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Waiver sought over state law to close schools

| Thursday, July 26, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh school board voted Wednesday night to seek a waiver from the state Department of Education that would allow the school district, with the board's approval, to close eight schools next month.

The board voted 5-3 to ask permission to bypass a state law that requires school boards to hold a public hearing 90 days before a vote to close schools. Board members Darlene Harris, Jean Fink and Jean Wood voted against applying for the waiver. Maggie Schmidt was absent.

The school district has been sued by students and parents who say a vote in December to close 11 schools violated state law because a public hearing was not held 90 days before the decision.

'Have any of you thought about the oath we all took, raising our right hands and swearing to obey the law?' Harris said during last night's board meeting.

The school board voted to close the schools and raise property taxes 20 percent to bridge a projected $36.5 million shortfall in the 2001 budget. Eight schools are scheduled to close this year and three more in 2002.

In June, children and parents from six of the schools filed a federal class action lawsuit against the board.

To comply with the law, the board held a public hearing July 9 and has scheduled a meeting Oct. 15 to reaffirm the closings. But if the state approves the waiver, the board will vote in August.

Under the state Education Empowerment Act, school districts can apply for waivers from state regulations. Last month, the Education Department granted the Ambridge Area School District in Beaver County a waiver from the school-closing rule.

Pittsburgh school director Randall Taylor noted that the board did not violate the spirit of the law because it held several public hearings before voting on the budget. The first hearing took place in November.

'To say that the public had not heard about the school closings, to say the public had no input on the school closings, is patently false,' Taylor said.

The school board decided by the same 5-3 vote last night to spend about $72,000 to buy laptop computers for board members and top administrators. Harris criticized the purchase because board members received laptops less than a year ago.

'This is a waste of taxpayers' dollars, and I can't believe this is happening after we've raised taxes and are closing schools,' Harris said.

Carole Salisbury, the district's director of technology, said the new computers will allow board members to access all the reports they need online, without having to receive the reams of paper they get now.

'Let's not hide behind this issue or use this issue to talk about the school closings,' board member Mark Brentley Sr. said.

In other matters, the board voted to promote Peter Camarda from director to executive director of budget development and management. His job duties will remain essentially unchanged, but his annual salary will increase 11 percent, from about $79,000 to about $88,000.

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

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