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PPS Board President Says Proposal To Close Buildings Created 'Too Much Confusion'

Isabelle Schmeler
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools tabled the opportunity to gather public comment on a proposal to close buildings to address a $39 million budget deficit.

On today's program: Pittsburgh Public Schools Board President Sylvia Wilson explains why she abstained on a vote to consider closing buildings, and what might happen next; PublicSource reporter Juliette Rihl found the Allegheny County Jail uses restraint chairs twice as often as any other county facility in the Commonwealth; and a Pittsburgh promoter and concert producer offers her take on how the pandemic is affecting the local music scene following Congress earmarking funds to help ease financial strain.

PPS Board President Sylvia Wilson says there should be more collaboration to fill the budget deficit

(0:00 — 6:09) 

The Pittsburgh Public Schools board tabled a plan to close schools Tuesday, Feb. 2. District administrators proposed closing six buildings over two years to chip away at the district's $39 million deficit.

Board President Sylvia Wilson says upon hearing the proposal, she immediately thought, “There will be panic in the street.”

“The next issue is, don’t close schools, but don’t raise my taxes,” says Wilson. 

The Board voted 7-1 to table the possibility of discussing the proposal from Superintendent Anthony Hamlet. Wilson abstained from the vote. 

“I think it was just too much confusion,” she says. “I know that people heard that his was gonna be discussed, and they immediately started bombarding us with phone calls and emails and telling everybody that ‘You’re not closing our schools.’” 

Wilson says the intent of the vote (to begin a discussion about the proposal) was unclear to the public. She says many thought it was a vote to close schools. 

City Councilors Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle sponsored a resolution declaring a “State of Educational Emergency,” seeking a conversation with district officials.  In response, the district wrote a statement saying the board agrees, there is an education emergency. Wilson noted she and other board members want the city to allow the district to keep $20 million of annual Earned Income Tax Credit. This money has been going to the city from December 2003 to February 2018, under Act 47, when the city was in financial distress. 

“The school board has been asking about this for four years at least that I’m aware of, because the city is no longer in distress. So, why are they still removing that money from the school district?” asks Wilson. “It doesn’t help our financial situation at all.”

Wilson says the plan for addressing the $39 million deficit is still unclear. “We know there’s a deficit. I don’t think that it makes any sense for people to say, ‘Just don’t close my school,’” says Wilson. “If they want to come up with some  great solutions for consideration, that’s what should happen. But in the long run, it may end up being something that’s not happy for everyone.”

Allegheny County Jail uses restraint chairs more than other counties, some formerly incarcerated people are suing them
(6:12 — 12:19)

The Allegheny County jail used a restraint chair more than 300 times in 2019. That’s twice as much as any other county correctional facility in the Commonwealth, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

“Restraint chairs were invented in 1990. They were seen as a safer alternative to a four point restraint, that was when someone was restrained to a bed by their arms and legs,” explains Juliette Rihl, a reporter at PublicSource.

Rihl says, based on her interviews with experts and those formerly incarcerated, there’s no agreement on if it’s best practice to use this device.  

“They say that it is inhumane, it violates people’s rights and is sometimes used as a form of punishment,” says Rihl. “However if you talk to other medical professionals and correctional experts, some feel that it is necessary for the safety of both the person in the chair and the staff working with them.”

One source told Rihl she was placed in the chair used as punishment and replacement for mental health services when she was having a crisis.  

The Jail Oversight Board meeting February 4 included discussion of the use of restraint chairs at the jail. At least two board members asked for more data on the chair’s use, and in what situations it’s used. 

This isn’t the first time the Oversight Board requested these restraint chair policies. However, Rihl says Warden Orlando Harper has now reversed his decision on transparency regarding these policies. 

First to close, last to reopen: One Pittsburgh concert producer’s experience in the pandemic  
(12:21 — 18:00) 

The Save Our Stages Act, passed late last year, will offer $15 billion in grants to music venues, producers, and promoters hit hard by the pandemic.

But for some local venues, including the Rex Theater in the South Side, this funding comes too late. The theater announced in September it would be closing its doors.

“It’s been an extreme challenge to navigate this past year, as it has for everybody. But venues are in a unique position when it comes to this pandemic,” says Katie Moran. She’s a Pittsburgh based promoter and concert producer with Opus One Productions. “We were the first to close and we’re gonna be the last to reopen.”

Moran says they can’t bring in revenue but still have expenses to pay. Some artists turned to live streamed performances in light of the pandemic, but Moran says others opted out. 

“I know a lot of acts that just want nothing to do with the online performances. They’re finding ways around it whether it’s streaming old shows that were recorded or hunkering down in the studio and writing, but it’s just not the same.”

Moran says her job completely changed in the pandemic. 

“It was really strange for the first three to six months to rip apart everything that we built.” From there, Moran says she’s been working to keep down expenses, while also rebooking some shows for the fourth or fifth time. 

“The good news is, when shows can return and things are ‘normal’, it's gonna be back so strong. Everyone is just chomping at the bit to get going again and hopefully the fans can wait it out.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.


Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago.
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Isabelle is a student at George Washington University studying Political Communication. She loves all things Pittsburgh sports and serves as a sports anchor for GW-TV. In her free time, she enjoys museum hopping and walking her dog, Stevie.
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