Friday, November 30, 2007

Bad Media! Bad Media!

This is the Schenley post.

MacYapper - That's the point of life young Sophie. Things change. They won't always be the same. You don't necessarily get to go to the same high school all four years. [Redacted] happens. Life is complicated. You're going to go through a helluva lot more changes in your life, so you may as well get used to it now.

The entire progress of the school district is being held up by a bunch of sentimental saps who can't deal with change or reality.



John McIntire is a humble blogger once again, but this is quite representative of the assumptions underlying mainstream media reporting -- and certainly all of the respectable commentary.

It is patent sophistry.

McIntire (and you all) talk about the "progress of the school district" getting held up. It is true the motion of the school district is being held up, but to call it progress is just plain lazy.

A) The Comet has been conducting research on the popularity of merging junior high schools and high schools into grade 6 - 12 schools. Nobody thinks this is a good idea -- we have met zero individuals who are not horrified. The most common single-word response is "retarded."

B) Turning the District into a series of "theme schools" makes the Comet nervous. We can understand how that is supposed to make Pittsburgh Public Schools more marketable -- remember this is the school district that tried to drop the word "Public" from its name -- but in general we don't like the idea of asking nine year-olds to choose a major. We certainly see the potential for soft but efficient segregation by class.

C) Hello. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Schenley is one of the best performing high schools in the Pittsburgh Public Schools right now. That might seem like being the fastest running catcher in baseball -- but generally you don't close what's actually working best.

D) If we must have "theme schools" of some kind, Schenley represents the best of everything that should counterbalance them. The students know it and feel it and appreciate it. Work around Schenley.

E, F, G) In a previous edition of MacYapper:



First of all, that building has excellent feng-shui. You got Oakland, you got the Hill, you got Shadyside -- beat that.

Secondly, "asbestos ridden rat trap?" We hope you have some first-hand experience. A lot of people are leaping to the conclusion that Schenley is:

1) Deadly dangerous right now
2) Would be way too expensive to fix, and
3) There would be significant savings after shuffling three or four schools worth of students and making material adjustments on those facilities.

In a previous Comet post, Jennifer commented:

Bram, you need to write a post on Tuesday's rally and hearing since NONE of the media seemed to actually listen to the speakers. No One is questioning the threat of asbestos or the cost. They just keep repeating the administrations talking points.

Well, we guess we just did, but you're right about the speakers -- they were defending their school as awesome and the best thing about Pittsburgh Public Schools. What we agree on is, you'd think if we've learned anything at all over the last four years, it is to not just uncritically disseminate Administration Talking Points.


The suspicion is that Schenley is being opportunistically railroaded in order to expedite a city-wide reform agenda -- one that does not face the elected School Board until February -- one that was crafted exclusively by bureaucratic bean-counters, paranoid semi-suburbanites, and ACCD-type business theorists -- to the exclusion of educators, parents, the local community, and anybody with a lick of common sense.

That is the suspicion. That is the story.

Friday: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday

The Budget and Finance Committee approved Dan Onorato's drink and car rental taxes, along with the rest of the budget (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba). The legislation will now proceed to a full vote in County Council.

The committee vote went along straight party lines.

Yesterday, Councilman Dave Fawcett, R-Oakmont, presented his colleagues with an alternative taxing proposal, which he plans to introduce to council on Tuesday.

His plan would balance the budget by reducing the proposed drink tax to 5 percent, and raising the county real estate tax by $29 for every $100,000 of assessed value on property.

The county's tax rate, currently 4.69 mills, would increase by 0.29 mills to 4.98 mills.

Why must the Comet once again side with a liberal Republican?

That's what Fawcett appears to be. Sales taxes are regressive, property taxes are progressive.

Hello? Our feelings on this have not changed.


Unfortunately, that's just a sideshow to the real question of where we stand with the Mass Transit these taxes are supposed to fix. Just not completely.

Or not at all. Earlier, as the P-G's Karamagi Rujumba reported:

Mr. Onorato has said he wants Local 85 to accept concessions similar to those that the authority's management and nonunion employees agreed to in March. They include a wage freeze, higher contributions for health insurance, and elimination of early retirement and retiree health insurance.

Without the concessions, Mr. Onorato has said he will withhold the county's $30 million subsidy, even if his two new taxes -- 10 percent on poured alcoholic drinks and $2-a-day on car rentals -- to fund mass transit are approved.

After a brief public spat, Local 85 President McMahon and County Executive Onorato agreed that they "will not be negotiating in the media" (we should make Rujumba, like, Sea Hawk). Count this as a tactical win for Onorato -- he landed the last punch.

Besides, if it's a media war, it's not going to be a fair fight between those two.

COMET FORECAST: Expect labor concessions and a general sensible reorganization of the Port Authority to proceed just barely well enough that Onorato can plausibly claim that he took positive steps, held the ship together, and moved the County in the right direction. Everything one should expect of a good placeholder Chief Executive.

