Board member not shy on how race, class affect education
May 24, 2010 4:00 AM
Mark Brentley, Sr.
By Karamagi Rujumba Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A certain stiffness fills the air when Pittsburgh school board member Mark Brentley Sr. walks into a meeting.
It's often a subtle adjustment -- a slight shift in body posture, a seemingly uncomfortable swivel in a leather chair or a sudden fixation on a pile of papers on the conference table. All of it adds up to a keen awareness that Mr. Brentley is in the room.
A board member since 2000, Mr. Brentley, 53, who represents North Side and Hill District residents, is known in city politics and education circles for his consistent and searing commentary on how the inequities of race and class affect the quality of public education and life in Pittsburgh.
His barbs often strike an uncompromising tone and have earned him adulation as a truth teller in some circles and an angry race baiter in others.
Over the years, acrid exchanges with his colleagues have left observers wondering about the civility among school board members.
One such exchange happened in March when fellow board member Sherry Hazuda expressed disappointment that Mr. Brentley insisted on addressing Superintendent Mark Roosevelt by his first name and not his title.
What followed was a cringe-worthy verbal smackdown in which Mr. Brentley reiterated his view that Mr. Roosevelt is unqualified for the position, which he acquired only because of "the powerful, the political wheel of folks in the city."
"But I also have to look at this issue of race," he continued. "What is it about some white women who just insist on having black men bow and just stoop to them at their beck and call: 'You will do what I say.' 'You will call him what I tell you to call him.' "
The room went silent for a moment, and then board members moved on with business.
School board President Theresa Colaizzi contends that Mr. Brentley has alienated himself over the years with such remarks and a general unwillingness to cooperate.
"It hurts when you hear him say things like that. I just close my ears because it is very hurtful and disheartening. I don't believe [Mr. Brentley] has any real respect for us as his colleagues," said Ms. Colaizzi, a Greenfield resident who has served on the board since 2001 but was active in city schools for years before that.
A city laborer since 1985, Mr. Brentley, who contends the city under former Mayor Tom Murphy unsuccessfully tried to fire him twice because of his activism and outspokenness, offers no apologies.
"I have seen how the powers that be in this city marginalize poor people who can't stand up for themselves. I see it on the school board all the time," he said.
"The people with connections get the lush contracts. The best teachers are sent to plum schools in nice neighborhoods, which have influence on the board. They get the best resources while poor black children get piled on top of each other in experimental schools."
An ardent opponent of the accelerated learning academies, which were created to help low-achieving students, he points to the level of funding for infrastructure and programs at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill -- one of eight accelerated learning academies -- compared with other schools.
District officials say schools in Mr. Brentley's district, including Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, and University Preparatory School at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 in the Hill, have seen an infusion of capital funding, and that CAPA is a premier magnet school and University Prep is being developed as one.
Mr. Brentley contends that his biting commentary is the result of experience.
He challenges and votes against Mr. Roosevelt and his administration at almost every turn. From charter school applications to the district's school development plan, the drawing of student distribution patterns or how to tackle the achievement gap or any other issue, Mr. Brentley can be expected to have objections.
"Sometimes, I think they wish I would just go away," he said. "But after what I have seen of how this district operates, I'm not going anywhere, and I'm always going to raise the questions, even if they don't want to hear them."
The third of nine children, Mr. Brentley is a product of the Hill District and Northview Heights, where his family settled during the exodus of families from the Hill when the Civic Arena, now Mellon Arena, was built.
A 1975 graduate of Pittsburgh Perry High School, where he was a percussionist in the marching band and a member of the All City Orchestra, Mr. Brentley is the father of five -- four of them college graduates and, like him, products of Perry.
His wife, Sharon, is a history teacher at the same high school and Langston Thurgood, his 11-year-old and youngest, attends Allegheny Traditional Academy, a block away from their North Side townhouse.
One of Mr. Brentley's achievements on the board is the establishment of Take a Father to School Day, which he helped launch in 1998.
The theme for this year's celebration, held Friday, was "Yes Eye Can." It included collecting used eyeglasses and nonperishable food items for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Mr. Brentley's indictment of the powers that be -- from the school board to philanthropic foundations to city hall -- centers on his contention that they support an entrenched system that rewards the affluent at the expense of the majority of poor African-Americans.
That bears out, he says, in the decisions of Mr. Roosevelt, who he believes is unqualified because he lacked a doctorate or significant experience as a school administrator when hired in 2005.
Rick Adams, an administrator at Community College of Allegheny County who grew up in Homewood and served on the city school board from 1985 to 1989, said he understands the roots of Mr. Brentley's activism and sometimes stinging comments.
"He is a passionate advocate for his community and a tenacious fighter for the things he believes in," Mr. Adams said. "It's never easy to take on the role of being the conscience of the board."
Mr. Brentley's criticisms of Mr. Roosevelt's administration range from policy dislikes to the personal. Among them is the fact that Mr. Roosevelt replaced former Superintendent John Thompson, the first permanent African-American district superintendent, whom the district let go in 2005.
"The firing of John Thompson and the way it was done deeply affected him," said Randall Taylor, a former school board member from Homewood. "In that decision, he saw what some black people in Pittsburgh see of their fortunes in this town."
Linda Bryant, a retired teacher and principal with 35 years of experience in the city schools, said that Mr. Brentley's views may not endear him to many, but his passion inspires others.
"He was my board member when I was principal at Northview Heights, and he was a relentless advocate for me, for the students and parents who depended on that school," she said.
"Mark [Brentley] has a keen understanding of what's going on in the city schools system, especially when it comes to speaking up for the children of those who are less fortunate among us. His problem is he's not afraid to be honest and to speak the truth and that makes people uncomfortable," said Dr. Bryant, who retired from the city schools in 2005.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Patrick Dowd, who served on the school board from 2003 to 2007, said Mr. Brentley's "admirable passion" for social justice and equity is belied by his unwillingness to work with his colleagues to address his concerns.
"He talks about inequality in the schools all the time, but I distinctly remember every time we as a board tried to accept that maybe we hadn't done the right thing, he never spoke up to say, 'Why can't we try this?' " Mr. Dowd said.
"The problem with that is that he stands for a principle, but he doesn't stand for a solution, and that is regrettable because he is a very passionate advocate for children."
"When I came here, I hoped to establish good working relationships with all the board members," Mr. Roosevelt said. "Regrettably, I have failed to do that with [Mr. Brentley]."
Now both men barely acknowledge each other outside board meetings.