A+ Schools group seeking volunteers to critique Pittsburgh district

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As four new directors take their seats on the board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the advocacy group A+ Schools is calling for city residents to participate in its Board Watch program.

Started four years ago, Board Watch trains residents to observe board meetings and evaluate the performance of the board. Board Watch members are asked to attend agenda and legislative sessions.

"We have a core of about 10-20 people who have done this consistently but with new board members coming on, it's time to make another push, to let people know there are new board members and it provides an opportunity for us as a community to help the new board," said A+ spokesman James Fogarty.

Mr. Fogarty said the new board is facing four major challenges: implementing teacher and principal evaluations; looming financial insolvency; changing leadership at local schools; and revising the code of conduct to eliminate zero tolerance policies while still keeping schools safe.

The four new board members are Cynthia Falls, Carolyn Klug and Sylvia Wilson, who are all former teachers, and Terry Kennedy, a district parent. They replace board veterans Jean Fink, Sharene Shealey, Theresa Colaizzi and Floyd "Skip" McCrea.

While their classroom experience will serve the three former teachers well as board members, there are process and policy issues they won't understand, Mr. Fogarty said.

Mr. Fogarty said Board Watch volunteers receive a 90-minute training session before attending their first meeting to educate them on the five indicators of effective board governance. Those indicators are: focus and mission; transparency; conduct; role clarity; and competence. The volunteers then report back to A+ on their observations, which are used to create the report cards given to the board.

The report cards are issued several times a year, similar to the report cards that students receive. The initial report card issued in March 2009 gave the district a C+ grade. That grade was quickly elevated to a B- and rose to a B for one reporting period in the spring of 2011. But it then returned to and has remained a B-.

In the most recent report card issued in September, the board received low ratings for role clarity and competency. Surveys from the Board Watch volunteers indicated that the board "spent less than half of its meeting time focused on how the district is making progress toward achieving its goals and using policy to create solutions to board members' concerns."

Board Watch members also reported that slightly more than half of the board members "were prepared for the meeting and appeared to use research, district data, existing policies and other facts to inform their opinions."

Pittsburgh residents who want to become Board Watch volunteers can sign up at www.aplusschools.org or call 412-697-1298.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590. First Published December 2, 2013 11:36 AM

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