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Editorial: Out of school / A get-to-know-you retreat is worth trying

Friday, January 11, 2002

For the past month, the city's public school leaders have behaved like a bunch of schoolyard rowdies, hurling verbal bricks and invectives at each other and the superintendent as they tussled over the current year's budget and the reopening of three city schools.

The public haranguing has done little to inspire confidence in the district's leadership and also has raised concerns in some quarters about the future of the superintendent hired less than two years ago. So we are encouraged by news that the board and its superintendent are taking a tiny step toward collaboration and teamwork. They are going off on retreat.

Superintendent John Thompson and the nine-member board plan to spend tomorrow learning how to talk to each other in hopes of improving their working relationship. The outcome of this seemingly innocuous exercise may have serious implications for the future of the city's beleaguered public schools.

Disagreements among board members, or between school boards and superintendents, are not unusual. What is strikingly different here is the level of personal animosity, the allegations of racism and what some critics say is an ongoing campaign to undermine the superintendent. In recent weeks the discourse has degenerated into vicious sniping, divisive accusations and second-guessing over the budget.

At the same time the board has divided along racial lines over board President Jean Fink's insistence on keeping a campaign promise to reopen three predominantly white schools.

Clearly there are fundamental differences of opinion on fiscal matters, educational philosophy and the strategic direction of the district, yet much of the brawling suggests a clash of leadership styles and personalities along with a heavy dose of mistrust. Throw in the belief of some African-American board members that racism motivates some of the majority's decision-making and you have all the makings of a leadership crisis.

So, if a retreat can get this board and its superintendent working together constructively -- or at the very least, engaging in a civil debate on the issues, it's worth a try. The embattled board agreed to the retreat at the suggestion of Mayor Tom Murphy and Republican Party matriarch Elsie Hillman, who co-chairs an advisory team for Dr. Thompson. The session will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Pittsburgh International Airport and will be paid for with grant money -- not school district funds -- according to Mrs. Fink, who said she was already planning a retreat when the mayor and Mrs. Hillman proposed the idea.

The board majority, led by Mrs. Fink, took a hatchet to Dr. Thompson's $489 million spending plan, arbitrarily trimming $4.2 million, reopening three closed schools and creating a $1 million fund (deemed a slush fund by opponents) for so-called "board services."

We have vigorously opposed those cuts, as well as what we believe is a fiscally irresponsible decision to reopen underutilized schools. Although the mayor has no authority over the school board, he tried unsuccessfully prior to the budget vote to mediate the dispute, calling on board members to "rise above petty politics and serve the children of this community." They ignored his advice.

So Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Hillman turned for help to Ron Cowell, a former legislator who now heads the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center. The hope is that Mr. Cowell, who has done leadership training and strategic planning with other school boards, can help board members work through some of their deep-seated differences and learn how to treat each other with respect even as they disagree.

How far they go in exploring those points of contention raises a concern. The Post-Gazette has always been a staunch advocate of open meetings and the state's Sunshine Law. Thus, we are less than thrilled that this session has been closed to the public.

While everyone insists that this meeting will focus on relationship building and improving communication, we question whether members can do so without straying into the issues that have them at each others' throats in the first place -- issues that should be aired in a public venue with public participation.

Still, we are willing to give them an opportunity to try. But Mr. Cowell and his pupils should take care not to venture from this limited agenda.

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