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No Tom Like the Present 

Bad timing defined: Murphy anointed schools savior amid city budget crisis

 

When a group of mayoral appointees issued their report on the city school system last week, only Mayor Tom Murphy's desperate attempt to escape to the elevators hinted at his summer of political troubles. Ignoring for the moment the congenial pack of commission members themselves -- who'd been for the last year as tight-lipped and cloistered as a murder jury about their deliberations -- the television cameras swarmed the beleaguered Murphy. He stammered answers to their questions until at last an elevator car arrived at the old Alcoa building's "penthouse" on the 31st floor

 

The Mayor's Commission on Public Education -- led by Murphy backers and former appointees -- had just recommended that the Pittsburgh Public Schools board be appointed by Murphy and confirmed by city council, implying that such an arrangement would be more objective and less "political" and "parochial." Currently, the school board members (like city council) are elected in nine geographic districts.

 

The commission was appointed by Murphy last July, following the dramatic decision by three local foundations -- the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Grable Foundation -- to express a "no-confidence" vote in the school board by pulling $3.5 million in grant funding. The 38-member commission then formulated recommendations in three areas: leadership and governance; school funding and financial management; and student performance, standards and accountability. Although a 137-page report covering all three topics was released, the group's most controversial finding surely will be their unanimous recommendation for a mayor-appointed school board. According to the report, "Electing school board members by geographic areas invites a parochial view of issues brought before the board. Members too often feel obligated to consider the narrow interests of their constituents first ...."

 

When the commission was formed, skeptics charged that it was merely a well-funded way to legitimize a mayor-controlled board. But commission member Mark Nordenberg, University of Pittsburgh chancellor, insists that all options were considered: "We looked at ways we might take less dramatic actions." At-large elections were dismissed for being least likely to produce a racially diverse board; a hybrid board of elected and appointed members was also rejected: "We were looking to create an environment where board members felt they were in it together," Nordenberg concluded. Presumably, together they would also reflect the mayor's views.

 

With the city's own financial house not in order, did Murphy really want responsibility for selecting the school board?

 

"I haven't asked for it," Murphy said after the report's release, while conceding, "I do want an appointed board."

 

But Murphy had long ago thrust himself into school board politics -- to help elect the board he now wants to replace. In the 2001 elections, he joined other politicians in pushing for new members who supported "neighborhood schools" -- specifically the reopening of several small schools closed in budget-balancing moves by Superintendent John Thompson.

 

After the 2001 elections, with the "neighborhood schools" slate helping to form a new majority, bitter fighting between the Thompson-opposing majority faction and the Thompson-supporting minority flared up nearly every month until the foundations pulled their funds last July. Longtime board member Evelyn Neiser, who was part of the pre-1976 appointed school board (chosen by Court of Common Pleas judges) and who continued serving on the elected board, was defeated in the 2001 election by "neighborhood schools" slate candidate Floyd McCrea. "I don't know why [Murphy] became involved," Neiser said last week. "When he did the board fell apart. They put the politics in. It brought the board down."

 

In its plan for an appointed board, the Mayor's Commission proposes a citizens' nominating committee submit a list of names to the mayor from which appointees would be chosen; the picks would require confirmation by city council. Nordenberg says he's willing to lobby for legislation to make this possible.

 

Former city councilor (now Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds) Valerie McDonald Roberts served on the school board (1989-94) and opposes an appointed board. "Appointments are extremely political," she says. "We're talking about taking politics out, but that puts the politics in. You might as well have the mayor there on the board. They could make a nonpolitical appointment, someone who has not campaigned with them, but how many [politicians] do you know who won't appoint someone they can trust, an ally?"

 

As proposed, the appointed board would still work with the superintendent to create the budget, but because non-elected bodies can't levy taxes, the schools' taxing authority -- without a line-item veto -- would move to city council.

 

Even without direct influence on specifics in the completed budget, council isn't likely to sit quietly waiting to receive the finished product. "If there's control, they're gonna influence it," says McDonald Roberts. "I would not want to see any organization deliberating on any budget they're not intimately involved with."

 

City council has already influenced the school board. Councilors Jim Motznik and Gene Ricciardi (a presumed mayoral aspirant) joined Murphy in opposing the closure of some neighborhood schools -- although the mayor's commission report now urges school consolidation to "right-size" the district. It's also no secret that Ricciardi and Motznik criticized the building of a new Homewood elementary school to alleviate overcrowding in that neighborhood, as well as the construction of the new Downtown Creative and Performing Arts High School. Recently, even without actual authority, the city government prevailed upon the school board to help with the city's budget crisis by picking up the crossing-guard tab.

 

Still, most of the commission's advice -- especially in the "supporting recommendations" sections -- is not radical at all. In fact, it's very familiar. Though this lack of originality could be a criticism of the commission, District 2 school board candidate Patrick Dowd (of Highland Park) says this is good: "They're echoing all we've heard, and that means they're right on the money." The need to consolidate schools to save on facilities and administration costs is old, unfinished business; now, compared to the appointed-board idea, it suddenly seems a lot less controversial.

 

Other recommendations will help today's schoolchildren even sooner -- and these are the likeliest to garner support from both board factions, as well as the administration and the public. For example: more alternative education options for disruptive students, more social supports for disadvantaged pupils, comprehensive early-childhood programming, academically rigorous extended-day and extended-year offerings, and incentives for experienced, highly qualified teachers to take tougher assignments in schools with mostly low-income students.

 

All of these would help raise the performance of the district's low-income majority, whose current underachievement is what pulls overall scores below state averages. Yet these changes will still require political will, because they're personnel-intensive -- and therefore not cheap. Unlike the city, the school district has money, in the form of an $80 million fund balance. Though some of it will be eaten up in assessment appeals and new state mandates, enough will likely remain for new programming. This fund is jeopardized only by the mayoral commission's highly political recommendation of a two-mill tax cut.

 

In this spring's primary election, first-time school-board candidate Dowd beat school board president Darlene Harris on both parties' tickets, and should take office in December, along with another new member, Dan Romaniello. "It seems to me that since the election there's been a change in attitude and outlook," Dowd says. "I think people are now more focused than they've been in a long time on the question of student achievement.

 

"When I ran, people said, 'Don't talk about student achievement, you'll lose.'" Conventional wisdom said that only talk of lowering taxes and keeping neighborhood schools could win. "But I did talk about achievement," he says, "and you could argue that in District 2 the electoral process was quicker than the commission."

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