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Luxury car logs complaints

| Monday, Sept. 3, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Few things have come to symbolize what critics of the Pittsburgh Public Schools say are the school district's wasteful spending habits than the Lincoln Town Car that has been provided to its superintendents.

The car has become a favored target of foes of Superintendent John Thompson.

The superintendent is lambasted by opponents for raising taxes and closing schools to trim a budget deficit, while at the same time earning an annual salary of $175,000 and having access to a car that most city residents couldn't afford.

'I don't care who the superintendent is. I don't care if it's this guy or the next superintendent. I'm not voting for a luxury car,' school board member Darlene Harris said.

A survey by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that Thompson isn't alone among top government officials to have a car at his disposal.

Mayor Tom Murphy and County Executive Jim Roddey each have take-home cars available for their use.

Others having public vehicles available for their take-home use include Paul Skoutelas, executive director of the Port Authority of Allegheny County; Keith Kinard, executive director of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority; and Mulugetta Birru, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

Agency officials say the administrators are eligible for the cars because they might be needed on government business at any time of the day. The Pittsburgh Public Schools policy is stricter: The superintendent can use the car and its driver only for his official duties.

The Lincoln was purchased in 1995 for $31,214. The car has about 90,400 miles and is driven by a school-safety officer.

Harris was angered when district officials in June proposed spending $31,000 to buy a new Lincoln, even though the 1995 car has fewer than 100,000 miles.

The district usually buys a new car for the superintendent every seven years, but only six years have passed since the present Lincoln was purchased, Harris said.

In the end, Chief Operations Officer Richard Fellers recommended that the board reject the bid for buying a new car. Fellers now says the district will wait at least another year before replacing the Lincoln.

Fellers said the district should stick with a Lincoln because it is dependable.

'Typically, in selecting those vehicles, we try to get something that holds up to the demand of city driving,' Fellers said. 'It is our experience that an upper-end vehicle will hold up.'

Board member Randall Taylor said the superintendent's car was never much of an issue before Thompson, a black man, was its occupant.

'I think it's racially motivated, No. 1,' Taylor said about the criticism lodged against Thompson's use of the Lincoln. 'It's just continued attempts to have him lose public support and portray him as a big spender,' Taylor said.

Taylor is black; Harris is white.

School police Officer Marion Smith is the superintendent's driver, and she earns about $33,000 a year. The district's previous driver was paid almost $42,000.

Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendents have had access to a car for at least 30 years, Fellers said. It's a perk afforded to most urban school leaders, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., that represents urban school districts.

'It's a vehicle to make him very effective as a leader in the district, so he can get from meeting to meeting without having to worry about parking his car or things like that,' Fellers said.

The district owns 106 cars, vans and trucks - many of them for use by computer technicians, maintenance workers and tradespeople. The school police force has 15 cruisers, most of them Ford Crown Victorias. Schools police Chief Robert Fadzen and the department's three commanders are allowed to take their vehicles home.

The chief and the commanders need their cars at home in case of an emergency. Fellers said some tradespeople take vans home over the weekend in case they are called for an emergency repair at a school.

Sixteen vehicles are for use by classroom teachers and education specialists to transport students and materials for educational projects.

The total annual cost of these vehicles, including salaries for mechanics, is about $1.8 million.

Jonathan Potts can be reached at jpotts@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7900.

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