Pa. Court Backs Private Management of Wilkinsburg School

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School-privatization supporters in Wilkinsburg, Pa., last week hailed a state supreme court ruling that allows a Nashville company to continue to run an elementary school in the Pittsburgh suburb.

The state's high court ruled 4-2 on Oct. 27 to allow Alternative Public Schools Inc. to continue managing Turner Elementary School. The court also lifted a preliminary injunction and dropped contempt proceedings against the school district, and sent the lawsuit challenging the district's contract with the company back to a lower court.

The Wilkinsburg school board's agreement with APS to run Turner Elementary has generated storms of protest in the 1,900-student district. The company angered local teachers and some residents when it replaced all of the school's teachers with its own candidates drawn from around the country.

The Wilkinsburg Education Association, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the National Education Association, and several local residents challenged the contract in a lawsuit filed in March.

The contract had been a major issue in debates leading up to the Nov. 7 school board election, in which privatization opponents were seeking to oust board incumbents. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

The state supreme court gave both sides 14 days to request a motion for the high court to reconsider. Otherwise, the case will return to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

The 'Polestar'

Although the supreme court did not rule on specific evidence in the case, privatization advocates hailed a portion of the decision in which the justices appeared willing to accept the possibility of private management of a public school, which the lawsuit contends would violate state law.

"The best interest of the children is the polestar," the justices concluded.

E.J. Strassburger, the school board's lawyer, praised that portion of the ruling. "Am I happy about that? You bet."

Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the teachers' union was disappointed with the decision. But, he added, opponents were looking forward to the opportunity to present their case at an evidentiary hearing.

"The battle in Wilkinsburg doesn't just belong to Wilkinsburg," he said. "It belongs to the entire education family."

Conflicting Claims

In a related development last week, APS officials denounced a series of radio advertisements sponsored by the local teachers' union that bash the privatization effort.

One ad charged that APS was throwing out low-achieving students so that company officials could keep test scores high.

William R. DeLoache Jr., the chairman of APS, said the ad's claims were "outrageous," adding that the school had turned away students only on the basis of age or residency requirements, not because of academic ability.

Mr. Santicola said the ads were part of an ongoing effort to respond to the school board's attacks on Wilkinsburg's public schools. He said the ads were not meant to be political, and would continue to run even after the school board election.

Vol. 15, Issue 10

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