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Pittsburgh Public Schools officials — and the teachers union — don't get it

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Imagine some strange time warp, in which the captain of the Titanic decided to throw a line to the Lusitania, even as both ships were sinking. That's pretty much like the board of education of Pittsburgh Public Schools considering a partnership with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Both are sinking ships. And events last week underscored the calamitous finances that have placed both in jeopardy. Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced in Pittsburgh that his office will audit the school district to help find ways to avoid bankruptcy, which could come as soon as 2016.

And Common Pleas Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole accepted the recommendation of the court-appointed conservator that the August Wilson Center be sold after finding no financial solution to the center's crushing debt. If there is a glimmer of hope, it comes from the judge's decision that no sale take place without a court order.

While emotional support for the center abounds, the prospect of the school board participating in a financial rescue is a staggering example of good intentions gone awry. When a weak swimmer tries to save a drowning friend, both might perish, as stronger swimmers remain on the shore, discouraged from attempting their own rescue.

And the school board has other problems, from turning away cash buyers for abandoned school buildings to refusing to close and consolidate underutilized schools. In December, Superintendent Linda Lane presented a plan to cut the district's doomsday deficit by cutting costs throughout the district, requiring hard choices for the politicians on the board.

Lane proposed closing as many as 10 schools, cleaning classrooms on a staggered schedule, using public transit for most students, shrinking the central staff, eliminating intramural sports and cutting many vacant positions. But the board failed its very first test, balking at the recommendation to close the smallest school in the district, which serves a mere 110 students.

And the teachers union, like the school board, doesn't appear to get it either. The district received a $40 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant four years ago to improve teaching here because the board and the union had shown they could work together. But that has ended.

What remains of the Gates money could now be yanked, along with millions in federal dollars, over what the district calls “performance indicators” and the union calls “cut scores.” The district would retrain teachers who scored less than 150 out of 300 possible points. The union fears teacher dismissals, even though most parents would ground their children for a score that dismal.

Compounding this problem is the presence of staff from the national American Federation of Teachers, using Pittsburgh to serve its national agenda without regard for the children of this city.

Auditor General DePasquale, a Pennsylvanian with local ties, should be welcomed with open arms and the operatives from the national teachers union should be told to go home, sent packing back to Washington or wherever. This is a town that settles its own problems.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (

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