Charter-hosted forum exposes tension
District 5 hopeful boycotts the event
The first candidate forum last week for those vying for a seat on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board had an unlikely host: A group of Pittsburgh charter schools.
Environmental Charter School at Frick Park held a similar forum for a single district race in 2015. But Thursday’s event is thought to be the first coordinated effort from a group of charters inviting all city school board candidates to share their views on topics — including the well-established tension between them.
“I think the culture around charters and the district is becoming unnecessarily contentious. At the end of the day, we all want great schools for our kids,” said Chase Patterson, business manager for Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, which hosted the event.
Pittsburgh Public Schools has “tremendous authority” over the 11 charter schools serving nearly 3,500 students in the city, from determining whether a charter is renewed to authorizing a school’s move to a new site, noted Rachel Amankulor, deputy director of policy for the research and advocacy group Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now (PennCAN).
“These elections matter as much for charter school families as they do for district school families,” she said.
Three of the five seats on this year’s ballots for the May 16 primary are contested. Conrad Burns in District 7 said last week he won’t campaign or participate in any candidate forums, though the deadline to withdraw from the race has passed. Incumbents Cindy Falls in District 7 and Sylvia Wilson in District 1 are running unopposed.
The forum Thursday drew Veronica Edwards, who will challenge incumbent Carolyn Klug in District 9, and Sala Udin and James Myers Jr, who are both vying for the seat Tom Sumpter will vacate in District 3. District 5’s Terry Kennedy also participated — without her rival, Ghadah Makoshi.
“I encourage and welcome each parent to participate in the citywide forums, but find it difficult to attend a specific charter-based forum,” said Ms. Makoshi, who added that each charter has an appointed board of its own and because any “no” decisions from Pittsburgh Public Schools can be taken up with the state Charter School Appeals Board.
Her 8-year-old son attends Environmental Charter because she said his health problems compelled her to seek a school with a full-time nurse.
“A separate forum further creates separation and a ‘louder’ distinct voice above the rest of the community,” Ms. Makoshi said.
Candidates all pledged a willingness to work closer with charter schools and share best practices, a concept that both sides generally agree the state’s charter school law intended. Mr. Udin, a former city councilman, suggested the two sit for a yearly conference, work together to find new funding sources and develop a research collaboration.
“We are not warring tribes,” he said.
Answering a question about school safety, Mr. Udin also decried the idea of arming district police officers, a concept the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers is exploring. He invited other candidates to publicly state their views on the topic, but no one did.
Other questions touched on standardized testing, the need to increase the number of teachers of color in the district, and efforts to to improve student achievement.
Mr. Myers renewed calls for math and literacy coaches for the district’s youngest learners and a parent resource center in every school.
Candidates generally agreed the district should recruit more aggressively budding educators from historically black college and universities. Ms. Kennedy said the district should pitch teaching at city schools to minority students from the district’s own schools. Likewise, Ms. Edwards said the district should make the profession itself “look more appealing” to students of color. Mr. Myers said the district should focus on retaining black students graduating from the education schools at local colleges.
The next candidate forum, hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, an advocacy group more skeptical of charters, is 6 to 8 p.m. May 3 at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in Oakland.