New Pittsburgh school board president Shealey faces tests
Sharene Shealey of Point Breeze is the new board president at Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Sharene Shealey in 2009
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New city school board president Sharene Shealey spends more than two hours round trip commuting from her North Point Breeze home to her air quality management job in Washington County.
One of the things, she said, that make living so far from her job worth it is that her three daughters can attend Pittsburgh Public Schools.
"My kids are in schools where they are challenged and they are growing. They're getting the kind of education that I want them to, that I had. So I just kind of like it, like where I am," Ms. Shealey said in an interview.
Board members voted, 6-3, last week for Ms. Shealey to lead the board. The other three votes went to board member Regina Holley of Highland Park, a former city school principal who joined the board last year.
Four of those who voted for Ms. Shealey are former board presidents, including outgoing board president Sherry Hazuda, who called Ms. Shealey perfect for the position.
Jean Fink -- a former president who, at more than 30 years on the board, is the most senior member -- said Ms. Shealey looks at all sides of an issue and will include all members.
"She thinks things through. That's what we need," Ms. Fink said.
Ms. Holley, who sometimes criticizes school superintendent Linda Lane's plans, said Ms. Shealey has "voted basically to what the ideas are that Dr. Lane has, and I don't think that's going to change."
Ms. Shealey, 40, is three years into her first four-year term as a board member representing District 1. When asked if she will seek re-election to the board next year, she said, "Not answering."
Ms. Shealey, who lives with her three children and a longtime male partner, is manager of environmental operations/air quality for GenOn Energy Inc. in Southpointe.
She has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a master's in the field from Carnegie Mellon University.
Ms. Shealey grew up in Friendship, where she walked to school at Friendship and Rogers CAPA in Garfield as well as Peabody High School in East Liberty, from which she graduated in 1990. There, she said, she got the "best education."
As a board member, she voted to close Peabody. Its building now is used for Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.
While she said it was sad to close her alma mater, she said enrollment had fallen from 1,100 to a few hundred.
"You just can't run a high school efficiently at that level. Efficiency is not just a money thing. The kids weren't getting the offerings they needed to really be successful," she said.
The Friendship school now houses the Montessori program, and the Rogers building closed and its program was moved Downtown.
While Ms. Shealey walked to school, her children take a bus.
Seventh-grader Aneesah Shealey attends Obama, an international studies magnet school. She has a science class in the same room where Ms. Shealey took chemistry.
The other two -- fourth-grader Nasirah Scott and second-grader Salimah Scott -- go to their feeder school, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill.
One of Ms. Shealey's biggest concerns for the city as a whole, however, is that not all of the children in the district have equal opportunities.
As board president, she said, "My intent is to change the quality of education, particularly for kids who are or have been historically disenfranchised.
"I think we have a really big opportunity to make public education in Pittsburgh not only matter but be a highlight of the city."
The school board recently approved an equity plan presented by Ms. Lane.
"I think Dr. Lane understands equity," Ms. Shealey said.
She praised the new district's new education delivery model, which is aimed at both saving money and providing equal opportunities.
Ms. Shealey's election comes as the board faces both academic and financial challenges.
Its 2012 state test scores showed a disappointing drop, and its proposed $521.8 million budget for 2013 has a $9.86 million deficit. Unless changes are made, the district expects to be in the red in 2015.
The board is scheduled to vote on the budget Dec. 19, the first legislative meeting Ms. Shealey will chair.
Because a countywide reassessment has led to uncertainty about property values, district officials have recommended raising tax revenue by 0.15 mills to create an escrow account to cover pending assessment appeals.
The new tax rate is expected to be up for a vote in January and would come after 11 consecutive years of steady taxes.
"I think that the proposal is a reasonable solution to a formidable problem. We don't know what the final [property value] numbers will be," Ms. Shealey said.
"It's $15 per $100,000 of assessed value, which is more palatable to me because I really do not favor tax increases in general."
It costs "a lot to live in the city, and it's not so much the property tax but our income tax is significant compared to our neighbors. Any tax increase that would lead people to want to leave the city is not a good thing," she said.
As a board member, Ms. Shealey has stood up for her beliefs.
Last school year, the opening of the new single-gender academy at Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 -- which is in her district -- was rocky, leading to an end to single-gender classes and a change in school leadership in the first few months.
After much criticism, the board and the superintendent apologized to the community.
At the time, Ms. Shealey commended Ms. Lane for trying to improve the school, saying students hadn't been well served for decades.
She questioned why no apology was sought for years "when nothing was happening in that building."
As for herself, Ms. Shealey said, "I apologize for those things I supported that didn't work. It wasn't for a lack of [caring]."
Ms. Holley said Ms. Shealey's Westinghouse vote was a reason some board members didn't vote for her as president.
"We have not forgotten the vote that was taken for Westinghouse and the problems that occurred there," said Ms. Holley, who was not a board member when the vote on the plan was taken.
Ms. Shealey last week said she still stands behind her Westinghouse decision.
"You have to make your choice. You continue to let it languish or do you try to make a change?" she said.
This school year, she said Westinghouse is "nowhere near where it needs to be. Is it better than last year? Yes. Am I happy about it? No."
Another controversial issue was the unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to let the district consider teacher effectiveness, not just seniority and certification, in making furloughs.
In April, Ms. Shealey introduced a motion on furlough criteria, approved 8-1 by the board but rejected by the union.
At the time, she expressed concern about schools vulnerable to a high number of teacher furloughs because of a disproportionate amount of newer teachers.
Last week, she said, "We have to put teachers who are the most effective in front of our kids, and I don't mean that to imply that teachers with seniority aren't effective. I'm just saying that can't be the deciding measure."
That position didn't cost her the respect of Nina Esposito-Visgitis, teacher union president.
"My work with Sharene has been limited, but I have been so impressed by her understanding of issues and her appreciation of the intricacies of running the schools and the school district. She appreciates the work of teachers and the work they do," Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said.
Ms. Shealey also has impressed some others in the community.
Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy organization, said, "I think she is smart. I think she's tough. She's not afraid to say what she means and mean what she says, and she's not afraid to ask hard questions."
Jessie Ramey of Point Breeze -- who writes the education blog Yinzercation, met her as a fellow Colfax parent, lives in Ms. Shealey's district and campaigned for her -- said, "It's a very contentious board at times. Sharene has been one of the voices of reason. That reasoning has usually come from a very long process of thinking very hard and talking to a lot of people."
One of the things Ms. Shealey has been thinking about is how to improve board communications. She isn't ready to share her idea until she has talked to all board members.
But she does want the board to get more background on issues and to work toward deeper discussions.
One recent board discussion was about the donation of coats to students at certain schools.
"Who would deny a school getting a donation of coats?" she said. "But by school code or state law, we have to vote those things.
"But as much as we can, I'd like for us to clear out the clutter and focus on the big-ticket items more so."
First Published December 10, 2012 12:00 am