No matter their differences, the four candidates for District 8 school board director agree on a few things. For one, they all believe parent engagement is one of the key solutions to turning around low achievement at some of the Pittsburgh Public School District’s lowest performing schools.
|MARK BRENTLEY, LISA FREEMAN, DELORES LEWIS and ARITA GILLIAM RUE
What District 8 Representative Mark Brentley and his three challengers also agree on is that Brentley does not have a single ally on the nine-person school board. All four of them, even Brentley, agree that’s a bad thing.
Incumbent candidate Brentley has been the lone no vote on several controversial decisions made by the school board in recent years. In the May 17 primary election, he will take on fellow North Side residents Arita Gilliam Rue, Lisa Freeman and Delores Lewis.
The trio’s indictment of Brentley and his inability to gain allies on the board is nothing new. In fact, Brentley’s conviction has been something that appealed to voters in the past.
“I believe District 8 needs more than just a voice, I believe they need someone who’s going to work with the board to get things done,” said Gilliam Rue, program director, School Health Partnership, UPMC. “If there are indeed proposals that I don’t support I would make clear my rationale. Mr. Brentley votes no or abstains on almost everything and we don’t know what his process is.”
“I don’t know how you get to any kind of conclusion if all of your colleagues are opposed to you. The community realizes we’re not getting anything for our children,” said Freeman, president, Manchester Elementary School PTA. “Through PTA experience, I have always spoken to the board. I already have a relationship with the board. The board members as a group need to have that communication.”
Despite Brentley’s acknowledgement of his predicament, he said a review of his decisions would show his vote was always reflective on the community’s wishes. One such recent stand was Brentley’s abstention last year from voting on the reconfiguration of Westinghouse High School into two single-gender academies which passed with a vote of eight to zero, despite concerns from vocal community groups.
“People have never attempted to evaluate the other eight. Regardless of what they have said about me, the question is on the things I have voted against, was I right? That’s the question no one ever follows up with when they attempt to paint me as the angry Black man,” Brentley said. “It is a wonderful honor to serve the parents and the students of the Pittsburgh Public School District as an elected board member. I’m trying to continue to create an atmosphere of equity and simply to continue to be the voice of reason for those who don’t have a voice.”
Out of the candidates interviewed by the New Pittsburgh Courier, Brentley’s harshest critic was the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsed candidate, Lewis. Taking the other challengers’ criticism a step further beyond his rivalry with the board, Lewis also attacked Brentley’s “Take a Father to School Day” initiative.
“The majority of kids out there have women as the bread winners. Most kids are being raised by their mothers. I noticed on Father’s Day there are more women coming to school because they are the mothers and the fathers. So is that really the solution to our kids problems, bringing their fathers to school for one day when they barely ever see them,” Lewis said. “I don’t talk much about Mr. Brentley, but they’re just not backing him and his ideas anymore. I have nothing to say against Mr. Brentley, but he’s not helping our children, he’s hurting our children.”
The next “Take a Father to School Day” scheduled for May 20, will mark the 13th year of Brentley’s initiative that has received recognition from City Council.
“’Take a Father to Work Day’ is the single largest activity in the district. Last year we had over 5000 men and this year we’re hoping to beat that number. I’m extremely proud of that,” Brentley said. “It destroys the rumor that men are not active and that we’re not sensitive and that we don’t care. For the 12 years that I’ve been doing this, we’ve seen an increase in men participating in activities and volunteering. We have yet to begin to measure its impact. I just think this is the greatest secret for getting men involved.”
Freeman said one of the experiences that inspired her to run for school board was when she witnessed the lack of parent involvement at Oliver High School, which has one of the highest dropout rates in the city. Through her professional work and her involvement in the PTA she has seen first hand how empowering a parent can have a dramatic impact on their child’s life.
“There’s a big difference between city schools and suburban schools. There is next to no parent involvement in the city. Our teachers are exceptional, but where are the parents,” Freeman said. “People will respond better to things they value. Maybe these parents don’t understand the value of education. There’s a lack of involvement because of the schools also. Usually the only time you hear from the school, it’s something bad.”
Rue has a history of working with the PPS directly through her work on the district’s East End Advisory Panel and Health Sciences Curriculum Committee, but also indirectly as an A+ Schools Board Watch and School Works team leader.
“Because we have low enrollment, we begin to target schools for closings. I believe low enrollment and low achievement are the two greatest problems in our district. I think the tax cuts on the economy are going to force us to make some difficult decisions that need to be made. We have schools that have low achievement that don’t have parent engagement specialists. I think particularly in those schools a parent engagement specialist should be present,” Rue said. “We need to look at the administration in the sense of the layer of management between the superintendent and the principals in schools. We need to make sure there is accountability at every level.”
From her more former experience as a Port Authority police officer, Lewis sees a direct correlation between poor education and crime. She said she decided to run for school board because all of her children went through the public school system.
“I interacted with a lot of kids on the street. They need better education to keep them in school and keep them away from the trouble in the streets. I’m not up to par on everything, but I feel I’ll learn all the rest when I’m in there,” Lewis said. “I have the time and energy to do this. I feel like all kids are my kids. Kids are our future but we are our kids’ future. This is my first time running for school board so I’d have to listen to what’s going on to bring the best solutions for kids.”
District 8 includes parts of the North Side, Hill District, Central Pittsburgh and South Pittsburgh. Schools in the district include Northview Pk-8, Manchester Pk-8, Allegheny K-8, Allegheny 6-8, King Pk-8, Miller Pk-5, Weil Pk-5, and CAPA 6-12.