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Open-Minded About School Closings, So Far

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Until Pittsburgh Public Schools presents its plan this summer to consolidate buildings or programs to eliminate some of its excess capacity, even parents seem to be tiptoeing around potential problems, or simply praising the decision-making process.

 

That there is a process for deciding which schools will be affected pleases Judy Wertheimer, steering committee member of Pittsburghers United for Equity in Public Schools and the parent of two boys in city elementary schools. "For the first time, there's been a back-and-forth dialogue," she says, acknowledging the series of seven public meetings the district has set since May 31. "We've been asking that the community have more input."

 

 At the June 2 meeting at Carrick High School, the audience was receptive to district reps but haunted by the violence of the slaying of Carrick student Keith Watts outside the building in March.

 

 "It's difficult to put some neighborhoods together," acknowledged Acting Superintendent Andrew King, the district's interim supervisor -- a careful nod to concerns by both parents and school personnel for the safety of students possibly mixing from previously separate schools.

 

 Proposed ideas include collapsing some elementary and middle schools into K-8 schools, having two or more independent schools share buildings, and simply closing certain schools altogether.

 

Both the district and the teachers' union say as many jobs as possible will be preserved in the reconfiguration, even though the district has seats for 11,500 more students than it currently educates. District spokesman Pete Camarda says the district doesn't expect dramatic layoffs, and that normal retirement levels will help absorb teachers who may be displaced. John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says the union will work with the district, but doesn't anticipate much job loss.

 

 "The administration and board are acting very responsibly in conducting these meetings," he says. "Nobody wants to see their neighborhood school closed. We live in a real world and we have to address the real issues that come to the forefront."

 

The district plans to develop recommendations to deal with the excess capacity by July, then seek further public comment and school-board approval for its plan by the end of October. The changes would be put in place in the 2006-2007 school year.

 

Judy Wertheimer says she's gratified to see that the lobbying of her group and other parent and community groups calling for more transparency and equity has paid off. For now, she's cautiously optimistic about the outcome.

 

 "Will the [community's] comments be reflected in the plans?" she says. "I'll reserve judgment until we see the outcomes."

For more information, including upcoming meeting schedules, see www.pghboe.net.

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