The Pittsburgh Board of Education has selected Wayne Walters to serve as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS], a decision that comes nearly one year after he took on the role in an interim capacity.
In a press conference Thursday, Walters said he’s seeking to collaborate with students and parents in shaping education, improve staff morale and communication and make decisions “rooted in equity.”
“We’re not without challenges. And those challenges have been heightened and further exposed by this pandemic,” Walters said. “But I see this as an opportunity to innovate. And I have a strong desire to work together to create a brighter day in our beloved district. All of our children deserve it.”
The nine-member board began a national search for its next superintendent in March, with the goal of choosing the district’s new leader before the start of the 2022-2023 academic year. PPS’ previous superintendent, Anthony Hamlet, resigned in October amid growing frustrations within the district and following a State Ethics Commission finding that he had violated the Ethics Act.
Educational leadership search firm BWP & Associates aided the district in its search. The board in March approved $55,000 in spending on the search, which was later backed by foundation funds. In all, 29 people from 13 states and one other country applied for the role, and the firm presented five finalists to the district in a late June report.
“We wanted to make sure that our search was indeed a national search, and that the person who came out on top came out among national competition, serious competition,” said school board President Sala Udin. Choosing a superintendent is one of the board’s most important tasks, he said, and it took the responsibility “to heart.”
The board has not publicly named the five finalists for superintendent. Udin said “we don’t have that information,” during the press conference and said their names would not be shared, citing that some had not notified their employers about their applications.
The board is anticipated to formally vote to appoint Walters on Wednesday, during its next legislative session. Walters will have a five-year contract, the details of which will be released Wednesday, solicitor Ira Weiss said during the conference. His predecessor earned $229,473 in the 2020-21 school year.
Though the role may be familiar, Walters is continuing to lead PPS at a critical time for the district.
PPS adopted a 2022 general fund budget that includes a $27 million operating deficit, and it raised its property taxes to help reduce that shortfall. The district has lost nearly 3,000 students, or about one in eight, in recent years. The pandemic has impacted students’ mental health and ability to learn. And outside groups such as A+ Schools are seeking reform, while others are endorsing district board members and debating over charter schools and funding.
Walters said the district’s financial challenges are three-fold, and he intends to approach them by focusing on three areas: equity, excellence and efficiency. PPS has a responsibility to ensure that students who live in different zip codes receive the same quality of education, that it’s operating efficiently and that it offers robust educational opportunities, he said.
The district is facing achievement, staffing and capacity concerns, Walters said. But his first priority is creating a healthy and safe space for students to begin the upcoming school year, ensuring they have needed transportation and that the district’s schools are working in a unified manner.
Walters has worked for PPS for more than 30 years. He served previously as the district’s assistant superintendent of professional development and special programming. He also was the assistant principal of Northview Heights Elementary and later became principal of Frick International Studies Academy and Pittsburgh Obama.
Shallegra Moye, community lead of The Pittsburgh Study, values Walters’ history with PPS and said his tenure may allow him to exercise greater influence than a newcomer to the district. But she had hoped that the search for the next superintendent would have lasted longer. Regardless of who the superintendent is, the district needs adaptive, transformative leadership, she said.
“A visionary leader is one who considers all the alternatives, all of the possibilities for quality education for the students,” Moye said. “Transformative means that we literally begin to transform what has been years – decades and decades and decades and decades, right? – of underserving Black children in this region.”
Ron Sofo, retired CEO and principal of City Charter Schools and former superintendent of the Freedom Area School District, said moving PPS forward will be a challenge for any superintendent. He questioned whether Walters’ decades-long presence within the district and its culture will hinder, or support, growth and change.
“I think it’s going to be a tall order for someone who’s been in that culture, along with the school board, to reimagine and have the courage and the political will to turn a culture around that, right now, has been more about adults than it has been about serving all students well,” Sofo said.
Mayor Ed Gainey, after praising the choice of Walters, used his remarks at the press conference to offer his administration as a partner for the school district. Udin, the school board president and a former city council member, went as far as to say that the city and the district are “connected at the hip” as he introduced Gainey.
“I think it’s up to us as a region to not just say, ‘Dr. Walters, this is on you,’” Gainey said. “But really, this is on us.”
Early into Walters’ tenure as interim superintendent, the district grappled with violent incidents that harmed students and staff. In January, 15-year-old Marquis Campbell was fatally shot while in a school van outside Oliver Citywide Academy. About a week later, a 17-year-old student at Brashear High School was hospitalized following a beating from another student. That month, two staff members at Carrick High School were injured attempting to break up a fight involving five students.
Walters said in February that district administrators were looking into improving social-emotional supports, restorative practices and behavioral interventions, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He also launched “A Fresh Start for the Head and Heart,” a program intended to foster a positive school culture.
Walters said he believes his three-decade tenure within the district is an asset to boosting morale among PPS staff.
“I am a Pittsburgh Public Schools educator, and so I understand it intimately,” Walters said. “I believe in [PPS staff]. I respect what they do. I understand how challenging it is to educate students at this point. And so my hope is that I am a presence of hope, aspirations and a morale booster for our district.”
Moye said she’d like the superintendent’s engagement with families and community members to include deep listening and genuine efforts to meet their needs. For some community members, valued engagement may look like small group meetings. For others, a trip to the district’s central office may be preferred, she said.
Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, a founding member of the political action committee Black Women for a Better Education, said she’d like Walters to start a conversation with the PAC and move beyond perceptions. The district board is entrusting Walters to provide a high-quality education to Black students, and the PAC is looking for the board to hold him accountable, she said.
“We want to collaborate in ways that we can, but we also want accountability. We’re taxpayers; we’re parents,” Pinchback-Johnson said.
City Controller Michael Lamb, who started an investigation that ultimately led to the exit of Hamlet, struck an optimistic tone in a statement Thursday.
“It’s a new day at Pittsburgh Public Schools,” Lamb said in a press release. “Dr. Walters has earned the trust of Pittsburgh Public Schools students and families, and I congratulate him on his appointment as Superintendent of PPS.”
Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, said after the press conference that he was elated about Walters’ selection for the role. Walters has an “impeccable” track record and is a model educator, and his selection provides the district with needed stability, Ghubril said.
“This is a day of rejoicing,” Ghubril said. “Over the years, I have admired watching him in action. There wasn’t a student in his building that he walked by whose name he didn’t know and by whose name he called them.”
That connection with students was noticed by David Bayode, a rising senior at CAPA 6-12. While he and other students didn’t know Hamlet well, Walters has made one-on-one connections with them, Bayode said. “I think he’s going to do great things for the district.”
Bayode said the district’s biggest need is improving transportation.
During the press conference, Walters said that the district has raised the salaries of bus drivers and has proposed adjusting some start times. Though transportation continues to be a challenge, Walters believes PPS is prepared to bring students to its schools on time.
Walters said that bringing families back to the district and increasing enrollment is a priority, but he intends to focus on serving those still enrolled to make PPS “a beacon of light for the city of Pittsburgh to return back home.”
“Throughout my career, I have always been described as unapologetically student-first. I’m proud of that characterization, and continue to be that person,” Walters said.
Clarification (7/25/22): A previous version of this story was unclear about A+ Schools’ advocacy. They do not endorse school board candidates.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Charlie Wolfson contributed.
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