Friday, March 9, 2012

Fourth-grader teaches city school district a lesson in Civil Rights

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 3:10 PM

Thanks to a bold fourth-grader's decision to call foul on the Pittsburgh Public Schools for violating federal law, boys and girls who play basketball for elementary school teams in the district are about to wrap up their inaugural season this week. 

On Saturday, the girls from Montessori will take on Colfax in the championship game, while in the boys division, Liberty will play Dilworth. The two championship games, to be held at Tayler Allderdice High School, will mark the end of a season that wouldn't have been if not for the advocacy work of Charlotte Murphy. 

Last winter, as Murphy's girls basketball team (one of just two girls teams in the entire district at the time) was preparing to begin their season at Point Breeze's Linden Elementary School, Murphy noticed that her team's practices were getting cancelled to accommodate games and practices for Linden's boys' team. As if that wasn't maddening enough, the school then cancelled the girls' basketball season before it even started. 

The school's decision didn't seem fair to Murphy. When she vented her frustration to her mom — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ann Belser — the fourth-grader learned a lesson about Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Under the law, schools must provide equal opportunities for boys and girls in athletics. 

Murphy quickly noticed how the law applied to her situation.

"I said, 'That's a violation of Title IX!'" she recalls.

But Murphy didn't just identify the gender-equity issue — she acted on it.

In January 2011, Murphy wrote a letter to Superintendent Linda Lane, advising the head of the Pittsburgh Public Schools that the district was in violation of Title IX and requesting a meeting to address the situation.

"I am a 4th grader at Linden Elementary school and I have been a member of the girls basketball team for a while now," Murphy's letter begins. "Our season was canceled ... Boys basketball is going fine. This is a violation of federal law, title nine. I would like to request a meeting to discuss this matter. Please call [me] to set it up."

"She accused Lane of violating federal law," says Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney at the Women's Law Project, who later worked with Murphy and the district to fix the gender-equity issue within the district's elementary schools. "It was kind of hilarious, and quite similar to a letter I might write under those circumstances."

Much to Murphy's surprise — and to the superintendent's credit — Lane responded to the letter. 

"I would very much like to meet with you to discuss these allegations," Lane wrote to Murphy in a letter dated March 2, 2011. "I am impressed that at such an early age, you have taken the initiative to inform yourself of your civil rights and then assert yourself to bring about social justice."

When Lane and Murphy met last May, the two discussed the fourth-grader's concerns. Murphy didn't think the way the district handled the elementary basketball teams was fair, says Lane. "I didn't think it was fair, either."

By the end of their meeting, Lane assured Murphy that the situation would be fixed by the start of the next basketball season. 

This past fall, however, Murphy learned that the solution devised by the elementary schools was to simply create a co-ed league, with boys and girls playing on the same teams. It wasn't exactly the solution she had envisioned. 

"Co-ed leagues are basically boys' leagues with a couple of girls thrown in for good measure," says Murphy. 

Murphy's mom then got in touch with Lane again to inform the superintendent that the new plan fell short of their expectations. Lane agreed that a co-ed league was problematic. "Girls can be put at a disadvantage in co-ed," says Lane.

For the next few months, Murphy, Lane and the Women's Law Project worked to develop a systemic solution to the problem. In December, the district announced that, in order for an elementary school to sponsor a boys basketball team, they also had to sponsor a girls team. 

But, Lane says, "There was a lot of pushback."

Elementary school principals worried that the new rule would cause schools to drop their girls and boys basketball teams, since they doubted enough girls would be interested in playing. 

As it turned out, however, 14 of the district's 16 elementary schools were able to field both boys and girls teams. (At one school, 40 girls showed up for tryouts.)

"I guess we proved them wrong," Murphy says. 

Unfortunately for Murphy, her Linden girls team didn't make the playoffs this season, earning a 2-4 record. Not that it matters, though.

"We had a losing season," she says. "But at least there was a season."

He's ba-a-a-a-a-a-ck! Cyril Wecht lashes out in angry letter to Fitzgerald

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 11:43 AM

Cyril Wecht, the county's longtime coroner whose career has mixed international fame with local controversy, is taking after county executive Rich Fitzgerald in a dispute about whether Wecht should have his old job back.

Wecht stepped down from the position six years ago, after federal prosecutors charged him for wrongly mixing county duties with his private practice. That case fell apart, and if anyone ended up looking bad, it was local US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. But Wecht was never restored to his former county position ... and now he's demanding to know why.

