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No Closure

State Rep. Jake Wheatley pushes legislation to keep city schools from closing -- just days before the board vote

Next fall, Pittsburgh's schools might look a lot different. At press time, the final vote on the district's school consolidation plan to reduce its excess capacity was scheduled for May 26 -- a month earlier than originally anticipated, thanks to a waiver from the state education department.


That's way too soon, says state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents several Pittsburgh neighborhoods including the Hill District, where parents are frantically flipping the jigsaw pieces in their neighborhood to deal with the community-wide fallout from the district's original plan to close Miller Elementary (see "Miller's Crossing").


Earlier in May, Wheatley sponsored and won passage of two amendments to the General Assembly's budget for 2004-05. If included in the final bill by July 1, they would constrain the district considerably, requiring the school board to use part of its annual state education subsidy to keep open the schools now slated to close. One amendment requires the district to keep all the schools open; the other amendment requires the district to continue to operate only the elementaries slated for closure. By putting both forward, Wheatley's hedging his bets.


"We should take this year," Wheatley says, "and come up with clear criteria and have a clear process by which we select the schools." Of course, district officials have been insisting that they did have clear criteria, based on census and enrollment data. Yet to the public -- and the General Assembly, apparently -- their rationale has seemed as clear as mud in some cases. Besides, Wheatley adds, the current round of closures won't eliminate all the excess capacity: "Don't piecemeal it. Develop a five-year plan."


He advocates "communal" decision-making, because "if you try to force something down people's throat, you're gonna always have reaction to the force."


Based on the calls to his office, he says, "People in my community felt as if they were powerless, as if the district was moving with disregard for their concerns."

Wheatley acknowledges that his legislation is no sure bet. The budget to which it's attached is traditionally and notoriously a sausage factory. Wheatley's amendments will likely join what amounts to a Sears Wishbook from the House, which will go head-to-head with the sundry desires of the Senate. Due by the beginning of next fiscal year, the legislators probably won't get down to serious negotiations until June -- after the school board has voted on its school-consolidation plan.


As school-board member Theresa Colaizzi of Greenfield points out, last year the state legislature didn't give school districts their budget until December, six months late. "They need to let us do our jobs," Colaizzi says. "We're a separate entity for a reason."


Says board member Skip McCrea, whose electoral district includes Mann Elementary, one of the schools slated to close, "'Don't close my school,' that's all I'm hearing. I keep saying, 'Give us a viable alternative.' And people don't really understand that. There's also, 'What's in it for me?' from taxpayers, [who say] 'Aren't you going to cut taxes?' But if we keep going like this, we'll have to raise taxes."


Still, McCrea is keeping his vote on the consolidation secret for now, insisting that he hasn't made up his mind. "I'm the voice of my community, and I'm listening to them," he says.

"There's a lot of talk going on," he acknowledges, adding that the plan may not go through as proposed.


One board member, at least, echoes Wheatley. Ironically, he's Wheatley's one-time rival for the statehouse, Mark Brentley, whose constituency also includes the Hill. "It's a massive plan to do in four months. It's too much in too little time with no community involvement. My colleagues patted themselves on the back. We had public comment. That's not public engagement; that's public reaction. Allow the community to put together a comprehensive plan," he concludes, mentioning the Hill in particular. "The answer will jump out if you give them the figures."


"I do think the community should have input," responds McCrea, "but there's no good way. We've done it with community input and it didn't work, like in 1996." That year, the city school board made its first major attempt to address the city's population decline. The most successful lobbyists were citizen groups who advocated a series of changes that led to racial resegregation, bitter race and class divisions in the community and grudges between school-board members that resurface even today. Worst of all, by the end of the 1990s, more schools had been opened than closed that decade, exacerbating the capacity surplus the board faces today.


Wheatley's proposed legislation suggests comparison with the Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and Lower School Taxes, a group of Democratic politicos from the South Hills city neighborhoods who campaigned successfully in 2001 for school-board members who would resist neighborhood school closings and reopen schools closed in 2000. But Wheatley insists he's not taking a hard line, even though his amendments would essentially place a rider on the district's state funding. "It's not to prevent closing ever, but to prevent closing this year. I hope this is not seen as a barrier. I, for one, and my colleagues in Harrisburg, understand the need to downsize capacity," he stresses. If this board has a chance to be more successful at "right-sizing" the district, the understanding of even those who want to slow it down is crucial.


Four, and even two years ago, it was a little-known fact -- even among elected officials -- that Pittsburgh had space for 50,000 students with only 35,000 actual little bodies. Now, everyone can cite those numbers.


"It's made people hit a reality check," explains board member Colaizzi. "Last time around, people weren't picking up the newspaper and reading how bad the city is and the county is. Now, people say, 'Let's not let [the schools] go down the tubes, too'."

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