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Choice on Gateway equity director post defended

Dillon Carr
| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 2:24 p.m.
Phillip Woods, the Gateway School District's equity director.
Dillon Carr | Tribune-Review
Phillip Woods, the Gateway School District's equity director.

An official is defending moves that many are criticizing for failing to do enough to improve educational opportunities for black students who are lagging behind their white counterparts in the Gateway School District.

At the center of the controversy is the hiring of an equity director whose job it is to help close the achievement gap in the district by working with students, parents and faculty outside of the classroom. While the hiring would seem a step in the right direction, it drew threats of a lawsuit from the NAACP and strong criticism from residents because the school board chose only to make the post part-time.

“It's a win-win for everyone,” district Human Resources Director Patricia Crump said. “It saves the district money so we can divert it to the students and get the program started.”

Local NAACP Director Kenneth Huston and others didn't see it as a “win-win.” Huston said what he sees is the district's lack of interest in eliminating the achievement gap.

“There's a strong opposition by school administration to not have equity,” Huston said recently. “They don't believe there's a gap. Period.”

Bob Elms of Monroeville — a resident who has been vocal about the issue at school board meetings — said the hiring of Phillip Woods as part-time equity director fell short.

“It's a win because they're not going to spend the money, but it's not the right way to go,” said Elms, who is white and has a daughter at Gateway High School.

A committee formed to study the achievement gap in its final report had recommended to the school board the hiring of a full-time director at a salary of $125,000 a year. But school board member Mary Beth Cirucci, who was on the committee, said that was out of line.

“I have not found one public school, private school or even college that pays more than $100,000 (for an equity director), let alone the $125,000 that some were suggesting,” she said.

Board member Steve O'Donnell, chairman of the committee, said inclusion of the full-time salary recommendation in the group's final report was a mistake.

“It was a clerical error. That was not part of it. The committee never recommended a full-time equity director,” O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell and Cirucci were the only two board members who voted against interviewing for a full-time director in May. In August, the board voted 7-2 — with Chad Stubenbort and Neal Nola opposed — to hire a part-time equity director because the school officials said “no qualified full-time candidates have been identified to date.”

That reasoning surprised Woods, who has a doctorate in education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Woods — who kept his full-time job as an administrator in the West Mifflin School District — wonders about the decision to make his Gateway position part-time.

“I applied for full time,” he said. “When I interviewed, I interviewed for a full-time position. I was gung-ho for the full-time job.”

Rick McIntyre, who earned Democratic and Republican nominations for a school board seat and will likely be elected in November, said the board's pilot program is inadequate to fix the problem of blacks performing at significantly lower levels than whites.

The district expects to spend $135,000 on the achievement gap pilot program, including funding for the director, consultants, coaches and tutors.

McIntyre, who is white and has one child attending Gateway schools, made closing the achievement gap a focus of his election campaign in the May primary.

“A full-time director was where my heart was at. And then district-wide implementation,” he said, adding he doubts Woods will have enough time to devote to closing the gap as a part-timer.

Woods believes he may have planted the seed for hiring a part-timer when he interviewed with the hiring team in the spring and summer. He said he suggested that they consider hiring a consultant to help them determine whether they wanted the achievement gap program to be in two buildings or district-wide at its inception.

But he didn't think that suggestion would lead where it led.

“I don't understand how someone interviewing can change the whole course or premise of the job description,” he said.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2325, or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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