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Learning to Choose

Advocates debate over best way to choose new Pittsburgh Public Schools’ superintendent

Hours after Pittsburgh Public School District Superintendent Linda Lane announced she would not seek to renew her contract, local stakeholders were already weighing in on the search for the district’s next superintendent. Most called for a national search and community input.

Now, a week later, these stakeholders are debating what that community input should look like. Some say community members should be included on a screening committee, similar to Mayor Bill Peduto’s Talent City process that was used to fill city positions. But others argue that a screening committee would take the decision out of the hands of the district’s school board, which has the final word in selecting the new superintendent.

“This is obviously the board’s job, but we hope we will be looking nationally for a high-quality leader,” says Carey Harris, executive director of education watchdog A+ Schools. “We think getting more community people invested in the search is in everyone’s best interest. This is a very critically important job, and people want to be engaged.”

In the past, Pittsburgh’s school board has taken different approaches to finding a new superintendent. Some boards have hired private search firms, while others have turned to education experts like former superintendent Helen Faison.

So far, A+ Schools, county-wide education-advocacy organization Allies for Children, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh’s leader Esther Bush and Saleem Ghubril, from the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship fund, have called for a search process that would create a committee of community members to screen applicants.

“The mayor did this with the chief of police. The mayor went out and identified some really talented people who were well respected by the community,” says Patrick Dowd, a former school-board member and president of Allies for Children. 

Dowd says a screening committee would lend transparency and credibility to the selection process by including members of the public. Hiring a private firm alone would do the opposite, he says. 

“If you had a national search with set criteria and a screening committee, it would be more transparent than if you had a private firm,” says Dowd. “By establishing credibility early on, they’re setting up a process whereby the public should have more confidence in the outcome.” 

Despite agreeing that the board should hear input from parents, students, teachers, community members and leaders, and that the board needs administrative support in the process, groups like Great Public Schools Pittsburgh say a screening committee would take power away from the school board. GPSP is comprised of union organizations Action United, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Local 400, SEIU 32BJ and SEIU Healthcare PA, along with activist groups Yinzercation, One Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.

“I think they should hire a national search firm,” says Pamela Harbin, a member of GPS. “What we’re objecting to is the Talent City model that the mayor used to screen candidates. That’s undemocratic. We have nine democratically elected school-board members. The school board’s job is to hire the superintendent.”

Over the weekend, this debate played out on #OurSchoolsOurSuperintendent, a new Facebook group created by Harbin. For some observing the debate from the outside, it seems as if the opposing groups have more common ground than they think.

“What I caught the other day was two clearly passionate people in conversation who seemed to be missing the values behind what the other was saying,” says Andy Parker, who joined online discussion.

But those who oppose a screening committee say the difference between the two sides is more nuanced.

“We want our board to use a professional process with a lot of community input, but we want the board to be the final arbiter,” says Jessie Ramey of GPS. “The school board would not be relinquishing its duty and turning that over to an outside group. It doesn’t make sense to add another layer or filter.”

Despite clamoring from the public, current and incoming board members tasked with choosing the next superintendent have not yet shared their plan. A private board meeting is scheduled for this week.

“The public has entrusted the elected school board to lay out the best process for selecting the superintendent,” says Kevin Carter, who was selected to represent District 8 in the May primary. “That’s why the school board is elected.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story listed One Pittsburgh as a union.

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