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School board sheathes its barbs

| Thursday, July 18, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Because of the events of the past week, Wednesday night's Pittsburgh school board meeting was notable for being perhaps the most peaceful session the bitterly divided board has had in months.

The closest thing to a controversy was a lengthy discussion over a program that places black teaching students from the University of Pittsburgh in selected city schools as interns.

During an executive session afterward, however, board members could be heard shouting. Later, members declined to discuss what had been said.

At the meeting, school board President Jean Fink questioned why those schools' principals agreed to pay the interns $6,000 for the school year rather than the $5,000 called for in a contract Fink signed. Board members and administrators agreed to find a way to resolve the matter and still pay the interns what they were promised.

The school district, unfortunately, has bigger problems at hand. Last week, the Heinz Endowments and the Grable and Pittsburgh foundations cut off support to the Pittsburgh Public Schools because of worsening conflicts between the board's two factions and Superintendent John Thompson. The foundations' decision could cost the district almost $3.8 million.

Last night's regularly scheduled agenda review meeting was the first time the board met publicly since the foundations' announcement.

The conflicts erupted in December when a faction led by Fink took control of the board. The board cut $4.3 million from the 2002 budget and voted to reopen three schools that had been closed under the previous year's budget. Since then, the two sides have fought over other issues.

Last night, school board member Jean Wood, a low-key member of the majority faction, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that she and her allies made a mistake when they made the budget cuts without consulting the administration or other board members ahead of time. She conceded that she and fellow board members did not quite know what they were doing when they cut entire line items from Thompson's proposed spending plan.

Wood stressed, however, that the majority had told Thompson they wanted him to cut the budget, which she said was inflated. Wood said the board should not be a rubber stamp for the administration. Wood said Thompson and the board are trying to set up a meeting with the foundations.

"The majority is part of the problem, but not the (only) problem," Wood said.

The foundations have backed a plan by Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy to appoint a task force of experts to come up with solutions, which could include recommendations for changing the way school board members are elected. Some city and state officials have recommended adding appointed members or members elected at-large, rather than by district.

Some critics of Fink and the board majority have questioned whether Murphy is the right to person to lead such an effort, because he supported Fink and her allies, board members Floyd McCrea and Theresa Colaizzi, in last year's school board election.

"I will take some responsibility for what's going on," Murphy said yesterday following a news conference on an unrelated matter.

The mayor, however, said he was too concerned with his own re-election bid in the spring primary to pay much attention to school board races. In the November election, Murphy said that he simply supported the Democratic nominees, who happened to be Fink, McCrea and Colaizzi.

"The problem the school board has had is always wanting to point fingers at each other, and we need to look forward," Murphy said.

The mayor said he still is working out the details of the task force.

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