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City school board candidates talk building closures and charter schools in first public forum

Pittsburgh Public Schools board candidates Devon Taliaferro, left, Yael Silk, Emma Yourd, Dwayne Barker, and Ron Sofo during a Great Public Schools public forum Thursday at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools board candidates Devon Taliaferro, left, Yael Silk, Emma Yourd, Dwayne Barker, and Ron Sofo during a Great Public Schools public forum Thursday at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

There was little difference of opinion between candidates running for seats on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board on most topics during their first public forum Thursday night.

Five candidates are running for four seats. They generally agreed that the city school district should expand a model it uses to make schools a social service hub for students and the community, a measure the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers supports. They agreed that they would extend the district’s current suspension ban in K-2 grades to fifth grade, something that advocates have fought for.

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The forum was organized by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, a coalition of groups that includes the PFT, Casa San Jose, 412 Justice, and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. It was the first time candidates had a chance to share their perspectives in a public setting.

Each of the candidates stressed the importance of community input, especially if the district had to close schools because of declining enrollment and aging infrastructure.

They all support lifting a requirement that certain staff members must live in the city, which advocates say has contributed to a shortage of workers. Though current board member Devon Taliaferro noted that the board was looking into the requirement and that the lack of affordable housing in the city is a contributing factor.

The only competitive race is between Taliaferro, the lone incumbent, and Ron Sofo, a former superintendent and CEO and principal of City Charter High School downtown. They’re running to represent the northside and east-end students and families that makeup district 2, an area that stretches from Spring Hill, down the Allegheny River to Highland Park.

The two stood apart when asked how they’d approach new charter school proposals, renewals, or expansions. The district’s board has historically denied proposals sending charter leaders to Harrisburg to make their case to the Charter School Appeal Board.

Taliaferro said she prioritizes public education and — while charter schools are public — she doesn’t think the state should be funding what she called “two systems of education.”

“If we have well-resourced school buildings, school buildings that have support systems … if we provide the quality level education that our students need to thrive, then I think there is not a need to invest in or to have additional schools, charter schools” she said.

Sofo, though, said the state should directly fund charter schools based on actual cost. Currently, the state funnels charter school funds through local districts that pay schools tuition for the students in its jurisdiction.

“Just because you’re a charter doesn’t mean you’re great. Just because you’re a neighborhood school doesn’t mean you’re bad. We’ve got to come up with what are the measures … with the community, students and parents and the teachers. What are the determiners that measure quality, safe, caring schools and apply them to everyone,” he said. “And as a board member, the first thing I would do is go to Harrisburg and say ‘you pay, not local taxpayers’.”

Sofo said charters should be funded if they’re innovating as they were intended to. He stood up for charter schools, saying they give marginalized people the kind of choice that wealthy families have always had.

Emma Yourd said that she wants the same transparency from charters that the board gets from district administration because, “we deserve the same level of visibility at a granular level that we’re getting from Pittsburgh Public into how those public tax dollars are being spent and what they’re being spent on.

“So I don’t say no to charter schools,” she continued. “But before we say yes to any more, I think that we need to be very clear about where that money is going and how it’s being spent so that our students are being served equitably across the district.

Yourd is running unopposed for district 6 seat, which is currently held by Bill Gallagher.

District 4 candidate Yael Silk said she would evaluate charter schools on a case-by-case basis and that her priority is making every city school the best it can be. She added that she wants to hear from families that choose to send their kids to charters about why they made the choice.

“As a community leader, I’m interested in hearing from all different kinds of parents and families about what their education decisions are for children, and to help figure out how to make PPS the choice for families in our city is my goal,” Silk said.

Pam Harbin currently serves district 4 but did not seek re-election.

Dwayne Barker is unopposed in his bid for district 8. Kevin Carter did not seek re-election. While Barker said he’s a district advocate — he and his son graduated from PPS — his daughter attends a charter school.

“There were times when Pittsburgh Public Schools didn’t provide what they needed to to a lot of families and a lot of families vocalized that. And the thing is if we’re going to stand up for what we believe in, we have to stand up for what’s going on in our households,” he said. “If your child is struggling in whatever school, whether it’s public or charter, you are going to try to make the best decisions. You put them in the best position.”

The full forum was streamed on Facebook live and can be foundhere. The primary election is May 16.