Next month, Mark Brentley will vacate his seat on the Pittsburgh Public School District board of directors. He was forced to leave a job with the city’s public-works department to run for the seat because of a bylaw forbidding city employees to run for office. But he won and held the position for 16 years. He’s currently the longest-serving African-American elected official in Pittsburgh.
Despite his longevity, he’s never been chosen to serve as president of the board, or the vice president, for that matter. Last month, another outgoing board veteran, William Isler, was recognized for his years of service with a proclamation by Pittsburgh City Council. So far, Brentley hasn’t received that pat on the back from his colleagues. He says he’s still waiting.
But none of that surprises Brentley. For four terms he has shown up to meetings in his trademark bow tie and spoken his mind on issues, and has never really been a favorite of his board colleagues or the media. His critics have painted him as an obstructionist who frequently plays the race card. But their criticism hasn’t seemed to matter, because when it came election time, his constituents in District 9 kept putting him back in office.
For many in the African-American community, Brentley’s unending critique of systemic racism in Pittsburgh is welcome. His supporters say he’s served as a loudspeaker for the city’s black children — voicing concerns about school segregation, unequal distribution of district resources, and growing achievement gaps between black and white students. And for them, his presence will be missed. Brentley says he plans to stay politically active and possibly even make another run at a state house seat to continue his advocacy for the schools. He took time recently to talk with City Paper about his often-tumultuous tenure.
Why did you decide to step down?
I love every minute of being on the board. But anybody who watches the meetings can clearly see it is often a battle of eight against one. I don’t mind. I am a soldier and I do enjoy a good fight, especially when it’s about defending and doing what’s right for children. But it’s a different mode up there the last 10 years. There’s just a total disregard for children, a total disregard for African Americans, a total disregard for taxpayers. And I can’t stop that. I can’t change it.
I know folks who sit at the table and have other agendas. That’s always been there. But it’s just so disturbing when there are at least three other African-American board members who know what I’m saying is correct but refuse it. That part is hard to stomach.
If you look at the folks that are there now, I think I counted close to 60 or 70 years of classroom experience. Never before in the history have we had that kind of experience. And when you see them at the table and they’re getting the same reports I’m getting, the same scores and test results clearly showing a widening gap for African Americans — not struggling anymore, failing — I just shake my head. Why do I have to convince educators that we have to do something to stop this bleeding? I should be the one following their lead. … But they’re not saying anything. … It’s propaganda. It’s hard to go along with that. It’s a different agenda now that has very little to do with helping and educating children.
You talk a lot about your struggles on the board over the years, but what are some of your victories?
The No. 1 thing is the [Take a Father to School Day] program, which I put together from scratch on my own, against the odds. When I ran, I said that’s what I wanted to do was to get men active, to get men involved. I did that, and I’d like to think it is now one of the most successful programs that we have in the district.
The second is eight or nine years ago, when I realized that work and business in the district was a good-old-boys network — mostly white men and white contractors who had relationships with the district that would allow them to get contracts. I changed the policy. … We hired a young man who specialized in increasing numbers for women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses and had him rewrite our policies. I presented it, and it passed. … And that’s why I raise questions every month. Are we spending with women-owned businesses, minority-owned business and smaller businesses?
Other than your controversial stances, why do you think you’ve stood out as a board member?
My involvement in the schools. Even at the risk of not being around my own children, I attended the majority of events. I would often remind people, “Please announce that a board member is here at the wrestling match, a board member is here at the basketball game,” because in our community the system doesn’t look like it’s working for us sometimes. So I wanted to show them, your elected official is here.
Why do you think you’ve experienced so much pushback over the years?
It is easier just to shut the hell up and look the other way. But that’s difficult for me. … It can be very, very scary coming in. You have to make a decision. Am I going to play ball with them, or am I going to do what’s right? And listen, it’s hard. If you decide to do what’s right, it’s going to cost you. You will be minimized, you will be targeted. … The stress and pressure is unbelievable. You are made to feel like everything is on your shoulders. Any board member that tells you they’ve got things under control is lying.
During the recent election for your seat on the board, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette referred to you as a “combative naysayer” and said your decision not to run for re-election was the “best news for [your] constituents.” Do you think you’ve been cast as a villain?
They refer to me as combative. … I’ve lost my job twice because I was elected to the school board. I lost my home. I’ve lost both vehicles and on my way out the door to be described as combative. … I’m not looking for a pat on the back, but this is an extremely tough and racist city even when we do right. I’m doing my public duty. Being on the board has cost me. … People have often said the most valuable thing you can give is your time. Regardless of my skin color and my politics, I should’ve been at least recognized for the time I gave up.
You’ve been critical of school-district administrators, and of how the school board is run. What would you change?
The biggest rip-off in this state is having board members be volunteers. These should be full-time, paid positions where we’re independent. That would avoid all of the controversy. But because we’re volunteers, and because we work in the political sphere, it’s difficult. And that’s the position I’ve been in for almost 16 years.