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Hopes rise for school board harmony

Many view upset of Harris as path to more cooperation

Thursday, May 22, 2003

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Patrick Dowd's victory over city school board President Darlene Harris on the Democratic and Republican ballots in Tuesday's District 2 primary election has buoyed the hopes of several community leaders who had been unhappy with the direction of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

A number of activists and civic leaders said they were looking forward to a new board with members who will work more cooperatively with each other and with Superintendent John Thompson.

"If we're going to have any shot at a world-class education, there has to be a harmonious relationship between the people leading the school system," said Tim Stevens, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a District 2 resident.

"That doesn't mean being a rubber stamp, but it does involve having honest dialogue to find solutions. And you can't do that with constant bickering, hostility and disrespect, which has obviously been the description of this board."

Former board member Evelyn Neiser, who supported Dowd, 35, of Highland Park, predicted that the public "will now see a calm board that's going to get down to business."

"They're going to start educating kids and doing what a school board is supposed to do, and Dr. Thompson is going to be able to do his job," she said.

Although three races were contested Tuesday, the District 2 contest drew the most attention because of Harris' high profile and because of the coalition of residents that selected and promoted Dowd's candidacy. Members of that group say their number grew to more than 1,200.

In other board races Tuesday, incumbent Mark Brentley Sr. of Perry Central easily defeated challenger Alan Perry of Manchester on both ballots in District 8.

For the open District 6 seat, there will be a runoff in the fall between Dan Romaniello, who won the Democratic primary, and Eileen Papale, who won the Republican. Each had cross-filed.

Harris, who was seeking her third term, said yesterday that she didn't understand her loss.

She said she was used to people losing elections because they raised taxes, "not when they're trying to cut waste, make sure taxpayers' dollars are spent wisely, and trying to promote the basics in education for high achievement."

"I'm puzzled," said Harris, 50, of Spring Hill. "They've lost a board member who was very accessible, honest, dedicated, and spent a lot of hours. But if that's not what my district wanted, it's my district's choice."

She said she had not considered a write-in candidacy this fall.

As Harris' friend and a member of the board majority, Jean Fink contended some District 2 residents may not appreciate the degree of Harris' concern about education and district finances until after she's gone.

But board member Alex Matthews, who also is a former board president, said his colleagues should view Dowd's victory as "a wake-up call to all of us that we've got to get back in the business of education instead of in-house fighting. This shows that the public is not going to tolerate that."

Both he and Fink declined to make any predictions about the possible direction of the board with Dowd's inclusion.

"The only thing it means is that now we have a new school board member, and it's crucial that we give him information about the mission and goals of a school board and get him involved in workshops on how to be a school board member," said Matthews, who's part of the minority faction.

Some parents at last night's school board meeting said they hoped Dowd's election would move the board forward.

Stevens and others said Dowd's grass-roots campaign, which attracted residents disenchanted with school board politics, proved that voters can make a difference.

"Let it suffice to say that I'm very happy with the change the voters have presented and I'm proud that the community saw the need to make a change," said former school board member Richard Adams Jr. He and Neiser were among eight former members who publicly endorsed Dowd earlier this month.

Adams added that he thought Dowd and his supporters "showed a particular kind of sophistication and spirit of citizenship" that crossed racial and economic lines.

Declining to comment on the race were representatives of the three foundations that suspended funding to the district last year because of divisiveness among school officials. Their action led Mayor Tom Murphy to create his Commission on Public Education, which is expected to release a report on the city schools soon.

The mayor's commission should heed Tuesday's election results, said teachers union President Al Fondy, because it shows that "elections can work."

"I hope [the vote] has some influence on the task force," said Fondy, who leads both the local and state chapters of the American Federation of Teachers. The commission is looking at ways to improve school board leadership, including switching to appointed board members.

The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers endorsed Harris, Fondy said, but that doesn't mean members weren't impressed by Dowd.

"He was a good candidate," said Fondy. "He is a positive guy and he certainly knows a lot about education issues." But Fondy said the endorsement went to Harris because she had voted for the current school budget, which was supported by the union, and because "we try to endorse the incumbents."

"We were trying to work with her and we still are," said Fondy. "We did not agree with her opposition to the superintendent."

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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