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City School Board Expects Partnership With Gainey, Some Want To End Tax Diversion

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools elected board members say they hope to build a bridge with the city’s next mayor, after years of little to no communication between the two public entities.

A key point of contention: Some $20 million in annual wage tax revenue that has been redirected from the school district to the city since 2004.

That money was transferred to the city when it was in financial distress and the school district was stable. Now that the city is in better financial shape, superintendent Anthony Hamlet and others have said they are interested to seeking to return that funding to the school district.

“My vision is that we begin to have those talks understanding that mistakes were made in the past, but we can’t continue to live in the past if we want to create an equitable future for Pittsburgh and for Pittsburgh Public Schools,” said Gene Walker, who won the Democratic primary for the District 9 seat representing South Hills neighborhoods.

Board member Devon Taliaferro and District 7 Democratic primary winner Jamie Piotrowski agreed it was time for the district's money to be returned — and to patch up relations with city leadership.

“Really, the people who suffer most from division are the kids, the students of the district,” said Taliaferro. She said making every school the best option for families will only happen with partnerships, and that she hoped a new mayor would provide a fresh start.

Ed Gainey is likely to become Pittsburgh’s next mayor after winning the Democratic primary last month. He said he has discussed meeting with the superintendent once the school year ends. Gainey himself is a PPS grad, and his children attend district schools.

He said there has been too much “criticism and finger-pointing” between school and city officials.

“I want to be able to come in and begin to build a relationship where we’re working together and we’re building a level of cohesiveness,” he said. “You can’t build if you’re not talking and so that’s one of the major issues … let’s talk and find out how we can help each other.”

Hamlet declined an interview request.

“It is too early to speculate any type of new collaboration with a new administration and the District — there are just too many things that could change perceived outcomes and it would be irresponsible of us to predict at this time,” said spokesperson Ebony Pugh in a statement.

While the vitality of a city and public school system are linked, neither city council nor the mayor have direct oversight of the district of 22,000 students. The district’s elected nine-member board is responsible for hiring and evaluating the superintendent and approving an annual budget.

Relations between the city and district have been tense in recent years. Mayor Bill Peduto has said it took more than two years to schedule a meeting with Hamlet after he was hired in 2016. Current school board members, meanwhile, say there has rarely been communication with Peduto.

Then in February, city council members Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess introduced a resolution declaring a state of emergency in the city schools. The resolution was in response to the slow return to in-person learning, though enrollment has consistently declined for years as academic outcomes have remained mostly stagnant.

Board President Sylvia Wilson responded to the resolution by asking for an end to a $20 million tax diversion. Wilson did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Tracey Reed, who won the District 5 Democratic primary, says the board should be thoughtful about spending the money it does have before asking for more.

“I don’t know what plans the district would have for those funds,” Reed said. “I think we should really be looking at the huge budget we have. Before we are focused on getting more money, we need to start thinking about how to [smartly] spend the funds that we have.”

Reed said the city has grown in some ways, “in spite of the school district not being especially effective.” She said the city isn't doing better partly because of the school district’s performance. About 54 percent of PPS students are Black, while 23 percent of city residents are Black.

“When you look at the mass exodus of Black people from the city of Pittsburgh, I don’t think see a causal relationship, but I think those things are linked," Reed said. "Pittsburgh is a very difficult place for Black families, and part of the reason that it is so difficult is because our district is not doing a great job at educating Black kids."

Board member Pam Harbin represents East End neighborhoods in District 4. She campaigned for Gainey because of his “unique perspective into public education, what school districts are faced with on the daily and the good things Pittsburgh Public Schools are doing.”

As a state representative, Gainey was on the House education committee, and Harbin calls him a “natural collaborator."

“He brings people together for really tough conversations and I just automatically felt that this was somebody that would work with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the school board,” she said.

She noted that city departments collaborate with the district for programs outside the school day, but “it’s never been as solid of a partnership as it could be.”

Harbin noted that school board members, like other elected officials, must vote on issues like tax abatements used to spur development. Given those shared responsibilities, she said, "To not have a relationship across governmental bodies just doesn’t make sense.”