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Shock therapy for a dysfunctional school system

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Wow, yikes, holy mackerel and caramba. As votes of no confidence go, this one is a doozy. Making it even more dramatic is the fact that it was committed not by the hotheads, but by some of the coolest heads and steadiest hands in the city.

Three of the region's premier foundations announced yesterday that they have lost all faith in the leadership of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and given up their last shred of hope that the current crop of dysfunctoids can be rehabilitated.

Bottom line: The Grable Foundation, Heinz Endowments and Pittsburgh Foundation are suspending all funding to the district effective immediately.

We're not talking about a few thousand bucks here. This is millions of dollars providing dozens of crucial programs that the district cannot finance on its own. (Click to story: Foundations yank Pittsburgh school grants)

Furthermore, those foundation dollars leverage millions more from other sources that, in all likelihood, will dry up as well. Because when local philanthropies pull out, it sends up a warning flare to everyone else: This district under funding quarantine until further notice.

That such an act is so completely out of character for these foundations only underscores the depths of their frustration. In recent years they have been diplomatic, maybe even to a fault, about trying to address the toxic relationship board members have with each other and with Superintendent John Thompson.

As has been documented by this newspaper with depressing regularity, the board's two factions detest one another, the majority detests Thompson and he returns the sentiment. While they go about bashing each other over everything from math tutors and debit cards to the resegregation of the middle schools, the district's reputation suffers and the educational needs of the city's 38,000 public school kids take a back seat.

In the past, the philanthropies' public statements about this deepening debacle have been issued in foundationspeak, which is always measured and reasoned, never blunt, pointed or sharp. They have tried working quietly, behind the scenes, to get the district's leadership on track.

But some people cannot be moved by reason. So the foundations felt they had no choice but to do something big. Whether it will have any effect is hard to gauge, but it's like hitting a stubborn mule upside the head with a 2-by-4: first, you have to get its attention.

Ever the street fighter, board president Jean Fink's reaction was true to form. First, she accused the foundations of blackmail. Then she pointed out that they're not elected to run things (into the ground, in this case). Finally, she delivered the coup de grace: "They're not hurting me," she said. "They're not hurting the board. They're hurting the kids."

And that, in a nutshell, is why Fink's tenure as board president has been so contentious. She can't make the connection between the board's well-being and that of the children.

If she were a better fit for the office she holds, then what hurts the kids WOULD hurt her. But as long as she remains impervious to the harm that she and her majority have created for the district's students, she'll never be a leader.

Cutting off funding is a very concrete act on the part of the foundations, but it also carries a larger message. Board members are not just accountable to the few thousand people in their districts who voted for them.

They are accountable to a vast support network upon which the schools rely -- a network that cares deeply about improving the quality of public education in the city, that is willing to invest millions of dollars toward that end, but that will not sit idly by while the people in charge trash the place.

This also ought to send a message to the behind-the-scenes players who engineered this majority's takeover. Mayor Tom Murphy, state Reps. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, and Mike Diven, D-Brookline, city councilmen Jim Motznik and Gene Ricciardi all had a hand in it. Let them try coming up with millions of dollars to replace what the foundations have yanked, or else get in there and clean up the mess they helped create.

Sally Kalson's e-mail address is skalson@post-gazette.com.

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