City Council pushes moratorium on school closings and evaluations

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STARTING A CONVERSATION—Pittsburgh Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith introduces legislation that asks the school board to stop closing schools and to junk its teacher rating system.

By introducing legislation calling for a moratorium on city school closings, City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she wanted to “start a conversation.” She did that.

“I’m upset about this because we have two government entities that should be working together. Instead, we have one trying to run the other,” said School Board Director Theresa Colaizzi. “You want a conversation, let’s talk about the $65 million the city has taken from the district since it got bailed out by the state six years ago. Council doesn’t have jurisdiction over school board, this doesn’t do anything but create a very uncomfortable situation for both.”

The Pittsburgh Public Schools faces a deficit that would balloon to more than $47 million by 2016 and force a state takeover. In the face of declining enrollment, the loss of millions in state education funds, Regional Asset District funds and state revenue transferred to save the city from Bankruptcy under Act 47, and per-student payments made to charter schools, it has been closing schools and paring down personnel in recent years to reduce expenses. Its only alternative would be to raise school taxes by 40 percent.

During the Oct. 14 public hearing on the legislation, more than a dozen residents, education activists and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers members testified that school closings were detrimental to the students and city neighborhoods, and saved far less money than projected, they spoke more about the district’s new teacher evaluation system, which they said is unfairly harsh. Kail-Smith’s amended legislation calls for that to be scrapped too.

The only school board members who attended were Colaizzi, Floyd McRae and Mark Brentley, and they saved most of their remarks for the post agenda meeting following the hearing.

Brentley, as he has said for years, noted that the “right-sizing” plans the district has approved disproportionally affect Black students.

Council President Darlene Harris, herself a former school board director, had mixed feelings on the legislation. She acknowledged that it is ultimately the district’s business, but said the city has an interest.

“Every time we see school closings we see more residents leaving the city,” she said.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner also spoke at the hearing, though noting that her two bi-racial children are in the demographic the district is failing the most, she also said Council should not be trying to tell the district what to do, she also said the teacher evaluations should be kept in place because seniority should not be the sole determining factor.

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