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Big Donations And Questions In City School Board Races

There’s a lot of money at play in the Pittsburgh Public Schools board races this year, though reporting lapses make it difficult to be certain about just how much. But reports suggest that there have been notable investments by the city’s teachers union to protect the board majority, and a $25,000 donation to a slate of candidates who could topple it -- a contribution that went unreported until after a filing deadline.

The political committee Black Women For A Better Education formed last year in response to what it called the school district’s slow and inadequate move to remote learning. The group called for the board to not renew Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s contract, saying he hasn’t shown transformational change.

As of two weeks before Election Day, BWBE had raised more than $50,000 to use in support of five candidates, including District 3 incumbent school board member Sala Udin, and four challengers: District 1 hopeful Grace Higginbotham, Tracey Reed in District 5, Khamil Scantling in District 7, and Gene Walker in District 9. Far and away the biggest contribution made to the effort was a $25,000 contribution in March from Elijah Mayfield, the former CEO of aneducation technology start up out of Carnegie Mellon University.

A full picture of campaign spending is difficult to provide. Financial reports for several candidates and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers had not yet been posted by the county’s elections department by Friday morning, perhaps due in part to difficulties with a new electronic-filing system being used for the first time this election cycle.

BWBE filed its reports with a state agency instead, though Mayfield’s contribution wasn’t disclosed until this week, after WESA inquired about discrepancies in those earlier filings. One report, for example, showed BWBE with more than $25,000 in its account as of March 29. A subsequent report showed a bank balance of zero the following day.

The amended reports, which were filed May 12 with the county and also with the state, include corrected amounts -- and the previously undisclosed $25,000.

The chair of BWBE’s political committee, Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, blamed clerical errors and what she called a flawed campaign finance filing system.

“When it comes to money, especially money that people have given us for something like a political campaign, it’s important to get it 100 percent right,” she said. “But the team, you know, we’re novices. … [S]o when you’re trying to do something of this nature, there are things that kind of just fall through.”

BWBE is demanding more accountability from district leaders, and Pinchback-Johnson said, “One thing we’ve always asked the district to do is when you make a mistake, admit it and admit when you need help. Admit when something’s not right. And we did that. We didn’t get this right the first time.”

School board director is an unpaid position often sought by political novices, and bookkeeping errors are not uncommon. Amounts on the order of $25,000 are unusual, however: School-board races frequently involve spending sums in the four-digit range.

But the incumbents BWBE is challenging have resources of their own.

Incumbent and board chair Sylvia Wilson raised $22,000 for her third run in District 1. Much of that came from elected officials and unions, including Wilson’s former employer: the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, which backed her with a $5,000 contribution. At least one member of Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s executive cabinet donated $96 to Wilson’s campaign.

The PFT is supporting other candidates as well, all opposed this year to the BWBE slate. (The union endorsed Udin in his first run for school board in 2017.)

According to a financial statement, the PFT contributed a total of $5,000 to District 7 Jamie Piotrowski -- a sum that makes up more than half the $9,345 she reported raising by early May. Her rival, Khamil Scantling, reported raising $1,500 from BWBE -- more than a third of the $4,190 she has raised.

In addition to Wilson and Piotrowski, the PFT endorsed Lamont Frazier for district 3, incumbent Terry Kennedy District 5, J and Delancey Walton District 9.

Kennedy reported raising $6,300, with $5,000 contributed by the PFT. The PAC’s financial statements were not available as of Friday, and a comprehensive look at campaign fundraising is difficult.

Carlos A. Thomas for District 1 and incumbent Veronica Edwards in District 9 were not backed by either the BWBE or the PFT.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.