Preposterous: The new city school board is off to a bad start

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Pittsburgh’s newly constituted school board, in its first acts, derailed two sound plans enacted by its predecessor and pushed the financially strapped district in a dangerous direction.

The disturbing moves will have long-term, negative effects, and they trigger worries that this panel won’t use the sound judgment necessary to keep the Pittsburgh Public Schools from going the way of failed urban districts.

In its first misstep, the board voted 6-2 with one abstention to rescind a contract that would have hired 30 teachers through the Teach for America program. The newcomers, all college graduates who face stiff competition for Teach for America slots, would have brought fresh talent to the district’s most challenging buildings.

Objections to Teach for America from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers are grounded in protectionism, not dollars. The teachers would have been required to join the union and would have been paid based on the salaries in its contract, but the PFT and others argue that Teach for America candidates lack the professional training necessary to do the job well.

The new board’s second big mistake is about money, big money. The old board last month voted 6-3 to close Woolslair K-5 in Bloomfield because the school is too small to operate efficiently. With just 110 students, the building has the lowest enrollment in the city, where the optimum size for an elementary school is closer to 300 pupils. As a result, the annual per-pupil cost at Woolslair is $14,492, double that of other K-5 buildings Spring Hill, West Liberty, Miller and Arsenal.

For that reason alone, the decision to close Woolslair was a no-brainer. But the board’s brainless reversal, on a vote of 8-1, could cost the district nearly a million dollars a year. Even worse, it suggests the new board won’t have the stomach to close as many as 10 more buildings in the next two years, an important element of Superintendent Linda Lane’s long-term fiscal and educational plan.

The board’s third misstep was just plain wacky. By the same 8-1 margin, members formed a task force to look into the possibility of the district taking over the financially beleaguered August Wilson Center. The district cannot afford to operate all of the schools it already owns, let alone add an expensive facility built for a different purpose altogether. Because of the board’s vote, valuable staff time will be wasted studying this preposterous idea.

When long-time member Thomas Sumpter was elected president earlier this month, it seemed to signal the new board would pursue the same stable course as its predecessor. On Wednesday night, the board said otherwise, loudly and clearly, leaving Pittsburgh to wonder if its early errors can be erased or if the worst is yet to come.

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