Saleem Ghubril’s PPS entreaty

Saleem Ghubril’s PPS entreaty

We must admit that we find it difficult to get too excited over an expansive missive in the Post-Gazette by the head of The Pittsburgh Promise on how the financially spendthrifty and academically moribund Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) can find “a way forward.”

While some of Saleem Ghubril’s entreaties attempt to break out of the box of “old-think” and deserve discussion, others are half-measured. And one, in particular, is half-baked.

And do remember, they come from a gentleman whose organization has played an ancillary role in helping to dumb down PPS. More on that later.

The story of Pittsburgh Public Schools is sadly told. If it’s an honest accounting, that is. Five-year plan after five-year plan by a succession of administrations rubber-stamped by school board after school board has led to what reasonable people might expect – extraordinarily high costs and equally extraordinarily low academic results and flagging enrollment.

Here’s a brief overview of what Ghubril proposes:

The Pittsburgh Promise executive director favors legislation that would redistrict PPS into five regions with five elected school board members. The remaining four board members would be appointed by a committee of three – the mayor and Pittsburgh’s most senior Pennsylvania House and Senate members.

“The elected five will always be the majority,” Ghubril writes, “and they will be charged with the responsibility of adjusting tax rates, as well as representing the voices of their constituents.

“Depending on the specific professional capacities of the elected five, the appointed four will bring expertise in education, financial management, logistics, real estate, social services, child development, marketing and other capacities that may be needed,” he says.

So far, yes, worthy of discussion. As a matter of fact, we’ve long advocated some form of additional oversight for the long-troubled district.

Additionally, Ghubril seeks a greater cooperative spirit between the district and city.

“While our city and schools are wholly independent governmental systems, it is naïve to think that the health of one is not inextricably linked to the health of the other,” he says.

And while Ghubril lays out what he sees as the respective leaders’ responsibilities — oddly he sees one of the mayor’s as “ensuring the availability of affordable housing in all school regions” but, refreshingly, notes the superintendent must have the “courage to make hard and unpopular decisions if enrollment does not grow” – his overriding goal appears to be the restoration to PPS coffers (after nearly two decades) an approximate $20 million annual portion of the wage tax scarfed up when the city was in financial distress.

No doubt those dollars should have been returned to PPS by now. But that money is no magic elixir for what really ails the district – that being those outrageously high-per pupil costs for those equally outrageously low academic results, which more than suggests the malaise of bloat.

And, lest we forget, PPS is rolling in federal pandemic relief dollars. Yes, it’s one-time money but it is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s more of a license to spend, spend, spend than to reinvent PPS.

Any measures calling for anything less than a drastic re-ordering of district costs is a half-measure. It must be forced to confront the fact that it continues to spend far more per student per academic year than far better performing districts that spend far less.

Finally, Ghubril takes a stab at taming one of the biggest problems with the educratic establishment – the teachers’ unions.

First, he lauds the leadership of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) for its “great skill in negotiating contracts and ensuring that the PPS workforce is well-compensated and -protected.”

But he then provides a much-needed reality-check: “At times, however, they do so to the detriment of students, families and taxpayers.”

No kidding. With the kind of abysmal academic results that the PFT has delivered for PPS, the union should be paying taxpayers and not the other way around.

Calling for a ban on teachers’ strikes might not have been received very well but it would have put the PFT on notice that the days of holding taxpayers hostage for its decades of failures in Pittsburgh Public Schools are over.

Anything less is half-baked.

In conclusion, Ghubril, whose Pittsburgh Promise has so watered down academic standards for scholarships that it renders the word “scholarship” moot, says “The time to seize the moment for change is now.”

In reality, it’s long past that time. That said, Ghubril’s Pittsburgh Promise can get the ball rolling anew by doing its part:

Raise those standards for Promise help. And put Pittsburgh Public Schools on notice that “scholarship” cannot be rewarded where there is so little of it.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).