The problems are old: state support for public education, charter schools and violence.
But on Thursday night, state Sen. Jim Ferlo hosted a community meeting in Wilkinsburg, hoping it would yield new solutions.
"I'm not interested in dividing the community," said Mr. Ferlo, D-Highland Park, but "the current situation in Wilkinsburg is unsustainable."
The desire for public discussion was evident in impassioned comments from teachers, parents and school board members at the meeting, which drew nearly 170 people.
Alexandra Gilmore, a mother of three who sent her son to a cyber charter school after two years in the Wilkinsburg School District, said the blame for the district's academic and financial situation rests on everyone.
"Let us take the blame," Ms. Gilmore, 42, said to Mr. Ferlo, "because when it hurts, you fight harder for it."
Jim Stewart, a Wilkinsburg high school teacher, directly addressed Ms. Gilmore: "I think it's sad your kids go to charter schools."
Ms. Gilmore responded, "We want our kids to go to the district, but it's not safe, the academics aren't as good."
After the meeting, Mr. Stewart, of Export, acknowledged that many parents share concerns about the quality of the schools and that having districtwide conversations about how to make Wilkinsburg public schools a place where families want to send their children is "something we needed to do a long time ago."
Mike Evans, a longtime Wilkinsburg teacher, said "Wilkinsburg and similar communities are treated as throw-away communities," adding that "the cost of incarceration never seems like a problem" compared with state support of education.
In his invitation to the event at the Hosanna House Event Center, Mr. Ferlo suggested a merger between Pittsburgh Public Schools and Wilkinsburg schools as "first and foremost in my mind."
That suggestion drew criticism from the crowd.
"A free quality public education provides poor and minority students a chance ... Pittsburgh is not the answer," Mr. Evans said. That remark drew applause and whistles of support from the crowd.
Mr. Ferlo said that he hoped to form a working group of community members from a range of perspectives who could help further the discussion on the state of Wilkinsburg schools.
Even if the views of working group members diverge, Mr. Ferlo said, "at least we could have informed consent."
Alex Zimmerman: email@example.com. Molly Born contributed. First Published May 31, 2013 4:00 AM