Education Funding

Freeze on Grants Roils Pittsburgh District

By Michelle Galley — August 07, 2002 6 min read
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The governance of the Pittsburgh school system has been thrown into question after three local foundations announced they were suspending all of their grantmaking activity in the district.

Citing a “sharp decline of governance, leadership, and fiscal discipline” in the 38,000-student district, the Grable Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Pittsburgh Foundation sent a letter last month announcing their withdrawal to the nine members of the board of education and Superintendent John Thompson.

Mayor Tom Murphy plans to name a commission this week to examine the makeup of the board, whose members have been feuding among themselves and with Mr. Thompson for months. The commission also will hire outside consultants to conduct financial and curriculum audits of the district.

The Pittsburgh City Council has proposed adding mayoral appointees to the school board, or members who are elected at large. Currently, all nine members are elected by district.

In explaining their decision, the foundations said “the board is divided, the administration embattled, key personnel are leaving or under attack, and morale appears devastatingly low.”

The foundations’ action means the district will not receive $3.8 million that was promised for the coming year, and that it could lose more than $11.5 million over the next four years if the situation does not improve, according to Max King, the executive director of the Heinz Endowments, which was established in 1941 by Howard Heinz, the president of Mellon Bank.

The problems in the district are so serious, Mr. King said, that he was concerned that, like Philadelphia, the district would be taken over by the state. “Why wait until it is a hopeless situation?” he said of the philanthropies’ decision to withhold their money. “Let’s take action now.”

The tension among school board members, who often split 5-4 on votes, and between the board and the superintendent, has been escalating since late last year. At that time, an election shifted the control of the board to the bloc that previously had been in the minority.

Divisions Abound

In an interview last week, Superintendent Thompson characterized his relationship with the board majority as “stormy” and “rocky at times.”

The issue of closing schools, which arose last spring, proved particularly difficult for the board, Mr. Thompson said. As part of his plan to deal with a $40.5 million deficit in the district’s $485 million budget, the superintendent planned to close 12 schools that either had low enrollments or were in need of facilities upgrades.

But members of the board fought to keep three of the schools open this fall, despite the fact that two are elementary schools serving no more than 50 students. The third is a 125- student middle school.

The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has filed a grievance with the school board to try to prevent the schools from reopening, because splitting grades in those schools could violate teachers’ contracts.

“Fiscally, that doesn’t make any sense,” said Al Fondy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

Members of the board also have been accused of trying to micromanage the district by cutting line items for postage and consultants and reducing the budget allocation for natural gas.

The problems boil down to not “letting me be the superintendent,” Mr. Thompson said.

To try to address the divisions within the board, eight of the nine school board members attended a retreat in January run by Ron Cowell, a former Pennsylvania state legislator who is the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a local advocacy group.

“This is a board that is deeply divided on significant issues, including issues about how a board should conduct itself,” Mr. Cowell said.

Board meetings were getting so adversarial, in fact, that some members of the local clergy told Mr. Cowell that they believed schoolchildren should not attend the sessions.

After the retreat, Mr. Cowell submitted a report to the board with recommendations for changes. But, he cautioned, “it’s one thing to identify problems and suggest solutions. What has been absent is the will on the part of the majority of the board to change their behavior.”

Part of the problem, according to Alex Matthews, a school board member who votes with the minority, is the way issues are introduced and decisions are made.

“Instead of bringing things up through a committee process, the five members of the board majority come up their plans, where no one has any opportunity to look at, review, or discuss the item,” he contended.

Mr. Matthews, a former board president, was the only member who could be reached for comment on Pittsburgh’s governance woes.

But after weeks of public pressure, Jean Fink, the president of the school board, issued a statement late last month saying she was willing to review Mr. Cowell’s recommendations and discuss them with other board members.

Dramatic Move

Even though it is not unusual for a foundation to terminate its relationship with a school district, it may be unprecedented that one, let alone three, would be so vocal about that decision.

“I’ve never heard of this happening before,” said Sophie Sa, the executive director of the Panasonic Foundation, an education-related charity in Secaucus, N.J.

Even though the Pittsburgh foundations took the drastic step of publicly pulling out of the district with their July 9 letter, they still have faith in it, said Susan Brownlee, the executive director of the Grable Foundation. The philanthropy was founded by Errett M. Grable, who started the housewares company Rubbermaid Inc.

“We believe that this is still a very strong district,” Ms. Brownlee said. “The crucial elements—strong principals and good teachers—are still in place.”

Most of the grant money the district received from the foundations paid for reading and mathematics programs. The math program is also supported with money from the National Science Foundation, and the overall support from the foundations leveraged grant money from other sources.

Because of that leverage, the foundations’ move has significantly decreased the district’s ability to secure future grant money, the superintendent said.

“It really has caused great devastation,” Mr. Thompson said. “My first two years have been spent trying to build relationships within the community. We’re going to have to work twice as hard now.”

The philanthropies’ action has stirred some strong reaction elsewhere in the foundation world.

“It is my contention that if you want to get in the trench, you had better be prepared for rough play and to stay the course,” David Bergholtz, the executive director of the Gund Foundation in Cleveland, said in criticizing the Pittsburgh foundations. Gund, a community-oriented philanthropy, helps support Education Week‘s coverage of urban education.

But many times, foundations do not take a strong enough role with school districts, said Hayes Mizell, the director of the New York City-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s student-achievement program. The foundation also has given grant support to Education Week.

“This [announcement] was a way for the foundations to get the attention of the whole community,” Mr. Mizell said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Freeze on Grants Roils Pittsburgh District

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