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Committee blisters schools

| Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2003

With more than half of city's 35,000 public school children unable to read or do math at grade level, a task force created by Mayor Tom Murphy on Monday called for sweeping reforms, including the replacement of the elected school board with a mayor-appointed board, school closings and increased investment in student performance.

"Quite simply, we have failed an entire generation of young people," said David Matter, chief executive of Oxford Development Co. and co-chair of the Mayor's Commission on Public Education. "They are our future, and it's time we did something about it for their sake and for ours."

In a scathing report released Monday afternoon, the 37-member commission found the district is beset by poor student performance, high costs, high taxes and a failure of leadership.

"Our school system is in serious trouble," said the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, chairman of the committee's student performance, accountability and standards committee. "It has short-changed taxpayers, the community at large and, most of all, our children."

Murphy formed the commission in July 2002, after the Pittsburgh Foundation, Grable Foundation and Heinz Endowments pulled nearly $4 million in contributions from the district because of frequent bickering between Superintendent John Thompson and school board members. Thompson was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Foundation leaders praised the report as an first important step toward thawing the freeze on contributions.

"There's a feeling that this is a strong report. It's a very strong agenda," said Maxwell King, president of Heinz Endowments. "And we, the foundations, need to be there to support this reform agenda and to support Pittsburgh Public Schools."

The key, said foundation leaders, is the creation of the Independent Alliance for Excellence in Schools to help city schools improve.

Bill Trueheart, president of the Pittsburgh Foundation and a commission co-chair, said the alliance will lobby state legislators and the school board to implement some of the recommendations.

Both Trueheart and Grable President Susan Brownlee said their foundations will financially support the alliance.

Heinz might contribute to a commission that would study school closings and efforts to train teachers and principals, King said.

School board member Mark Brentley Sr. said the report fails to mention the district's successes in improving student achievement or its previous attempts to improve scores and lower costs through school closings.

"The whole tone of this is almost like a spanking," he said. The eight other board members could not be reached for comment. Brentley said School Board President Darlene Harris asked the board not to discuss the commission's findings publicly until the board meets to formulate a response.

The task force called for replacing the elected school board with an appointed body. School board members are elected to four-year terms from nine districts. The committee recommends that prospective board members be nominated by a residents' group, appointed by the mayor, confirmed by City Council and serve at-large.

Doing away with districts would eliminate battles that arise from board members protecting their own districts, said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, chairman of the commission's school leadership and governance committee.

"Too often, those battles are presented in overly personal terms, as if all would be well if only these people would try a little harder to work with each other," he said. "In our view, these battles are not personal, but instead are the predictable product of the flawed governance system."

The change would require approval by the state Legislature and would strip the school board of its taxing authority. Tax increases would have to be approved by City Council.

The city had a court-appointed, 15-member school board until legislators changed the system in 1975.

Murphy said he endorses the idea of bring an appointed board back.

"I've not asked for it, but I certainly am prepared," he said. "I do fundamentally believe board members ought to be appointed so you get some minimum quality of understanding of the education system."

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will support the idea.

Sen. Jack Wagner, a Beechview Democrat and Murphy antagonist, said he believes elections work well when there are qualified candidates. That should be the focus, Wagner said.

He also called the timing of the report "horrible." City government is facing a projected $40 million deficit and could run out of money by Christmas.

"I will be open-minded to the report and its recommendations, but our major focus right now in Pittsburgh is really the financial problems the city of Pittsburgh is having and how the General Assembly can have some oversight in that situation," he said.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Hill District Democrat, said he will consider an appointed board if the mayor's commission can prove it will improve student achievement.

"Everyone who cares about the region should be up in arms about this," he said of the student performance statistics.

The latest results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments exams show that only 46 percent of Pittsburgh Public Schools students can read at grade level and just 39 percent can do math at grade level. Results among the district's black students are even lower, with 31 percent able to read at grade level and 25 percent proficient in math.

The commission is calling for a Student Performance Improvement Fund to reduce the achievement gap that exists among students of different races and income levels.

Lewis, pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church, said no one in the district has been held accountable for students' low performance.

The district should agree on a strategy and pursue it aggressively, he said. There should be financial incentives to retain and recruit principals and teachers. Annual reports should be filed to help track those efforts.

Additional Information:

Main recommendations

1. The mayor should appoint school board members.

2. Cut property taxes by 2 mills ($2 on each $1,000 of assessed taxable property value) because the district has $82 million in reserve, about 17 percent of its operating budget.

3. Consolidate schools through an independent Schools Consolidation Commission and manage district resources, saving the district $10 million a year over several years.

4. School officials should commit to improving student performance by setting high expectations, inviting parents and the community to participate, and holding the district leadership accountable.

5. Create an independent alliance of community members to monitor the reform process.

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