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‘Don’t close my school’: PPS students, staff turn out in droves to discuss possible closures, safety

A boy wearing a grey T-shirt reading PGH WOOLSLAIR above an image of a howling wolf speaks at a lectern as a woman in a grey sweater stands behind him.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Lars Munson, a student at Woolslair Elementary School, asks the Pittsburgh Public Schools board to not close his school while his mother, Holly Munson, stands behind him. 

Close to 100 students, parents and staff packed Pittsburgh Public’s school board hearing Monday to discuss transparency, budget cuts and potential building closures.

Lars Munson, a fifth-grader at Woolslair Elementary, was among the dozen or so students who signed up to speak out against the idea of consolidating schools; the notion that has loomed over the district’s budget decisions and ongoing strategic planning.

“Please don't close my school or any other school,” Munson told board members. “Kids at Woolslair are good at solving problems. You should listen to us and let us help make a better plan to make things better.”

PPS administrators are working to compile a utilization study of the district’s schools by March 15, though they say it will be months before a plan is drafted. A 2021 utilization report found that nearly half of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 61 school buildings are at 50% capacity or less.

Many families and educators at the nearly five-hour hearing, however, still spoke about feeling a strain on their under-resourced schools despite the open seats.

“Despite a reported 61% utilization rate, we don't have enough space for our music teacher to have her own classroom, so she uses a corner of our cafeteria,” said Fulton PreK-5 PTA president Rebecca Maclean.

Adults and children sit shoulder to shoulder on red chairs.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Members of the public wait to speak to the Pittsburgh Public Schools board on Feb. 26, 2024.

Students and parents at Obama 6-12 spoke of subjects taught by educators from other fields, and classes offered online because there aren’t enough teachers in the school to meet the demand. The school now faces budget cuts, according to speakers Monday, and it could lose five teachers.

“I want to be able to tell prospective students and parents that Obama Academy is the best option out there — better than charter schools, better than suburban schools, and better than private schools,” said student body president Mariah Gaines.

“In order for me to be able to say this, Obama Academy needs more — more supplies, more technology and more teachers, not less.”

Teachers also said the district’s schools need better resources to keep students safe and to address behavioral needs.

According to Brashear High School teacher Tracy Jones, educators don’t have enough resources to equitably implement the kind of restorative interventions required by the district’s student code of conduct.

“It is impossible to effectively implement these interventions when budget allocations continue to get smaller, which is forcing administrators to make staffing cuts that directly impact the supports available to students,” Jones said.

People sit at brown tables arranged in a u shape on a black and brown checkerboard floor.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools board members and staff during a meeting on Feb. 26, 2024.

The district is also poised this week to lift its nine-month moratorium on the issuance of summary citations, the lowest level criminal offense one can receive in the state.

Students who receive them are tried as adults in front of a magisterial district judge.

Board members will vote Wednesday on a proposed policy outlining how schools are to work with police to determine whether a citation is needed. But Ghadah Makoshi with the ACLU told board members that it still leaves officers with too much discretion.

“There are no guidelines set in the policy, but rather to allow staff to use their discretion and police to similarly use the discretion in determining if a crime, and I use that term loosely, has been committed,” Makoshi said. “[The same] discretion that has resulted in 80 to 90% of citations being issued to Black students for the last decade.”

Data from the 2021-2022 school year show Black girls, in particular, receive citations at disproportionate rates when compared to their white peers.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.