Friday, December 09, 2005

Roosevelt faces hard choices in balancing financial, education needs -- my quote and extra insights

I am quoted in today's Post-Gazette.
Roosevelt faces hard choices in balancing financial, education needs 'They're the generals, and we're just the minions ... I think that's a Smoky City legacy,' said South Side parent Mark Rauterkus, who complained Mr. Roosevelt developed the budget cuts behind closed doors instead of seeking the community's input.
The proposed closing of Pgh Public Schools Gifted Center is very bad news. The decision isn't going to get support from me. And, the moves announced this week might sink the entire reform agenda.

I talk about this "smokey city legacy" in the quote. And, it is illustrated with great clarity with the quote at the end of the article. "Some of the sacrifices, I think, in the end will be understood not to be sacrifices," said the director of A-Plus Schools. Bingo! See what I mean.

We (citizens, parents, customers of our schools) take crap. They (foundations honchos, unelected leaders, appointed neighborhood weenies, special-interest takers) call it A+ Beef. We have to eat it. In the end, they'll expect to be thanked by the citizens (minions).

Meanwhile, another 10,000 flee the city this year. The one's who value choices and freedoms vote with their feet.

I wanted to see a meeting among the parents of gifted students. I wanted to see some open meetings among the teachers, or various sections of the city. How about a meeting of gifted center alumni too. What do the gifted center staffers say? I wanted to have the facts put out before us for all to see.

Just a year or two ago we (citizens) heard that the Pgh Public Schools was running a nice, healthy surplus. Then the RAD tax was stolen. Then the crossing guards pay was shifted onto the backs of the kids in the classrooms -- rather than the mayor's budget. Then the foundations pulled $3+ million a year for a few years. That's all in all more than $20-million.

Dr. John Thompson said that there wasn't a budget problem. Now Mr. Roosevelt says we have a $49-million annual shortfall.

I remember when James C. Roddey said that Allegheny County government was an island of stability in a sea of red ink from all the other failing governmental entities. Then Dan Onorato came into office and the story changed in drastic ways. And, Mr. Roddey defended his claims for the next number of months.

Who do you trust? Who is right?

Perhaps they are all wrong.

There has been a changing of the guard. Around here that must mean that there is about to be a purge of the opposition. That's a smokey city way that is tolerated.

Bob O'Connor gets the spotlight shifting to him next. We'll see. Is there a "budget surplus" (already kicked around by Murphy) or not?

We need change, of course. We need to make stong, bold steps to moderize and right-size -- of course. But, we don't need to churn and burn. We don't need to have this shoved down our throats. We need to have the best possible solutions -- and that takes time, effort, communtity and interactions. Those qualities are absent in Roosevelt's actions so far.

Thanks to the director of A-Plus Schools for proving my point in such vivid color.

We need to think again. I would insist we act out in the open. I'd insist we seek valued input from all sectors. I would overhaul the process for change. I would make an open system. I want a more transparent governement -- so we can terminate this "smokey city", behind-closed doors, knee-jerk reaction mode of operations.

I would be PROACTIVE among the entire community.

I know that this is messy -- but it is original and it makes a huge difference. You can't be self-reliant when all the brians and brawn are concentrated in the few.

This week alone we have opened up the newspaper to read for the first time that the outgoing police chief is expecting the South Side Police Station to close -- and the school superintendent and board are going to close the Gifted Center. That's a big one-two punch -- and they are SUCKER PUNCHES, blindsided bad news, little options for ducking or sidesteps or even rolling with the punches.

But in the end we'll thank them --- ha, ha, ha. You better be good because Santa is coming to town.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roosevelt faces hard choices in balancing financial, education needs

Friday, December 09, 2005
By Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt is walking a fine line as he simultaneously tries to increase student achievement and whip the city school district into financial shape.

Pittsburgh schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt
If he cuts personnel or programs too deeply, he'll push achievement goals out of reach, invite state sanctions for poor academic performance and speed the exodus of students from city schools.

If he doesn't cut deeply enough, the district's financial predicament will spin out of control, jeopardizing his educational reform agenda and giving the state another reason to step in.

