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Local leaders back city schools panel

Task force formed to resolve discord

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Mayor Tom Murphy received letters from foundation, business and community leaders yesterday, commending him for deciding to organize a task force to study the Pittsburgh Public Schools and recommend changes.

The local leaders also offering their support included most notably those from the three private foundations that last week suspended funding to the district and agreed to withhold more than $3.5 million in grants.

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

In their joint letter, the foundations said they would help fund the committee's work as long as "task force members will be part of genuinely inclusive community process and not used for political expediency."

They also applauded the general description the mayor gave Monday of those who would serve on the task force -- financial experts, corporate executives and university officials. Because the task force is in the planning stages, Murphy has not said who the members will be.

Other letters of support included a joint letter from Republican activist Elsie Hillman and Thomas Murrin, distinguished service professor at Duquesne University's business school, and one from Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a private sector leadership group.

All the letters supported the strategy Murphy outlined Monday -- having the task force study the school district's finances, educational programs and governing structure.

"We set a general condition that we needed to see significant changes in the leadership and governance structure of the school district before we would resume funding," said Doug Root, a spokesman for Maxwell King, executive director for the Heinz Endowments. "We're holding to that, so we believe that the task force recommendations will determine a lot of that answer."

Murphy spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said the mayor was encouraged by the response from leaders.

"He looks forward to working with these leaders, with the conference and with all parts of the Pittsburgh community to ensure that the Pittsburgh Public Schools system is a source of excellence and pride for our city," Kwiecinski said in a statement.

Less enthusiastic were school officials, whose reactions to the task force and the foundations' response ranged from lukewarm to indignant.

Superintendent John Thompson commended the mayor for the move Monday though he questioned whether the board would accept the recommendations. Yesterday, he was frustrated with what he saw as the foundations' desire to work around school officials rather than with them.

"I guess it's out of our hands," Thompson said. "The foundations, the mayor and the task force will take care of the issues out there."

School board President Jean Fink said she didn't mind a task force but wondered how productive and realistic it would be.

"Everybody wants to get into the act. We're going to have people tripping over each other," she said. "All of these things sound pretty good. But I don't know how much is going to be practical."

Board member Mark Brentley Sr. insisted that the foundations would see changes more quickly if politicians who have supported the board's majority would tell them to change their ways. He included in that group Murphy, city Councilmen Gene Ricciardi and Jim Motznik, and state Reps. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, and Michael Diven, D-Brookline, all of whom supported the 2001 campaigns of Fink and members Theresa Colaizzi and Floyd McCrea. "They need to meet with the majority and tell them to call off the hit against Dr. Thompson and the district," Brentley said. "That can be done in 24 hours. Then we can move forward."

Similar reactions from the rest of the board's minority and Thompson last week, along with the board majority's objections to the foundations' withholding of funds appear to deepen the resolve of those concerned about the direction of the district.

"While press reports have described our decision to suspend funding ... as a 'wake-up call,' the response from the school district leaders has been to continue pointing fingers," the foundations' letter said. "Their reactions are further proof that repairing the governance problems from inside the system may no longer be possible."

Murphy said he wants the task force to issue findings this fall on school finances and educational quality in time for 2003 budget preparations. A study of the district's leadership and management problems could come later, he said.

Staff writers Timothy McNulty and Eleanor Chute contributed to this report.

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