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Pa. Race Gives Voters Chance To Weigh In on Privatization

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In Wilkinsburg, Pa., next month's school board election hinges on what has become a familiar question in the Pittsburgh suburb: to privatize or not to privatize.

The Nov. 7 election essentially has become a referendum on the fate of Turner Elementary School, which the school board turned over to Alternative Public Schools Inc. earlier this year. The Nashville, Tenn.-based for-profit management company incurred the ire of local teachers and residents who oppose privatization by firing and replacing Turner's 24 teachers with its own candidates from outside the district.

In the upcoming election battle, eight candidates will vie for five of the school board's nine seats. The race pits four privatization opponents against four board incumbents who support the aps venture.

During last spring's primary elections, the privatization opponents defeated the incumbents to win four Democratic slots on the ballot. But the incumbents, who had cross-registered as Republicans, will appear on the ballot as GOP candidates. One current board member, Sally Williams, will appear as both a Republican and a Democrat.

Brian Magan, the school board's vice president, pointed out that there are three privatization supporters currently on the board who are not up for re-election. Therefore, to maintain a five-member majority to preserve the effort at Turner, the privatization forces need to win just two seats.

But Mr. Magan, who supports the aps contract, acknowledged that the privatization supporters who are running as Republicans could have a hard time winning in a town where 74 percent of the 10,000 registered voters are Democrats. If Democrats "pull a straight ticket," he said, "we're going to lose."

No matter how the election turns out, the future of privatization at Turner Elementary School could be thrown into turmoil by a forthcoming decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On Sept. 18, the court heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by the teachers' union, which charges that the district acted illegally in hiring the company. The court has not indicated when it will issue a decision.

Targeting Turner

School board incumbents have defended the progress of Turner Elementary since its opening under the new management on Sept. 5. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

The management company plans to extend the school year and introduce multi-age classes and a rigorous, integrated core curriculum at the chronically low-achieving school.

Mr. Magan said he had spoken to many parents who feel that the school, and particularly student behavior, has already improved under aps. "One of the neighbors said, 'I knew there was something different at Turner School because there aren't a lot of kids running around,"' Mr. Magan said.

But he contended that the election revolves around other major issues aside from the Turner management--in particular, a request by the teachers' union during contract negotiations for a pay increase that would necessitate a $30 million tax increase over the next four years.

Wilkinsburg already has the highest school tax in Allegheny County, Mr. Magan said, a fact that could influence voters. "In this election, a lot of people don't understand the implications for them of a bad school district," he said, "but they're always very interested in their taxes."

He said that the incumbents hoped to educate the public on such issues, but said that they had limited finances and were facing opponents backed by a teachers' union with "unlimited resources."

But Butch Santicola, a spokes-man for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, denied that the union is heavily involved in the election campaign. "We are removed from that operation, and we made a conscious effort to do that," he said.

Mr. Santicola also charged that the incumbents are trying to turn the public eye away from real problems at Turner Elementary. "If privatization was so strong, why are they talking about bargaining?" he asked. "That's their campaign strategy: Divert attention from Turner."

Although Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, has been a vocal opponent of Turner's privatization, Heidi Steffens, an nea senior analyst, said last week that the national group is not involved with the election.

Privatization Foes

Lenora Olday appears to be one of the most visible candidates seeking to unseat the incumbents. Ms. Olday is the president of Wilkinsburg Residents Against Profiteering, a group that formed to fight the privatization effort.

She said her campaign has been bolstered by parents who have realized that Turner has not turned out to be "all peaches and cream." Some Turner parents have opted to teach their children at home, she said, and others have plans to move out of the district.

Ms. Olday also said that she and the other challengers want to focus on reforming all the schools, not just Turner. "We want to get people onto the board who are not only going to fight [privatization] hook, line, and sinker," she said, "but to get the changes that need to be done into all the schools."

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