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Education

Candidates backed by Black Women for a Better Education win two PPS board races

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

One-third of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board is now backed by a group formed by Black Pittsburgh moms frustrated by the district's pandemic response.

The group Black Women for a Better Education ran a full slate of candidates for the five open board seats in May, though only two of the races were contested for Tuesday’s general election. Tracey Reed won the District 5 seat with 70% of the vote, and Gene Walker took District 9 with 67%. Sala Udin won his spring primary and was uncontested for the District 3 race.

Incumbent Terry Kennedy represented District 5 neighborhoods for two terms, while Veronica Edwards served District 9 for one term.

James Fogarty, executive director of Pittsburgh watchdog and advocacy group A+ Schools, said the outcomes show that Black moms “have always been and continue to be a force for better in our district.”

“When you think about the short time they had to organize, get candidates out and really bring together a swath of support across racial lines in the city at a time when racial polarization has been at a peak, not only in our region but in our country … I am very certain that they will continue to be a force in our district’s politics and a force for equality for our children,” he said.

Reed is a member of the A+ board. The group is nonpartisan and does not make endorsements of any candidates.

BW4BE formed in spring 2020 by a group of mothers and community leaders who were frustrated by the district’s move to remote learning at the start of the pandemic. They wanted a new leader and asked the school board to not renew former superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s contract.

When the board renewed his contract, the group formed a political action committee and endorsed five candidates. Its candidates in Districts 1 and 7 lost the Democratic primaries this spring.

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

Reed is a former teacher and has advanced degrees in public administration and educational policy. She said that she will advocate for equitable spending and sustainable budgeting.

She also said that the board must be more transparent with the public.

“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.”

Walker has children in the district and formerly worked for the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship fund for eligible Pittsburgh students. He said that he is prepared to make hard decisions on behalf of families.

Gene Walker
Provided

“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.

Fogarty said he is excited about the group’s commitment to using data to understand how Black children have been underserved in the district and where opportunities lie to improve outcomes.

Board members have big decisions ahead of them. In December, they must approve a budget and decide whether to increase property taxes. The district is operating with a $39.5 million budget deficit. The district’s chief financial officer has told the board that if it doesn’t act, it will deplete its reserves by 2023.

The board will also begin a search in December for a new superintendent. The district’s former leader Anthony Hamlet resigned from the position two days into the school year after a two-year investigation found that he violated the state’s ethics law for improperly accepting travel reimbursements among other violations. Assistant Superintendent Wayne Walters was promoted to temporarily fill the position, but he hasn’t said if he is interested in a permanent placement.

Fogarty said the new board should use the vision of all children being prepared for college, trade school or careers after graduation as its guide.

“You make a tough decision, but you’re doing it in service of the vision and then you can explain how children will benefit from that decision,” he said. “If you’re not clear about where you want to go and what priorities you want your superintendent to be seeking and then you have disagreements on those priorities, it just leads to gridlock at a time when we need to be problem-solving.”