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Pittsburgh's school board map needs to be redrawn. But finding a racial balance is harder now

Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA

The eyes of the nation, or at least of its politicians and pundits, have been focused on Harrisburg, where state officials are busily redrawing boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts that could re-shape the political landscape. But perhaps the first new political map to be finalized — and the one that will strike closest to home for many Pittsburghers — will be the one that recasts the nine districts of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board.

And in many ways, the people who are drawing those lines have the toughest route to navigate, with just weeks to come up with a map that may have to serve for the next decade.

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Walter Lewis, who chairs the seven-member school director reapportionment commission.

As with other levels of government, school district boundaries must be redrawn after each 10-year census is compiled. And the law requires the maps to honor some key principles: To the greatest extent possible, districts must have similar populations, be drawn as compactly as possible, not to needlessly split up neighborhoods and other communities, and to seek “to best provide for racial balance” on the board.

But few mapmakers are under the time constraints faced by Lewis and his commission, whose members were appointed by municipal officials in the city and Mt. Oliver borough. Even though the next round of school board elections won’t take place until 2023, state law requires the district to have a map in place within 90 days after the commission was selected, which works out to Jan. 10. By comparison, the City of Pittsburgh will have until August to complete its maps.

Lewis said news of the timetable was “a punch in the gut. … You want to do your good-citizen thing and then you realize, ‘Oh we’ve got 90 days and that’s including Thanksgiving and the winter holiday break.’”

The commission held one sparsely-attended public hearing in November. It will hold a second gathering at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16, in the auditorium of Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in Oakland.
Members of the public can watch and participate by livestream or in person.

Lewis hopes members of the public will be able to spell out their priorities at this week’s gathering, so map-makers can devise the map that best fulfills that vision. Lewis says he hopes that vote can come at a third hearing, on Jan. 3.

But while mapmaking software makes the job easier, the tight timeframe “is a tremendous complication,” said Lewis, precisely because it gives the public so little time to weigh in on and prepare for the new maps.

And the work is complicated enough already, especially by the subject of race.

‘I don’t envy them’

The city’s school board map has traditionally been drawn to produce three majority-Black districts out of nine. That’s a friendlier map to minority voices than the ones drawn for City Council, which has afforded only two such districts. But arguably Black residents have more at stake in how schools are run. While Black residents make up less than a quarter of the city, Black students represent slightly more than half of those attending city schools.

Yet the city’s overall Black population has dropped by more than 10,000 people over the past decade, and many Black residents who have stayed in the city have dispersed more widely within its boundaries. That makes it more difficult to consolidate those voters into districts that, by law, also must be compact as possible.

“You have a city that has historically had three majority-Black districts. And so now we’re in a situation where we could potentially have zero or maybe only one,” Lewis said. “It’s a real test of your priorities and your values. And because of the population change, it really puts us between a rock and a hard place.”

The commission has drafted three working versions of the map, each displayed on its website. One strives to follow current boundaries as closely as possible — a goal that minimizes disruption for voters and board members alike. At the other extreme is a map that preserves two Black districts and another strong minority district, but that wreaks havoc on the existing board, drawing multiple incumbents out of their district and leaving two districts with no incumbent at all inside their borders.

None of the maps has more than two majority-Black districts.

The maps are working drafts, not final proposals, but Lewis said, “I definitely think it’s going to be something like one of these. We didn’t present 30 maps, we really just tried to take a couple of approaches: One is slight tweaks, and then a little bit greater tweaks, and then there’s just a complete ‘focus on the priorities and draw’, right? But they each come with consequences. And so I think it’s really important for us to hear from folks so we can choose a direction, because we’re not going to have a ton of time between now and January 10th.”

Shawn Carter, a city council aide who co-chaired the redistricting process 10 years ago, expressed sympathy for the current commission.

“Our task 10 years ago in maintaining three districts with a majority-minority population was daunting, and it’s even more daunting now,” he said.

A decade ago, he said, the Black population was still concentrated enough that commissioners were able to switch neighborhoods from one side of the line to the other. But as Black residents have either moved across town or moved outside city limits entirely, that low-hanging fruit is no longer available to the current commission, he said.

“I don’t envy them," Carter added.

A ‘lost opportunity’ for board members?

Arguably, the board has achieved a high level of inclusion despite the current maps, rather than because of them. Six out of nine board members are Black, even though at best the district had only three majority-Black districts, and none of them may still be majority Black today.

Still, Lewis and others say it is important to assure that the city includes concentrations of Black voters loud enough to can be heard.

“I think it’s necessary to assure that there is representation of color in everything,” said board member Devon Taliaferro. “There is power in knowing that the representation of the student population is reflected in the board.”

Taliaferro’s own district, which ranges from North Side neighborhoods to Highland Park, has been represented by Black women for years. But Taliaferro says, “The people I hear from the most are probably the most privileged people” – white residents from the East End. And she says it’s “important that we think intentionally about diversity and representation.”

Taliaferro says she is worried she could be drawn out of her district, as could happen under a couple of the maps the commission has floated. That, she said, would “take me away from the opportunity to serve the children of Pittsburgh.”

Lewis stresses that all current board members will be able to serve out their terms – even if that means representing a district that they no longer live in.

But board members have no role in drafting or approving the maps for their districts and no power beyond that of any other citizen. And almost any configuration of districts is likely to result in someone being drawn out of their district or pitted against a fellow incumbent.

That is frequently an outcome that those drawing maps try to avoid, on the theory that such changes are disruptive and that voters, not redistricting commissions, should elect leaders. But state law does not include incumbent protection among the goals the commission is supposed to seek, and in fact, the commission didn’t even plot the home addresses of incumbents until after the preliminary maps were drawn.

“One of the things that was very encouraging to me to hear from at least two directors is that they wanted the best map for the city,” said Lewis.

‘The process is fast’

Whether that consensus survives Thursday night’s meeting remains to be seen. But there is some agreement on one point, perhaps best expressed by board member Pam Harbin: “The redistricting process, as the law describes it, is kind of wack.”

Harbin, a first-term board member from the East End, said she, too, would be drawn out of a couple of maps the commission has put forward. She worries that even districts drawn to maximize the Black population may not actually capture Black voter turnout, resulting in maps that may not amplify Black voices as much as it might appear.

But perhaps Harbin’s biggest concern is that the commission will be required to finalize its maps before much of the public knew they were being drawn in the first place.

“I keep hearing people ask where the schools are going to move,” she said. In fact, the maps won’t change school locations or impact the feeder patterns that direct students into them. But Harbin said the confusion “is leading me to see that the general public doesn’t understand what the process is for.”

“It’s nothing against the commission – they are volunteers and the process is what it is,” she added, noting that Lewis had “graciously” kept board members informed of the process even though they have no role in the map drawing. “But my concern is that the process is fast. I don’t think people have an understanding of it.”

Wilson acknowledges the concern and says that it is easy to overlook district lines even for residents who pay close attention to the schools.

“There’s other issues people are wrestling with, right? We've got an interim superintendent that people are trying to figure out how to support, and schools are trying to wrestle with policies around suspensions and all of this kind of stuff. And then here we are like, ‘Hey, everyone, come learn about this reapportionment process!’”

Still, he said the commission was doing everything it could to notify the public about its deliberations and urged residents to attend or tune into the Dec. 16 meeting.

“Whoever shows up to the meeting, you have the same amount of power as any school board member. This is not one of those things where if you have an opinion, you should sit on the sidelines because you don’t think it matters. It does matter.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.