Pittsburgh Public Schools Board President Sala Udin said last month that the district under new Superintendent Wayne Walters would be “connected at the hip” with city government, but a disconnect that has persisted for more than a decade remains unsolved as students begin the 2022-23 school year.
The city police bureau and the school district still lack a cooperative agreement outlining how the two sides communicate and interact about student violations and in the event of an emergency. The agreement is required by state law.
Udin said last week the deal is on his “distant radar” and he is giving Walters, who was made permanent superintendent this summer after a year as interim, time to settle his senior staff and “get his vision clear going forward.”
School district solicitor Ira Weiss said the district has contacted the city’s law department to schedule a meeting to “work toward finalizing the agreement.”
“The district is optimistic this can be accomplished with the new administration,” Weiss said.
In a July interview the day after he was announced as permanent superintendent, Walters said he was not prepared to speak about the negotiations but that “conversations have started.”
Mayor Ed Gainey pledged to improve cooperation with the school district [PPS] when he took office this year. Gainey’s spokesperson Maria Montaño said the administration has had no discussions with the school district around the pending agreement and that the mayor’s team is “working to rebalance and strengthen the partnership with PPS.”
Acting Police Chief Tom Stangrecki said an agreement “seems like something relatively easy to accomplish” but did not comment on why it has not been accomplished yet, noting that he was not consistently involved in previous talks. Stangrecki became acting chief in July when former Chief Scott Schubert retired.
“There’s a renewed interest in looking at it again, so my suggestion is, hey, let’s get everyone together and talk about it,” Stangrecki said.
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said she is more concerned about a shortage of school police officers than the lack of an agreement with city police. The district’s police officers can make arrests but do not carry firearms. Public records show the district employed 19 officers last year, and the union leader said that force has shrunk since.
School district spokesperson Ebony Pugh declined to say how many officers the district now employs but said the school police are “still able to provide immediate response to emergencies but do request patience in response to non-emergency issues.”
Cooperative agreements often follow boilerplate language provided by the state and already exist between the city police and a number of private and charter schools. They dictate what student violations the school district must report to the police and which ones are shared at the district’s discretion. Additionally, the agreements lay out how the two agencies will coordinate in the event of an emergency.
Weiss, the school district solicitor, told PublicSource in June that talks that occurred before former Mayor Bill Peduto left office broke down because the sides could not agree on which student violations the district would be required to report to the police and which would be discretionary. Weiss and former Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich gave contradicting statements about the nature of the disagreement.
Montaño said it is “too premature to say” the new administration’s stance on what the agreement should say.
Udin, who was elected to the school board in 2017 and served on Pittsburgh City Council in the 1990s, said the two parties “have different visions and different missions so it’s difficult to come to an agreement.”
Some outside groups are pushing to drastically reduce police interaction with students. Hetal Dhagat, a staff attorney at the student rights-focused Education Law Center, said student referrals to the juvenile justice system should be eliminated.
“What we know is that increased referrals feed the school-to-prison pipeline, which has a disproportionate impact on Black youth and youth with disabilities,” Dhagat said.
Emails obtained by PublicSource via the state’s open records law suggest that two senior officials in the city and the district were working toward an agreement in 2020 and early 2021. Emails between Lindsay Powell, assistant chief of staff to then-Mayor Peduto and school board member Pam Harbin show the pair hammering away at a resolution during that time; they don’t specify their areas of disagreement. Both Harbin and Powell declined to comment for this story.
It is not clear if there are consequences for defying the state law requiring the agreement.
The law has been on the books since 2010 and representatives for the state attorney general and auditor general each said their office is not involved in enforcement. Gov. Tom Wolf’s press secretary, Elizabeth Rementer, suggested that PPS is in compliance with the law because it has an agreement with its own police force.
But the letter of the law — which says that each district needs an agreement with “each local police department having jurisdiction over school property” — suggests the district would need an agreement with Pittsburgh’s police, too.
Stangrecki said the lack of a formal agreement does not deter city police from responding promptly when school police or administrators call for help.
When asked if he foresaw issues arising with another school year starting without an agreement in place, Udin said, “How long have we been operating without one? That should answer that question.”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @chwolfson.
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