The inauguration of Ed Gainey as Pittsburgh’s mayor last week didn’t just herald a new era of Pittsburgh’s city politics: It could also mean a dramatic change for Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

Former Mayor Bill Peduto and former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet sparred publicly several times over the past five years and for long stretches refused to even meet with each other. 

Gainey, a graduate of Pittsburgh Public Schools, has promised a new era of cooperation with the school district, as the district itself is undergoing leadership change. 

The honeymoon began in December when Gainey, as mayor-elect, attended a celebration after the district named Wayne Walters its interim superintendent. The two already knew each other as Walters was the principal at the high school attended by the mayor’s eldest daughter. On Gainey’s inauguration day, the school district declared Jan. 3 “Mayor Edward Gainey Day.”

But the district and the Peduto administration started with a promise of cooperation as well, and some of the friction points have not yet been addressed. There could be a new superintendent hired early in Gainey’s term and, if that happens, it’s unclear how they would get along.

If Gainey and the district can keep communication lines open, school district superintendents across Allegheny County said there are a number of key areas where Pittsburgh could benefit: coordinating with police, creating walking and transportation routes, bringing delinquent properties back onto the tax rolls, shared buying power for bulk goods, adapting to demographic changes, increasing after-school programming and many others.

“No matter how well the city is doing, if children aren’t getting a strong public education, we will lose population. At the same time, no matter how great our schools are doing, if our city is not safe and full of job opportunities, we will lose population.”

Saleem Ghubril, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, said one of the city’s boldest education initiatives came about because of city and district collaboration. A generation of Pittsburgh high school graduates have been receiving college scholarships because of former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s commitment to the Promise. It was the first time Ghubril said he heard a mayor say, “I cannot effectively develop my neighborhoods until you give me schools that people want to send their kids to.”

While the potential for bold collaborations exist, the school district’s relationship to the city could be tested early by several contentious issues. For example, district officials said they’re going to press the city to return $20 million in yearly income tax money that they say the district is owed: The money is collected by the district and went to the district budget before 2004. So far, Gainey has only promised to study the issue.  

The district is also planning to hold discussions about consolidating schools to save money as it looks to close a yearly budget deficit of more than $50 million. Gainey says he is opposed to closing schools.

School board chair Sala Udin said that, because of issues like consolidation, the board will look for a permanent superintendent who is committed to working closely with the city and others. “Not only the candidate’s willingness to reach out,” he said, “but what experience does the candidate have in effectively reaching out and developing ties with local government, foundations, business community, parents.”

Gainey says he will take a different approach than Peduto: He will keep an open line of communication with the district without voicing any public criticism, except in an emergency.

“I don’t want to come out and point the finger because then sometimes it gets pointed back to you,” Gainey said.

Finger-pointing

Peduto came into office promising to build a close relationship with the school district as well. But after big promises and regular meetings with Superintendent Linda Lane, Peduto’s relationship with the district deteriorated.

Peduto complained that Hamlet wouldn’t meet with him for years. Hamlet blamed Peduto. They clashed over whether Peduto should play a role in negotiating the new teacher’s union contract. And they clashed again about the district’s finances.

Udin blamed the district for historically not being open to collaboration. “The superintendent and the school district are insulated and drawn inward and not inclined to reach out,” he said. 

Whatever the source of the past problems, district board member Kevin Carter said new personalities could change the dynamic. “Mayor Gainey is not Mayor Peduto and Superintendent Walters is not Superintendent Hamlet,” he said. “When people change, so does the relationship.”

But contentious issues remain. Peduto criticized the district for running a deficit and raising property taxes to pay for it. And then Peduto refused to meet with the district about a proposal to send $20 million of the city’s income tax revenue to the district. The money was shifted away from the district and into the city coffers in 2004 when the city was close to bankruptcy.

“I would hope that they don’t close schools. I think we see the evidence of the last time they closed schools, it wasn’t done in a way that really brought equity.”

Mayor Ed Gainey

Now that their financial fortunes are reversed, multiple district officials and board members believe the city should return the revenue stream. The income tax issue has a long history: Former city officials say half of the tax money was unfairly taken by the district from the city in the 1980s.

Peduto didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Dan Gilman, Peduto’s former chief of staff, said the school board’s resistance to city collaboration predated Hamlet. Gilman said the school board rebuffed his own effort as a city councilman in 2014 to meet with the district. Instead, he said, he had to meet directly with principals in his council district to talk about issues that jointly impacted the city and the schools. 

More cooperation is critical, Gilman said. “No matter how well the city is doing, if children aren’t getting a strong public education, we will lose population,” he said. “At the same time, no matter how great our schools are doing, if our city is not safe and full of job opportunities, we will lose population.”