Wecht has sent Fitzgerald an 8-page letter -- a full copy of which can be viewed here -- accusing Fitzgerald of holding Wecht to a double-standard. The letter, which Wecht has circulated to supporters and media outlets, contends that Fitzgerald objected to Wecht performing outside work ... but says the current medical examiner, Karl Williams, has engaged in such work himself. "I want to make it clear for the record that I do not believe Williams [or] other M.E. [pathologists] are doing anything that is illegal or unethical," the letter adds. "However, it requires no further comment or analysis to point out the blatant hypocrisy of your stance."

Most intriguingly, Wecht's letter suggests that his track record for investigating, and publicly criticizing, police conduct might be part of the reason Fitzgerald has denied him the job.

Citing second-hand reports that Fitzgerald considered Wecht too "loud" for the post, Wecht argues, "I am certain that the 'loudness' you are concerned about relates in significant measure to the Open Inquests I conducted as Coroner in all police-related deaths ... There has not been a single inquest conducted since I left office in January 2006. Thus, police-related deaths (almost all of which involve white officers and African-American victims) are never publicly scrutinized. Our illustrious D.A. is the sole and final arbiter, and the record shows that he will not pursue charges against any police officers in such cases."

In the past, Wecht has called for charges to be filed against officers involved in controversial deaths ... calls that have not always been welcome by other law-enforcement officials. DA Stephen Zappala in particular has publicly objected to Wecht's use of the coroner's inquest, resulting in an often ugly feud. Wecht has been a sharp critic of Zappala since then, accusing the DA of using his office to settle family scores. Wecht's letter suggests that the hatchet is far from buried: "I want to know who -- besides a small cabal manipulated by little Stevie boy Zappala behind the scenes, and some other personal Wecht-haters -- have influenced you to make this decision," he writes.

In recent days, Wecht has become a forceful critic of Fitzgerald: He has publicly objected to the Fitzgerald-engineered dismissal of longtime Health Department head Bruce Dixon, and has spoken out on KDKA Radio. His letter suggests, however, that before going public with those criticisms, he'd actively campaigned for the ME job behind the scenes. The letter refers to a "multitude of letters" sent on Wecht's behalf by such well-known figures as former mayor Sophie Masloff, union leader Jack Shea, and GOP grande dame Elsie Hillman. "How many people do you think could get 50 letters such as the ones I acquired from these kinds of people?" the letter asks.

The letter also suggests that Fitzgerald asked Wecht to hold his peace, by keeping mum about the issue at a press conference Wecht held with Dixon on the danger of prescription drugs. Wecht's letter included a news clipping of the press conference, citing it as proof that "I do not need the M.E. position to deal with professional matters [or] to convene a large news media turnout."

Indeed, Wecht may be able to garner plenty of media attention just by sending a single 8-page letter. When I called Fitzgerald spokeswoman Amie Downs, she said she'd been getting calls about it, but without having seen a copy of it herself. When the Fitzgerald camp has a response, I'll have it in a future post.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Local charter schools have uneven record, district review finds

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 12:24 PM

"Charter schools are the best thing since sliced bread!"

"No! They're evil!"

In the last couple of years, this has been the rhetoric as the debate over charter schools has revved up in the state legislature. So which side is right?

Probably neither. Just as there are good and bad traditional public schools, there are good and bad charter schools. And there's no better way to illustrate that point than to take a look at the Pittsburgh Public Schools' recent recommendations on renewal applications filed by two local high schools the district charters.

On Tuesday, the city district recommended that the school board renew City Charter High, located Downtown. Yet they also advised the board to reject the renewal application for Career Connections Charter High School, in Lawrenceville.

To reach those recommendations, the district's charter review teams conducted site visits, examined financial reports and reviewed student performance data to determine whether each school has been living up to the terms of its charter agreement with the district. Judging by the review teams' findings, it's easy to see that one has and one hasn't.

City High boasts test scores well above district averages in reading and math. For example, 78.6 percent of the school's 11th-graders scored proficient or better in reading in 2011. Just 59 percent of the district's 11th-grade students, by comparison, scored the same. In math, the gap between City High and the district average was closer, but the charter's scores were still better by about three percentage points.

In addition to City High's positive test scores, the review team highlighted the educational opportunities offered at the school, most notably its senior internship program, which includes an "extensive list of business partners," according to the district. The report also praised the school's "innovative instructional strategies."

The same couldn't be said for Career Connections.

