Public Schools shift perplexes state legislator
By Bill Zlatos
Published: Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 11:39 p.m.
The new-look Pittsburgh school board baffled some observers by making two moves that could saddle the financially troubled district with more expenses.
The board on Wednesday voted to form a committee to explore acquiring the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, which failed to pay its mortgage and insurance and whose affairs are now being handled by a court-appointed receiver. Center officials could not be reached for comment.
Earlier the board voted to scrap a public hearing on whether to close Woolslair Elementary School in the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville area. Four of the board's nine members were sworn in Dec. 2.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo criticized the board's flip-flop on Woolslair and its interest in the Downtown center named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from Pittsburgh.
“They have some tough decisions to make,” he said. “They still have to downsize their infrastructure. For the board to consider purchasing another major building, I don't get that.”
Superintendent Linda Lane called the votes an “interesting combination.” She said there is no way to convert the center into classrooms without costing the district money. Board member Mark Brentley Sr. said the center could be utilized by the district's Creative and Performing Arts School, Downtown.
Carey Harris, executive director of the district watchdog group A+ Schools, called the board's actions “concerning.”
“That's as much as I'm willing to say, and we encourage them to grapple with Pittsburgh Public Schools' very real and serious challenges.”The board Wednesday approved a 2014 general fund budget of $529.1 million that included a deficit of $17.4 million. The district had to borrow from its reserves to balance the budget, and the administration expects to be broke in 2016 if it does not make any changes.
Lane had recommended Woolslair as the first and most logical school to close. It enrolls just 110 of the 239 school-aged children in its attendance area. Lane has told the board she will return with a suggestion to close more buildings.
Wednesday may have changed that, she said. “It appears there's a change in intent. If the board is no longer interested in addressing the fiscal situation, I need to know that.”
The board's new board members — Cynthia Falls, Terry Kennedy, Carolyn Klug and Sylvia Wilson — all voted in favor of rescinding the public hearing on Woolslair and setting up the Wilson Center committee.
School board President Thomas Sumpter said the Woolslair vote does not necessarily mean the board is unwilling to entertain other recommendations to close schools.
“Size is not the only criteria,” he said. He recommended considering closings from a regional standpoint, not just from one school's viewpoint.
He said that just talking about the August Wilson Center does not mean the district will buy it.
But Ferlo, a frequent critic of public funding for the center, expressed his disappointment with the board.
“They're not going to get any support from Harrisburg if they're not going to manage the resources they have,” he said.
Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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