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Trick Question: Can the mayor's education task force make a difference in Pittsburgh schools by ignoring its problems?

"If everything was great we wouldn't need a task force."

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Jean Schulte didn't know what to expect when she went to the first public meeting of Mayor Bill Peduto's education task force on Oct. 21. The 20-member body comprised of city councilors, school directors, students, teachers and education advocates had been meeting behind closed doors since spring.

The task force's fourth meeting, which would be its final before meeting with the mayor later this month, invited the public to share its thoughts on public education. As president of the parent/teacher organization at Minadeo, a pre-K to fifth-grade school in Squirrel Hill, Schulte was there to talk about increasing class sizes. As the evening wore on, however, she wasn't sure the task force wanted to hear her concerns.

How will the mayor's task force impact Pittsburgh public schools

"They were there to talk generally about education, and I had very specific concerns," Schulte said a few weeks after the meeting. "I'm very concerned about the state of our school."

While Schulte was eventually allowed to speak, others weren't so lucky. The meeting's facilitator, Curtis Porter, who works as Peduto's chief education and neighborhood-reinvestment officer, told attendees that the purpose of the meeting was to highlight positive news and talk about ways to market Pittsburgh Public Schools to suburban parents and those who have transferred their children to charter and private schools.

"If you have any more bad news, you have to keep it to yourself at this time," Porter said after only a handful of the more than 30 residents had had a chance to speak.

The audience wasn't happy. A few got up and left. Others began talking amongst themselves.

"I hope this group is more ambitious than promoting positive images of schools," said district parent Arthur Kosowski.

"If they're interested in marketing, listening to parents' concerns is important to make sure parents feel good about their decision to send their children to schools in the district," Schulte says. "I think the task force needs to rethink their agenda."

Members of the audience weren't the only ones who disagreed with the direction of the public meeting. Task-force members also argued about whether they should listen to the public's concerns, and questioned the purpose of the task force itself.

"I think we really need to hear and address what some of their concerns are," said city councilor and task-force member Theresa Kail-Smith.

"Our charge is not to fix the underlying fundamental issues," said task-force member Patrick Dowd, a former city councilor and school-board member who now leads the nonprofit Allies for Children. "There are a lot of things over which the city has no control."

Even as the public and task-force members grapple over what the commission's purpose is, and before it even makes its first set of recommendations, Kail-Smith has proposed making the body permanent. But without a defined focus and a willingness to deal with all of the district's issues, parents and residents worry the group will fail to make a difference.

Kail-Smith first proposed forming a mayor's education task force last October, after the district released a proposal calling for additional school closings. The closings were identified as a possible solution to avoiding a looming budget deficit in 2016.

"The Pittsburgh Public Schools had been talking about closing additional schools, and in our [council] district we already have several closed school buildings," Kail-Smith says. "I wanted to think about ways we could avoid school closures."

But after several newly elected school-board members took office in December 2013, the decision to close schools was reversed. From then on, the task force has had to develop a new mission.

"I think we got the attention of the school district," Kail-Smith says. "We continued to meet. One, because the legislation [creating the task force] already passed; and two, because there were other things we thought we could be addressing and ways we could work together. After we started meeting and talking, we realized there were definite areas where we had a shared interest."

One of those interests is to promote a positive image of the district in an effort to attract families to the city and increase enrollment. But while Kail-Smith agrees marketing is a worthy endeavor, she says it's equally important to tackle some of the district's issues.

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