Mayor Peduto puts new focus on Pittsburgh Public School system

Critical report from 2003 revisited

More than a decade ago, the Mayor's Commission on Public Education called for the Pittsburgh Public Schools board to be appointed by the mayor rather than elected by residents.

That hasn't happened nor have some of the other recommendations in the 144-page report critical of the district and written during the administration of Tom Murphy in 2003.

In the intervening years, no other mayor or mayor's commission has tried to take control away from an elected school board or made such sweeping recommendations.

While he hasn't suggested appointing the school board, Mayor Bill Peduto, sworn in last month, is taking a keen interest in the fate of the school district.

He is talking not only about the importance of a healthy school district to the well-being of the city, but he also is offering to mediate in school-related disputes and has named Curtiss Porter as his chief education and neighborhood investment officer.

"It's a mayor who's truly concerned about the future of the city, and the future of the city is inherent in the future of his youth, the way I see it," said Mr. Porter, former chancellor of Penn State University Greater Allegheny.

Negotiations are underway with the foundation community to pay a portion of Mr. Porter's $102,500 annual salary.

The mayor's interest in education is following a different path than in 2003.

This effort promises to be more directly engaged long-term and focuses on birth through higher education, not just the city school district.

School district officials say they are open to his efforts.

School board President Thomas Sumpter said he is looking forward to a "collaborative relationship" with the city.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said: "We need to help each other and work together. If one of us goes down, the other one is going down, too."

Mr. Peduto's deputy chief of staff, John Fournier, previously was director of communications for the teachers union.

Unlike mayors in some other cities, the Pittsburgh mayor has no legal authority over the school district; that belongs solely to the school board, which has been elected since 1976. Before then, the board was court-appointed.

"Whether he has the legal authority to implement or not, he still can be a great influence," said Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and a member of the 2003 Mayor's Commission on Public Education.

"I have been very pleased to see that Mayor Peduto has put his foot forward to say, 'I am interested in education' and indeed has Dr. Curtiss Porter serving in a capacity to make sure he is committed and informed about what goes on."

Mr. Peduto already has spoken out on several school issues.

After the school board last month raised property taxes by about 2 percent, Mr. Peduto said, "I would hope in the future there would be more of a cooperative effort to work on these sorts of issues."

He made that remark answering a question at a news conference at which he stood alongside state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale as he announced a wide-ranging audit of the school district.

Mr. Peduto also has met with representatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discuss a dispute between the district and teachers over scores to be used in teacher evaluations. The foundation has awarded the district a grant to improve teacher quality.

When Mr. Peduto met with President Barack Obama in December, he asked the president to consider making Pittsburgh a laboratory for early childhood education initiatives, including universal pre-kindergarten.

After a coalition called Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh released its plan for improving the district Friday, mayoral spokeswoman Sonya Toler said "some preliminary discussions" have been held about the mayor co-convening a task force on the report.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy group, said Mr. Peduto's concern about education is "really essential and important."

Ms. Harris, who also served on the 2003 commission, said, "I think he can use his bully pulpit to sort of advance the importance of our public school system, the importance of making some tough decisions that are going to be made, the importance of the Promise [scholarship program]."

The Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, which helps city high school graduates pay for postsecondary education, was announced for the Class of 2008 by then-superintendent Mark Roosevelt and then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Earlier mayoral involvement also included Mayor Bob O'Connor working with Mr. Roosevelt on school safety zones.

The 2003 mayor's commission was formed after local foundations temporarily withdrew their support from the school district because of ongoing battles between school board members and district administration.

Ms. Bush said, "That was a statement that rippled around the country, and it had great influence and great impact."

The resulting report painted a negative picture of the district, saying it is "beset by poor student performance, high costs, high taxes and a very public record of failed leadership and governance and community indifference."

It said, "These problems demand immediate attention."

Yet the 2003 report has faded from public discussions.

Mr. Sumpter, who joined the board in 2005, said, "There was no talk of it when I came on."

Of the report's five principal recommendations, three were not carried out: having the mayor appoint board members, cutting taxes and establishing an independent school consolidation commission.

Although a consolidation commission was not assembled, schools were consolidated and closed.

The report counted 91 schools, including three special schools, and 34,411 enrolled students in 2002-03.

This school year, the district has 54 schools, counting three special schools and about 24,525 students in K-12.

A+ Schools was formed from a recommendation for an independent alliance for school improvement.

One other recommendation called for improving student performance and setting high expectations.

District officials long have spoken of trying to improve academic performance.

While improvements have been seen in some areas, more than a decade later, improving achievement remains a difficult goal to achieve. State test results have been disappointing overall in the past two years. Racial and socioeconmic achievement gaps are large at many schools.

On the financial side, the 2003 report called the district's budget surplus "unnecessarily large" and said the district should cut taxes and start a student performance fund. At the time of the report, the district's surplus was $82 million or 17 percent of the budget.

While the final audit isn't in, the district expected to finish 2013 with an even larger fund balance -- $85.7 million, or 16 percent of the budget -- but it forecasts that it will run out of money in 2016 unless it changes course.

Since 2007, the district has lost millions of dollars in taxes because the state shifted some payments from the school district to the city to help relieve the city's financial problems. Now there is talk as to whether Mr. Peduto will channel dollars back to the district. Ms. Toler said this is "part of ongoing negotiations."

As Mr. Peduto prepared to take the reins of the city, a transition committee made of hundreds of volunteers offered suggestions, including some on education. Mr. Porter said the initial report is being reviewed to determine priorities.

Mr. Porter expects attention to be given, among other things, to early childhood education and support of the Pittsburgh Promise.

He said, "I would love to work with the board and, obviously, with the superintendent to be a partner with efforts to re-engage parents and to really be a liaison to discover where the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the municipal authority of Pittsburgh can find common ways to support the achievement of our students across the board."

Mr. Sumpter sees possibilities of city help for early childhood education, operation of closed school buildings as community centers, after-school programs and public safety.

Noting that "partnerships take work," Ms. Lane said, "I'm sure that we'll figure out what's the best way to kind of coordinate effort and work together."

Correction (posted Feb. 17, 2014): An earlier version of this story had an incorrect year for when the school board was elected.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. First Published February 16, 2014 11:24 PM

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