Pittsburgh schools' Lane looks ahead to new board

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While Pittsburgh Public Schools expects to run out of money in 2016, superintendent Linda Lane doesn't think things are so dire that the district has to clean showers less often, as a report suggested as a way to save money.

"I'll admit that wasn't one high on my list," said Ms. Lane, who is proud of the cleanliness of the schools. "I get the incident reports on everything from bedbugs to MRSA. ... At the end of the day, I think we've got to figure out a way to clean those shower stalls."

Ms. Lane likely won't have much trouble getting the school board to agree on clean showers. But she doesn't know how the school board will vote on other bigger and more contentious items such as school closings included in the "Whole Child, Whole Community" report released in December.

In an interview a few weeks after the start of her fourth year as superintendent, Ms. Lane reflected on the past year and the future.

At its first meeting of 2013, the school board approved spending $2.4 million in grant money for consultants to help with an envisioning process. The report, released in December, suggested cuts that could yield savings of $17 million to $44 million a year by 2016, depending on which options the board chooses. The list includes closing, consolidating or reconfiguring five to 10 schools in fall 2015.

The report came out just two days after the largest turnover on the nine-member school board in more than 20 years. Four new members -- three former teachers and an active parent -- were sworn in.

At their first regular legislative meeting, the new board reversed two actions taken by the old board at its final meetings, both of them sought by Ms. Lane. The new board rescinded the vote to use Teach for America to fill some hard-to-fill teaching slots. It also rescinded the vote to start the process to close Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5, located on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border. At 110 students, it is the district's smallest school. The proposal was estimated to save $650,000 to $950,000 a year.

"Certainly, the two votes, I find very disappointing. I do. But the fact of the matter is I'm hoping this is not a foretaste of things to come," Ms. Lane said.

Ms. Lane doesn't think having a new board necessarily makes her life harder, just different. She said she needs to build new relationships with the board, understand what they want to accomplish and give them the information they need.

"We're going to have to nail down execution around 'Whole Child, Whole Community.' That's huge. There are some places [that] are going to take a lot more work than others. School closures is one of those."

She believes school closings are necessary, but "I don't want people to think I'm excited about school closures. I'm not. ... I wish we didn't have to do it, but I don't see a way around it." She said Woolslair "was the clearest cut case of a regrettable but necessary closure of a school."

She is not certain the board will approve any school closings.

"I do plan to ask that question pretty directly. I need to know. Honestly, school closings are very hard, and I know this community has closure fatigue."

She thinks the proposed academic improvements may prove less controversial. "I didn't get anybody telling me, 'I don't think it's a good idea for third-graders to read on grade level.' " She thinks there's more that can get done than can't in the report.

The year has been punctuated by a number of initiatives outside the envisioning process, including a "Be There" campaign aimed at reducing student absenteeism, and changes underway for evaluating teachers and other employees.

So far, she said, the "Be There" results are "uneven," adding, "It's going to be a long road. The other thing we're probably going to have to consider is how can we help support that at the school level to a greater extent. We may need to provide more resources."

On evaluations, new evaluations are in development for principals, other administrators and even Ms. Lane, but the ones attracting the most attention are those for teachers. Since 2008, the district and its teachers have been building a process that combines both evaluations and professional growth.

Until this school year, evaluations still were based on observation, but under a new state law, this year's teacher evaluations will be based half on observation and half on other factors, including student test scores.

Under the new system, Ms. Lane has set the standards for each of the performance levels -- distinguished, proficient, needs improvement and failing -- at a point at which many more teachers may find their jobs in jeopardy than under the old system. That has brought teacher opposition.

Some of the work done to develop the evaluation system was paid for by a $40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, about $15.8 million of which has not yet been spent. The foundation has not threatened to pull the money but has expressed concern over the dispute.

Ms. Lane, who plans to go ahead with the tougher measures, said she continues to meet regularly with teacher union president Nina Esposito-Visgitis.

"I know even though some may believe, based on a number of things, that there's some big battle and we've thrown in the towel and don't talk and somebody needs to pull us back together so we can visit with each other and rebuild a relationship -- it's not that way," Ms. Lane said.

Still, she would like to "resolve" the teacher evaluation issue and "move ahead and make it the kind of thing we really want it to be, to focus on how we're going to grow teacher practice."

With the teacher union contract expiring in 2015, Ms. Lane said, "I'd like for us to be in a good space with some strong agreements in place to start that process, not start it with some lingering issues."

She counts as the "hardest thing" she's ever had to deal with a shooting outside Pittsburgh Brashear High School in which three students were injured in November.

"That would be it, not just for a year but for a career, I would say," she said.

For Ms. Lane, visiting the schools is one of the most energizing parts of her job.

Her staff knew what she needed when she returned from the funeral in Des Moines, Iowa, for her father, James Bowman, also an educator, who died on Jan. 13 at the age of 91 in Pittsburgh.

"The first couple of days I was back, it was pretty hard," Ms. Lane said. "They sent me off for therapy at one of the schools."

By "therapy," Ms. Lane means a visit to Pittsburgh Fulton PreK-5 where she read to a group of kindergartners.

"Did I feel better after time with the kindergartners and second-graders at Fulton? I did. I needed a dose of elementary therapy."

Ms. Lane, 64, of Highland Park became superintendent on Jan. 1, 2011, and is asked "a lot" whether she is staying in the job, which now pays $230,000 a year. Last March, the school board reappointed her to a term through June 30, 2016.

She said her father's death has made her "a little self-reflective," so such a question hits her at a "bad time."

"I'm pretty much taking it one year at a time. Health is something that can intervene at any time. ... Fortunately, I've been blessed. My health is reasonably good," she said.

Her husband, Coleman, gave her a Fitbit, a bracelet which measures activity, for Christmas. She logs at least 10,000 steps a day -- more than 15,000 on a recent day when she met with legislators in Harrisburg.

She said the job is a "privilege," adding, "I won't say it isn't challenging, and I have my moments like everybody else, but I'm honored to get the opportunity to serve the district. I am."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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