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Council Voices Concern About Emergency Declaration, Says School Board Should Have Been Notified

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh King PreK-8 on the North Side of the city.

Some members of Pittsburgh City Council are expressing disappointment over a bill intended to stoke action on how the city schools have responded to the coronavirus. Last week councilors Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle introduced a “declaration of educational emergency” to urge the reopening of elementary schools, and to address the widening achievement gap between Black and white students.  

But on Wednesday, some City Councilors said they'd spoken to school board members who said they weren't given a heads-up about the resolution before it was introduced. City officials have no control over the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which is governed independently.

“My disagreement with how this is being handled is that the communication with school board members that I’ve spoken with directly and union members I’ve spoken with directly,” said Councilor Bruce Kraus. “The communication came after the introduction of the bill.” 

Kraus added that the bill itself is controversial, and that council did not receive communication until the morning it was proposed. 

“I’ve had absolutely zero communication from the sponsor of this bill to say, ‘This is why I come to you respectfully to ask for your support,’” said Kraus, a frequent Burgess foe. “I think this was off the rails from day one. This is preaching from a bully pulpit.” 

Kraus added that he doesn’t disagree with the substance of the bill, but he “vehemently” disagrees with the way it was introduced. 

Burgess maintained that he reached out to the superintendent and school board members prior to introducing the bill. And Lavelle – who has children in Pittsburgh Public Schools – said he has personally communicated with members of the school board, school administrators, teachers and principals about his concerns of students falling behind. 

“Prior to introducing the bill, I did speak with one of my school board members about what was going on and my concerns,” he said. 


The bill cites a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission report that shows the achievement gap between Black and white students has continued to widen.


“We need to publicly acknowledge that this is a problem and if any of us are not willing to acknowledge that, then we’re lying to ourselves,” Lavelle said. 


Last week, the school district itself responded to the legislation with a statement that said while "no elected official from the City has contacted the District to meet on the concerns expressed in the proposed resolution," it would "welcome an opportunity for City Council to share in our discussions about our black and brown students."


But the statement went on to observe that part of those disucssions should include the return of income tax revenues the city began to siphon from the district as part of a financial bailout plan that ended in 2018.

Ultimately on Wednesday, Council voted to hold for a public hearing and post-agenda meetings on the emergency declaration. And Lavelle, for one, showed no signs of backing off.

“If this decade-long problem could be solved by the school board alone it would have been solved,” he said. “It’s going to require all of us engaging in how we can support Pittsburgh Public Schools to do what I believe they need to do, which is year-round schooling. But they’re going to need support from the city of Pittsburgh to actually do that.”



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