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Pittsburgh School Board

A quiet election season -- for a change

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Once notorious for its bickering, the Pittsburgh School Board has quieted down in recent years -- even as a new superintendent, Mark Roosevelt, has ushered in sweeping changes. Roosevelt has pushed reforms that his predecessors struggled to complete: closing schools, opening up "learning academies" for students with lagging performance and creating new accountability standards for principals and schools.

But perhaps the most noticeable change is in tone. Of the four school-board seats up for re-election this year, there are challengers in only two. And all the candidates agree the new era of civility needs to continue.

"When I ran four years ago, it was so negative," says Dan Romaniello, the school-board member for District 6, which represents the city's West End and some neighborhoods south of the Mon. Back then, "People complained about the board, the superintendent," he recalls. Now, "People say, 'I like that new guy.'"

Romaniello, in fact, liked Roosevelt enough to vote to extend his contract through 2011 -- even though the existing contract had more than a year left on it. That decision, among others, has spawned a challenge from two rivals: Sherry Hazuda and Amy Barrett-Montgomery.

Romaniello, 52, of Beechview, spent 25 years working for PennDOT and cites his union experience there as evidence of his ability to negotiate. It wasn't enough to get him the Democratic Party's endorsement, however: The party nod went to Hazuda, a 56-year-old Beechview resident and retired supervisor at Verizon.

Hazuda, who describes herself as a "rookie" in politics, says that shepherding four children through Pittsburgh Public Schools and seeing them grow up to be (and to marry) teachers gives her a unique perspective. She's critical of the decision to extend Roosevelt's contract, preferring to wait and see how things turn out in the coming school year, during which Roosevelt plans an overhaul of city high schools.

Hazuda says Roosevelt's right-sizing program closed too many buildings -- 22 elementary and middle-schools -- too quickly. While the cuts saved more than $10 million, she says that if Roosevelt does his job right, "some of those schools will have to be reopened."

Amy Barrett-Montgomery, of Brookline, a 38-year-old police communications specialist who is also studying education at Duquesne University, agrees that renewing Roosevelt's contract may have been premature. She also worries that overcrowding may worsen discipline problems. Any time the student-to-teacher ratio exceeds 22 to 1, she says, educators are merely "warehousing" kids. (In some classrooms, the ratio can be as high as 30 to 1.) Her four children attended city public schools until the fourth grade, when they entered parochial schools. "I was almost forced to do it," she says. "I was not happy with the discipline."

In District 2 -- which includes Lawrenceville, Highland Park and adjoining neighborhoods, as well as portions of the North Side -- incumbent Patrick Dowd is vacating the seat to run for city council. Competing for the spot are Heather Arnet and Stephanie Tecza, who both arose from a loose coalition of citizens who supported Dowd four years ago. Each woman sought the coalition's favor, promising to back out of the race should the other candidate receive the blessing. The group selected Arnet, whose yard signs often share space with Dowd's. But Tecza stayed in the race, and won the Democratic endorsement.

Arnet, who works as executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation, touts her fund-raising savvy. Her work in the nonprofit community, she says, could help the school board tap sources of money for programs like the Pittsburgh Promise, a joint initiative of Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to offer college-tuition assistance to graduates of Pittsburgh public schools.

Arnet's daughter hasn't begun school yet. Stephanie Tecza's oldest daughter was a special-needs student, and Tecza is campaigning as an advocate for special-needs programs. Some school facilities -- like swimming pools, for example -- are not accessible to kids with disabilities, which Tecza says is unfair. She also espouses building partnerships with local unions to provide vocational training for kids who may not be cut out for college.

Both women are running as progressives in many ways, but rancor over the progressive endorsement still rankles.

"I can't imagine starting out my campaign lying to a room full of community people," Arnet says.

Tecza says the progressive coalition that chose Arnet wasn't sufficiently representative, leaving out residents from the North Side and Polish Hill, and African Americans generally. "The voice of parents in the community had not been heard," Tecza says.

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