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Schoolhouse of Cards

Pittsburgh school board girds for soon-to-be-announced consolidation plan

Pittsburgh's school board took the first public step last week in a months-long process that historically has caused the district strife -- school "realignment," or the closing and consolidation of some of the city's schools.


Introduced to the board last week, for possible approval on Feb. 24, were proposals for two contracts: one for $15,900 to then-unnamed Carnegie Mellon University researchers for "statistical validation" of the plan (performing a demographic analysis of the district's plan, to see whether it makes sense now and in the future) and one to fund an unnamed public-relations contractor with an unspecified amount -- presumably to sell the plan to the public.


In her 28 years on the school board, Jean Fink's been through this before: When a certain something "hits the fan, it's gonna hit hard," she says. By March 15, the school board intends to make its plan public. Board members insist they haven't seen the plan yet, either. Earlier this year, they agreed that the district's professional staff would develop recommendations and -- in the interest of impartiality -- that the nine board members would stay out of it. As Fink says: "I don't think we're being unduly secretive, but we've tried to work together. It's been very difficult and a long process for us to come up with criteria that we agree on."


Board member Randall Taylor -- who said he was commenting reluctantly for fear of "getting in trouble" with his fellow board members -- says the board's keeping a low profile to forestall the feared public firestorm: "The only reason people are operating like this is because it's such a touchy and emotional issue. We've got to be successful with this, otherwise board members will back off and we'll just continue spending money until we're broke. If you think it can't happen, just look at city council."


Consolidation is necessary because the district has a physical capacity for more than 50,000 students but an enrollment of only 34,000. The plan is coming forward now to meet the legal requirement of a 90-day public comment period before a school is closed. "We could put it off," Fink says, "but are we being responsible managers if we put it off? It was just to the point where the excess capacities were smacking us in the face."


Just two years ago Fink was pushing hard to re-open two of the very small schools in her electoral district that Superintendent John Thompson had closed to save money. Today, Fink says she's "prepared for any eventuality."


The best means of school consolidation is not obvious and consensus won't be easy. Some say looking at size alone -- close the small ones -- is the only fair way; others say to close schools that are "underutilized." Another approach: keeping modern or just-renovated buildings at the expense of those in need of repair. Yet another idea is to keep open schools whose students are deemed "high-achieving."


Shuttering buildings is only part of the district's challenge: What do they do with a closed school? Most district-owned parcels wouldn't sell on the real-estate market. Gladstone Middle School in Hazelwood, closed in the partial consolidation of 2000, sits empty. So does the old Creative and Performing Arts High School building in Homewood. Only recently did the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority agree to try to sell the long-vacant South Hills High School for the district.


Educational considerations are often drowned out by intense pressure from community boosters to keep schools open as a guarantee of local property values. Past realignments of the district have often gotten ugly. Board President Bill Isler of Squirrel Hill, who did not respond to requests for comment, will likely need to navigate a minefield. Right now, there seems to be a tenuous consensus on the school board to pursue consolidation and to at least partially delegate decision-making to the district's professional staff.


"It's impossible to do this process from start to finish in the Kaufmann's window," says board solicitor Ira Weiss. "I think they're going about it in a very prudent way" -- albeit privately, so far. Weiss said the board's discussions so far did not violate the state open-meetings law, and "This school board -- Pittsburgh's -- does more in public than any other."


Weiss has some advice for the school consolidation decision: "As the months unfold there's plenty of public involvement coming up: Bring lots of water, food and NoDoze."

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