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A+ Schools watchdog group seeks to boost interest in Pittsburgh school board races

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

A watchdog group is trying to drum up interest in Pittsburgh school board races.

“These races are at least as important, if not more important, than the race for mayor,” said Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, a board member of A+ Schools. She and Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, met with reporters and editors of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Wednesday.

Wagner's uncle, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, 65, of Beechview is running for mayor.

She noted that the school district's 2013 operating budget of $521.8 million is greater than the city's budget of $469.5 million.

Races for seats in Districts 1, 5 and 9 are contested, drawing seven candidates total.

Cynthia Ann Falls is running unopposed in District 7, where Jean Fink decided not to run for re-election.

In District 3, incumbent Thomas Sumpter, is running unopposed.

Voter turnout in the board races in 2011 ranged from 14 to 20 percent, depending on the district, according to A+ Schools. The county Division of Elections could not confirm those figures.

This year, A+ is asking candidates to sign a pledge to do the following:

• Ensure that great teachers are in every classroom and that they speed up student learning.

• Distribute resources according to student and school need, giving priority to the most vulnerable students — especially those in low-income neighborhoods.

• Guarantee all students access to opportunities, programs and services that boost learning.

• Attract and retain excellent teachers through meaningful training and adequate resources, including teacher aides.

Last year, she said, some schools lacked a social worker. Ten schools lacked a library. The case load varied from 150 to 500 students for each guidance counselor.

Harris said the problem is not simply a lack of funding but how to allocate money so that all schools, regardless of size, offer certain services.

“Small schools are more expensive to operate,” she said. “It's important to have a board that preserves a basic level of service.”

Harris said at least six candidates have signed the pledge, but declined to identify them to give everyone enough time to do so. She said A+ will identify signers on its website and in its voters' guide and will monitor whether they live up to the pledge.

Nonprofit groups like A+ Schools cannot endorse candidates.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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