As the city’s public school district serving 23,000 students launches a planning group to reopen schools in the fall, a newly-formed local collective wants the school board to find another leader. They say the district’s response to the statewide closure of schools was ineffective and students weren’t learning for weeks.
The group, called Black Women for a Better Education sent a letter to the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board last week outlining arguments against renewing superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s contract, which is set to expire at the end of the next school year. They say he has not effectively led the district in other areas including organizational leadership, financial management, providing safe and healthy school environments and instructional excellence.
A separate online petition was also created opposing the renewal of Hamlet’s contract.
Hamlet has led the state’s second largest district since July 1, 2016 after he served in leadership positions with the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida. His tenure began on rocky ground after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette raised questions about potentially plagiarized language in his cover letter and over-stating accomplishments listed in his resume. The district hired an investigator and advocacy groups were split on supporting him.
Once Hamlet began the job he hired a third party to evaluate the district’s performance. That review resulted in a list of 137 recommendations. As of October 2019, 91 had been completed and 33 were in progress. Last year Hamlet was reprimanded in a letter from board members after he and members of his administrative team took a trip to Cuba without full board approval.
The school board can begin to evaluate Hamlet and potentially consider new applicants for the job on July 1. According to the district’s solicitor Ira Weiss, the board will have to decide on the position by Feb. 1, 2021, which is 150 days before his contract ends. Board president Sylvia Wilson said in a release Thursday that the process is a personnel matter and that board members will not comment publicly on the contract.
“But our first priority is to get our schools ready to reopen and to meet the guidelines as established by the State Department of Education,” Wilson said in the release.
Hamlet was not available for an interview after multiple requests for comment.
Angel Gober, the Western PA Organizing Director for activist group One PA, said Friday that her focus now is working with the school district to create a thoughtful plan to reopen in the fall.
Gober’s group actively speaks out at the district’s public hearings, has been critical of district-decisions and has led campaigns to ban suspensions for non-violent infractions in K-2 grades. The group also works to create community schools with social services in buildings, limit class sizes, and invest in culturally relevant curriculum.
One PA is working with the district and the teachers’ union on a reopening plan, says Gober.
“So it’s just a really big deal that this type of equal partnership collaboration has never happened before, and it’s actually a very positive thing. So I don’t really want to spend a lot of time talking about black women who have never shown up … I ain’t never seen none of them show up at public hearings,” she said. “I’m not going for that. We have nine elected school board members. If people want to hold the school district accountable then they should talk to the school board members.”
Gober said she would challenge the women who signed the letter to pitch in.
"Help us think about how we keep our black babies safe during this pandemic and how we keep our black babies educated," she said.
Black Women for a Better Education declined to say who established the group or who sent messages from the group’s email. An email from the group said they wanted to remain united and “promote the sisterhood that runs deep with black women.”
“We are women with a lot of reputations that are being put on the line to speak about something so important to us. And education in this town is super political. We don't want this to turn into an attack on any one individual to cloud the unified message that we have established,” an email from the group to WESA stated.
The letter included 55 signatures, 29 with full names and the rest with a first initial and last name or listed as anonymous. The groups says it is a coalition of black women affiliated with PPS as parents, alumni, former employees, retirees, partners and concerned community members. It began meeting regularly in early May.
Ashley McClain is a PPS graduate and mother of three including a PPS first grader at Dilworth PreK-5, a magnet school. She signed the letter because she said the district’s response to shutdown to limit the spread of COVID-19 was unacceptable.
She said the packets the district sent home were essentially busy work. Like many PPS students, McClain’s daughter was not given a computer or device to learn remotely. McClain said there was a lack of communication, so she thought she had to purchase one. She bought her daughter an iPad for her birthday for her schoolwork. Then, teachers told her they weren’t allowed to teach in real time because not all students had access to technology and it would be inequitable to only instruct some.
“I’m just a parent, so I’m new at being a parent with Pittsburgh Public Schools. We’ve always had a wonderful experience with Pittsburgh Public Schools. I didn’t realize until COVID happened that [my daughter] is in one of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ exceptional schools,” she said. "It wasn't until we were put in this situation when I was like 'oh wow, something must be happening at an administrative level’ because ... it was almost negligent."
She said she was also frustrated that the district waited two weeks to survey parents about their technology needs when other districts made that move before the closure.
Deirdra Bullock said the district did not rise to the challenge. She also signed the letter as a PPS alum and parent of a PPS third grader. She said issuing technology shouldn’t have been as big of a challenge as it was. She said she’s also concerned by the district’s high expulsion rates.
She said she admits that she is not actively engaged in watching board meetings. “I’m the parent that brings snacks to parties,” she said.
But she said she wants better.
“I just want to see different,” Bullock said. “I’m just not pleased with how the district is being run.”
The letter from the group ends by saying that it is time for the board to admit that Hamlet’s tenure “has been an abject failure.” They said that families and students “deserve a superintendent who is competent, honest, innovative, and not the center of continuous negative press.”
“We do not take lightly the implications of Black women asking a school board with a Black president to not renew the contract of a Black superintendent of a school district with majority Black students. We are aware of the optics; however, we demand better for our Black children. We have had enough, and our children deserve better,” the letter states.
June 9, 2020 at 1:37pm - Editor's note: the headline of this story has been updated to remove the word "groups."