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In split vote, PPS board will not reinstate controversial discipline policy

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Education reporter Sarah Schneider explains the vote taken by the Pittsburgh Public School board last night, and previews how the district plans to balance its budget; the Pittsburgh International Airport is expecting a surge in passengers this Thanksgiving holiday; and we talk about the history of why the commonwealth uses judicial retention. 

PPS board doesn’t reinstate disciplinary policy, some members say they will look to other solutions
(0:00 - 6:18)

Last night, a bid to reinstate a stricter disciplinary policy failed before the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board. The vote ended in a tie, 4-4 with member Kevin Carter, absent from the meeting.

Last summer, the board reversed a policy around disorderly conduct, which eliminated suspension for repeated “level one" offenses by students, which includes tardiness and profane language. Board member Terry Kennedy proposed bringing back punishment for such behavior.

“This was Terry Kennedy’s last board meeting as a member, and right before, leading up to this the board had met with high school principals who are very concerned about the safety in their school buildings and they were asking the board for help,” says Sarah Schneider, WESA’s education reporter.

Board members agreed with Kennedy that schools need more support, but were split about what action to take.

Schneider says those who voted against the proposal noted that new school board members will be sworn in on December 6 and should have a chance to vote on the issue. They also pointed out that students are returning to classrooms after a year learning from home, and are likely experiencing trauma along with the change.

“Monday was the district’s [monthly public hearing] and it went almost four hours long,” says Schneider. Advocates and community advocates attended the hearing to say the policy in question disproportionately impacts Black students and students with disabilities.

“They were saying, you know, these kids don’t need to again be removed from school, they need help in the school, and that this district has a moral obligation to be there and support those students.

In addition to addressing safety in the coming months, the board will also have to vote on a proposed budget. Right now, the district is facing a $56 million deficit and the budget put forth by administrators does not include any tax hikes.

The board’s next meeting will take place Dec. 22.

Air travel is ramping up ahead of the holidays, still below pre-pandemic levels
(6:22 - 14:24)

This Thanksgiving holiday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it expects to screen about 20 million passengers, nearly reaching pre-pandemic levels of air travel.

I would expect to see a little bit of a busier travel scene than some might have seen last year. It'll resemble a little bit more of what you can expect to see in 2019 from that aspect of it,” says Bryan Dietz, Senior Vice President of Air Service and Commercial Development for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

Pittsburgh International Airport has seen an increase in passengers, but it is still below pre-pandemic levels.

“We still have a ways to go. We’re not out of this yet, but being at 78% of our 2019 levels is certainly a positive direction that we’re seeing here at the airport,” he says.

Dietz says Pittsburgh International is expecting a surge of passengers departing Wednesday night, as well as a surge of people returning Saturday and Sunday.

“We care a lot about our employees and our staff here at the airport,” says Dietz. “As we head into the holiday, we're expecting a positive experience for travelers and employees alike.”

Last May, Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis told the Confluence she hoped the mask mandate at the airport would be relaxed by mid-September. The order, however, is still in place.

“We're making sure that each element of the passenger journey we're making, folks feel comfortable on, in addition to any of the federal guidance or regulations that are out there,” says Dietz.

The airport is taking enhanced safety measures for those traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, says Dietz. This includes the mask requirement and encouraging social distancing among travelers.

Pennsylvania’s history with judicial merit retention 
(14:28 - 22:30)

Elections Boards in Allegheny and other Pennsylvania counties this week certified the results of the November 2 elections, including those asking voters whether or not certain judges should retain their seats.

Darren Breslin, counsel with the Pennsylvania Commission on Judicial Independence, says there are a number of reasons that Pennsylvania uses this retention system in certain judicial elections, though the process hasn’t been without criticism.

This is a long history of judicial election versus appointment in Pennsylvania,” says Breslin.

The issue dates back to colonial times, he says, when judges were appointed by an executive council, before the state had a governor. In the 1850s, he says, there was a move to change to elections for judges.

State officials went back and forth about which system of selecting and retaining judges made sense. A compromise system was developed in the 1960s in which partisan elections would be held, followed by nonpartisan merit retention elections.

It’s rare, Breslin says, for judges to lose a retention election.

“It's usually for some issue they've gotten themselves in trouble, judicial temperament wasn't right, or other criteria just weren't met, and the voters decided they didn't want them to remain as a judge,” he says.

Concerns surrounding the process don't usually involve retention so much as the initial appointments, Breslin says. Most proposals he’s seen suggest using an appointment process for the initial selection of judges by a group. He says most still advocate for continuing to use retention elections.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.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. 

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