Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!