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Forum: The region's No. 1 priority: the Pittsburgh Public Schools

Elsie H. Hillman calls on all civic leaders to make the city's schools the best in the nation - and for school board members to rise above parochialism

Sunday, March 04, 2001

The most important thing we can do to strengthen our region is to help make the Pittsburgh Public Schools the best urban school district in the country.

  Elsie H. Hillman, a Pittsburgh philanthropist and former Republican National Committee member, lives in Squirrel Hill. 

Some might say: Sure, a good Pittsburgh school district is important, but why is it any more important than neighborhood and Downtown development, or growing the technology industry or enhancing quality-of-life factors? Some might even wonder: Why is the quality of the Pittsburgh Public Schools more important than the quality of schools in Mt. Lebanon, Woodland Hills or Northgate?

The answer is simple, but may need a little explaining. First, we have to accept the fact that the city of Pittsburgh is the core of our region. While the surrounding municipalities and counties are vitally important to our region's growth and to our economic development, it is the city of Pittsburgh that is recognized around the world and is what attracts most newcomers to southwestern Pennsylvania, whether they be employers, employees, families or students.

Second, in order to have a strong region, we must have a strong core - meaning a thriving city. Lots of exciting development projects and industry growth initiatives have begun in the last several years and are beginning to pay dividends. However, the city (as well as the region) continues to lose population and the city's remaining population is aging. Our finances, while improving, are tenuous, and our school district's reserves have been totally depleted. These are not good signs for a viable city.

Third, to have a strong city, we must have a great school district. 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. It isn't fear of crime, property tax relief or even seeking a larger backyard to play in. It is seeking what some parents perceive as a better education for their children.

While Pittsburgh has a pretty good urban school district, it isn't as strong as most of our suburban school districts. If this exodus continues or new families refuse to move into the city, we will ultimately have a two-tier city: the poorest of the poor who cannot afford to leave the city, and the wealthiest of the wealthy who can afford to send their children to private schools. We cannot grow a viable city if these are the two primary elements of our population.

If we can't attract middle- to upper-income families to the city, how do we achieve sustainable growth in many of our neighborhoods? How do we support our superior medical institutions, college universities and our sports teams? How do we keep those educated and trained in our higher institutions of learning if we cannot provide not only adequate but also superior elementary and high school education for their children?

Why should we act now to make Pittsburgh Public Schools the best school district in the country?

A community-based study completed in 1998 titled "Grading the Graders: Evaluating the Pittsburgh Public School System" notes that school systems such as Philadelphia, Chicago (which has begun turning itself around), Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., face problems more serious than Pittsburgh's. They require more drastic measures and massive infusions of money. But it is clear, as one digs deeper in the report, that Pittsburgh is headed in the same direction.

We have competition. Recently, Livable Oregon, the leading community/economic development agency in Portland, Ore., began a comprehensive revitalization effort for downtown Portland. It adopted a 10-year strategic plan. The civic, corporate and political leadership determined that the No. 1 goal is to make the Portland City School District the best in the country. They realize that all they have done to revitalize the city will fail if families will not move into the city and enroll their children in public schools.

So, what can we do? We should encourage our civic, corporate, economic development and political leadership within the region and certainly within the city to make as their No. 1 objective the improvement of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. 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.

When it comes to kids, we cannot wait.

In six of the last 10 years, the Pittsburgh school district has had budget deficits and borrowed from reserves. Our school buildings have the capacity to house, for education, 52,000 students. Today they are occupied by only 39,000 students. Simple arithmetic shows that we cannot afford this kind of a business plan. Resources must be merged, costs must be contained and, as a result, some smaller schools must be closed. If, in fact, our present system of operating had proved to be the best way to teach children, would we be in this pickle today?

The basic foundation is to improve the quality of our public school education lies in the experience, commitment and wisdom of nine elected school board members, whose role should be to approve the strategic direction of the organization, set the stage for the implementation of this plan and to evaluate its progress.

The current board has been elected to accomplish these things with the mission of quality education for all of our children. It stands to reason that a school district with a budget of $440 million should be run like a big business - a qualified school board serving as the board of directors to set mission and policy and a committed, experienced superintendent, as president of the corporation, should be in charge of its successful implementation. We should be able to expect our school board and the superintendent to work together to resolve the really important obstacles in education that we face as a whole community.

The very nature of the political process tends to lead to parochialism, be it local, state or national. And a nine-member school board elected from nine small geographic districts just may not see the "big picture" of the system as a whole, as many outside the board are able to do.

This is no time to enter into discussion about how the selection process should be changed. But it is time to talk about who is elected.

We should commit to better educate ourselves on the candidates and the views they have of their roles as important leaders for the community. We should evaluate the performances of current board members and become acquainted with the newer candidates and their perception of the office they seek to serve.

And, as voters on May 15, it is our duty to cast an informed ballot for the school board member in our district.

As Thomas Murrin, dean of the A.J. Palumbo School of Business at Duquesne University and chair of the Grading the Graders report, stated: "The increasing disparity between haves and have-nots may be our nation's most serious problem. Improved education may be its most promising solution."

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