New school board president wants to focus on big picture

Sumpter has been surrounded by a family of educators

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The new president of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board hasn't been a teacher, but Thomas Sumpter Jr. has been surrounded by city school educators his entire life.

His grandmother, mother and wife were teachers in the district, and his mother and wife became principals as well.

Mr. Sumpter, 63, of Schenley Heights was elected president Dec. 2 and next week will chair his first regular legislative meeting.

He remembers his mother, Myrna Sumpter, writing lesson plans while seated on the dining room floor.

His wife, Sarah Sumpter, joined the district in 1972 and retired as principal of Pittsburgh Sterrett 6-8 in 2012.

Mr. Sumpter first ran for the District 3 seat in 2005 after then-board member Alex Matthews didn't seek re-election. Mr. Sumpter won a second four-year term running unopposed this year.

His interest in running for the volunteer school board was sparked when his grandmother, the late Ernestine Parks, unsuccessfully ran for school board against neighbor Jake Milliones in 1981.

"Just from that point forward, I became interested in the politics, interested in the policies," he said.

From his family's experiences, he said, he knew how much time educators put into their work and how much they cared.

"If we care about the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins, we can care about education, too, and raise that as a priority," he said.

Mr. Sumpter is a product of Pittsburgh Public Schools, having attended Madison, Frick and Schenley, all of which have closed. Only the Frick building is in use as another school.

The Sumpters' two daughters -- Crystal, 30, and Caryn, who died at age 19 in a car accident days before the 2005 primary election -- both went to Schenley as well as Liberty and Frick.

In the Sumpter home, education is important. "You were scared to come home with a B," his daughter said.

"One thing he's always said to me -- and this is how he lives his life -- there's a right way and a wrong way to do everything. So you have a choice. You can choose right. You can choose wrong. ... He always goes for right."

"That was told to me by my father," Mr. Sumpter said.

His wife described him as "very patient" and "slow to anger."

School closings are always a hot-button issue.

Mr. Sumpter voted against closing Schenley High School and against selling it.

Last month, he voted against starting the process to close Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Lawrenceville-Bloomfield border in 2014.

"I wanted it put back in the context of the whole district, not just one school," he said.

Mr. Sumpter earned a bachelor's degree in social relations from Carnegie Mellon University in 1972 and did further studies in urban and public affairs at CMU and in urban planning at Morgan State University.

Mr. Sumpter spent most of his career -- 25 years -- working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, including doing environmental assessments and land use planning. He retired in 2004 when a buyout was offered.

As a school board member, he has helped to keep the board focused on its goals. At each legislative meeting, he reads the goals of achievement, safety, support, equity and engagement.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy group, called Mr. Sumpter "the good governance guy on the board."

Mr. Sumpter joined the board when the "right-sizing" plan, which closed schools, was being proposed and has faced rounds of budget cuts.

Now he will lead the board as it tackles the recommendations made through an envisioning process, including potentially more school closings.

"He'll bring a good experience and perspective to the challenges the board faces," Ms. Harris said.

DaVonna Graham, executive director of the Hill District Education Council, a community-based group, said he has "positively" participated in the council.

Mr. Sumpter was elected to the board presidency on a 5-3 vote, with one abstention, on the third ballot.

He believes he can build consensus on the board, likening the task to serving on a jury.

Mr. Sumpter wants the board to look at the big picture and not to micromanage.

"It's approaching it from a systems standpoint, making sure the whole school system -- not just one particular school here or there but the whole system -- is working well."

If the system works well, he said, families won't talk about moving because their school closed.

Instead, he said, they'll say, "'Well, I have another alternative to go to another school in the city,' not 'I'm going to leave the city.'"

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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