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City school board races focus on budget, taxes, closings

Wednesday, May 09, 2001

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 10, 2001) City Councilman Jim Motznik's first name was given incorrectly in a story about city school board elections in yesterday's editions.

Much could be at stake in this year's city school board races.

A $441 million budget. School closings and tax increases. Superintendent John Thompson's contract.

The composition of the city school board also could determine if the district maintains its current direction or if the course set over the past year is unraveled.

Community leaders including Thomas J. Murrin, a Duquesne University professor and retired dean of its business school, and Elsie Hillman, philanthropist and former Republican National Committee member, believe the election is so crucial that they've written newspaper columns urging voters to select board members who they believe will help make the city district the best in the country.

"All too often we hear stories about young people who live in the city but move to the suburbs once they start a family. The reason most often cited is the desire to put their children in a better school district," Hillman wrote in March.

"We should require all of our current school board directors and those seeking election to it to rise above political and parochial motives and strive to be the most professional board in the country."

City Councilman Jim Motznik formed the Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and Lower School Taxes with other local politicians. They're raising money for school board candidates they believe best support the positions clearly stated in their group's name.

Coalition members are critical of this year's budget, which raises property and wage taxes and calls for closing 11 schools over two years. They want board members elected who will reverse those decisions.

On the other hand, some members of an informal group called the African-American Leadership Committee, which also is raising money for certain candidates, tried to get District 5 candidate Michael Murray Sr. of Hazelwood, who is black, to bow out of the race and throw his support to Karen Hochberg, who is white and one of four other candidates in that race. Murray refused.

Member George Miles, president of WQED Pittsburgh, downplayed the attempt, saying some people in the group just thought Hochberg appeared to have a better chance of winning and demonstrated a concern for children and ability to work with different communities.

Of the open five board seats in the primary, only four -- Districts 3, 5, 7 and 9 -- are contested. Board member Randall Taylor is running unopposed in District 1.

Most of the candidates have not expressed any particularly new educational ideas or perspectives but have primarily distinguished themselves by their positions on Thompson, the school board or the budget.

Those who are generally supportive of Thompson's efforts to improve the district are District 5 candidates John Tokarski of Glenwood, Hochberg of Squirrel Hill and Murray. Board President Alex Matthews of Stanton Heights, who is running for re-election in District 3, is Thompson's strongest supporter among the candidates.

Board member Evelyn Neiser of Sheraden, who is seeking re-election in District 9, and Donna McManus of Carrick, who is running in District 7, said they have disagreed with some of Thompson's proposals.

But they believe it's in the best interest of the district to give him more time to do his job rather than put the city schools through the upheaval of another superintendent search.

Though they've criticized him, candidates who said they would reserve judgment on Thompson were Ora Lee Carroll of Larimer and Andrew Munz of Bloomfield, both of whom are running in District 3; Theresa Colaizzi of Greenfield in District 5; and Floyd McCrea of Observatory Hill in District 9.

Erin Connolly of the South Side, who also is running in District 5, and Debora Whitfield of Sheraden in District 9, offered no opinion of the superintendent.

Thompson's most vocal critic among the candidates is District 7 incumbent Jean Fink of Carrick, who has gone so far as to say that she wouldn't rule out voting to buy out his contract. Although never a fan of Thompson's, Fink was especially angered by his recommendations for closing schools and raising taxes to balance this year's budget.

Joining her in opposing the school closings, tax increases or both were Carroll, Colaizzi, Connolly, Neiser, McCrea, Munz and Whitfield.

Matthews, Hochberg and Murray were generally supportive of the budget, saying it's needed to help eliminate a $36.5 million deficit.

McManus has said she believes the school closings might have been warranted but she needed more information before offering an opinion about the tax increases. Tokarski said he needed more information about the budget before commenting on it.

The candidates in contested races have steered clear of attacking each other directly, though almost all of those seeking office for the first time have said current board members appear to focus more on politics than on educational issues.

The challengers have not been subject to much criticism, even though Carroll has a criminal background. Several years ago, she shot her ex-husband during an argument, and she served five years' probation for shooting a man who became her son-in-law.

She faces a June 11 hearing before Common Pleas Judge Kathleen Durkin on domestic violence charges. After her 11-year-old granddaughter was treated at Children's Hospital last year for welts on her back, the girl told police that Carroll had beaten her with a stick.

Carroll, who is well-known for efforts to beautify her neighborhood and rid it of crime, drugs and gangs, referred questions about the recent case to her attorney Patrick Thomassey, who declined comment because the case is coming to trial.

As for the earlier incidents, she said "people know what I'm about and what I've done in the community."

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