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Education

One competitive Pittsburgh Public Schools board race could shape the district's future

Pittsburgh Public Schools Administration Building Oakland.jpg
Julia Zenkevich
/
90.5 WESA

Though she lost the Democratic primary, incumbent Veronica Edwards still has a chance to keep her seat on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board.

Edwards is a retired district employee who will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot as a Republican. She cross-filed in the May primary, registering as a candidate in both parties — a tactic permitted for non-partisan positions like school board.

When asked why she deserves the votes of those in her district, Edwards said, “because I’m the incumbent. I’ve done a really good job. I’m committed, obviously, because there’s no money in it. I do it because I care, because I want to see students learn to be the best citizens of the United States that they can be so they can have self-sustaining and quality lives.”

Her opponent, Gene Walker, won the Democratic primary by a narrow margin of 2,057 to 1,943. He’s backed by the political committee Black Women For A Better Education, which is seeking more accountability for district leadership. The commitee also backs District 3 incumbent Sala Udin, and District 5 hopeful Tracey Reed.

Reed and Udin both won the Democratic primaries. If Walker takes the district 9 seat and Reed wins district 5, a third of the board would be backed by a group that has been critical of former superintendent Anthony Hamlet, and of the little progress the district has made in increasing academic achievement for Black students.

Walker said his opponent has stuck to the status quo at a time when big changes are needed.

“If we want someone who is going to be able to make tough decisions and then come out and explain those decisions, you’ll vote for me," he said. "If you want to continue to believe things are OK when they’re not, then you won’t."

District 9 includes west and north parts of the city including Sheraden, Crafton Heights, Elliot, Brighton Heights, Perry Hilltop and Marshall-Shadeland. Schools in the district include Classical 6-8, Langley K-8, Morrow K-8, Perry High School and Westwood K-5.

Top Issues

Veronica Edwards
Provided

While Edwards says she has done a good job serving district 9 families, her policy work has been limited. She has said she led the charge for students to return to classrooms, though that move was brought forward by the administration.

She says her role has included delivering food to those in need during the pandemic, attending district functions including vaccination clinics, and participating on a committee that makes curriculum decisions.

Her top concern is the achievement gap between Black and white students, and the learning loss from the last year-and-a-half. When asked how she would work to improve outcomes for Black students, she said the key to doing so was to supporting district leadership in the wake of Hamlet's departure.

“The number-one thing that we did lately that has helped a lot is hiring Dr. Wayne Walters as our interim superintendent,” she said. “It took away all of the distractions getting our kids back into school safely.”

She says before Walters' appointment, she was getting dozens of phone calls a day from concerned parents, but now it’s down to a handful. She said her commitment is clear.

“I’m paying to be a school board director: time, talent, energy, money, all of that stuff is a part of it,” she said.

Gene Walker
Provided

Walker said that while he has been campaigning, the top concerns he’s heard are about the lack of trust and equity within the district.

“So many of the folks that I spoke to who have young children are not sending them to Pittsburgh Public Schools because they feel like our schools are lacking something — whether it’s special education, overall safety and access to programming,” he said.

Walker said addressing those concerns requires a whole new approach.

“The difficulty in terms of addressing these problems is kind of changing the mindsets of folks who have been used to a certain way,” he said.

He suggested eliminating specialized magnet schools. Those schools offer special programming designed to attract students from around the city. They were created to help desegregate the district, but Walker says they require parents to pigeonhole students at an early age making them choose between language, arts or science. He said that high schools are where students can choose a specialty.

New Board Will Hire Superintendent

New board members will be charged right off the bat with one of the biggest responsibilities the board has: hiring a leader. The board appointed Walters for a one-year interim position, but decided to put off a full search until new board members are sworn in.

Edwards said her top priority for the next superintendent is character.

“We know we want knowledge; we know we want wisdom; we know we want experience," she said. "But you know what, the whole person also has good character, it’s up there now. We’ve seen a lot of distractions … but it’s our responses to those distractions that will make a difference. So I want character to be a part of it.”

Walker said he wants someone with a track record of improving student outcomes.

“I don’t need the person that interviews the best. I need the person that’s going to do the best job.," he said. "I think we need someone who is a very strong communicator who has a record with transparency and honesty who’s going to come out and tell us the truth, not just what they think we want to hear."

How To Balance The Budget
The district is in financial trouble: According to Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph, if cuts aren’t made or taxes increased, the district will deplete its reserves by 2023.

Edwards said she couldn’t say at this point if she would support raising taxes. She does know that she wants every school to buy a passenger van to help with transportation needs.

“If a kid gets sick with COVID, instead of a parent having to run from work and then run to the school and then run back home, somebody could take them home,” she said. “I think it can do a lot of good, though where is it in the budget? I don’t know.”

Walker said that, down the line, the district will have to make difficult budgetary decisions such as closing schools. As for a tax hike, he isn’t convinced it's warranted.

“We haven’t proven that both we deserve to have more taxpayer money and we haven’t proven what we’re going to do if we get more," he said. "More money doesn’t solve our problems. Better stewardship fixes our problems. Just like with school closings, I think there are areas where we need to streamline and address first before we ask taxpayers to pay more."