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Pa. District Vote To Hire Firm To Run School Assailed

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A small Pennsylvania district's decision to hire a private company to manage one of its schools is making waves statewide and drawing fire from local and national union leaders.

The school board in the 1,900-student Wilkinsburg district voted last week to hire Alternative Public Schools Inc., a Nashville-based school-management company formed in 1992 by several business executives, to run one of its three elementary schools.

Although the deal is not final, its opponents--including Keith Geiger, the president of the National Education Association--denounced it before the vote at a local rally attended by about 250 people. "This rally is about jobs, but it's also about providing a quality education for our young people," he told the crowd. "And this rally is about union-busting."

The private company would hire its own teachers, replacing about 30 teachers districtwide. The local n.e.a. affiliate is spearheading opposition to the plan, along with a newly formed organization called Wilkinsburg Residents Against Profiteering.

State Rep. Ronald J. Cowell, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania House education committee, also has argued against the plan.

Pennsylvania law does not give districts the authority to hire a private company to provide instruction, he said in an interview.

Privatization is not the answer for the district's problems, he said. "The answer has to come from the community itself and not from an out-of-state company."

Gov. Tom Ridge, meanwhile, has met with Wilkinsburg school officials and "supports them in their actions to improve the quality of education for their children," said Charles B. Zogby, the policy director for the Governor. The Governor is drafting legislation on charter schools that would permit districts to contract for services with for-profit companies, Mr. Zogby added.

A First for Company

Concerned by low student achievement, the district began its search for an independent manager to run the 375-student Turner Elementary School about a year ago. (See Education Week, 4/6/94.)

Most of the students are from low-income families; 78 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Alternative Public Schools has not managed a school before, but Wilkinsburg school board president Ernest N. Ramsey said he was impressed by the company's academic plan, community focus, and the talent of its design team.

Wilkinsburg officials say they may cancel the deal if they can negotiate a new teachers' union contract before the end of this week that permits the district to implement much of the company's plan, including a longer school day and year.

Union officials said they oppose the district's latest proposals to use performance-based pay and ease restrictions on teacher dismissals.

If the contract with the company is signed, the union will sue, said Arleen J. Richardson, the staff representative for the Wilkinsburg Education Association.

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