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Foundations yank Pittsburgh school grants

Groups cite a 'sharp decline of governance, leadership and fiscal discipline'

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee and Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writers

City school board members reacted with anger and finger-pointing after a stunning announcement yesterday that three local foundations will indefinitely suspend all funding to the district.

Top officials from the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Grable Foundation, which together have awarded the district $11.7 million in the last five years, said their decision resulted from a loss of confidence in the district's leadership.

View the two-page letter sent by the foundations to the Pittsburgh schools and four pages of supporting documentation on their support for the schools. You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader, available as a free download from Adobe.

Sally Kalson:

Shock therapy for a dysfunctional school system

Online Chart:

What foundations give schools

"It's clear the school system is in a crisis," William Trueheart, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Foundation, said at a joint news conference by officials of all three foundations at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel yesterday.

"This was a wrenching decision for both our staff and trustees," added Susan Brownlee, executive director of the Grable Foundation. "The Pittsburgh Public Schools is the largest beneficiary of Grable funding....But from an investor viewpoint, you can't justify it."

The three foundations notified the district of their decision in a letter that was hand-delivered to the school district yesterday. Copies were sent to Superintendent John Thompson and all nine board members.

In the letter, which was signed by Truehart, Brownlee and Maxwell King, executive director of the Heinz Endowments, foundation officials cited "a sharp decline of governance, leadership and fiscal discipline" in the district.

"The board is divided, the administration is embattled, key personnel are leaving or under attack, and morale appears to be devastatingly low," the letter said.

Jean Fink

But city school board President Jean Fink said she was angered by what she characterized as a strong-arm tactic by the foundations that would harm children.

"I can't tell them what to do and they shouldn't tell me what to do. They shouldn't use money as a threat. I don't like being blackmailed," Fink said.

Immediately, more than $3.5 million in foundation money that had been approved but not yet paid out to the district will be put on hold. The amount includes $2 million from Heinz and $1 million from Grable for the district's reading and writing program known as Literacy Plus.

But the total loss could grow. Some federal funds the district receives are contingent upon foundation support. School officials last night still were trying to determine those figures.

In the letter, foundation executives said the district's management problems are due to the "increasingly dysfunctional" relationship between the school board's majority and minority factions and between the board and the administration.

The officials declined to blame any one particular group, but said the conflicts have created a crisis for the district. Withholding funds and calling attention to the problem is "a measure of how important we believe public education is to the city, which is why I'm here at all," Brownlee said. "This is how we can speak to this issue."

Maxwell King

The move also may be indicative of a sentiment that's spreading among local foundations.

The Hillman Foundation, for example, revealed yesterday that it's withholding part of a $350,000 grant to the school district for the Literacy Plus program.

Some well-known local philanthropies including the Eden Hall, McCune and Benedum foundations said yesterday that they don't make grants directly to school districts. But Eden Hall program director Sylvia Fields said, "Of course we were aware of what was happening....We do, in principal, agree with the three foundations."

Officials from the Grable, Heinz and Pittsburgh foundations said they wanted to make a public statement because they hope their decision will be a catalyst for community leaders and residents to push for a change in how the school district is managed.

Once the foundations see that enough progress has been made in trying to improve how the district is run, they would resume funding.

"We want to encourage a strong community process that will look into the issue of governance, and we would be willing to support such a process," said King of the Heinz Endowments.

"What we're saying here is let's get together and turn things around," Trueheart added.

Some board members said they had not received the foundations' letter and were caught off guard by the announcement. Fink said no one from the foundations had talked to her about their concerns.

First Vice President Darlene Harris quickly fired off a letter to the foundations, complaining that she had to learn of their decision from a reporter and described the foundation community as "much too detached from the governance of the school district to understand the complex decisions we have made and the even more difficult choices we will make in months to come."

"Furthermore, this action will negatively impact student achievement, which I am confident is not your goal," Harris wrote.

William Trueheart

Fink added, "They're not hurting me. They're not hurting the board. They're hurting the kids."

On the other hand, board member Randall Taylor and Albert Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said they understood the need for outside pressure to force the school board and administrators to work together, but thought the foundations may have gone too far.

"I wish they would have done something less drastic," Taylor said. "I would have understood a threat before pulling out the money. Now the support we got from the foundations will have to come from taxpayers or we'll have to cut programs."

Taylor, part of the board's minority faction that has clashed with Fink and her supporters, suggested that Fink resign -- an idea that Fink quickly rejected.

Still, Taylor and board members Alex Matthews and Bill Isler said they believed this year's five-member majority was the primary cause of the foundation's decision, even though foundation officials didn't say that was the case.

"You have five people who want to run this school district their way," Isler said.

Matthews and Fondy said it was time for the entire board to put aside its differences and support Thompson's efforts to improve education in the district.

Thompson was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment, but the district said in a statement that the loss of the foundation funding would jeopardize the success of educational programs that were part of the superintendent's "agenda for action."

At yesterday's news conference, the three foundation officials said while they realized their decision could be viewed as harmful to children, they hope it will only be a short-term measure.

"We have the gravest concern for the children, and it may put them temporarily at a disadvantage, but we have to look at the long run," King said.

Officials with Heinz, Grable and the Pittsburgh foundations were particularly concerned about the departure of two leaders with the Literacy Plus program, which has received substantial foundation support. Deputy Superintendent Paula Butterfield is on leave; senior program officer Rebecca Hamilton has resigned.

Butterfield is on paid leave while school officials investigate charges that she improperly used her district credit card. Hamilton resigned last month, blaming fighting among board members and their treatment of Butterfield.

Staff writer Eleanor Chute contributed to this report.

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