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For Pittsburgh Public Schools redistricting effort, a long road ends with a familiar map

 Meet the new Pittsburgh Public Schools board district map -- the same (almost) as the old district map
Pittsburgh Public Schools Reapportionment Commission
Meet the new Pittsburgh Public Schools board district map — the same (almost) as the old district map

A commission charged with drawing a new map for electing members of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board districts has spent the past few months looking at a number of radical changes — but the map it passed Monday night is very similar to the one the city school district already had.

“There just wasn't enough appetite for some of the drastic changes,” said Walter Lewis, who headed the seven-member Pittsburgh Public Schools Reapportionment Commission.

The commission decided that there wasn’t much need for such changes, either.

When the commission first convened last fall, a top concern was trying to craft a map that would include one, or even two, majority Black districts. Such districts have long been a means for ensuring Black representation, but drawing them was becoming increasingly difficult in a city where the Black population was shrinking and scattering itself more widely across town. The map Lewis’ commission had to replace had boasted three such districts a decade ago — but 2020 U.S. Census data showed that number had dropped to zero.

“When we started the process,” Lewis said, “it was from a lens of how we ensure that Black voters are adequately represented, and balance that against other criteria,” like legal requirements that districts have roughly equal-sized populations, and are drawn as neatly as possible. “We were looking at majority-Black districts, but some of the [side-effects] that came with those maps didn’t mesh with the public.”

Among the challenges: Some of the newly-proposed maps would have pitted board members against each other, while other districts would start off with no incumbents at all. Voters, meanwhile, faced their own risks of displacement: Those who were moved from an even-numbered district to an odd-numbered one wouldn’t be able to vote in a school board race until 2023 — six years after their last chance to choose leadership.

“You could definitely hear some strong concerns about incumbent board members being displaced, and voters not being happy about being forced to change districts,” said Lewis.

On the other hand, while the existing map had lost all of its existing majority-Black districts, the school board itself has only become more diverse. Fully two-thirds of the board is Black, in a city where Black residents make up less than a quarter of the population. And the map produced competitive races last year, with two new members toppling incumbents.

So the commission opted to create three “opportunity” districts across the center of the city, in which the Black population made up more than 40% of the population. That ensures Black voters can play key, if not necessarily decisive, roles in one third of the races.

"It was a very critical decision, and we weren't sure how the public was going to take it. But we didn't really receive any negative feedback,” Lewis said.

And once it was made, he said, “It freed us up to make a lot of other considerations,” like not pitting incumbents against each other.

Lewis’ commission was not legally obliged to protect incumbents from such a fate. But one principle of map-drawing is that if an incumbent is to be ousted, it should be voters and not map-drawers who do it.

Rebalancing the districts so they were roughly equal in population did require some swapping of precincts from one district to another. A little more than 1,500 voting-age residents — mostly from District 4 in the heart of the East End — were moved to odd-numbered districts that otherwise had too few residents. Since the odd-numbered districts were just up for grabs last year, they won’t see a school board race until 2025. Voters who were moved from even-numbered districts would have last voted for school board in 2019.

The commission’s passage of the map Monday just met a legally imposed Jan. 10 deadline. The map is final, and not subject to the review of the school board itself or other bodies — though it’s possible the map could be challenged in court.

Lewis says that by the time the process wrapped up, he heard more commentary about why the redistricting hadn’t been more disruptive.

“We were getting questions about why we didn't have the appetite to blow up the map,” he said. “And we were able to say, 'That is how we started.’”

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.
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