Upcoming School Board Elections Could Mean ‘Potentially Huge’ Change for City District
Five of the nine seats on the Pittsburgh public schools board are up for election this year, and education advocates say the results could mean a sea change for the district – one that could result in a more skeptical board with respect to the district. leadership.
Tracey Reed, one of the challengers seeking a seat on the board, says the district needs to be held to higher standards. “What do we do if we can’t get the kids to a place where they can read competently and do numeracy competently?” she asks. “We have to think of outcomes not as ‘it’s inevitable’ but ‘it’s what is possible’.”
Reed is on a list of candidates supported by black women for better education, a newly formed PAC created in response to what members called a slow and inadequate shift to distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. In June, more than 50 people – parents, alumni, former PPS employees – signed a letter asking the board not to renew Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s contract.
But the board renewed his contract, with provisions for performance bonuses and annual salary increases. Board members Sala Udin and Bill Gallagher voted against the renewal.
Hamlet, however, said that because the district is in negotiations with the Pittsburgh Teachers’ Federation and educators have not received a raise, he will not accept a bonus or raise as long as the contract of the teachers’ union will not be signed.
Reed, who is seeking the District 5 seat currently held by Terry Kennedy, is joined on the BWBE slate by four others: District 1 challenger Grace Higginbotham; Sala Udin of District 3, the only incumbent on the slate; Khamil Scantling in District 7; and Gene Walker in District 9.
The list of candidates say they are focused on ensuring that black children get the education they deserve.
Fifty-three percent of PPS’s 22,000 students are black, 33 percent are white, and 14 percent are listed as “other races” on the district’s website. District-wide, less than 40 percent of black students read well in third grade.
“No one seems alarmed by this,” Reed said. “I don’t mean we should run around like our hair is on fire, but our hair is kind of on fire because [reading by third grade] largely determines the academic trajectory of a child, then his life trajectory. “
Council president Sylvia Wilson is seeking her third term as District 1 representative. She said the council needs to stand up for the entire district.
“Whoever is elected is obviously the one with whom we have to work. but making sure they understand the training that needs to be done, ”she said. “We’re not just going up on the board to come in and start screaming.”
Wilson said she worked “behind the scenes” to make sure the council sets goals for the district and for the superintendent. She said that now the superintendent is setting goals for the district leadership and that the board approves. She said the future board needs to take a more active role in evaluating the performance of the superintendent.
“In fact, we’ve worked hard enough to try to get the board to say exactly how boards are supposed to work,” she said. “But it takes time.”
A sign of how much the district could change this year, several candidates said their own children had attended or are currently attending charter schools.
Charters are publicly funded and are administered independently of the city’s school district. They were first licensed in Pennsylvania in 1997, when they were touted as an effort to give parents, students, and teachers another option, they were meant to be laboratories for innovation and to share what that they learned with public schools. Some educators say the strained relationship between the city’s neighborhood and the charters has prevented this from happening.
Scantling and Reed – who sits on the City Charter High School board – had children in charter schools. The same goes for Lamont Frazier, who challenges Udin, and Carlos Thomas, another candidate for Wilson’s District 1 seat.
This worries the president of the Pittsburgh Teachers’ Federation, Nino Esposito-Visgitis.
“I know it’s horrible,” she said of her opposition to charters. “Technically, they’re considered public schools, but I don’t consider them public schools. And to be honest [charters are] eating our lunch, so that worries me and I can’t stand them. They are killing us. I wish they’d go away, they’re not what they were meant to be.
The amendments of the PFT are in contradiction with all the choices of BWBE. The union supports Sylvia Wilson for District 1, Lamont Frazier for District 3, Kennedy for District 5, Jamie Piotrowski for District 7 and Delancey Walton for District 9. The union has supported Frazier, Esposito-Visgitis said, after having told his political committee that he wanted to know more about the issue of funding: “He did not understand and he wants to know more,” she said.
Reed and Scantling said they missed the deadline to apply for PFT support. Reed said by the time she got the message it was too late to apply, but Scantling said she wasn’t sure if she would have sought approval.
“They are responsible for a ton of misinformation, a lack of accountability in the district and maintaining a status quo, a broken and inequitable system,” she said in an email.
Udin and Higginbotham did not respond to a request for comment to clarify whether they were seeking PFT approval. Walker sought approval, Esposito-Visgitis said, but the committee approved his challenger Walton, an 18-year-old Duquesne University student and recent graduate of Montour High School in McKees Rocks. Esposito-Visgitis said Walker’s stance on charter schools and pensions was at odds with the PFT.
Wilson, a retired teacher who has worked with PFT for much of her career, made no apologies for her own support for the union.
“When I was first elected I think they thought I was going to come knock on the table and scream and yell and tell everyone what to do. And I was insulted a bit because that’s not the kind of person I am, ”she said. “All I have ever done is work for improvement on behalf of teachers and make sure teachers are treated fairly.”
A PA – a statewide advocacy group focused on education, economic and environmental justice – endorsed Frazier and Piotrowski.
Challenges and opportunities
Arguably, the two most important tasks of the board are to hire a superintendent and approve a budget. This last task does not get any easier.
The district’s budget in 2016, the year before Hamlet took over as superintendent, was $ 570.4 million. Enrollment has since grown from 23,200 students to around 20,400 at the start of the 2021 school year. But over the years, the budget has grown to $ 673.8 million. But money is becoming scarce.
In December council rejected administration’s attempt to raise taxes in an attempt to reduce its deficit by $ 39.5 million. Later this winter, the administration proposed to close six schools. The board filed the decision, but as it stands, 12 PPS schools have less than half of their capacity. 40 others have between 50 and 80 percent capacity. The district has 57 school buildings and the average age of a building is 75 years.
Schools in Watchdog Group A + cannot support candidates, but executive director James Fogarty has said the board needs to hold the administration accountable for its spending – and now is a crucial time. The district will receive around $ 100 million from a federal coronavirus relief plan, he noted, and soliciting the community’s contribution is vital.
“If you now have the money to make capital improvements in a really meaningful way, I think these conversations with the community as what we want to build a great school system… that’s a real opportunity for that. advice, ”he said.
More generally, he said, this year’s elections offer the potential for significant change in student thinking and priorities. Some schools in the district have more resources than others and are often located in predominantly white neighborhoods.
He notes, however, that historically between 20 and 25 percent of registered voters elected the district administration board.
You can read the candidates’ responses to a questionnaire from A + schools here.
“We want to seriously think about how to change this so that black and brown children in our district are more likely to experience programs like our Gifted Program, are more likely to participate.” [advanced placement] programs, are more likely to read at school level as early as grade three, ”he said.