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After thorny year, foundations roared about Pittsburgh schools

Thursday, July 11, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Foundations generally don't like to be seen or heard, so the decision this week by three of Pittsburgh's wealthiest charities to suspend their funding of the Pittsburgh Public Schools clashed strongly with their normal practice of working quietly behind the scenes.

It took leaders of the Heinz Endowments, Grable Foundation and Pittsburgh Foundation a year to come to an agreement, and a day after they had made the decision public, it was still causing them discomfort.

"This making a public announcement goes against the grain for all of us," said Susan Brownlee, executive director of the Grable Foundation. But, she added, the Pittsburgh City School District "is a system so dysfunctional that we cannot put money into it."

Brownlee and Doug Root, a spokesman for Maxwell King, executive director of the Heinz Endowments, said yesterday that the foundations were not confident that the millions of dollars they had given to the Pittsburgh schools would be used the way they had hoped.

Last summer, the foundations asked for a clear sign that one of their most important initiatives, the Literacy Plus program, would be part of the district's future.

The foundations weren't interested in dictating school policy, Brownlee and Root said, they just wanted to protect their investment of $3.65 million to Literacy Plus and the millions more they had granted to other projects.

When the school board voted 9-0 to continue Literacy Plus, which incorporates education about character, the arts, humanities and values in kindergarten through fifth grade, it might have appeared to be the answer the foundation officials were looking for.

But the fractiousness of the school board's competing factions, and the board's inability to work with Superintendent John Thompson, continued to make them uneasy, Brownlee and Root said.

So Tuesday, the three foundations pulled their funding from the schools, a move that ultimately could cost the district much more money in matching federal and nonprofit grants.

The decision was not based on the actions of the board's current five-member majority, they said, or their personalities, because the same problems existed when the current minority faction was in the majority before the last board elections.

Brownlee and Root said that yesterday's action came only after other avenues to foster improved board governance had failed.

They were particularly galled by the school board's inability to follow recommendations made in January by Ronald Cowell, a former state legislator who is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg.

He had met with the board and Thompson at the request of Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and Republican philanthropist Elsie Hillman in an attempt to improve the school leaders' effectiveness.

Among Cowell's 16 recommendations were for the board and Thompson to "work together wherever practical," for board members to "balance a desire to represent their election district with a duty to serve the interests of the entire school district" and to adopt a Code of Member Conduct and Responsibility.

But Root said the board did not follow many of Cowell's recommendations, and so "there was no longer any confidence that without some outside intervention, things were going to get better."

Both Root and Brownlee said they could not recall another instance when their foundations had suspended funding for a grantee.

Daniel Merenda, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Partners in Education, a Washington-based organization that helps school systems form better relationships with foundations and communities, said partnerships between school systems and foundations and businesses grew 33 percent from 1990 to 2000.

That relationship is critical, he said, if school systems are to be effective in helping children achieve the high standards set for them.

"If you've got a school system unable to work effectively with those three [Pittsburgh foundation] powerhouses, it's really running counter to other places in the country," he said.

"I don't understand how the school board could allow that to happen."

The Pittsburgh city schools have historically been the Grable Foundation's largest grantee.

Brownlee said no specific steps had been planned yet to force the school board to become more effective, but she hoped a task force would be formed "to look at the governance issue on a tight time frame so that it doesn't turn into just a study group.

"We'd like other people and institutions to come forward," Brownlee said. "We're not the only institutions that have a vital interest."

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