Prove us wrong.

Meanwhile, City Council is all, "Let's get out of Act 47!" and Bill Peduto is all, "I'm the only one voting against you guys again!" (P-G, Mark Belko)

Yes, even Shieldsy: scrambling to get out from under state oversight.

The Comet comes down with Peduto on this, for very much the reasons he describes on his blog. We are also very much in accord with the sentiment expressed by the Angry Drunken Bureaucrat, and when the ADB and Pedoots are in accord, it is cause for some confidence.

Not to mention, it's common sense. Financially, we are not out of the woods yet -- not until after 2010, not with this pensions fiasco still looming.

It would be interesting to see whether or not Luke would spend like a drunken sailor were he allowed -- he might just not! -- but one thing we can be sure of is that City Council would seek to spend like drunken sailors. Luke would probably sign off on too much of it on the general principle that he could turn around and blame Council.

Besides, he's got some votes that need buying, too.

Anyway. WE COULD BE WRONG ABOUT ALL THIS. Maybe the whole pensions fiasco is a bevy of sound and fury signifying nothing -- maybe the City of Pittsburgh would be better off in unfettered control of its own destiny.

(The Comet was recently wrong, for example, in our take on the University of Pittsburgh report on racial demographics and economic disparities. Recent primary research indicates not that Pittsburgh is monstrously out-of-proportion with the rest of American cities, but rather that our own African-American populations are suffering deaths of a thousand cuts. Our response to For Real will be forthcoming.)

COMET FORECAST: Does this recent Act 47 posturing even matter? Isn't this all the Great Parking Tax Showdown all over again?


This is not the Schenley post. This is a sidebar to that issue.

There is a meme going around that the School District has failed to release information on its ambitious (radical?) high school reform agenda to the general public. That appears to be a Bad Message.

We have learned through Patrick Dowd -- outgoing member of the School Board and incoming new City Councilman, representing District 7 Lawrenceville / Highland Park, during a flurry of communications as a temporarily private citizen -- that the School District under the Board and Superintendent have indeed been putting this stuff out there.

That's how you know it.

Of course, until recently it required not only that one be consumed with School District politics, but that one also be Internet savvy, highly literate, and individually relentless.

The news media does cover the School District, but sometimes it misses the forest for the trees.

Here is a collection of literature which should help you understand the intended regime of high school reform, care of PDowdy.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's contract

(This contract was not boilerplate, but rather represented an innovation. We wonder a little about Section VII: Performance Priorities, Part B: Future Development of Priorities, and also about Section VIII: Annual Evaluation, Part A: Confidentiality, both of which can be found at the bottom of Page 10. But we only worry a little.)

Year One Accomplishments

Year Two Progress Report

Year Two Accomplishments (link MIA: contact Lisa Fischetti 622-3603)

Year Three Performance Priorities

Board Appoints Chief to Lead New Office of High School Reform (link MIA: contact Ebony R. Pugh 412-622-3616)

High School Reform is also one of the five priorities for Year 3 of the Superintendent’s contract. According to the Superintendent’s Year 3 priorities approved by the Board this evening, the Superintendent must present to the Board by May, 2008 a comprehensive plan for Career and Technical education, open by September, 2008 the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, establish a plan for opening at least one “university partnership” high school in September, 2009 and secure funding for Year One of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships.

You would think Mr. Derrik R. Lopez, J.D., the new Chief of High School Reform, would be the man to talk to, that is, if you want to know the deal with comprehensive city-wide high school reform. HINT: Dig deeper than Excellence for All.

In addition to the appointment of Mr. Lopez as the Chief of High School reform the Board appointed Ms. Julia A. Stewart, Ph.D., Executive Director of Career and Technical Education. Ms. Stewart will oversee, manage and lead the development, design and implementation of a coordinated system for the District’s career and technical education program.

And perhaps her also.

This is all leaving aside the issue of whether or not the full truth about asbestos abatement and remediation procedures at Schenley -- safety-wise and cost-wise -- have ever been released to the public, and if so, if it was released in a timely fashion, and even then, if enough bids for the work have been secured. The Comet is still in ambivalence over this, but either way we believe the message of opaqueness is a distraction from the reform debate, until someone really catches them with their hand on top of the cookie jar.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Battle Lines: Drawn

The forces arrayed to save Schenley High School will be in Squirrel Hill today at 3:00 PM on the corner of Forbes and Murray, distributing literature and rousing rabble.

If the Shire seems like an odd place to agitate for Schenley, that's because the movement is not about saving Schenley, they say, but about high school reform.

One theme of the movement is, "High School Reform: Coming Soon to a School Near You," and the object is to raise awareness amongst the Allderdice community, for example, that it may be next to suffer at the tender mercies of Mark Roosevelt for the Greater Good.

