Three to four of the nine seats on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board will change hands next year, and candidates in the May 16 primary election for those posts gathered on Thursday for the fifth annual Pittsburgh School Board Candidate Forum organized by five local groups.
Led by 412 Justice, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and Casa San José, the forum provided an opportunity for the public to hear from the board candidates for PPS.
Of four seats on the ballot, only one is the subject of a contested race. District 2 incumbent Devon Taliaferro will face Ron Sofo, retired superintendent of the Freedom Area School District. Three incumbent board members — Pamela Harbin, Kevin Carter and William Gallagher, representing Districts 4,6 and 8 — are not running for another term. The candidates to replace them are Yael Silk for District 4, Emma Yourd for District 6 and Dwayne Barker for District 8.
The general election will be held this year on Nov. 7.
The board will experience significant turnover at a time when the district is facing big challenges. As the district continues to see enrollment declines, it’s facing various financial concerns. Chief among them is its reliance on federal COVID-19 relief funding; the district used the funds to stabilize its operating deficit with no concrete plan of how the district will move forward when those funds expire in 2024.
The district is also seeing a gradual reduction in the rate of increase in state funding each year along with increased charter school costs.
The board candidates faced questions about some persistent issues in the school district, ranging from charter school expenses and staffing shortages to student discipline and special education. Candidates took a united stand on most issues, outlining their goals and vision for how to create safe and welcoming schools.
Charter schools versus community schools
Some candidates agreed that while they don’t want to see charter schools expand, they also want to see if the district is providing resources that make parents want to send their kids to PPS.
Silk acknowledged that some policies surrounding charter schools are outside the purview of the school board. But she added that she would prioritize hearing from community members to make sure PPS can compete with charter schools.
Yourd, who was not opposed to charter schools, asked for more transparency and accountability from them.
PPS proposed to spend over $120 million to fund charter schools in the 2023 general fund budget. In the 2020-21 year, PPS paid charter schools per-pupil tuition of nearly $17,900 for non-special education students and about $42,850 for special education students who chose those schools.
Sofo, former principal of City Charter High School, said charter schools allow low-income and marginalized families to have a choice of quality education for their children. He also said the state should pay the tuition for students attending innovative charter schools and those costs should not be borne by local taxpayers.
Candidates supported the idea of more community schools and incorporating more family and community engagement in the district and focusing on student needs.
PPS currently has nine community schools — those with partnerships with community resources that offer programs in academics, family engagement, health and career development and more depending on each community’s needs.
“I think when we see our schools as community assets then we see that our students need resources to be successful academically, socially, emotionally,” said Taliaferro.
Candidates also said they want to work with school administration on existing initiatives for special education students.
Silk said parent communication was critical for students with IEPs (individualized education plans) so that they could receive the support they needed.
Addressing school staffing issues
All five candidates said they do not support the residency requirements that compel non-professional staff at PPS — such as paraprofessionals, food service workers or custodians — to live in the district. The district does not have a residency requirement for employees with professional certificates, such as teachers, counselors or principals.
Sofo said other than lifting the residency requirement, paraprofessionals should also be paid higher salaries and the district should work on building relationships between them and the students.
Taliaferro emphasized that it is also an issue of affordable housing as lower-salaried workers cannot afford to stay in the city. She said the current board is invested in working with the human resources department to gather data and feedback from the staff to make a decision about the residency requirement.
While candidates would like to see the residency requirement lifted, they also want to ensure that the district’s teachers are properly certified and equipped to teach.
Barker said entry-level teaching salaries should be raised so that more qualified teachers apply for the positions and then incentives should be provided to retain them.
Yourd and Silk said the pandemic exacerbated the teacher shortage and burnout crisis, leading some states to make certifications less stringent or give out emergency certifications. Schools need to work on creative solutions for certifying teachers, said Silk.
“We’re now at a place in society where we have to step out of that reactive place and get back to being proactive and thinking forwards,” said Yourd. “And I don’t think that moving certifications for teachers or lowering standards is the way to do that.”
Suspensions, security and special education
Regarding suspensions stemming from cultural and language barriers, candidates agreed that school staff should be trained about each student’s cultural background so that students feel supported.
Taliaferro said the issue of disproportionate suspensions of Black and Brown students needs to be addressed.
Candidates also said they opposed suspensions for non-violent offenses. Silk said suspensions should be for students that are at risk of harming others or themselves and the schools should welcome them and integrate them back into classrooms.
“I think really, really deep work around culturally responsive practices is critical because behavior is not neutral. It is culturally bound, and we all have different blinders,” said Silk.
Board candidates also unanimously opposed the presence of armed officers in school buildings. Taliaferro and Yourd emphasized the importance of guidance counselors and restorative practices to address social and emotional needs of students.
Sofo said security officers should be around the perimeters, and they should build a relationship of trust with students.
School closures and increasing student population
The district’s buildings could fit more than double its current enrollment of roughly 18,650 students. PPS has an excess building capacity of about 19,545 seats. Considering maintenance costs and a projected enrollment decline of nearly 6,000 students by 2031, school closures or consolidations may be in the future.
Yourd said the district firstly needs to acknowledge the decline in the general population of the city and then think about why families are moving away from PPS to other school districts or charter schools.
She added that with the increase in violent incidents in the district, PPS should prioritize addressing the school safety issue so that parents want to send their kids to the district.
As the district grapples with declining student enrollment, board candidates said conversations about school closures need to involve the entire community.
The last round of school closures in PPS was in 2012 as part of a district alignment plan.
Barker and Sofo suggested repurposing vacant and old school buildings into affordable housing or creating quality schools for the 21st century.
Silk said she was interested in a more transparent audit of the budget or looking at district finances holistically to address each building’s needs.
Taliaferro said the district needs to be intentional about school closures even as it spends a lot of money in the maintenance of those buildings.
“It’s more than just closing a school. It’s the loss of jobs,” she said. “…And when we close a school building, those teachers don’t just get sent somewhere else. Most teachers are at risk of losing their jobs.”
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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