Monday, May 02, 2005

Pittsburgh school board races heat up

Pittsburgh school board races heat up When it comes to serving on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, hard-won experience trumps good intentions, says defending incumbent board member Theresa Colaizzi.

I'm sorry I didn't hold a debate among the candidates. In the past I've organized and hosted such events -- along with others.

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Pittsburgh school board races heat up

Candidates vie for primary votes in three districts

Monday, May 02, 2005
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When it comes to serving on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, hard-won experience trumps good intentions, says defending incumbent board member Theresa Colaizzi.

And after serving 31/2 years on the board representing District 5 -- and joining her share of battles -- Colaizzi points out that she's more familiar than her two opponents with the district's policies, programs and past mistakes.

"They'd have to test the water, where I can dive right in," said Colaizzi, 45, of Greenfield.

One of Colaizzi's challengers, however, said his lack of political experience wouldn't harm his ability to represent the district, including the young professionals the school district is trying to attract and keep in Pittsburgh.

"There's too many good young folks leaving our city," said Tom Baker, 25, of Greenfield. "I want to make sure young folks under the age of 40 would have a voice on the board."

The school board race among Colaizzi, Baker and a third candidate, Linda Sieg, 52, of Lincoln Place, for the District 5 seat is one of several in which personality and leadership style could preempt policy positions when voters go to the primary polls on May 17.

In addition to District 5, there are contested races in District 1, where incumbent Randall Taylor of Point Breeze is running for a third term against challenger Wilma Jean Woodward Scott of Lincoln-Larimer; and in District 3 where two candidates -- C. Michael Turpin of Bloomfield and Thomas Sumpter of Schenley Heights -- are vying for the seat held by Alex Matthews, who is not seeking re-election.

Incumbents Jean Fink, 56, of Carrick is running unopposed in District 7, as is incumbent Floyd McCrea, 50, of Observatory Hill, in District 9.

All candidates cross-filed except for Taylor and Scott, who are on the Democratic ballot, and Sieg, who is on the Republican ballot.

The candidates in all three districts largely agree on a similar set of priorities for the district, including selecting a new superintendent, closing the racial achievement gap, and stemming the erosion of the district's student population.

The differences come in the backgrounds they bring to the task and the methods by which they would accomplish their goals.

In District 1, Taylor, 42, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, said he wants to help the district stabilize its finances and channel more investment into struggling neighborhoods like those in his district.

"Right now, the funds communities like Homewood are receiving from Pittsburgh Public Schools are not enough for them to thrive and grow as a community," Taylor said.

Scott, 60, who taught for 34 years, could not be reached.

In the District 5 race, Sieg, a longtime directory assistance operator for Verizon, graduated from Allderdice High School and attended Allegheny College, community college and the University of Pittsburgh but did not earn a degree.

Sieg said she decided to run for school board after witnessing a particularly argumentative board meeting on public access television.

"I was totally embarrassed by that and I thought it was totally unnecessary," Sieg said.

Baker also graduated from Allderdice, then earned a degree in elementary education from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He works as a career counselor at Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.

Baker said he is running because he had such a good experience in city schools and wants to serve the community in return.

Colaizzi, who is seeking a second term, graduated from Allderdice, earned an associate's degree in business marketing with a minor in political science as well as her cosmetology license. She has owned a hair salon in Crafton Heights for 14 years.

She said she is running to help ensure children are as prepared as possible for life after high school, and should be trained in practical job skills as well as academic subjects.

To close the achievement gap, Sieg said schools and parents need to make sure students are actually attending school. Baker said the district needs to expect more from students, teachers, schools and board members; help ensure a sense of community in schools so students are motivated to succeed; bolster after-school programs; work on eliminating truancy; and offer rewards for high achievement.

But the district currently takes many of those steps, Colaizzi said. To really solve the problem, she said, school officials need to use data such as test scores and dropout rates to figure out what actually causes the achievement gap, Colaizzi said.

Among the three candidates, the method of dealing with such problems varied widely.

Colaizzi pointed out that her plainspoken manner -- which she acknowledges sometimes rubs staff members and her fellow board members the wrong way -- is in service to a good cause.

Sieg said she would not be afraid to push her point of view and priorities, but without the name-calling and rude behavior displayed at some board meetings.

Baker said he would try to take a diplomatic approach to working with fellow board members, staff and the superintendent. When listening to board meetings, Baker said, he tends to side with board members Taylor, Matthews and Mark Brentley on the issues, and admires board President Bill Isler's way of handling debates.

In District 3, Matthews has endorsed Sumpter. Sumpter also has been endorsed by former candidate Cheryl Walker, who withdrew from the race.

Sumpter, 55, grew up in Schenley Heights, where he has lived most of his life. He graduated from Schenley High School and earned a bachelor's degree in social relations from Carnegie Mellon University.

Sumpter worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Pittsburgh for 25 years, retiring in July 2004 after working as a community planning and development specialist, an environmental officer, an affordable housing specialist and a housing rehabilitation specialist.

Sumpter said he is running for school board to raise the achievement level of all students in the district.

"I don't think it's necessarily a black-white issue," Sumpter said. "I think it's a language and literacy issue. Some kids get read to, and others don't."

A native of Virginia, Turpin originally intended to become a priest and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy at the seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, Ky. Turpin, 53, met the woman who would become his wife before completing his studies, however, and ultimately became a manager at PNC Bank.

Now an assessment manager working in the city controller's office, Turpin helps city residents file property tax appeals against Allegheny County.

Turpin said he is running for school board because the school district "is the heart of any revitalization project, not only in the city, not only in the county but in southwestern Pennsylvania."

(Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at or 412-263-1548.)