Justin Liang had a feeling Bon Air Elementary would stay open.
Although tiny Bon Air has fewer than 100 students, Liang figured the school was safe thanks to its devoted patron, board member Jean Fink. Meanwhile, Liang, who is the PTO president at another city elementary school facing closure, Miller African-Centered Academy, was helping to organize rallies and public-hearing delegations of hundreds of Miller parents. Though Bon Air supporters had lobbied aggressively against past district-consolidation efforts, they were relatively quiet as the board prepared to vote on whether to close 15 schools. With Miller still slated for shuttering in 2005, Liang observed, "It appears the school board makes decisions based upon relationships going on in the background as well as in public hearings."
Before the vote, Liang's prediction that the board would keep open Bon Air -- in many ways the poster child for school consolidation -- seemed far-fetched, even conspiratorial. But when the votes were counted May 26, Bon Air was one short of the five votes needed to close it.
Also saved from closure by the board were two other elementary schools, Schaeffer in Crafton Heights and Horace Mann in the North Side.
The May 26 decision to close schools but, for no publicly announced reason, to spare three of them, was a surprise, since none of those schools had five supporters on the board. The schools stayed open only because board member Mark Brentley rejected the whole consolidation plan on principle, a decision that led to an outcome he otherwise would have opposed. Earlier, Brentley had tried to delay the entire vote for a year.
With demands by political and foundation groups for an appointed, not elected, school board fresh in mind, the controversial decision was also a test of the board's effectiveness.
Though Schaeffer is small and the Mann building is old, neither was such a patent example of neighborhood favoritism as Bon Air, which the board already closed once, in 2000, only to have it reopened by candidates who campaigned in the 2001 elections on the platform of reversing such decisions. Two other small schools, Spring Garden Elementary and Arlington Middle, were re-opened in 2001 and re-closed last week.
Voting to keep Mann, Schaeffer and Bon Air open were board members Theresa Colaizzi, Dan Romaniello, Skip McCrea and Fink. Mann and Schaeffer are in McCrea's district. Fink voted to keep nine schools open -- the most of any board member, apart from Brentley.
Colaizzi and McCrea have sided with Fink in protecting Bon Air before. Romaniello said he voted to keep Bon Air open because he wasn't sufficiently assured that there would be room for those students in West Liberty Elementary, where they were to be reassigned. Still, he said he might vote to close the school next year.
However, the most influential vote was that of Mark Brentley -- never a Fink ally on protecting small neighborhood schools like Bon Air. From the beginning, Brentley had objected to any board involvement in the plan; now, he also objected because he felt he'd gotten the worst of the politics. Ironically, his overall "no" vote spared none of the schools in his district but became the crucial fifth vote that allowed Mann, Schaeffer and Bon Air to remain open.
If Brentley had voted to keep specific schools open -- for example, Miller and the Connelley Adult Education Center, both in his district -- as other members did, the entire package of closures would've taken effect, with each board member gaining political cover by supporting schools favored by their local constituents.
As a referendum on the effectiveness of the board itself, however, the vote's outcome was equivocal. In the past few years, various sectors of the community -- most prominently the Mayor's Commission on Public Education -- have called for an end to an elected school board, arguing that an appointed board would be less political. The push for an appointed board abated somewhat last November, when Patrick Dowd ousted Darlene Harris (long-focused on very small "neighborhood schools") and board member Bill Isler of Squirrel Hill was selected as president. Could this new board tackle this controversial issue without making a nasty scene?
Yep: "I'm proud to be a member [of the board] because of the way it was handled: A businesslike atmosphere, never any ugliness or personality conflicts," said Romaniello before the vote.
But being civil is easier than being fair. Was this board as a whole fair to students citywide? Did it resist pressure to favor -- or even appear to favor -- members' own electoral constituents?
Despite speeches praising the abstract process, concrete explanations for members' votes were missing. The public will probably ignore the individual votes that, almost by chance, kept some schools open and closed others. Instead, they'll ask, Why Mann? Why Schaeffer? And, with just about 85 students and a maximum capacity of 145, why Bon Air?