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Murphy forced into school issue

City can no longer ignore flare-ups over the state of education

Sunday, July 28, 2002

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Mayor Tom Murphy is a reluctant warrior in the battles of the Pittsburgh school board.

Throughout his administration, a time when other big city mayors across the country were assuming greater control over their school systems, Murphy had fended off recurring efforts to shift the school's reins from Bellefield Avenue to Grant Street.

Murphy says his view of the issue of control has not changed. But events -- culminating in the foundations' shot across the schools' bow -- have forced him to raise the city's profile in the effort to calm the bickering climate surrounding the district's leadership.

"I have no interest in running the school system," Murphy said. "I have every interest in seeing to it that the school system is an effective institution."

The blue-ribbon panel that he has announced is still in gestation although its leaders, Oxford Development CEO David Matter and Pittsburgh Foundation President William Trueheart, were announced this week. Despite Murphy's professed reluctance, the panel's broadly worded mandate could end up being a force for fundamental change in the way the system is governed.

Murphy is asking the group to look at school governance along with the schools' academic performance and finances. But the panel's deliberations also could end up insulating city government against political pressure for a more active role in the schools.

In cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and New York, the central government has moved in recent years to elbow aside independent control of troubled school systems. In 1997, Dan Onorato, then city councilman and now Allegheny County controller, was one of a majority of City Council members supporting a proposal to discard the city's elected school board in favor of a panel appointed by the mayor and confirmed by council.

Murphy treated the initiative -- a sense-of-council resolution with no real legal force -- with kid gloves.

While withholding his endorsement, Murphy termed the plan "thoughtful and timely."

Murphy also pledged to sponsor a series of public forums on school issues and to create a community task force charged with making recommendations about possible changes. But there was no real follow-through to the proposal.

"His comments were positive, but he just had a real philosophical problem with the issue," Onorato recalled. "I disagreed then, and I still feel the same way. I think that the government of the city and the schools are so intertwined that the same policymaker should be the decision maker for both."

In the Democratic primary for mayor in 2001, Murphy's challenger, Councilman Bob O'Connor, proposed a hybrid plan, retaining the nine school board members elected by district, but adding two appointed members, one to be chosen by council, the other by the mayor.

Murphy clearly wasn't interested in a high-profile debate on the proposal in the middle of a primary that he would win by a few hundred votes. He responded to O'Connor's proposal with a statement issued by his campaign manager, saying that he would have no comment until he had a chance to study it.

The same day last week that Murphy was announcing his task force leaders, O'Connor was holding a hearing on an altered version of the concept he offered during the campaign. In this version, four appointed board members, chosen by the mayor, would supplement the nine district seats. Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, is working on legislation expected to be broadly similar to the O'Connor proposal.

While Frankel is a frequent political ally of Murphy's, he acknowledged that the mayor has not gotten behind his proposed legislation.

"The reason he doesn't embrace my plan or Bob's plan is that it would give the impression of giving him control without really giving him control."

Murphy says his relative reticence on school board issues in the past reflected the realities of the two governments structures.

"I respect that the board is elected; to me that was never an issue. I thought that as another elected official, really equal to them, to come and tell them what to do was not my role as mayor."

But Murphy also described "hundreds if not thousands of conversations," with Pittsburghers who urged him to "do something" about the schools.

"I have always said, 'Don't put me in what is always the most difficult situation -- giving me responsibility but no authority,' which is the case with the school system," Murphy said after this week's news conference.

"On the other hand, over the last couple of months, it has gotten worse."

While Murphy was more than content to maintain a low public profile on school issues, he did have ties to figures on different sides of the school debate, including members of the board majority who have repeatedly clashed with Superintendent John Thompson.

Murphy said he had joined in behind-the-scenes efforts to improve the school climate. Other would-be mediators included former Republican national committeewoman Elsie Hillman and some of the same foundations' figures who precipitated the renewed public debate with the their funding halt.

"Elsie and I have been meeting regularly, every month or couple of weeks, for at least a year and a half," Murphy said. "And we and others have quietly tried to nudge the school board in the right direction.

"I set up a breakfast for Elsie and the five [majority] board members at least a year and a half ago. We worked together to recruit Ron Cowell," he said, referring to the former state lawmaker and education think tank figure who joined Thompson and the board in search of amity in a closed door retreat earlier this year.

"[Deputy Mayor] Tom Cox and I were acting as sort of informal mediators in getting people to agree on -- not big issues -- nuts and bolts stuff.

" And it's been a very difficult, very frustrating experience for all of us. ... It is clear there is not within this group a mechanism to reach consensus, and I think we are watching the results of that. I don't question any of their motives. I question the their ability to work with one another."

Murphy said his concern over the schools' direction was exacerbated by an issue at the intersection of his role as a parent and as a chief executive in search of civic development -- the proposed Downtown site for CAPA, the school for the Creative and Performing Arts.

"I have a personal interests because our son is in that program. ... I have been, along with the Cultural Trust, a big proponent of putting that building Downtown, and I have been dismayed, frankly, that opportunities for support from the state and the foundations were being lost because of the inability of the school district to make decisions that would make them want to put money in this. ...

"Just being involved in that one little piece, I watched the ability to get things done unravel."

It will be months before it is clear whether Murphy's commission, one of the first responses to the foundation action, will bring calls for structural changes in the schools' government.

"I can't conclude that in advance," Murphy said. "I don't know where this task force is going; but I will say to you that with Dave Matter and Bill Trueheart as two examples, this board is going to be a group of very strong-willed people."

Onorato continues to promote the concept of an appointed board under the mayor.

"If you're trying to promote the city, you can't ignore the fact that schools are probably the biggest issue," Onorato said. "They're obviously a huge factor in trying to retain people and get people to move into the city."

Frankel, while a voice for change, sees Onorato's solution as too drastic.

"It could send the wrong signal about the schools," he said. "For all of this, they are certainly not in any way comparable to Philadelphia, Chicago or New York. Many people do feel with good reason that they are getting a good product [in the Pittsburgh schools]."

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