As Pittsburgh Public enters an unprecedented era amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet was chosen to continue to lead the district through 2025.
The school board voted Wednesday to renew Hamlet’s contract just days before the start of the new school year when leaders will face unparalleled safety and health challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
Students begin the school year on Aug. 31, and they’ll spend the first nine-weeks in full-time e-learning.
The nine-member Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] board voted 7-2 to renew Hamlet’s contract through June 30, 2025. Board members Sala Udin and William Gallagher voted no to Hamlet’s contract renewal. Gallagher asked for the vote to be postponed because he said he didn’t have adequate time to review or receive information.
Hamlet thanked the board “for a vote of confidence” and said that “while the misdirected self-interests of a few attempted to take away from the progress we have made together, we are now able to move forward squarely focused on improving student outcomes.”
All board members gave extensive comments before the contract vote.
Udin, who spoke first, said he felt it was a mistake to vote on the contract months before a vote was required. He brought up persistent inequities in reading and math scores between Black and white students, ongoing investigations and the controversies surrounding the arrival of Dr. Hamlet to Pittsburgh.
Hamlet initially agreed to a five-year contract in 2016 set to expire next June. The board’s deadline to decide on whether to renew Hamlet’s contract was Feb. 1, 2021.
“It does not afford the public adequate time to study the issue, especially given most of our time is consumed with back to school and the COVID crisis and the multiple pandemics that families are facing,” Udin said.
Board member Kevin Carter sharply responded to Udin’s comments and other public comments made in disagreement, saying that “Had the board, who was a very well-educated, very smart, experienced board at the time thought that there was anything substantially wrong with this candidate [Hamlet], we would have not voted in the affirmative in a super majority.”
“It is remarkable how short our memories can be when we talk about the issues that have plagued this district and whom we want to hold accountable when we don’t really want to address the root of the problem,” Carter said.
Many board members responded to Udin, or to other public criticisms during their remarks on their vote.
Though met with criticism for the vote's timing, board president Sylvia Wilson said the board decided to vote in August for “the very reason that many asked us to wait.”
Wilson said in the coming months, the board will face several critical considerations, including collective bargaining agreements and the unprecedented and “worrisome” financial future.
“We need to concentrate on the education of our children,” Wilson said. “We needed to get this district back on track post-COVID-19 with haste. The district is making every effort to move forward in a difficult time that was not created by us.”
Board member Pam Harbin speaking now. She said she has “Always been a critical partner” of the district, to make it better. "Dr. Hamlet has made progress on the goals outlined in his current contract," and she's confident he will lead the district through the next few years. pic.twitter.com/ZqINr3ZNfl
— TyLisa C. Johnson (@tylisawrites) August 26, 2020
The board heard 144 public testimonies from parents, teachers, students and other concerned citizens at a hearing that stretched across the two days before the vote. Many comments were in response to the contract vote.
Bryanna Thomas, a rising senior at Pittsburgh CAPA, wrote to the board in support of renewing Hamlet’s contract, saying she likes his “visibility” as a superintendent. Prior to Hamlet, Thomas said, “There was no superintendent student advisory council.”
“Thank you, Dr. Hamlet, for giving students a voice,” Thomas said.
Community member Lillian Moore wrote to the board that she can hear Hamlet’s naysayers “loud and clear.”
Still, “I am thankful that I can separate fact from fiction and know that Dr. Hamlet inherited a tough school district when he came here but, armed with 22 years of education under his belt, he came in his gentle-giant way and went about making this a better school district for all the children of PPS.”
Some public speakers implored the board to postpone the vote and spoke against the decision to vote months before the final decision deadline, at a time when the community is focused on a safe return to school.
Elizabeth Healey, a mother of two district graduates and former school board member, asked the board to table the contract renewal decision, “so that you can focus your attention and the community's attention on the successful start of a new school year.”
Some testimony brought broader perspective, suggesting that Hamlet is not the source of the district’s challenges with student achievement and other struggles, but an inheritor.
Hamlet thanks the board "for a vote of confidence" and says “We have laid a strong foundation for the next five years." He also says to those with concerns about student achievement: "I hear you." pic.twitter.com/SI4G2QOVmS
— TyLisa C. Johnson (@tylisawrites) August 26, 2020
Retired teacher Kipp Dawson asked the board to “not give in to the attempts to scapegoat Dr. Hamlet for the significant problems and challenges our schools face – problems which preceded his tenure as superintendent.”
“Dr. Hamlet is not the source of our problems,” she continued. “He inherited them as we do. He has not fixed them, as we have not. But he also is not the reason we have not fixed them.”
Others pushed for the district to cut ties with Hamlet, expire his contract and begin the search for a new superintendent, citing an inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, educational outcomes and leadership style, among other reasons.
More than 2,600 people signed an online Change.org petition opposing the renewal of Hamlet’s contract.
Jessica Strong, mother to three children at district schools and former PPS employee, said, “It is painstakingly clear that Dr. Hamlet is not the effective leader we need right now.”
Strong cited inconsistent communication to parents and challenges with transitioning students to virtual learning. She continued that while it may seem “daunting” to search for a new superintendent mid-pandemic, “Our students and staff deserve better.”
“We deserve a leader that is visionary, that knows how to hire and manage staff, that can inspire our students and teachers,” Strong said. “We deserve a leader that can take bold and decisive action to help guide us during this time… That leader is not Dr. Hamlet.”
‘Are you choosing to ignore us?’
Udin, an often vocal board member, published an open letter titled ‘Sound the Alarm’ on Aug. 12 in which he called on city leaders to intervene on the board’s upcoming vote.
“If your voices are not heard, with an overwhelming rejection, then our children may never recover from this mis-education,” Udin wrote.
“None of [Hamlet’s] supporters will argue that a contract renewal is warranted because he has done a spectacular job in academic outcomes for PPS students,” Udin wrote, “He has not, and everybody knows it.”
He went on: “Instead of breathing hope and promise into our kids, we are playing political games with them and their lives by even considering renewing the contract of an ailing Superintendent. But ‘Black Lives Matter,’ huh?”
Since June 1, the Black Women for Better Education collective [BWFBE] has called for the board not to renew Hamlet’s contract. The collective’s letter, which came from more than 50 Black female educators, public servants and parents, listed financial management, COVID-19 crisis management and organizational leadership among the reasons to not renew the contract.
LaTrenda Sherrill, a member of the collective, had two questions for the school board on Monday: Have you not heard us? Are you choosing to ignore us?
Sherrill said the group spoke directly with board members Devon Taliaferro, Kevin Carter, Sylvia Wilson, Veronica Edwards and Udin about the renewal of Hamlet’s contract.
While she thanked Udin for listening, she called on the others to, “Please listen to the community” and said, “You know what needs to be done.”
Sherrill was among multiple BWFBE collective members at the public hearing who voiced concern about the renewal of Hamlet’s contract.
Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, another collective member, also implored the board to allow Hamlet’s contract to expire, citing his leadership and the district’s remote learning rollout, which she called “embarrassing, but not surprising.”
“As a transformational leader, what can this board truly say that Dr. Hamlet has done to improve” learning outcomes, Pinchback-Johnson wrote to the board. She continued that students in the district “are in desperate need of a high-quality education and deserve a leader who can deliver.”
TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.