Candidates running for a seat on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board have spent the last few months knocking on doors, handing out signs and seeking endorsements. The nine candidates have significant questions to answer about their leadership styles and policies ahead of the May 21 primary.
How should teachers be evaluated? How will the district reduce the achievement gap between students of color and white students? And, how will the board balance a $650 million budget as the district depletes its reserve fund?
The candidates are seeking unpaid positions that come with a lot of responsibility. The board approves the budget and enacts policies that determine everything from curricula to how its 24,000 students are disciplined.
District 2 and 4 candidates could face off again in November, as some have cross-filed on both the Republican and Democratic ballots.
Candidates answered questionaires here.
The two District 4 candidates are engaged in a highly competitive, high-profile race that has garnered endorsements from several organizations and political leaders.
Both have hired consultants, and the neighborhoods they represent are engaged in a battle of lawn-signs. Each has raised about $33,000. Pam Harbin received $5,000 from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and Batista received $2,000 from Mayor Bill Peduto and $500 from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Harbin has been an education advocate for 12 years and co-founded the Education Rights Network, a parent-led organization.
“I'm somebody who knows how to move policy,” she said. “I am somebody who knows how to work in collaboration with a lot of different people in the city, to make positive change. I think change can happen. It has to happen.”
She has two children in Pittsburgh Public high schools. She said public education has been defunded, which means students are losing social workers, librarians and the arts. Harbin has been endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, among others.
District 4 is currently represented by board president Lynda Wrenn, who is stepping down, and includes Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze and parts of Oakland and Shadyside.
Candidate Batista calls herself a "builder" who wants to use data to help improve the institution. She says collaboration is important for the future of the district.
“How well can we work with the city, with academic institutions, with the nonprofit organizations out there trying to help PPS students? I think that I have a very good track record of productive collaborations of working constructively with people even when I disagree with them,” she said.
Batista is a senior consultant at High Street Consulting. She's worked for a decade in finance and public sector policy analysis. She is a mother of three and her oldest attends Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill. She has the support of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, among others.
She notes that nearly half of PPS students cannot read at grade level by third grade, an issue she says should be addressed collectively.
“What are the levers that can actually start to produce change? Trying to identify those and then looking elsewhere at places that have started to see improvements in reading outcomes other urban districts and ask ‘what are the levers that are making that change there and then what can we replicate here in Pittsburgh?’” she said.
Harbin said she wants to focus on providing safe and supportive schools. She said she also wants to expand the community schools model, which requires a coordinator who brings social services into a building to help students who face trauma or are disadvantaged.
“If we are not addressing those issues through community schools models or looking at the ratio of counselors and social workers to students making sure that we have somebody in the school building that can work with families if they need help or an advocate to understand something about the system, then we really can't improve the teaching and learning environment to what it needs to be,” she said.
District 2 voters face a larger pool of candidates, where four people are looking to take the place of longtime board member and former educator Regina Holley. The district includes Highland Park, Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Bloomfield and parts of the North Side.
David Atkinson is an IT professional at the University of Pittsburgh and the father of three. As a board member on the Highland Park community council, he helped secure funding to improve the intersection near Obama Academy. He wants to evaluate and address the district’s declining enrollment.
“That's where I believe if we have an independent commission look at the district as a whole, evaluate the programming options including magnet and school configuration meaning is it K through five or six through eight and devise a plan that's going to attract families back into our schools and grow our school and school enrollment,” he said.
Nosakhere Griffin-El has a doctorate in education, with a focus on policymaking. He’s a parent of two young children and co-coordinates a monthly reading program at his local library. If he were elected, he said he would want to have two students on the board as voting members.
“We just can't have students voice as a tool to develop policy. We have to actually have students on the board expressing their ideas both verbally and within the committee so that policy could be developed that meets them at their needs and at their dreams for themselves and their entire student body,” he said.
Kirk Rys is a Pittsburgh Public parent also looking to represent District 2. The former Peace Corps volunteer is now managing counsel for BNY Mellon. He is endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.
Rys said he wants high quality schools for all students, which he said starts with quality leaders. He is interested in creating a principal pipeline within the district.
“Maybe move some of the budget we have away from some of the administration over to building that. Paying to identify, to train and then to support new principals because my experience right now is that strong principals do a great job … and create stability,” he said.
Devon Taliaferro is a program assistant with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh. She coordinates a mentorship program at Brashear High School. She is endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
Taliaferro said she wants the teacher demographic to reflect the students.
“Making sure that we have a diverse pool of teachers and that we're building partnerships with whether it be historically black colleges and universities to pull for more educators that are graduating from college,” she said.
Two candidates are competing to represent South Hills neighborhoods including Brookline, Beechview and Mt. Washington.
Heather Fulton has twin daughters at Allderdice High School. She’s lived in Brookline for more than 20 years. One of her top priorities is to improve early childhood literacy rates. She is endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
Fulton said she doesn’t think the community knows that the district offers pre-kindergarten programs.
“We need to have more. There’s already over 90 childcare centers available and there are still so many people that need it,” she said at a recent forum.
She also wants to expand access to Career and Technical Education courses in schools.
Bill Gallagher taught and coached in Pittsburgh Public Schools for 27 years. He’s lived in Brookline his whole life. He says there needs to be a sense of urgency when it comes to improving early literacy and creating smaller classes.
“Why are we not having almost like a SWAT team attack with teachers in these schools? Why are these kindergarten and first graders in a classroom with 19 [students] with reading deficits?” he said.
He also said he wants to streamline central administration as a way to hold staff "accountable for providing support to all students and teachers," he said in a candidate questionnaire.
Incumbent Kevin Carter is running unopposed in District 8 covering north side neighborhoods. He was first elected in 2015. He is endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.
*This story was updated at 10:09 a.m 5/14/19 to correct Kirk Rys' title.