Although the shuttering of schools is ultimately the purview of Pittsburgh Public Schools, the impact of displaced schoolchildren and a vacant building at risk for deterioration is felt by the broader community.
That logic was part of the rationale behind a resolution put forth by Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who is urging council to formally request that the school board place a moratorium on closures for the 2014-15 school year. The resolution also urges Pittsburgh Public Schools to reconsider the adoption of a new teacher evaluation system.
Although city council technically has no say in either matter, it dedicated more than four hours Monday to discussing the resolution and hearing from a variety of stakeholders, including parents, community activists and public officials. Dozens lined up to give public comment before a lengthy post-agenda meeting, in which council members sat down with school board members and representatives of the teachers' union to discuss both matters.
"I want to talk about how we can avoid school closures, help you with your budget," Ms. Kail-Smith said.
Although Ms. Kail-Smith said her resolution was intended to start a conversation, the meeting exposed a rift between the two legislative bodies whose members have not formally met for about a year.
"I can't recall ever having a serious, face-to-face with the other legislative body in this city," said longtime board member Mark Brentley.
Superintendent Linda Lane was aware of the hearing but was unable to attend because of a previously scheduled meeting with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Coincidentally, the foundation helped underwrite two consultants for the district that produced a plan recommending elementary school closures, among other things.
The superintendent panned Ms. Kail-Smith's resolution as "regrettable," saying school closures are out of council's purview and that they are an unfortunate -- but necessary -- option that must be considered in light of the district's growing financial woes.
"This resolution comes at a time when the District is facing a $46 million deficit by 2016 and would be unable to pay its bills," she wrote in a statement.
"Councilwoman Kail-Smith seeks to engage City Council in this process in a way [that] is not within the Council's jurisdiction and may confuse the public," she continued. "The resolution is not supported by facts or information necessary to address a topic of such importance."
Board member Theresa Colaizzi similarly accused council of overstepping its bounds as well as disrespecting the school board.
"I feel slighted," she said, accusing the councilwoman of bringing "forth a resolution implying that city council has jurisdiction over schools."
In August, consultants paid for by the foundation community released a slew of recommendations to help keep the financially strapped district above water that included closing schools, although it did not say which ones. The Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network Education Task Force called for its own moratorium on school closures until the impact of shuttering schools could be determined.
In the meantime, officials from Pittsburgh Public Schools and city council hoped the meeting marked the start of a new partnership. Councilman Bill Peduto pitched the idea of a new task force to look at the issue.
Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said she wants to work more closely with the district to tackle challenges they both face.
"Once schools closed, they become everyone's problem," she said. "We all have a part on this and we all need to put our arms around this."
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published October 14, 2013 8:00 PM