Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is steaming mad and he doesn’t care who knows it.

 

On Tuesday he raved that Pittsburgh Public Schools’ finances should be taken over by the state – the same fate the city had suffered during its own economic troubles from 2004-18.

 

The reason Peduto thinks the school should submit to a financial recovery plan overseen by a state appointed board? School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet is proposing a 2.3% tax increase in 2020 for a reserve fund while Peduto’s municipal government allegedly is managing with a surplus.

 

If the city can manage its finances without a tax increase, wonders Peduto, why can’t the school district?

 

However, the Mayor’s narrative conveniently leaves out a few pertinent facts.

 

Most importantly – during the city’s economic trouble 14 years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave a portion of their tax revenue to the municipal government to help it pay the bills.

 

Now that the city is doing better, school officials are suggesting Peduto should give that tax revenue back to the schools. And that suggestion infuriates the mayor.

 

In addition, it’s not true that Pittsburgh’s 2020 budget includes no tax increase.

 

The city is raising taxes by about 6% to pay for upkeep at its parks. However, since this tax is the result of a referendum approved by the voters, it is being spun as a “no new taxes” budget.

 

The city has a surplus due to construction of new high-end apartments. City Council could have budgeted some of this money to pay for the parks. Instead, leaders like Peduto were too cowardly to take the blame, themselves, and put it out as a question to voters.

 

It is entirely unfair to criticize Pittsburgh Public Schools for raising taxes a smaller degree (2.3%) than the city is (6%).

 

Both entities spend about the same amount annually. In 2020, the city has a proposed $608 million budget, and the schools have a proposed $665.6 million budget.

 

Moreover, there is nothing unfair about school officials asking for the tax revenue back from the city that they generously offered it when the municipality was in need.

 

Now that the city is out of peril (and has been since 2018), it should pay back that money. To be honest, it should do so with 14 years worth of interest – but no one is suggesting that.

 

At least it is time for Pittsburgh to stop leeching off its schools and give this revenue back.

 

The fact that Peduto is whining about something so obviously fair and equitable makes him look like a spoiled child.

 

The same goes for his suggestion of state takeover of district finances.

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools already is audited by the state every year. It is not on the state watchlist for districts in financial distress.

 

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, “There have been no significant issues raised related to how the district conducts its finances.”

 

Peduto just wants the schools to have to endure the same indignity the city did thereby putting municipal leaders in a better light.

 

After all, it was the school district which helped the city – not the other way round. And it was the city that needed the state to take over its finances, not the schools.

 

It was Pittsburgh Public School’s Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph who explicitly proposed a take-back of wage tax revenue that was diverted to the city in 2005.

 

City residents pay a 3% wage tax. Of this money, originally 2% went to the schools and 1% to the city.

 

When the city was placed under Act 47 state oversight, the formula was changed to give a quarter percent more to the city from the school’s allotment – thus 1.75% went to the schools and 1.25% went to the city.

 

Pittsburgh left Act 47 in 2018 but the wage tax distribution has remained the same.

 

“Why in the heck can’t the school board balance their budget?” Peduto said. “Where is all this money going?”

 

Answer: Some of it is still going unnecessarily to fill your municipal coffers.

 

Peduto added:

 

“If they are looking to have part of the city’s wage tax, then they should be willing to open the books and let the state come in and do exactly what we had to do through Act 47, which was difficult restructuring for the future. If we didn’t have that, the city would be bankrupt.”

 

So let me get this straight. In order to give back the revenue the schools generously loaned the city, you need a look at their finances? I sure wouldn’t lend you a dollar or else I’d have to show you my tax returns and checking account just to get the loan repaid.

 

Peduto went on:

 

“If they simply say, ‘We’re going to take your revenue to fix our hole,’ and not be the leaders that they were elected to be in making tough decisions like raising taxes, then I have no time for that, absolutely none, and I will fight them in Harrisburg.”

 

How generous! That’s like threatening to go to Mom and Dad to settle your dispute. A real leader would know he was in the wrong and just pay up.

 

This isn’t the first time Peduto has clashed with city schools.

 

He seems to think his role as mayor supersedes that of the school district which operates independently through an elected nine-member board.

 
He said as much in 2018 when district negotiations with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) threatened to spill over into the first teachers strike in more than 40 years.

 

Peduto wanted to mediate between the teachers and school administrators – a measure Dr. Hamlet patently refused.

 

Peduto said:

 

“They have to remember they’re a board. They’re not a government. They’re no different than the water board or the Port Authority board or the airport board. They’re a board of education. Their job should be solely making sure that kids are getting a good education. When there becomes labor strife in the city, labor strife that could affect the economic development of the city for years to come, they need to move out of the way and let [elected] leaders lead.”

 

Dr, Hamlet said this was a “bargaining process, not a political” one, and that Peduto needed to let administration continue the process of bargaining with the teachers – a process that resulted in a new contract without a strike.

 

The relationship has been chilly even before Hamlet was hired in 2016.

