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Bad dream: Murphy running city school board

Handing control of the Pittsburgh School District to the mayor and city council is much akin to offering unlimited credit to someone who just drove his business into bankruptcy.

Making such a change would require state legislative approval and lawmakers, to say the least, were not exactly lining up to support it.

Irrespective of the merits of an appointed vs. an elected school board, the notion itself of turning the Pittsburgh School District – flush with cash – over to Mayor Tom Murphy and Council seemed unthinkable given the timing and the fiscal mess in city government.

“It’s laughable,” said state Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon Township.

Pittsburgh is seeking legislative relief, a state bailout, to address an estimated $40 million deficit through the end of the year. Its long-term fiscal picture is bleak.

Some lawmakers are looking at a tough control board to virtually run the city. The last thing they’re likely to do is to hand the school board over to Murphy as recommended last week by a mayor-appointed commission.

“They (lawmakers) are going to be very resistant to it,” said Mike Young, a former Penn State professor of public policy and now a public affairs consultant. “Pittsburgh is a city on the verge of defacto bankruptcy.”

Given the fact that the Legislature is ruled by Republicans in the House and Senate, where suburban lawmakers have a louder voice than city Democrats, Pittsburgh will be lucky to get some type of new revenue or a one-time cash bailout. Some lawmakers are opposed to any cash bailout as floated recently by some business leaders.

“If there’s a bailout it will come with stipulations and stringent conditions, as it should,” Young said.

“The Legislature is acting as a board of trustees to oversee that process. Ultimately that has reduced Pittsburgh’s bargaining power. The mayor – through his personality – has probably reduced it as well.

“Pittsburgh does not have much of a bargaining position right now,” Young said.

The two basic models in place for running schools since the mid-19th Century have been elected and appointed school boards. Young says elected school boards nationally are the dominant model. The same is true in Pennsylvania.

Appointed school boards tend to be found in larger cities. Philadelphia, for instance, has an appointed school board.

“The issue is accountability,” Young said.

Supporters of elected school boards say they are more accountable to the public because the voters can replace them. But turnover is high on school boards and voter participation minimal, Young said.

Appointed school boards would be more directly responsive to the mayor, the guy who appoints them, proponents argue. That could be good or bad depending on the mayor.

Neither system is “really a paragon of the democratic process,” Young stated.

In fact, the issue of an accountable and responsive elected school board is largely an illusion, Young says.

But the politics of it is simple. Lawmakers are loath to take away the people’s right to vote. It’s one of the many reasons we continue to see an elected state appellate judiciary, rather than appointed judges – the so-called “merit selection” issue.

Shifting from elected to appointed anything is viewed by pols here as handing an issue to potential opponent, as in: “He (or she) took away your right to vote.”

That, combined with the ludicrous notion of turning the school district over to the cash-stripped city now, makes it a non-starter in the General Assembly.

Robert P. Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, summed it up best this week: “To think that this crowd should now be given the responsibility of spending the hard-earned money the school board has collected from taxpayers, but more importantly the moral responsibility for the care, safety and education of children in Pittsburgh, is risky.”


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