On the other hand, as much as they want to avoid the Save Schenley label, they also do not want to be known as the Down With Roosevelt organization, or the Obstruct High School Reform lobby. The need for reform and improved results is acknowledged, but they want it done differently and more methodically, with greater public involvement. So it's a bit of a balancing act.

Hence the working title, Informed Reform (under construction).


What's not to like about the intended regime of high school reform?

To hear the movementarians tell it, the decisions are driven exclusively by economics and excess capacity issues, not by any real attempts to improve student performance; the decisions are made by politicians and attorneys (like Superintendent Roosevelt himself), not by actual teachers and educators (of which even A+ Schools has a dearth these days); and the decisions are made too swiftly and too often in executive session or on retreat.

Instead of outsourcing the business of designing syllabi and importing pre-fab coursework for district-wide standardization, many in the new movement would rather concentrate on home-grown, more ambitious reforms that they say have been proven to increase student performance -- starting the school day later, for example, and providing a fresh breakfast provided by the USDA.

Finally, and we think most importantly, there is deep uneasiness about the direction of the proposed reforms. They see a future in which the career-track high schools like those for the Performing Arts, Science and Technology, and Computer Science pluck all the high-achieving students starting in 6th grade, in turn gobbling all the resources and attention of the district -- leaving the other students to muddle through basically for themselves.

It is this regressive vision of "gymnasiums and lyceums" that has many up in arms.


There is a Special Hearing of the School Board on Schenley tomorrow evening; there is a rally planned beforehand and maybe a hundred speakers scheduled to speak.

We anticipate that first there will be some debate about how this hearing is about the Schenley situation -- and there is another time and a place to talk about High School Reform. This is going to be a sticky wicket, since the closure of Schenley is intertwined with moving the reform agenda.

There will certainly be debate of how high school reform has been in motion for three years already; how all the information has been available to anyone who cares to find it, and how resources have already been allocated and the work of the school district must Move Forward.

(A source even insisted to the Comet that the reforms have been "telegraphed" for some time; this obviously begs the question of who is equipped to receive such signals and how.)

This will usher in the debate about how information is shared or not shared amongst the general public. There is certainly a lot of data on the Pittsburgh Public Schools website tracking the School Board's instruction to Roosevelt, and Roosevelt's proposals to the Board -- but it seems to be done in year-by-year snapshots. The suspicion of the new movement is that there is clearly a broad, five-or-ten year plan at work, and vision that has never been adequately spelled out to the constituents.

After much careful study, the Comet continues to have No Idea who is in the right on that score. The Board et all will reply that the info has been available forever; people just don't pay attention until their own school is affected. By then it is honestly too late to go back and unearth three or more years of work and research.

By this measure, although the plaster and asbestos situation at Schenley was seized upon as an opportunity by Roosevelt et all to hasten certain changes, the move may actually have worked against them -- it was dramatic enough to engage and enrage a community that was supposed to awaken to reform more slowly.

This brings us to yet another debate: the degree of danger and immediacy the Schenley situation poses -- both to student's health and welfare, and to the financial well-being of the district. The School Board et all will be stressing their proposals as outright necessities, and the movementarians will have their hands full trying to dampen the mood of emergency.

Finally, a debate will ensue as to whether or not Roosevelt is part of the problem or part of the solution, and whether or not Board Members that are perceived as "rubber stamps for the superintendent" are acting in the best interests of the children.

As the Comet's stated position outlines, there is still an opportunity for compromise -- saving Schenley as part of high school reform, and as a counterweight to some of its less savory overtones, and as a way to purchase some sorely-needed community buy-in to the larger plan already.

However, both sides would need to be willing to compromise. As it stands, the Informed Reform movement has received the message loud and clear that love him or hate him, Roosevelt takes direction from the School Board -- and the School Board is where to apply pressure. As instructed, they are looking to the School Board elections of 2009 in a very deliberate manner.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday: Moving Right Along

Parker ready to turn it up another notch (P-G, Ed Bouchette)

Yet there are grumblings that even though he leads the AFC with 925 yards rushing, second in the league only behind sensational but injured rookie Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, that there's just something missing from Parker and the Steelers ground game this season.

Yeah, about a hundred pounds.

"This year, it's more scheme," Parker said, "and more like -- I wouldn't say I'm not confident in taking the corner, but I'm more hitting it up the middle and reading it. Instead of taking that chance like I used to take last year, I don't take as many chances."

He was a hundred pounds too light last year, too. Unfortunately, Willie's gonna run for 120 yards against the soft Dolphins in a rout tomorrow -- so we'll all have to table this discussion yet again.

Steelers' Parker taking heat for normal numbers (Trib, John Harris)

Considerably bigger than Parker at 6-foot-1, 247 pounds, Davenport appeared to hit the holes faster and run with more authority than Parker. He also maintained his balance better than Parker.

Tomlin said not to read too much into Davenport's performance in terms to how it relates to his playing time in the future, starting with tomorrow night against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field.

We actually hope that's just a little pre-game media kung-fu on Tomlin's part.