 

In a community where district funding is constantly at risk from unregulated and unaccountable charter schools, Peduto actually presided over a 2014 ribbon cutting ceremony at the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School.

 

 

Charter school costs are one of the largest expenses the district pays annually.

 

 

According to PennLive.com, the district paid $79 million (or about 12% of its budget) in 2017-18 to these institutions which are funded with public tax dollars but privately run.

 
Like many charter schools, the Hill District institution is incredibly segregated. According to ProPublica, 96% of students are children of color. It has no gifted program, offers no AP courses, has no students taking the SAT or ACT test, no calculus classes, no advanced math, no physics, geometry, chemistry or 8th grade algebra courses.

 

In short, this is not the type of school the mayor of a major metropolitan center should be promoting.

 

And Peduto would know that if he had any knowledge of how school systems actually work. Before entering city politics, the Democrat ran a consulting business and served as Chief of Staff to City Councilman Dan Cohen.

 

Since his first successful campaign for mayor in 2013, Peduto has had a history of making bold promises to the Pittsburgh Public Schools that have not always come to fruition.

 

Peduto said he would lobby for additional funding for city schools in Harrisburg but district solicitor Ira Weiss said the mayor never followed through.

 

 

Peduto proposed increasing school revenue by helping to rent out unused school space. That hasn’t happened, either, said Weiss.

 

Peduto suggested increasing student after school programs by working together with the district and others like the YMCA and the Student Conservation Association. While a few such programs do exist, there is no broad collaboration, said Errika Fearby Jones, the executive director of Dr. Hamlet’s office.

 

Peduto’s summer reading program with the city and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh likewise never materialized – though the library runs its own program.

 

Moreover, Peduto’s plan to restart the Generations Together program with the University of Pittsburgh to promote cross-generational learning never happened either. Pitt shut down the program in 2002.

 

Curtiss Porter, who served as Peduto’s chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer during the first year of his administration, blames the problem on a disagreement about who should be in charge.

 

The city and school district had a good working relationship when he was there, he said, but there was “a clear demarcation” between the two bodies, which made it difficult to implement some of Peduto’s ideas.

 
“At critical junctures…the school district made it clear that they were willing partners but that they did not have to bow to the city,” he said. “[They] made it clear the city had no jurisdiction over education.”

 

And that disconnect appears to continue today.

 

Peduto is engaged in an ignorant and arrogant power struggle with city schools that helps no one.

 


 

 

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Hypocrisy: Democrats Criticize Trump but Not a Peep Against Emanuel

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So Donald Trump is a narcissistic, bigoted, fascist.

Not exactly a surprise.

He’s also the Republican front runner for President. I’ll admit to being mildly shocked by that.

However, much more astonishing are the chauvinistic and possibly illegal actions of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – and the fact that no major Democrat of note is calling him out for any of it.

Let’s review.

Trump made a name for himself during this election cycle calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. Then he insulted women and the disabled. He proposes surveillance of mosques and registering all Muslims. He even incites supporters at his rallies to beat Black protesters.

And every time this happens, his poll numbers rise.

Predictably Democrats have decried this state of affairs. They have pointed their fingers accusingly at a Republican base that would champion such an odious figure for leader of the free world. And rightly so!

By contrast, Emanuel isn’t currently a candidate for anything. He’s a second term Democratic Mayor of one of the most populous cities in the country.

During that time, he has closed 50 public schools46 of which serve mostly black students. Southside residents had to resort to a month-long hunger strike to keep their last neighborhood school open. In addition, his economic policy consists of closing public health clinics for the poor and installing red light cameras to increase fines – none of which has actually boosted the economy.

But perhaps worse than all of that is the recent revelation that Emanuel’s administration with full knowledge of the Mayor may have actually covered up the police killing of an unarmed black teen!

In October, 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Most of those bullets went into the teenager after he was already flat on the ground and the officer was at least 10 feet away.

As usual, the police story includes all the usual racist clichés – a trained and experienced officer of the law fears for his life from a black teen. Van Dyke says he was attacked. The dashcam video, however, shows no such thing. McDonald did not lunge at the officer. The young man was walking away when Van Dyke shot, and after he fell, the officer unloaded a barrage of bullets at his prone and seemingly helpless body.

Then the cover-up began. Emanuel allegedly was told about the incident in February, 2015, while he was in the midst of a contentious re-election bid. His administration quickly issued a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family on the condition they keep quiet about the incident. It wasn’t until May, after Emanuel had won re-election, that an independent journalist asked for the dashcam video to be released. It took the full power of the media and a lawsuit to accomplish this. Last Thursday, a Chicago judge ordered the video be disclosed and Van Dyke was quickly charged with first degree murder.

It seems impossible to deny that Van Dyke would have been charged a year ago if not for the cover-up. The officer had already received 17 citizen complaints including that he had made racist remarks and three excessive force complaints over four years. Only Emanuel’s protection kept him out of jail.

So which is worse? Trump loudly champions prejudice and bigotry without the power to do anything about it. Emanuel protects an actual racist, stops him from being charged for what may well be a racially motivated murder, but makes no flashy public comments about it.

