Pittsburgh’s City Task Force on Public Education is set to hold their first meeting Tuesday evening, a little more than three months before they are expected to present their recommendations to Mayor Bill Peduto.
The legislation creating task force was passed by City Council in October, with Peduto finalizing most of the appointments in February. However, the legislation requires a ”trained mediator who shall serve as an ex officio member,” and Peduto’s deputy chief of staff, John Fournier, said an exhaustive search for a mediator that was both qualified and affordable has held up the process.
Now that Preston C. Green, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, is on board as mediator, the 24-member panel can begin working through the issues facing Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“I think this is a great opportunity for the city of Pittsburgh to work with the school district, our teacher unions, our parents and all the stakeholders, bringing them together to make sure we have a really great public education system,” said City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith.
As far as priorities go, Kail-Smith said “the need to make sure that we’re absolutely educating students equally across the district is obviously number one.”
The councilwoman has continually rallied against school closures, and last fall supported a council resolution calling for a moratorium on public school closures in Pittsburgh.
The 2014 Pittsburgh Public Schools budget includes an operating deficit of $14.39 million, and proposes reducing costs by merging or reconfiguring five to 10 schools by the 2015-16 school year, in addition to cutting administrative personnel and delaying technology purchases.
“I think that if there is a way for us to avoid school closures and address education a little bit differently (by) putting our heads together and working through some issues, we ought to be doing that,” Kail-Smith said.
Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak joins Kail-Smith as one of four council members serving on the body. Councilman Daniel Lavelle and Councilwoman Deborah Gross also sit on the task force.
Rudiak said she is approaching Tuesday night’s meeting with few expectations, and that she’s interested in hearing what other members have to say. However, she did say that it is paramount that the group begin building trust between the school district and the city.
“The school board and the city of Pittsburgh are two separate jurisdictions,” Rudiak said. “They have two separate legislative bodies and two separate executive branches. We share the same tax base, but the work that we do and our core missions are very different, and yet the work that we do … completely impacts the other.”
Former City Councilman Patrick Dowd also sits on the task force, and said his experience provides him with a unique perspective on the problems facing the school district.
“I served on the Board of Education for a term and I served on City Council for a little bit more than a term, so I bring both the school district perspective and the municipal perspective,” Dowd said. “I’m also a parent (with) five kids in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and I’m a former teacher.”
Although he has a diverse range of experiences and a few ideas of his own about how the school district can address its ongoing budget shortfall, he said he’ll approach Tuesday’s meeting with an open mind.
“It’s an interesting opportunity and I hope we can really make sure this is focused on what kids need most and that we can improve the quality of education here in Pittsburgh based on the work that this commission does,” Dowd said.
The task force also includes a handful of community organizers and social justice activists, including Brian Brown of the Hill District Consensus Group. Brown said he’s also coming to the meeting ready to listen.
“I’m anticipating a good conversation regarding how … we can fix the overall education crisis we’re dealing with in Pittsburgh,” Brown said. “I’m open to ideas and suggestions about how we can move this agenda forward.”
Brown said he’s been discouraged by negativity surrounding the issue of teacher evaluations, and that students, parents, and teachers need to “figure out how to work together to address this issue, and not attack one another.”
He said he’d like to see more students engaged in driving their own education, and cited his experience organizing teenagers around educational justice issues as one of the skills he’ll bring to the task force.
The task force is expected to deliver recommendations to the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors by September 30.