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Money for Something

Foundation money may return to Pittsburgh schools by year's end -- if mysterious conditions are fulfilled

Heinz Endowments President Maxwell King says Heinz will probably resume funding the Pittsburgh Public Schools soon, provided some as-yet-unnamed conditions are met this year.

"Once the recommendations come out from the mayor's commission and it looks like some of the recommendations will be acted on, that funding will be restored," King told the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists meeting here June 20.

Heinz, along with the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Grable Foundation, withdrew $3.5 million in grant funding from the city schools last July, citing the "dysfunctional" governance of the school board, whose discussions last year had often degenerated into rancorous fighting, as well as a lack of unanimous support for the very initiatives the foundations had helped pay for.

Following the foundations' move, Mayor Tom Murphy established the 38-member Mayor's Commission on Public Education to make recommendations. The commission's investigations have been entirely secret. However, King -- a commission member -- said the silence should end in the next few weeks when the commission presents its long-awaited reports.

"Each of these three foundations very much wants to fund public education in Pittsburgh, so we won't drag our heels" in restoring funds, King told City Paper after speaking to the cartoonists. "My guess is by the end of the calendar year." Though this is the most specific information to date about a possible resumption of grants to the schools, "I don't think it's a change of position," King says. "We always said from the very beginning, from the first press conference, that we wanted to come back."

His earlier comment, he says, related to changes in school-board composition after the May primary elections. Well-organized upstart Patrick Dowd pulled off an upset victory against current school-board President Darlene Harris; Harris has been a staunch critic of schools' Superintendent John Thompson and other central administrators, while Dowd campaigned on building a more cooperative relationship. A candidate aligned with the Harris-led board majority, Eileen Papale, was also defeated -- by Dan Romaniello -- in her bid for retiring board member Jean Wood's seat.

But, King says, the simple act of electing new board members isn't enough to bring the money back. So: What "recommendations" do the foundations want the school board to heed? "I'm not prepared to say. Until the process is concluded" -- and the Mayor's Commission report is made public -- "none of us wants to talk about specifics," King says.

OK then -- how about the oft-made speculation that the commission will recommend an appointed or partially appointed school board? "It'll only be a few weeks and you'll know," King promises.

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