Yet only one of these two politicos gains the ire of the supposedly progressive and enlightened Democratic party.

How can this be? If we accept Fox News to represent a realistic presentation of the Republican platform, the party is often regressive, counterfactual, and rife with prejudice. On the other hand, media representations of the Democrats present them as the exact opposite. They propose progressive policies based on facts and a much more pluralistic view of society. They’re just much more inept at achieving this vision than their GOP counterparts.

But if that were true, how could one of their anointed, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, a man who had been White House Chief of Staff at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, a former U.S. Representative, senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, how could HE be perpetrating so many repressive, bigoted, “conservative” policies? How could so many leading Democrats support him? Why are so few criticizing him now?

It makes one question the perceived wisdom about the two parties. Is there really a difference, or are the left and the right wings just two parts of the same bird? When you look at what Democrats do – I mean when you actually examine the policies they enact when they’re in office – they really aren’t much different than those proposed by Republicans.

Perhaps there are a few far left Democrats like Bernie Sanders who actually represent a real progressive movement. Or perhaps there is no  major progressive party anymore in the United State.

We  must keep our eyes on Chicago. If there is any fight left for the soul of the Democratic party it will be here. Will the party call for Emanuel’s resignation? Or will it continue to side with one of the most regressive politicians currently holding office while it congratulates itself for condemning clownish Trump?


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org, the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

We Shall Overcome… Big Money: Rahm Wins Chicago, Loses Soul of Democratic Party

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It’s a sad night.

Progressive challenger Chuy Garcia lost his bid for Chicago Mayor. Neo-liberal Rahm Emanuel won re-election.

It’s a headline that shouldn’t surprise anyone – but it does.

All the polls told us this would happen. Rahm just had too much money. Emanuel raised nearly $23 million compared to Garcia’s little more than $6 million.

That buys an awful lot of television commercials, advertisements, and confidence.

Emanuel had 20 different ads that aired over 7,000 times!

Even if you aren’t paying direct attention to it, after a while that kind of repetition seeps into your bones.

Rahm’s going to win. Rahm’s going to win. Rahm’s going to win…

Even if you don’t want it to be true, even if you fight against it, there’s a part of you that can’t help but believe it.

It’s like being trapped in the coils of a monetary anaconda that looks you right in the eyes as it squeezes the life out of you and unhinges its jaw!

How else could Rahm win? His attempts to goose the city’s sluggish economy were nothing but an attack on the poor and minorities. He closed public health clinics, 50 public schools and installed red light cameras to raise fees. And none of it even worked!

You might think it’s counter-intuitive that money matters so much, but history disagrees. This is how it plays out almost every time. The candidate with the most green wins.

Look at New York.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised $30.5 million fending off challenger Zephyr Teachout. She raised only $600,000. And we all remember how that turned out.

Without the constant stream of campaign ads and only the bad taste of his actual policies, Cuomo’s popularity now is lower than it’s ever been. And that election was only half a year ago!

Buyers remorse? Sure! But just wait until the next campaign and a truckload of donor’s money to temporarily hypnotize people they should think otherwise and voila! Instant approval. Just add money!

But there’s good news in this nest of vipers, too.

Consider this: both races were internal. These were Democrats vs. Democrats.

But were they really? Rahm’s top donors were conservative billionaires. These are the same folks backing Scott Walker, Mike Pence and Mitt Romney!

The media is trying to spin this as the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party vs. the business wing.

Nonsense! It’s real, grassroots progressives vs. the DINOs – the Democrats In Name Only! And the DINOs keep winning!

But take heart. The future doesn’t belong to dinosaurs.

Look at how far Chuy Garcia pushed Rahm Emanuel! He got enough votes in the primary to force this runoff election. It was no cakewalk for Emanuel.

The people lost this one, but we will remember it.

Neither of these were high turnout elections. We don’t have that anymore in America.

No matter who is running, no matter what’s at stake, the public is so gripped by a sense of helpless apathy that most people don’t even show up at the polls to cast a vote.

But every time we have an election like this one, we stir people up. We fill them with passion. We make them care.

I knew Chuy Garcia had very little chance of winning, but I wanted it anyway.

I read up on him, talked to people, posted on facebook, sent out a barrage of tweets every day.

And I’ve never even been to Chicago!

But Chuy’s campaign meant something to me. It still does. Even with the election lost.

There is a growing majority of people who feel the same way. We care about closing 50 public schools for minorities. We care about local government control. It matters to us that our society is run justly, morally, progressively.

We repudiate the business model, the worship of money and profit at the expense of all else.

And there are more of us everyday.

Yes. In the short term, money still rules.

But what happens on the day when they open the polls and we all show up?

What happens when that passion spurs us – all of us – to actually get out and vote?

What happens when we drown out the drone of campaign commercials with the certainty of what is right?

I think on that day, the Rahm’s and Cuomo’s will fail. On that day the DINOs go extinct.

On that day, we take back our party and our Democracy itself.

It’s coming closer everyday.


“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
-Mexican proverb

NOTE: This article was also published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.