"A failure of the school to meet the conditions, standards and procedures contained in the original charter agreement prompted the District's charter review team to recommend the Board not renew the charter of Career Connections Charter High School," a press release from the district states. "The team found very few students were participating in authentic internships, a key component of the charter's mission.

"In many cases student internships were achieved by students continuing to work at previously held jobs," the release continues. A majority of students were not in internships at all, but instead pursuing dual enrollment."

Test scores didn't help the school's chances of renewal, either.

In 2011, just 18.5 percent of Career Connections' 11th-graders scored at least proficient in math, a 32.5 percentage-point drop from the previous year ... and well below the district high school average of 47.5 percent.

"The lack of a true internship program, academic rigor, and any evident of innovative teaching led the team to conclude the charter did not provide the district with expanded choices or educational opportunities," the district states in the press release.

This isn't the first time the district recommended not to renew Career Connections' charter. In 2007, the district's review team advised the board to reject the school's renewal application because of "substantial violations of the law and consistent low performance." After the recommendation, however, the charter resolved some of the issues and planned to address other concerns, prompting the board to approve the renewal application.

The Pittsburgh school board is expected to vote on the review teams' recommendations on March 21.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ravenstahl campaign reports reveal GOP ties

Posted By on Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 2:26 PM

Does Mayor Luke Ravenstahl plan to run for re-election next as a Republican?

Not likely ... although some of his campaign's expenditures last year do raise some interesting questions.

This week, City Paper's Chris Young looks at some of the unusual expenditures made by the mayor's campaign, including country club dues and Super Bowl trips. But in poring through the reports, we also noted that the campaign had made some notable payments to Republicans.

Among them was a $1,000 campaign contribution to Republican state House Majority leader Mike Turzai. Turzai has been a leading supporter of privatizing state stores and a much-maligned voter ID bill -- issues that have been hot-buttons for unions and other Democratic constituencies. Of course, Harrisburg is dominated by Republicans, and currying favor with the leadership might be just good sense. But what makes Ravenstahl's support notable is that he has largely ignored legislative leaders in his own party.

Only two other politicians received donations from the mayor's campaign last year: Both of them -- Jeff Koch and Vince Pallus -- were running for city council against opponents of the mayor. In fact, between 2008 and 2011, Ravenstahl has contributed money to only three Harrisburg Democrats: state Rep. Dan Deasy, a former city councilor who chairs the city's water authority; former state Rep. Todd Eachus of Luzerne Couty; and Keith McCall, a former House speaker from Carbon County.

As the Post-Gazette reported last year, Ravenstahl also hired two well-traveled GOP fund-raisers to handle his $500-a-head kickoff campaign fundraiser last fall. Campaign records show he paid Amy Petraglia and Carey Dunn Sirianni a total of $41,740. While the P-G noted that the pair had done work for Democrat Mark Patrick Flaherty during his failed run for county executive last year, it noted their clients usually included "Gov. Tom Corbett and other Republicans."

Those Republicans, in fact, include: Senator Pat Toomey, Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and former Congresswoman Melissa Hart. More recently, the pair have been named to the Western Pa. finance team for Steve Welch, the Republican candidate looking to unseat Sen. Bob Casey in the fall.

The mayor's campaign manager, Paul McKrell, did not return emails seeking comment about the expenditures. But Nancy Patton Mills, who chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, says Ravenstahl has always supported the party. She surmises the Turzai donation might simply reflect Ravenstahl's need to work with all sides.

Still, she added, "The Allegheny County Democratic Committee won't be hiring [Petraglia and Sirianni] and we definitely won't be giving any money to Mr. Turzai."

Another campaign expenditure, meanwhile, may prove the most intriguing. On April 8, 2011, Ravenstahl made a $20,000 loan to an entity called the "Committee for a Better Pittsburgh." According to the campaign finance reports, $17,000 of that loan was paid back later in the year.

At this point, it's not clear what that organization is, or the causes it supports: We could find few records for it other than a mailing address in the city's East End. But last year, the Tribune-Review reported that White Oak businessman John Kostelac planned to form a group called Committee for a Better Pittsburgh, with the intention of running more Republicans for city offices. Kostelac told the paper that "City Republicans realize that a one-party rule for so long created a class of self-serving bureaucrats, relative nepotism, and has become stale and decadent."

Kostelac told the paper that he had not yet formed a political committee, and it's not clear if his organization is the same one the mayor loaned money to. John Kostelac is on vacation until the beginning of April. A call to the owner of the home address given for the committee has also gone unreturned. We'll provide updates as they become available.

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