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Pastor casts stones, and at last cash, at district

| Saturday, Sept. 27, 2003

When a blistering report on the Pittsburgh Public Schools was released Monday by Mayor Tom Murphy's Commission on Public Education, the Rev. Harold Lewis was one of the district's harshest critics.

"Our school system is in serious trouble," said Lewis, a commission member and pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside. "It has short-changed taxpayers, the community at large, and, most of all, our children."

The impact of those remarks might have been greater had someone else made them: Lewis has been a property-tax delinquent for years.

As of Thursday, Lewis owed $15,817 in principal, penalty and interest on delinquent school taxes dating to 2000 on his six-bedroom, colonial-style home in Point Breeze, according to the city real estate tax department. He owed about $12,000 more in city taxes.

The home is valued at $343,000.

Contacted about the delinquent taxes, Lewis said he has been on a payment plan to retire the debt for more than a year.

He wondered what his personal financial situation had to do with the panel's report, which recommended the city wrest control of the district and the mayor appoint the now-elected school board.

To summarize my explanation to him: It's a question of stones and who casts them.

The mayor of a nearly bankrupt city shouldn't question the actions of any other governmental entity, even a school board of suspect competence. Likewise, someone who doesn't fulfill his legal tax obligation to a school district should be the last person to criticize its operations.

After a lengthy pause, Lewis said softly: "That's a valid point, I guess."

Still, he defended the panel's findings that the school district is deeply troubled. Reporting his tax delinquencies, he contended, "would not take away from the validity of the study but would only serve to damage my reputation."

I said if he had a reasonable excuse for ignoring his tax bills, his reputation will survive intact.

"I don't want to get into that, nor do I think I have to get into an explanation or defense," he said. He later amended that statement, attributing the delinquencies to unspecified "burdensome financial obligations."

Lewis phoned yesterday afternoon to say the delinquencies no longer exist and later faxed me what appeared to be an authentic receipt for a $27,723 payment made yesterday. The debt remains on the city books, though a real estate tax department official said such payments typically take several days to be entered into the database.

What's the rush• These debts have been on the books for years. A few more days won't hurt.

There is nothing wrong in demanding accountability, especially from a school district that all too often embarrasses itself. Lewis didn't err in that regard.

Where he failed himself and the rest of the education commission was being unable to practice what he preaches.

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