In the warm night air, standing near the steps of the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library, two candidates seeking seats on the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education continued their debate over whether schools should lock down doors during the day.
Both were intense, carrying the discussion over from one that had started earlier in front of a roomful of parents, educators and community leaders.
"We got to work on the community and then you won't have to worry about drug dealers coming into the schools," said Lucille Prater-Holliday, a candidate for the District 1 seat. Dave Schuilenburg, a candidate for the District 9 seat, countered: "All I can do is control what happens inside the school, and if that means that I'm going to keep the drug dealers out by allowing the doors to open only one way, I'm going to do it."
"OK, OK. But there is also an alternative," Prater-Holliday continued.
Schuilenburg and Prater-Holliday weren't alone that night: Six other candidates seeking a spot on the school board also mingled outside the library, voices occasionally rising over issues such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests and the district's pressing financial distress. All had been shooed out of the library, which had closed as they continued their discussions following a panel debate hosted by the NAACP.
"This blew my mind," says Tina Weeden, a Homewood woman who has two nephews in Pittsburgh Public Schools, after she heard each of the eight talk about their backgrounds and voice their opinions on the district.
"These candidates came out swinging and telling," she says. "The change is here. I feel like crying."
The district is facing some of its toughest challenges yet. Pittsburgh Public Schools' 2013 General Fund, at $521 million — larger than the city's general-fund budget of about $469 million — includes a $9.8 million operating deficit. That's despite the recent closure of nearly two dozen neighborhood schools, and last year's $50 million trim in expenses, which included the layoff of about 300 teachers. If spending patterns continue, the district is expected to deplete its reserve balance by 2015, according to Superintendent Linda Lane.
At the same time, the district is working under an aggressive reform agenda, trying to raise the performance of low-income and African-American students, who make up 55 percent of the more than 26,000 students attending the district's 54 schools.
In the middle of it all looms the May 21 primary election.
Five seats for the school board are on the ballot. Only one incumbent, Thomas Sumpter of District 3, is running for re-election. With four open seats, the election — no matter who is voted in — will result in the biggest turnover seen on the board since the board switched from appointed to elected positions in 1976.
"It's the first time where four board members have said, 'I'm done, I've had enough,'" says retiring director Theresa Colaizzi, who represents District 5. She announced her decision along with Board President Sharene Shealey, of District 1; Floyd "Skip" McCrea, of District 9; and Jean Fink, of District 7. Their retirements are notable not just because they are all coming at once, but also because of the members' length of service. McCrea and Colaizzi are serving in their 12th year. Fink has been there for 33 years.
"I'm just tired," Fink says. "When I started my oldest child was starting high school. Now I have great-grandchildren."
But while the board is losing experienced members, parents and community organizations who monitor district decisions say they haven't ever been this excited about an election — or the slate of candidates they have to choose from.
Three of the races — all but Fink's District 7, which encompasses a large part of the city's southern neighborhoods — are contested.
"There is a real opportunity for change here," says Irene Habermann, chair of the education task force of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN). The candidates, she says "are bringing something different to the table."
Of the eight new candidates, two — Terry Kennedy and Stephen DeFlitch, both competing for the District 5 seat — are parents who have been active volunteers in the district for years. Two others, Schuilenburg and Prater-Holliday, are known community activists. The other four are former teachers — all with a decade or more of experience working in the district.
Sylvia Wilson, facing off in District 1 against Prater-Holliday, taught in elementary schools for 40 years before retiring at the beginning of this year. Cindy Falls, who is running unopposed for Fink's District 7 seat, spent 18 years as a health and technology instructor; Lorraine Burton-Eberhardt logged 31 years in the district teaching at all levels as well as working as a principal and administrator. Carolyn Klug has taught at the elementary- and middle-school level for more than 20 years. Both Klug and Burton-Eberhardt are running alongside Schuilenburg for the District 9 spot.
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, executive director of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, is thrilled with the choices, she says.
The teachers "have a real knowledge of what's important in the school and what's fluff," she says. "I'm getting goose bumps talking about this, but they get it. They got the big picture. They are the total package."
At the debate April 18 at the Homewood library, and during interviews and earlier forums held in their districts, the candidates have all hit substantive notes on the district's most pressing issues.
On the district's pending insolvency, the candidates talked about being frugal and targeted with the limited resources the district has — even if that meant diverting resources from one school to another that needed them more.
"Each and every school has its own climate, its own characteristics, its own culture," says Falls, who has been attending community meetings outside of her district in order to gain a better understanding of the needs of each school.
To raise achievement levels at the lower-performing schools, "maybe we rob Peter to pay Paul," she says.
DeFlitch, too, argues for more accountability and data to address disparities: "There's not one single report that operations puts out that shows school-level expenditures," he says of the need for site-based budgets. "How much money is your school getting and how does that compare to other schools?"
And while all the candidates express a willingness to be open to solutions to the budget challenge, Kennedy noted specifically at a recent forum that she is willing to look at increasing the district's tax rate.
"I don't think any of us are willing to raise taxes, but if that is the only way to plug the funding gap, I think we have to seriously consider that," she says.
Wilson, Klug and Falls, who have a history with the teachers' union, say that perspective could be helpful, too, when the teachers' contract comes up again for negotiation.
"I think at least I have an understanding of both sides," Wilson says. "I know what the process is like, I know what each side looks at."
When it comes to testing, particularly the PSSA test, the candidates, as a whole, seem to agree that there is too much testing going on in the schools. Kennedy has gone the farthest in expressing her dissatisfaction, saying she would fight to opt the district out of the PSSA. Burton-Eberhardt, on the other end, emphasizes her support in measuring teachers' effectiveness through rating systems.
"The buck stops with the teachers," she says.
Schuilenburg, a 911 dispatcher, is the only candidate who has spoken in favor of the idea of arming school resource officers, although he notes that he would advocate for putting such a decision on a referendum before approving it. "I take to heart increasing security in our schools," he says.
Frances May-Burke, co-chair of the education committee for the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP, says she is impressed, overall, with the options voters have.
"They all have a different way they want to do it. But it comes together. It's like you've got flour, a little bit of salt and a little bit of sugar, and it all comes together."
The candidates have more forums scheduled, including another where all eight will meet: 6 p.m. Wed., May 8, at the Kaufmann Center in the Hill District.
"[Everyone] should be paying as much attention to the school-board race as they are to the mayor's race," says parent Deborah Ferrington. "Even more so."