Petition asks board to delay votes on key city school issues

School closing, building sale among requests

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With one legislative meeting left before four new Pittsburgh Public Schools board members are sworn in, Great Public Schools Pittsburgh is asking the board to delay voting on three key issues.

The organization has started a petition on change.org, signed by more than 550 supporters, asking the board to wait until new members are sworn in to vote on:

* A contract with Teach for America to provide 15 to 30 new teachers in hard-to-fill areas as well as to provide a more diverse teaching pool.

* Start of the process to close Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Lawrenceville-Bloomfield border.

* Sale of the Burgwin school building in Hazelwood for use as a Propel charter school.

The petition states, "This newly elected board represents the largest board turnover in over two decades, and the new board, duly elected by Pittsburgh voters, should have its say in these important issues."

The founding members of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh are Action United, One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, SEIU Healthcare PA and Yinzercation.

The school board has an agenda review meeting Wednesday and a voting meeting Nov. 26.

On Dec. 2, four new board members will be sworn in: Cynthia Falls, Carolyn Klug and Sylvia Wilson -- all three of whom are former district teachers -- and Terry Kennedy, a parent.

Ms. Klug, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Kennedy want the current board to wait. Ms. Falls said she sees both sides.

Ms. Kennedy said, "I'm in favor of them not voting on any of that stuff or any other significant items this month. ... My feeling is some of these items are being rushed because they know they could get the votes with the outgoing board and may not be able to get the votes with the incoming board."

Remaining on the board will be Thomas Sumpter, who was re-elected to a new term, and Mark Brentley Sr., Sherry Hazuda, Regina Holley and Bill Isler. Leaving the board are Theresa Colaizzi, Jean Fink, Floyd "Skip" McCrea and Sharene Shealey.

Ms. Shealey, who is board president, said, "We were sworn to serve until the end of our terms, so our terms are not over. If the administration chooses to present these items in November, then we should vote."

School district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the agenda packet sent to board members Friday contained Teach for America and Woolslair but not Burgwin. The Hazelwood Initiative has offered the district's asking price of $475,000 for Burgwin and plans to lease the building to Propel. The sale of two other buildings, however, are on the agenda: Columbus on the North Side, which Propel rents and would continue to use, and Morningside.

Jessie Ramey, who writes the blog Yinzercation and is active in Great Public Schools, said her top concern is the Teach for America pact. "It's not that I don't think our seated board members aren't duly elected or shouldn't be voting on things. This has just come to the public's attention. There's a lot to be discussed." She believes the community may be able to come up with another plan for Burgwin, and she stands behind a moratorium adopted by City Council on school closings.

Despite teacher layoffs, Ms. Lane said the district still has hard-to-fill positions, such as the sciences, and a need for a more diverse applicant pool.

She believes Teach for America -- which recruits and trains over a summer top college graduates without teaching degrees -- could help fill those gaps.

On Woolslair, a board vote would start the process of a public hearing and 90-day public comment process, but the final vote to close it is not expected until March, with the closing -- if approved -- at the end of this school year. Woolslair has 110 students this fall, the smallest enrollment of any district school. Closing Woolslair is expected to save $650,00 to $950,000 a year.

As for Burgwin, which the district closed in 2006, Propel wants to open a charter school there next fall with 200 students in K-4, growing to 400 in K-8. The state Charter School Appeal Board has granted Propel permission to open a charter in Hazelwood, but the board so far hasn't granted it permission to use Burgwin. Because the state requires school districts to pay a fee for each resident who enrolls in a charter school, Pittsburgh estimates the new charter will cost the district $2.8 million in the first year alone.


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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