Just days ahead of the start of what will be an unusual school year, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board voted to renew Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s contract for another four years.
Board members voted 7-2 in support of renewal, after spending more than an hour Wednesday afternoon outlining their support for -- or opposition to – extending Hamlet's tenure.
Hamlet was hired in 2016 under a five-year contract. He currently makes $229,372 after initially being hired with a salary of $210,000. His new salary has not been finalized.
Sala Udin was the only board member who spoke against renewing the contract. He noted that under the Pennsylvania School Code, the board was not required to make a decision until February, which is 150 days before Hamlet’s contract was set to expire. Udin has regularly criticized Hamlet and his administration for not improving the academic outcomes for Black students, and for the persistent achievement gap between Black and white students in the district.
“It is inexcusable that we have not found a way to significantly improve the performance scores of Black children in this school district and we are forced to brag about incremental tiny improvements,” Udin said.
Some board members said media reports criticizing Hamlet, who is Black, were racially motivated.
Board president Sylvia Wilson said that the board objectively evaluated Hamlet’s performance, and decided during closed-door executive sessions that he had met expectations.
“The process to determine the renewal of Dr. Hamlet’s contract is based on the details outlined in his contract,” she said. “It was determined that this board was not to use subjective criteria, but to use objective criteria.”
Board member Bill Gallagher said he thought the vote should be postponed until the board could hear more community input. But Wilson said the board wanted to make the decision now to remove “another distraction that prevents us from focusing on all children."
Dozens spoke for and against Hamlet during two days of public hearings this week ahead of the vote. Many of the women involved with the newly-formed group Black Women For A Better Education spoke against renewing Hamlet’s contract. The group has criticized the district’s response to COVID-19 and the move to remote learning, and members say Hamlet hasn't been the transformational leader they were promised when he was hired.
Speaking to the board, Hamlet said he is committed to bridging “all divides."
“Each of you play a valuable role in the success of our efforts to improve student outcomes," he said. "We will not lose sight of our charge to work against racist ideas and policies that prevent our students from experiencing a bias-free education."
Wilson said she, too, is concerned about the levels of Black student achievement, but noted that "levels of Black student achievement were low before Dr. Hamlet arrived. Over the last four years progress is being made and the pandemic is a setback for our students of color. Change and evolution takes time. Dr. Hamlet did not bring his magic wand to accomplish this.”
Among the reasons Wilson said she supported Hamlet were: his work to hire a nurse for every school; his expansion of Career and Technical Education; additional counselors and social workers; the reallocation of resources to schools with the most needs; higher graduation rates; and increasing student voice through his student advisory council.
Board Member Devon Taliaferro said she wants the community to move forward together.
“It is time to lay aside our egos, our pride and even bitterness and join forces to blow up this current educational system as we know it,” she said. “Our culture has shifted and we are now in a new normal. Now we have the chance to get down and dirty and set great goals, have courageous conversations and create a system of accountability not just for the superintendent … but for this board.”
Board member Pam Harbin said she is confident that systemic change will happen with Hamlet’s leadership.
“The educational inequities are persistent in Pittsburgh Public Schools because they are rooted in systemic and institutional racism," she said. "And the only way we are going to really change outcomes is through transformational change.”
Harbin said the hard part will be having uncomfortable conversations with everyone involved with schools to discuss policies and practices that benefit those who are already advantaged and uphold systemic racism.
Also during the meeting, the board voted against a district recommendation to postpone fall sports. The board unanimously voted to let students play this fall without spectators. Several student athletes spoke during the public hearing asking the board to let them play. Director of Athletics Karen Arnold said athletes and coaches will be required to wear masks and keep a distance when possible.