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Education

Pittsburgh Public Schools board candidate wants major changes to improve outcomes for Black students

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

Tracey Reed wants the Pittsburgh Public Schools board to make dramatic changes to improve outcomes for Black students.

She’s again challenging incumbent Terry Kennedy to represent district 5, which covers southern and some eastern Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

Kennedy’s name will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot as a Republican, because school board candidates can run on either party’s ticket. She lost the Democratic primary election to Reed, who took about 60 percent of votes.

Kennedy declined an interview with WESA but said that she “wishes her opponent the best of luck.” She has not publicly campaigned since the primary.

Reed is backed by Black Women For A Better Education, a PAC that formed more than a year ago in opposition to then-Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and his administration’s slow move to remote learning in spring 2020. She and the group have promised increased scrutiny of the district’s administration. Reed says current board members, including her opponent, too often paint a rosy picture of the district.

Tracey Reed
Provided photo
Tracey Reed is running to represent district 5 communities.

“We need to be more focused on what we need to do to improve schools, and not in a ‘we’re doing a fine job now, we just need to make incremental changes’ [way], but like we’re actually failing and have failed generations of people in this city,” Reed said. “We need to make dramatic changes.”

Legacy and priorities

Kennedy served two terms and is the board's current second vice president. She chairs the policy committee, is a stickler about procedure and is known for having a long list of questions for administrators.

A notable example of her scrutiny was her 2016 opposition to community schools. She said it wasn’t that she opposed the model, which uses schools as hubs for other social services, but called it an unfunded mandate. She was one of two "no" votes just months before the board hired former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet to implement the model.

As practiced in other urban districts like Cincinnati, the community schools idea is that when students’ needs are met, they’re better able to learn. It has been praised by teachers’ unions, including the local Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, for also providing more teacher support. In 2014 the PFT and a couple dozen people connected to the district went to Cincinnati to tour schools that housed dental and health clinics, laundry rooms and after-school programs.

The model is in part responsible for Hamlet’s hire. When he resigned in September, 9 of the 54 buildings had been designated community schools, each with a site manager tasked with collaborating with local organizations.

While there isn’t evidence that the model itself improves academic outcomes, districts like Cincinnati have reported more consistent attendance. Kennedy’s concern has been that Pittsburgh’s model relies on donations and grants to fund the work.

Reed also promises broad scrutiny beyond where dollars are spent.

She said she is concerned that students are back in school while educators haven’t addressed the trauma that students have lived through for two years.

“I feel like we’re just back in the routine and we’re at risk of going right back and doing exactly the same things that we’ve done before and calling them good enough," she said. "Having this horrific, traumatic period and not doing anything dramatic to change the way we’re approaching our work in school."

Pittsburgh Public students learned remotely for more than a year while many suburban, private and charter schools returned to in-person instruction last spring. The state’s second-largest district continues to lose enrollment, which is tied to state funding.

The district faces a $39.5 million budget shortfall, and Reed says the board will have to be critical about where to make cuts.

“It’s a fine line to walk, but we have to be thinking about what those key personnel roles are that help to improve outcomes, experiences, opportunities for kids in school, especially those who have not been served well up until this point,” she said.

Board shift

A third of the board could be backed by Black Women for Better Education if Reed wins district 5 and Gene Walker wins district 9. Incumbent board member Sala Udin won his district 3 primary and isn’t being challenged in the general election.

The PAC said in an emailed statement that the group ran a slate of candidates because they felt unheard.

The group said the candidates it backs "will use data (not personal agendas) to inform their decision making, increase accountability, improve board governance, and push the board to have the tough conversations about issues that have plagued the district for decades.” They would also advocate for a more transparent budgeting process.

“The district has been facing financial insolvency for years, yet the board has been reluctant to take any bold steps to address it,” the statement said. “This incoming board needs to hold the district accountable for presenting a variety of options for addressing the budget crisis (not just a tax increase) and moving forward in an inclusive, community-based way with what may be difficult decisions.”

The organization also sent a letter to the school board last month calling for a transparent and collaborative search for the next superintendent. It plans to host a series of forums to keep the public informed about the search process.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said that the union leadership is willing to work with new members. The union did not endorse anyone on the Black Women slate, though Esposito-Visgitis said that Reed met with the union's executive team this summer and she plans to invite Walker to do the same. As for Udin, she said she knows “where he stands” and that she doesn’t expect to work with him.