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Mayor to lead study digging into city school district's troubles

Murphy plans to name 'best and brightest' to committee

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

By Timothy McNulty and Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Mayor Tom Murphy said yesterday that he will name a task force of the city's "best and brightest" to study the Pittsburgh Public Schools and recommend changes.

The task force is a response to an announcement by three private foundations last week suspending financial support to the district and withholding more than $3.5 million in grant funding.

Murphy also vowed to "personally work very hard over the next few weeks and months" to address problems in the school district, which is plagued by squabbling between school board factions and between the five-member majority and Superintendent John Thompson.

Murphy would not say who would be on the task force, but indicated it would include financial experts, corporate executives and university officials.

In the short run, Murphy said, the task force will study the school district's finances and educational programs. Later, Murphy wants it to study governance of the district by Thompson and the nine-member, elected school board.

Officials from the Grable Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation last week blamed discord among district officials for their decision to withhold their financial support.

Murphy said he wants the committee to issue findings by this fall on school finances, such as tax rates and educational and administrative costs, and the quality of educational programs, such as the math and reading initiatives the board has argued about recently. That will give the school board time to consider the recommendations as it is putting together its 2003 budget.

Last week, school board President Jean Fink said she believed the board and Thompson needed to meet privately to discuss whether they can work together. If not, they may need to "get a divorce," Fink said, though she didn't plan to recommend Thompson's dismissal anytime soon.

Thompson has said he believes the majority's micromanagement of the district is responsible for the current problems among school officials.

"Now the mayor's trying a task force," Thompson said. "It will be great if the board will accept the recommendations of a task force. But if they don't, we're right back where we started."

Thompson said he couldn't understand why Murphy, Fink and some others insist he should share the blame for the disharmony and that his job should be in question.

"What am I doing to cause them to fuss at each other? How can I get in their heads and make them do that?" he asked. "I can't say I'm causing that. I agree to sit down to discuss this. If [Fink] takes one step, I'll take five."

Murphy acknowledged that past efforts to achieve school district changes had failed miserably, and pointed to those suggested in January by Ronald Cowell, a former state legislator who is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg.

Cowell had met with the board and Thompson in a closed, two-day session at the request of Murphy and Republican philanthropist Elsie Hillman, and then recommended several ways for the superintendent and board to work together more harmoniously.

Murphy, who has no formal oversight of the school district, carefully avoided blaming either the board or Thompson for the district's problems.

He indicated city voters are responsible for the board, and the board is responsible for Thompson.

"There are things we can't do, and one of them is undo the election of this school board or fire the superintendent. Only the Legislature can change our board as chosen," Murphy said.

"In regard to firing the superintendent, that is the board's decision. We hope in the interim they would not consider doing that, but in the long term, we need to understand both sides share responsibility here."

Thompson pointed out that Murphy supported last year's election of Fink and board members Theresa Colaizzi and Floyd McCrea, who are part of the board majority.

Murphy said he does not support a plan by City Councilman Bob O'Connor to let Pittsburgh's mayor appoint four new school board members, with the help of a 12-member nominating committee.

"I'd like to think we could solve this problem locally," without going to Harrisburg, Murphy said.

The O'Connor proposal is gaining support elsewhere, however.

Yesterday, Kristen Szymkowiak, executive director of Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, or PUMP, said her organization believes the logical next step is to add appointed members to the school board.

A public hearing on O'Connor's plan will be held at 6 p.m. July 23 in the City Council chambers, on the fifth floor of the City-County Building on Grant Street.

Anyone interested in speaking during the City Council hearing should call the Office of the City Clerk, 412-255-2138.

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