBE slate by four others: District 1 challenger Grace Higginbotham; District 3’s Sala Udin, the only incumbent on the slate; Khamil Scantling in District 7; and Gene Walker in District 9.

The slate of candidates say they are laser-focused on ensuring Black children receive the education that they deserve.

Fifty-three percent of PPS’ 22,000 students are Black, 33 percent are white and 14 percent are listed as “other races” on the district’s website. District-wide, fewer than 40 percent of Black students are reading proficiently by third grade.

“Nobody seems alarmed by that,” said Reed. “I don’t mean that we should be running around like our hair is on fire, but our hair is kind of on fire because [reading by third grade] does determine so much of what a kid’s academic trajectory and then life trajectory is. “

Board president Sylvia Wilson is seeking her third term as the representative of District 1. She said the board has to advocate for the entire district.

“Whoever is elected is obviously who we have to work with. but making sure that they understand the training that has to be done,” she said. “We’re not just getting on the board to come in and start hollering.”

Wilson said she has worked “behind the scenes” to ensure that the board sets the goals for the district and for the superintendent. She said now the superintendent sets goals for the direction of the district and the board signs off. She said the future board has to take a more active role in evaluating the superintendent’s performance.

“We’ve actually been working pretty hard to try to get the direction of the board to be exactly how boards are supposed to work,” she said. “But it takes time.”

Unchartered territory

In one sign of how much the district could change this year, several candidates have said their own children have either attended or currently attend charter schools.

Charters are publicly funded with tax dollars and are operated independent of the city school district. They were first authorized in Pennsylvania in 1997, when they were billed as an effort to give parents, students and teachers another option they were intended to be laboratories for innovation and share what they learned with public schools. Some educators argue that the tense relationship between the city district and charters has prevented that from happening.

Scantling and Reed — who sits on the board of the City Charter High School — have had children in charter schools. So has Lamont Frazier, who is challenging Udin, and Carlos Thomas, another candidate for Wilson’s District 1 seat.

That worries Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nino Esposito-Visgitis.

“I know this is awful,” she said of her opposition to charters. “Technically they are considered public schools but I don’t consider them public schools. And to be honest [charters are] eating our lunch, so it worries me and I’m not a supporter of them. They’re killing us. I’d want them to go away, they are not what they were intended to be.”

The PFT’s endorsements are at odds with all the BWBE choices. The union backs Sylvia Wilson for district 1, Lamont Frazier for district 3, Kennedy for district 5, Jamie Piotrowski for district 7 and Delancey Walton for district 9. The union backed Frazier, Esposito-Visgitis said, after he told its political committee that he wanted to know more about the funding issue: “He didn’t understand and he wants to learn more,” she said.

Reed and Scantling said they missed the deadline to seek the PFT’s backing. Reed said by the time she got the message it was too late to apply, but Scantling said she is unsure if she would have sought the endorsement.

“They are responsible for a ton of misinformation, lack of accountability in the district and upholding a status quo, broken, inequitable system,” she said in an email.

Udin and Higginbotham did not respond to a request for comment to clarify if they sought the PFT’s endorsement. Walker did seek the endorsement, Esposito-Visgitis said, but the committee endorsed his challenger Walton, an 18-year-old Duquesne University student and recent graduate of Montour High School in McKees Rocks. Esposito-Visgitis said that Walker's stance on charter schools and pensions were at odds with the PFT.

Wilson, a retired teacher who worked with the PFT for much of her career, made no apologies for her own support of the union.

“When I was first elected, I think they thought I was going to come and bang on the table and yell and holler and tell everybody what to do. And I was a little insulted because that's not the kind of person I am,” she said. “All I’ve ever done was work on the betterment on behalf of teachers and make sure teachers are being treated fairly."

One PA - a statewide advocacy group focused on education, economic and environmental justice - endorsed Frazier and Piotrowski.

Challenges and opportunities

Arguably the board’s two most important jobs are to hire a superintendent and to approve a budget. The latter task isn’t getting any easier.

The district’s budget in 2016, the year before Hamlet took the superintendent’s job, was $570.4 million. Since then enrollment has dropped from 23,200 students to about 20,400 at the beginning of the 2021 school year. But over the years the budget has increased to $673.8 million. But money is getting tight.

In December the board rejected the administration’s attempt to raise taxes in an effort to cut down its $39.5 million deficit. Later that winter, the administration proposed closing six schools. The board tabled the move, but as it stands, 12 PPS schools are under half-capacity. Another 40 are between 50 and 80 percent capacity. The district has 57 school buildings, and the average age of a building is 75 years.

Watchdog group A+ Schools cannot back candidates, but Executive Director James Fogarty said the board has to hold the administration accountable for its spending – and now is a crucial time. The district will receive about $100 million from a federal coronavirus-relief plan, he noted, and soliciting community input is vital.

“If you now have the money to do capital improvements in a real meaningful way, I think having those conversations with the community around like what we want to build a really great school system … that’s a real opportunity for this board,” he said.

More broadly, he said, this year’s elections offer the potential for significant change in thinking and priorities for students. Some schools within the district have more resources than others, and they are often in majority-white neighborhoods.

“We want hard thinking about how to change that so that Black and brown children in our district are more likely to experience programs like our gifted program, are more likely to get into [advanced placement] programs, are more likely to be reading at grade level by third grade,” he said.

He notes, however, that historically between 20 and 25 percent of registered voters have elected the district’s Board of Directors.

"It is potentially huge. It is potentially sea-changing. If all of the incumbents go, it's a whole new board," he said. "There's definitely potential for significant change with this election."

You can read the candidates' answers to an A+ Schools questionnaire here.