Tuesday night’s election results mean that the Pittsburgh Public Schools District will have three new directors on the nine member board who will face some crucial tests in the coming months, including the budget and fate of its senior leadership.
Longtime education advocate Pam Harbin won the District 4 primary with 54 percent of the vote on the Democratic ballot and 52 percent of the vote on the Republican ballot. In District 2, Devon Taliaferro won the Democratic ballot with 34 percent of the vote. Kirk Rys, the only candidate to cross file in that district, won the Republican ballot. He said he will not challenge Taliaferro in the general election. Former Pittsburgh Public School educator Bill Gallagher won the District 6 primary with 55 percent of the vote.
Barring any upsets in the general election, the candidates will be sworn in this December.
In all, nine candidates sought to fill the four open seats. New board members will have to approve a budget in December, and tough choices lie ahead for them. The district has been depleting its reserve fund to balance the budget without raising taxes, but administrators predict that the fund won’t be able to fill those gaps by the year 2022.
The district also hired a private investigator last week to vet claims that senior administrators took an unauthorized trip to Cuba, potentially violating board policy and ethical standards.
Board members also decide everything from policies that determine how students are disciplined to which curricula are taught in classrooms.
Change was inevitable this year, since three incumbent board members decided to step down rather than run for re-election. The outgoing directors had been endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers when they ran four years ago. PFT president Nina Esposito-Visgitis said turnover for the unpaid position is expected.
“That is a really hard and thankless job,” she said.
The teachers union played a significant role this year as well, backing three candidates and making $5,000 campaign contributions to each of them.
Residents in District 4 have watched a highly competitive, high-profile race that garnered endorsements from political leaders and several local and national organizations play out for the last few months. Both candidates hired consultants and each raised about $33,000 for their campaigns.
Harbin was backed by the PFT, the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, and One Pennsylvania, among others.
Anna Batista, a senior consultant at High Street Consulting, was supported by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Harbin will replace board president Lynda Wrenn and will represent Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze and parts of Oakland and Shadyside. Harbin has been an education advocate for 12 years and co-founded the Education Rights Network, a parent-led organization.
She said she wants to make sure schools are safe and welcoming and places where parents want to send their children, meaning they offer rigorous courses, recess and arts classes among other things.
On Tuesday night she told supporters who were gathered at a watch party in a Squirrel Hill bar that when she was considering a run for school board, her decision was based on if she could do more “inside the system than I can do outside.” She told them that now “we have a vote.”
She said she will represent the district in the same way that she ran her campaign: from the grassroots.
Four people ran to take the place of former educator Regina Holley who has served on the board since 2011. The district includes Highland Park, Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Bloomfield and parts of the North Side.
Devon Taliaferro, a program assistant with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, won the seat with 34 percent on the Democratic ballot. She coordinates a mentorship program at Brashear High School. She was endorsed by the PFT.
Taliaferro said she wants teacher demographics to reflect the district's students. She also wants the district to train teachers and staff on diversity and implicit bias. She supports schools using restorative practices to create a positive school climate.
Three other candidates ran against Taliaferro: David Atkinson, an IT professional at the University of Pittsburgh; Nosakhere Griffin-El, a co-coordinator of a monthly library reading program; and Kirk Rys, an attorney for BNY Mellon.
Two longtime Brookline residents ran to replace outgoing board member Moira Kaleida. District 6 represents South Hills neighborhoods including Brookline, Beechview, and Mt. Washington.
Bill Gallagher taught and coached in Pittsburgh Public Schools for 27 years. He won a seat on the board with 55 percent of votes on the Democratic ballot. He said he wants to improve early literacy rates and create smaller classrooms.
He ran against Heather Fulton, a mother of PPS students who volunteers in schools.
Incumbent Kevin Carter was unopposed in this year’s election. He took the seat with 2,532 votes. The Schenley High School graduate is the founder and CEO of a North Side organization, Adonai Center for Black Males, Inc.
Earlier this year he claimed that his signature was forged on an official document used in the region's bid for Amazon's second headquarters. The investigation ended with "inconclusive results."
He was first elected in 2015. In both runs for the seat he was endorsed by the PFT.