Gainey’s roots run deep in Pittsburgh Public Schools, and he believes this will help him forge a strong relationship. Gainey attended both public schools and private Catholic schools as a child. His mom wanted him to attend Central Catholic High School, with stricter discipline. But she ran low on funds for tuition and allowed Gainey to spend his junior and senior years at Peabody High School, where he fondly remembers playing for the school’s basketball team. Gainey also has three children who attend or have graduated from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Ira Weiss, the district solicitor, said the previous administration was “openly hostile” to the district and thinks Gainey’s administration will take a broader view of the benefit the schools bring to the city. “I would hope that the Gainey administration and school district can have a productive dialogue about recovering this money and ultimately the solution the parties reach mutually is better than some imposed solution,” he said.

Mayor Ed Gainey and interim Superintendent Wayne Walters have a history that goes back to when Walters was the principal of Gainey’s daughter’s high school. (Photo courtesy of Jason Cohn for Pittsburgh Public Schools)

If the district did get $20 million in tax revenue back from the city, it would mean less money for Gainey’s priorities. Walters said he expected to have a meeting Gainey soon after he takes office where he will bring up the issue. 

“We know the conversation will take place because it’s been a historic conversation in our district with a belief the funds should be filtered back to the school district and they have not,” Walters said.

School consolidation

Closer collaboration could help the district if it moves forward with school consolidation, according to the school district and other local education leaders. 

Jerri Lynn Lippert, the superintendent of the West Allegheny School District, worked as the chief academic officer in Pittsburgh Public Schools during the last major round of school closures in the city. She said involving the city early will be crucial to avoiding a public fight. 

Walters agrees.  “My hope is to do this in a collaborative manner where we can involve as many stakeholders in that process around what the decisions are and why,” he said.

A consolidation plan was brought forward by Hamlet last year and rejected by Pittsburgh’s school board in part due to a lack of community input. The board has said it will take up the issue again this year as it looks to find ways to reduce its budget deficit. 

Alan Johnson, the current superintendent of East Allegheny and former superintendent of Woodland Hills, said early and frequent collaborations with Churchill Borough were critical when Woodland Hills closed a school and bussed them to Churchill. Their inclusion helped build support and ensured things like pedestrian and traffic safety issues could be resolved. 

Gainey doesn’t support school closures and believes historical evidence supports his position. “I would hope that they don’t close schools,” he said. “I think we see the evidence of the last time they closed schools, it wasn’t done in a way that really brought equity, and a lot of kids suffered.”

Gainey did support a form of school consolidation as a state legislator when Wilkinsburg began sending its middle and high school students to Pittsburgh. Gainey said fears about violence at Westinghouse 6-12 at the time proved unwarranted. 

Westinghouse may not be “where they’re supposed to be in terms of academics, but they’re getting better,” Gainey said. “But I think there are some positives that come out of that. I take my hat off to [football] Coach Donta [Green]: back-to-back championships, that’s an incredible job.”

Westinghouse, which already had one of the lowest attendance rates in the district, tied with one other school for the largest decline in attendance this academic year: Three out of 10 students are absent on an average day.

Benefits to collaboration

The city and school district already have a number of areas of joint interest and collaboration, such as their summer meals program, career and technical education collaborations and a summer jobs program for city youth, according to the district.

But one of the biggest potential benefits to cooperation, according to several Allegheny county superintendents, is bringing delinquent properties back into the fold. 

“Of course you want it back on your tax rolls, but more importantly from a community standpoint you want homes that families want to move into,” said Aaron Thomas, the superintendent of the Cornell School District. 

The current process in Pittsburgh is expensive and slow, said Weiss, Pittsburgh Public School’s solicitor. The city’s land bank is supposed to improve that, but it has foundered for years, Weiss said. Then last year, the city tried to get the district’s cooperation without giving the district any representation on the land bank’s board, and the district objected, Weiss said.

Udin, the district board president, hopes closer collaboration may lead the city to invest in improving parental engagement. The need for more parental engagement is evident, Udin said, but there have never been adequate staff to coordinate parental engagement and he thinks the city could help. 

“…it’s been a historic conversation in our district with a belief the funds should be filtered back to the school district and they have not.”

Superintendent Wayne Walters

Devon Taliaferro, a vice president on the board, hopes collaboration could lead the city to invest in a new recreation center in the West End. Tracey Reed, a new board director, hopes the city could help coordinate on transportation more, including prioritizing school bus routes for snow removal. 

William Gallagher, another board director, hopes the city will integrate the schools more fully into its economic development plans. This could mean adding a health clinic or daycare inside school buildings that are currently underutilized, he said. He also blamed a lack of partnership with the city over the past five years for contributing to the district’s growing budget deficit by not finding common areas to share costs. 

One group of Pittsburgh educators that may not benefit as much from Gainey’s leadership: the city’s charter schools.

Gainey is opposed to funding charter schools from district budgets, he said, because it creates a sense of competition rather than collaboration between schools. But he said he would work with local charter schools in the city “regardless of my feelings.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...