Peduto, Wagner talk education, development at breakfast forum

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Underlining the multifaceted job of Pittsburgh mayor, two of its aspirants discussed plans Thursday for developing both new buildings and brains.

City Councilman Bill Peduto unveiled a proposal to boost funding for preschool education, saying it would enhance the city's Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program for graduates of its public schools. His chief Democratic rival for the mayor's office, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, stressed his experience working on school issues and plans to push educational programs for those already in the school pipeline, such as after-school activities, internships and summer employment.

With the May 21 Democratic primary looming, the men also jousted in a forum on economic development, where each pledged to address complaints of bureaucratic red tape and political shenanigans in the city.

In a news conference at a Downtown day care center, Mr. Peduto said only 15 percent of Pittsburgh's 10,000 children between 1 and 5 years old are in preschool classes, so by the time many get to public kindergarten they are already behind their better-educated peers. That stacks the odds against them graduating from a public school with good enough grades to earn one of the city's $40,000 scholarships, so he wants to lead an effort to fund more pre-kindergarten schooling.

"If we want kids to be Promise-ready, we have to start them now," said Mr. Peduto, of Point Breeze.

He said he is first working with early childhood education advocates to build grass-roots support for the proposal and then will seek funding for it through federal and state grants and foundation and corporate giving. No budget is set.

Mr. Wagner's campaign said it will concentrate on expanding student programs -- with a special emphasis on math and science programs -- and that the former state official was uniquely positioned to better education through his audits of school institutions statewide and his contacts in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.

"There is a real difference in this race on education," Wagner spokesman J.J. Abbott said. "Talking during your campaign is not equal to fighting your entire career. Jack Wagner has audited every school district in the state, including the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Jack understands how the state budget works for education."

School issues were tied with the economy as the biggest concerns of Pittsburgh voters in a mayoral poll performed by the Harrisburg firm Keystone Analytics early this month. Coming in a close third were concerns about government corruption.

At a breakfast forum hosted by the commercial real estate organization NAIOP, many of the questions concerned regulatory headaches, with developers voicing frustration about unorganized city planners, antiquated building permitting and agencies (such as the city-affiliated Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority) that put up red-tape roadblocks to development.

The PWSA is a "monumental pain" that "takes forever" to give approvals, complained Continental Building Systems vice president Matt Curtis, and he asked the candidates how they would address that.

"I want to see those authorities be as sensitive as city government should be about the needs of our region. I have heard complaint after complaint after complaint" about the PWSA, Mr. Wagner replied.

Mr. Wagner repeated a regular, though tacit, criticism of Mr. Peduto when he said part of the city's problems are due to communication failures between council and the Ravenstahl administration. The councilman struck back by saying if elected he will dismantle what he called a "machine" backing Mr. Wagner. "It has poisoned the culture of this city and I know that you know this," he told the roughly 200 officials at the breakfast. "I'm going to dismantle the machine. That's why I'm running."

Mr. Wagner argued he could rise above such squabbles. "What the city of Pittsburgh needs is a leader," the Beechview man said. "It's crying out for a leader. It's crying out for a government that will modernize itself and work with all of you."

Mr. Peduto talked about getting some $2 billion in redevelopment into his East End district, in East Liberty, Oakland and elsewhere, which he promised to take citywide. "I'm running for mayor because I know we can build that new Pittsburgh," he said. "... I know that I bring to the table more economic development experience than anyone who has run for mayor before."

The two men are running for the Democratic nomination for mayor against state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and activist A.J. Richardson of Sheraden. Mr. Wheatley appeared late, as plates at the breakfast forum were cleared.

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Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581. First Published April 18, 2013 4:30 AM


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