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A relationship shift: two Pittsburgh foundations to fund city schools’ superintendent search

Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA

Sala Udin says bridges were burned with some of Pittsburgh's leading foundations after the last search for a Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent. And with a new search underway, the school board president said he wants to repair the damage.

“There hasn’t been [a relationship] between the two in a long time, but that’s what I’m trying to do … build that back,” Udin said.

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Last month, the board approved $55,000 to hire Illinois-based BWP & Associates, a firm with a history of school executive searches. But Udin said that money wasn’t in the budget the board approved in December. So he reached out for help. The Pittsburgh Foundation answered with a pledge of $25,000, while the R.K. Mellon Foundation will give $35,000 to the effort. Neither foundation has funded a Pittsburgh superintendent search before.

The last time the district sought a new leader was 2015. Then board president Thomas Sumpter turned down an offer from philanthropic leaders who wanted to fully fund the search.

At that time, though, the foundations wanted to create a screening committee to review applications. The foundations said the committee should include “individuals representing a diverse range of interests and/or constituencies,” though the ultimate hiring decision would be left to the board.

Board members at the time said that screening candidates was a job they were elected to do.

“While the board welcomes input from the foundation community and all segments of the district including the business and civic sectors, the board firmly believes that the primary obligation of a school director is to select a leader in a responsible manner,” Sumpter wrote to the foundations. “The board respectfully does not agree that the screening process should be delegated to a committee or group outside of the board since it is in the screening process that the list of candidates for consideration is developed.”

Udin now represents Sumpter’s former district and holds his former position as board president. A former city councilor, Udin reached out to a handful of philanthropies asking for financial support to pay for a search firm to recruit and screen candidates.

“I’ve never seen them influence how the money is being spent as long as it’s within the boundaries of what you said you were going to do,” he said.

Udin is also avoiding comparisons between this search and the last one.

“Because the last experience wasn’t that great,” he said.

In 2015, the board hired Perkins Consulting Group, a decision that was criticized by community leaders. The company's leader, Brian Perkins, directed the Urban Education Leadership Program at Columbia University, but he did not have experience in superintendent searches.

Perkins identified former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet as a finalist and the board ultimately hired him. Within days of the announcement, the Post-Gazette and the Palm Beach Post (which covered the part of Florida where Hamlet formerly worked) discovered discrepancies and instances of plagiarism in Hamlet’s resume and other submitted documents.

Then Mayor Bill Peduto called board members to his office with heads of foundations to urge the board to reverse its decision. They didn’t.

“I was like, 'No, you guys keep trying to step on this process, here you are again teaming up against the school board like you know better … even though none of you do authentic work in public education,'” said former board member Moira Kaleida. “What I think that created was essentially a not-great relationship for Dr. Hamlet when he was here, starting off on the wrong foot like that."

She said the district had nuanced needs and that a screening committee could side-step the democratic process.

“If foundations want to give money to the search, that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t come with strings attached like last time,” Kaleida said. “They don’t need to be involved in the democratic process.”

Kaleida was sworn in as a board member after Perkins was hired and served until 2019. She said that while she wasn’t part of that hire, she thinks it’s important to have a firm with experience in superintendent searches.

District solicitor Ira Weiss said Friday that the legal department is finalizing a contract with the search firm. Weiss said any financial contributions from the foundations will have to be voted on by the board. He expects that to happen at this month’s board meeting.

As for the process, Udin said it will be left to the firm, but he is adamant that the community and students will be involved.

Hamlet’s tenure was rocky from the start. He left the position at the beginning of the school year after a state investigation found that he violated the ethics law. At the time Hamlet said he was leaving to give the district a clean start.

Longtime administrator and former PPS teacher Wayne Walters then stepped in. He will serve as the district’s interim leader until a permanent hire is made.