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Embattled city school board to go on a retreat

Saturday, January 05, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

At the suggestion of Mayor Tom Murphy and Republican activist Elsie Hillman, former state legislator Ron Cowell will host a retreat next Saturday in hopes of easing tensions among the embattled board members of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Cowell, a Democrat who gained a reputation as a knowledgeable education policymaker while a state representative, will conduct the session at the Pittsburgh International Airport Hyatt Regency. Cowell is president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center.

School board retreats to build relationships among members and to help them work as a team are not new. But in light of recent clashes among board members over this year's budget and over closing and reopening schools, next week's session takes on added importance.

So much so that Murphy, who has no legal authority over city schools, and Hillman, who co-chairs an advisory team for Superintendent John Thompson, recommended Cowell as someone who could help board members sort through their problems with each other.

School board President Jean Fink said yesterday she had wanted the board to conduct a retreat to work on personal relationships and decided to accept the suggestion to use Cowell as a coordinator, particularly after he told her he would not charge the district.

Cowell said he still hasn't found a funding source for the retreat, and he does not know how much the total bill will be.

"I'm not really focused on the money right now," he said. "I think this is important work, and I just want to get it done and done right."

His organization is supported by grants from groups such as the Heinz Endowments and the Grable and Pittsburgh foundations, but that doesn't mean any of those contributors will be paying for the session, he said.

Cowell has been talking with individual board members and key district administrators over the past few weeks to determine what they believe are the major issues the board needs to address to improve its effectiveness.

He declined to discuss what those issues might be, and the closed session is expected to include only Cowell, Thompson and board members.

One likely topic is the dissension among board members that led to a 5-4 vote on this year's $485.7 million budget, with its controversial, last-minute amendments, and the 5-4 decision more than a year ago to close a dozen schools over two years.

Fink said the lack of communication among school officials was evident from the fact that she didn't know about Thompson's advisory group, which includes Hillman; Tom Cox, Murphy's executive secretary; and other local community leaders. The group, called Thompson's "K-12 team," meets with the superintendent monthly to make suggestions about various school issues.

Although most of the board members are familiar with Cowell because of his years in the state Legislature, he said this would be his first time working directly with the city school board in a retreat. He and his organization have provided this type of assistance to other educational groups, he said.

"It's going to be up to the board members to decide what they can contribute to the retreat's effectiveness," Cowell said. "What they end up talking about, and what they choose to do with it in the end, will be up to them."

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