Candidates vying for three seats on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board largely agree when it comes to identifying the most pressing issues facing the state’s second largest public school district.
But they differ on how to address such concerns as institutional racism, a budget shortfall and providing universal pre-kindergarten.
Those differences got an airing during an April 24 Hill District forum hosted by a coalition of education groups. It was the second forum before the May 21 primary election, and eight of the nine candidates seeking board seats attended, making their pitch for why they should represent Pittsburgh families.
About 24,000 students attend Pittsburgh Public Schools, and the district controls a nearly $650 million budget. Its nine-member board determines everything from classroom curricula to how students are disciplined.
Four candidates are competing for the District 2 seat held by outgoing two-term board member and former president Regina Holley. The district represents parts of the North Side, Highland Park, East Liberty, Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. David Atkinson is a Pittsburgh Public parent who works in the central IT department at the University of Pittsburgh. He helped develop a mobility plan for the Obama Academy magnet school where he also volunteers. Nosakhere Griffin-El co-coordinates a monthly Young Dreamers reading program at the East Liberty Carnegie Library. He is also a parent. Kirk Rys is a Pittsburgh Public parent. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he is now managing counsel at BNY Mellon and sits on the board for ACTION Housing. Devon Taliaferro coordinates a mentorship program, “Bigs in Blue,” which pairs children within PPS with law enforcement agents in the communities they serve. She also assists with a mentorship program at Brashear High School.
District 4 covers East End neighborhoods including Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill and is currently represented by board president Lynda Wrenn. Anna Batista is a senior consultant at High Street Consulting in Pittsburgh. A mother of children who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools, she has a history of working in finance and public sector policy analysis. Pam Harbin is a long-time education advocate and co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based Education Rights Network, a group that advocates for inclusive and quality education. Both of her children attend PPS schools.
Batista and Harbin are running on both the Democratic and Republican ballots next month. That means the two could face off again in the November general election.
Two candidates are competing for Moira Kaleida’s district 6 seat. Brookline resident Heather Fulton is the mother of twin daughters in Pittsburgh Public Schools. The district covers southern neighborhoods including Brookline, Beechview, Banksville, Mt. Washington and East Carnegie. Bill Gallagher, a retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher and coach, also resides in Brookline. Three of his children are district graduates.
Kevin Carter currently represents parts of the North Side in district 8. He is running unopposed and is the lone incumbent on the ballot. He was also the lone candidate who did not attend Wednesday's forum.
Candidates were asked to weigh in on how they would commit to quality and equity as a member of the district’s oversight body. Their answers to two questions asked at the forum are quoted and paraphrased below.
Pittsburgh Public Schools is facing a budgetary shortfall which will in the future mean spending down a reserve fund. How will you as a school board member make those decisions?
- Atkinson: As the district faces enrollment challenges and demographic changes, within the next few years the board will have to look at raising taxes, finding another source of revenue or cutting expenses, he said.
- Griffin-El: “A budget is a moral document. It shows us what we value and who we value.” He said budgets can’t be balanced “on the backs of the poor.” He said he would critically evaluate each line item of the budget and find new revenue streams.
- Rys: He said he would urge the board to scrutinize the budget and do a better job of making sure resources are allocated efficiently.
- Taliaferro: She said she is not an advocate for increasing taxes. She said the district should first look to collaborate with higher-education institutions and foundations to “make sure we utilize community members and resources first.”
- Batista: “The future of the progressive movement involves efficient and effective government. We have to show that we can use our taxpayer dollars as intelligently as possible,” she said. She said she would question every dollar that isn’t being used in places where students learn.
- Harbin: “We cannot continue to balance our budgets on the backs of working families," she said. "We just can’t keep asking parents to come into our schools that don’t have the basic things we need. We need smaller class sizes, we need our counselors, we need our social workers.” She decried the money the district has to pay to cyber charter schools that educate children in the district.
- Fulton: “We need to figure out the best way to utilize every dollar being spent. We have to make sure what we do have is being spent at the best possible rate,” she said.
- Gallagher: He referenced a 2016 report commissioned by the district that noted the district does not spend money in a way that will achieve academic success. He said buildings are under-utilized.
With the rise of school shootings and the emphasis of school safety – what are your thoughts about the request from the Pittsburgh School Police to be equipped with guns in schools?
All candidates said they were against arming school police officers.
- Atkinson: Suggested school police receive implicit bias training, which teaches people to recognize their own unconscious prejudices. He noted that students have to be psychologically safe in schools as well as physically safe.
- Griffin-El: “The way we keep our students safe is to create a culture of empathy.” He said he wants two students to be voting members of the board to have a say in developing policies to keep them safe.
- Rys: "I would not at all be in favor of having guns in school." He said the school baord members have to prioritize safety and set a good example.
- Taliaferro: “We need to utilize the resources we have in counselors and mentorship.” She would bolster the district’s restorative practices model -- which emphasizes restitution rather than punishment in handling discipline -- not just for conflict resolution, but also community building.
- Batista: She noted that issues of safety are emotional. She said she doesn’t want schools to feel like prisons and the board also shouldn’t enact policies for the appearance of safety. “If we install metal detectors, what is the problem we are trying to solve?”
- Harbin: “We need counselors, social workers, mediators and conflict resolution skills.” She said schools need to take proactive measures for safety, and that doesn’t include school police or guns.
- Fulton: She said she is not in favor of school police being armed. She noted that she recently met with a group of students from schools across the city who said they felt safe in school.
- Gallagher: “The biggest mistake would be militarization of our schools.” He said the district has to work to stop the school-to-prison pipeline: Reformers use that label to describe disciplinary practices like suspension which, they fear, will set students on a path to future incarceration.