Four out of five Pittsburgh school board seats are contested
March 10, 2017 12:00 AM
Sala Udin, center left, is running for a seat on the Pittsburgh school board.
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The politics surrounding Pittsburgh’s school board became more contentious at the last minute this week. Not only did the field expand by two challengers on the day election petitions were due, but one of the entrants works for a company that is suing the district itself.
Four out of the five seats on this year’s ballots are now contested, with District 1 incumbent Sylvia Wilson the only unopposed candidate.
One of the late entries is in District 7, where Conrad Burns compiled his election petitions on Tuesday, the cutoff for getting in the race.
Mr. Burns, 24, of Mount Oliver, works both for SolarCity, a residential solar installer, and Gaugamela Holdings, a technology incubator that focuses on ornamental horticulture. Gaugamela lost a bid for Hazelwood’s shuttered Gladstone Middle School building, and in November, it sued the district, alleging its sale to a lower bidder was illegal. A judge last month dismissed the lawsuit, but an attorney for Gaugamela said it would file an amended complaint or appeal.
Mr. Burns said he’s aware of the optics, and stressed that, if elected, he’d recuse himself from any votes pertaining to his employer. “I’m doing this out of pure motives, not so my boss can have an insider.”
He views his age as an advantage: “I have a much closer proximity to what it feels like to be a high school student,” he said, adding that his key issues include curriculum reform and fiscal responsibility.
District 7 incumbent Cindy Falls said she was unfazed by the challenge.
“Bring it on,” she said. “I’ve lived and worked in this community as a teacher, as a citizen, as a community member. … I think I’m pretty equipped to know what the needs are in this district.”
Another Tuesday entrant was retired district employee Veronica Edwards, who will challenge Carolyn Klug in District 9.
Ms. Edwards, of Windgap, “worked her way up the ladder” from a secretary to a top aide for former superintendent Louise Brennan and then worked for the school board. She retired after 37 years with the district and is currently a sales associate at J.C. Penney. But in a purpose statement she said “my heart would not allow me to stay away when ... I have to contribute to the causes of our youth.”
Ms. Edwards, 67, said she decided to run in the last 10 days. She said community leaders, whom she wouldn’t name, asked her to run, lamenting a lack of interaction with Ms. Klug.
“I’ve always tried to be open,” countered Ms. Klug. “If you have an issue, I’m not gonna know about it until you tell me you have an issue.”
Those races join two other contests already well underway, perhaps the most intriguing of which is in District 5. There, 40-year-old Ghadah Makoshi and incumbent Terry Kennedy are locked in a race that touches on the district’s efforts to create “community schools,” in which district buildings house social service and other programs for students and the neighborhood.
Ms. Makoshi’s 8-year-old son, Laith, received a kidney donated by another school board member, District 6’s Moira Kaleida, in June. But Ms. Makoshi, of Squirrel Hill, said she and Ms. Kaleida “certainly don’t agree on everything” and wouldn’t be influenced by each other’s votes.
In fact, Ms. Makoshi’s campaign received a $250 contribution from the Campaign for Quality Schools, a political action committee which generally opposes the agenda of Ms. Kaleida and fellow members of the board majority. The PAC’s treasurer, Cate Reed, said the money “was not necessarily an endorsement” of Ms. Makoshi, but an effort “to see more people in the race.”
Ms. Makoshi said she used the money, which she called a loan, to file for the Democratic Party’s endorsement after Ms. Reed approached her about running. Ms. Makoshi said she’d return the money before the primary.
“After I published my platform, it was clear that Campaign for Quality Schools and I did not see eye to eye on my push for community schools versus charter schools, which I feel are an unsustainable model of ‘separate but equal’ public education,” she said in an email.
Ms. Kennedy, who won the party’s endorsement, pointed out that Ms. Makoshi’s son himself attends the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park. Ms. Makoshi said Laith’s health problems compelled her to seek a school with a full-time nurse. (Pittsburgh Minadeo K-5, which he previously attended and where Ms. Makoshi still volunteers, lacks a nurse for two half-days each week.)
Ms. Makoshi, the founder of Pittsburgh Baby Equipment Rentals LLC, said her son’s medical history informed her vision for the district. She wants a nurse and librarian working full time in every school, and she firmly backs the community schools concept. Ms. Kennedy, meanwhile, unsuccessfully opposed creating a community schools policy last summer. She said she was a “reluctant no” because “there was a lack of funding” for the program.
“I’m elected not to represent Terry’s views but my constituents’ views,” Ms. Kennedy said. “I think my record stands.”
The other competitive race is in District 3, where longtime board member Tom Sumpter is stepping down at the end of his term. Former city councilman Sala Udin is vying with Urban Innovation21 community affairs director James Myers Jr. to replace him.
Mr. Udin co-chairs the Hill District Education Council, which joined several other groups last year in calling for the school board to renew its superintendent search after discrepancies were discovered in superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s resume. In a statement launching his bid, he said he hoped he could “put my experience to work and help to fashion a strategy to greatly improve on the unsatisfactory results we have been seeing.”
Mr. Myers did not return repeated calls and emails requesting an interview.
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