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Why Did the School Board Cross the Road?

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The much-maligned board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools did Mayor Tom Murphy a favor Aug. 27, passing resolutions to pay the city's 202 crossing guards for the rest of the 2003 calendar year, including the days last week when only parochial schools were in session (city schools opened Sept. 2). The guards had been cut in the current city budget fiasco.

The resolutions were carefully constructed: The school board will only pay the crossing guards for helping schoolchildren during the school day, not for special events or other duties. Also, rather than granting the city a lump sum for the guards' salaries and wages to the city -- estimated at $1.7 million -- the board required the city to ask for reimbursement at each pay period.

Finally -- although this information isn't contained in the resolutions' language -- the board will not be paying the crossing guards' full benefit package as contained in their union contract with the city. Though the Board of Education will cover the crossing guards' wages and health benefits, they opted not to pay pension contributions for these part-time workers.

"We cannot afford those benefits for 25-hour workers when we don't pay them for our employees that work 38 hours per week, as a matter of fairness," said board member Randall Taylor after the decision. "We'd love to extend benefits and pay a living wage to all of our employees, but we just can't afford that."

Besides, explains board solicitor Ira Weiss, the city didn't request pension funds for the guards. "We paid what was requested of us in the mayor's letter."

Reducing the guards' long-standing compensation may also give them incentive to lobby to remain city, rather than school board, employees. Taylor insisted that the board "had never attempted to play political games with this. We were determined not to let Murphy and [City Council President Gene] Ricciardi make us look bad."

 

Added Weiss: "For all the divisiveness of the board, the board deserves credit for stepping up on this. The fact of the matter is that the city has done nothing but heckle the board for over a year. The entity that wants to study the board's finances" -- the City of Pittsburgh -- "is now broke. It's like a twist at the end; it's dripping with irony."

Though board members seemed sincerely relieved to don white hats and help settle the matter, member Jean Wood cautioned that the board's move wasn't a wash for the city -- or the public: "This isn't saving taxpayers' money," she noted. "This is all taxpayers' money."

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