The $10.5 million in cuts Mr. Roosevelt recommended Tuesday might have seemed a hammer blow to the city school district's 2006 budget. But supporters said he wielded a scalpel, carefully cutting away people, programs and services the district doesn't need.

"I think this is an opportunity where he can really do more with less, and I think he knows it," said Victor J. Papale, executive director of A+ Schools, Downtown.

The district's 2006 preliminary budget of $545.7 million carries an operating deficit of $47.1 million. Without action, the operating deficit would grow to $72 million by 2007, officials said.

Some parents predicted the proposed cuts would give families more reasons to flee the city. Mr. Roosevelt unveiled the cuts the day after the district's budget hearing, which no residents attended.

Mr. Roosevelt received widespread if guarded support last month when he proposed closing 20 schools, opening two new schools in existing buildings, reconstituting seven low-performing schools as "accelerated learning academies" and making other changes to trim excess capacity and boost student achievement. It remains to be seen how much farther he can push parents, civic leaders and unions without sparking a backlash.

He said the school-reorganization plan would cut 250 jobs -- 120 teachers, 24 administrators and 106 other employees -- and save the district about $3.9 million in operating costs next year and about $10 million annually after that.

The additional $10.5 million in cuts he recommended Tuesday would eliminate 102 more teachers, kill a paid professional development day for faculty and abolish a training program for administrators. These recommendations will be in the budget proposal the school board will vote on Dec. 21.

Mr. Roosevelt said the district should consider the possibility of saving an additional $3.5 million next year by abolishing instructional teacher leaders, closing the gifted center for elementary and middle school students and discontinuing transportation for high school students. Mr. Roosevelt is not yet including these ideas in the budget proposal but is suggesting they be studied.

Glenwood resident John Tokarski said he had decided to support the school-reorganization plan, even though he disliked parts of it. But he said the ideas unveiled Tuesday, such as closing the gifted center, would be going too far.

"Personally, I'm outraged," Mr. Tokarski said. "Between that news and the news that they want to discontinue transportation for high school students, it's like, why even stay in the city?"

Gifted students attend classes at the Hill District center one day a week, and Mr. Roosevelt said he could incorporate gifted services into the students' regular schools for a savings of $394,000 next year and nearly $1 million annually after that. Mr. Tokarski, who was educated in private schools but sends his three children to city schools because of the gifted program, said he believes that change would dilute the program.

Barring improved scores on the standardized Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, the state could take over the district next year, and Mr. Roosevelt said the thrust of his reorganization plan is to close low-performing schools and move students to better ones. Yet Brookline parent Mary Kunkel said closing the gifted center would be a step backwards academically.

"Why would the district want to discourage the higher-achieving students?" she said in an e-mail to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"I am afraid that if they close the gifted center, there will be people leaving the district -- the ones that score well on the PSSAs. What a shame," said Ms. Kunkel, who has had two children attend classes at the center and wants her kindergarten student to have the opportunity.

Enrollment in city schools has dropped from 39,600 in 1998 to 31,150 this year, while enrollment in charter schools has increased from 304 to 1,650 during the same period. Charter schools, which the district must fund under state law, could drain $30 million from the budget next year.

District budget chief Pete Camarda said Mr. Roosevelt recognizes the need to strike a balance between programs and financial cuts to keep families in the district. Indeed, Mr. Roosevelt has said he wants to involve the community in a campaign for school improvement, though some parents said they've seen little sign of it.

"They're the generals, and we're just the minions ... I think that's a Smoky City legacy," said South Side parent Mark Rauterkus, who complained Mr. Roosevelt developed the budget cuts behind closed doors instead of seeking the community's input.

John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said cutting teachers and increasing class sizes won't improve student achievement.

Some of Mr. Roosevelt's ideas, such as abolishing instructional teacher leaders and one of teachers' paid professional development days, would seem contrary to his call for increased faculty development. However, Mr. Papale and Mr. Camarda said Mr. Roosevelt could enhance teacher development in other ways.

Mr. Papale said closing the gifted center and ending transportation for high school students could be reasonable sacrifices families make for the district's long-term health.

"Some of the sacrifices, I think, in the end will be understood not to be sacrifices," he said.

(Joe Smydo can be reached at or 412-263-1548.)