Thursday, March 22, 2012


Something new!

SEN. JAY COSTA - The attorney and Senate Minority Leader is running unopposed for his fifth term in the Senate. Lately he has been going to bat for the Shell cracker deal, speaking out that the 15-year state and local tax exemptions which would be accorded the petrochemical plant (being part of a "Keystone Opportunity Zone") will be totally worth it in light of the thousands of construction jobs and other investments it will spur.

SEN. JIM FERLO - The former member of Pittsburgh City Council has been involved in creating and funding the new Environment & Energy Community Outreach Center in Larimer, which sounds like it will be a sort-of community center / information clearing house for how residents and businesses can conserve energy and save money. Ferlo also criticized the Corbett administration's intention to identify $400 million to cut from the Department of Public Welfare as "mean-spirited and counterproductive."

SEN. WAYNE FONTANA - The real estate broker is again responsible for "Skills for Success -- the Fontana Series" at a Carnegie Library near you, teaching the ins and outs of job hunting. He is also urging community members to organize in opposition to proposed public education cuts as part of Partners for Public Education, a new lay affiliate of the PSEA which is in turn an affiliate of the NEA.

REP. DOM COSTA - The former Pittsburgh Chief of Police spoke words of caution at a hearing on the possible rapture of the Wilkinsburg Police Department into that of the City of Pittsburgh, testifying that residents get better service from small borough departments. He also helped rile up the crowd protesting Governor Corbett's proposed transit cuts and is working with the Humane Society to strengthen the state's dog fighting laws.

REP. PAUL COSTA - The accountant introduced a bill that would allow cities such as Pittsburgh the option of installing red light cameras, which he describes as not just a revenue-generator but a way to save lives. He also needled Health Secretary Eli Avila over how much the federal case over Eggsandwichgate is likely to cost state taxpayers. Finally, describing himself a "leading advocate" for the state film tax credit, he touts the fact that the Christian Bale - Robert Duvall film "Out of This Furnace" will be filmed in Braddock -- though that program takes heat in certain quarters as an example of corporate welfare. (The Comet respectfully refers the author of Keystone Liberty to the first item in this post for a better example).

REP. DANIEL DEASY - The former Pittsburgh City Councilman has his hands full as chair of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. He referred his former Council colleague Tonya Payne for the job of that agency's safety manager, deeming her a good fit for the position. He also expressed confidence that PWSA will stay ahead of new EPA guidelines on chemicals in river water despite the expense.

REP. DAN FRANKEL - The businessman has been speaking out against the new Republican-led Voter ID bill, calling it a "poll tax" and "an affront to the constitution." He also proposed legislation that would increase PennDOT fees and raise the state's gas tax in order to shore up public transit -- maneuvers apparently mirroring those of Gov. Corbett's own transit commission -- but has yet to get any traction.

REP. JOSEPH PRESTON JR. - The 30-year veteran of the PA House of Reps just came within just eight signatures of being removed from the ballot. He now faces a credible, one-on-one challenge from Ed Gainey, former City of Pittsburgh employee running with the Democratic party endorsement (though seemingly quite not that of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's own machine).

REP. ADAM RAVENSTAHL - The City delegation's rookie legislator has been a proponent of the state's ban on texting while driving, a measure which has already served to whet the public appetite for more driver safety measures. However it seems to have been sufficient to earn the local party's endorsement with flying colours.

REP. HARRY READSHAW - The funeral director is proposing that funding for mass transit be generated by a new statewide lottery. This however has perhaps been overshadowed by his decision to pen a blunt response to a female constituent incensed over his sponsorship of the mandatory ultrasound bill -- "I do not choose to debate 'intellect' over morals, as I believe morals should overwhelmingly be the favorite" -- and having the bad luck that that constituent should be a blogger. At least he congratulated her, in his response from the Capitol Dome, upon sleuthing out that she had a sterling voting record.

REP. JAKE WHEATLEY - The former Marine and Gulf War vet does not appear to have been up to much that is conspicuous lately.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Carnegie Museums to Help Natural Gas Industry Beguile Children

There really is no mistaking it. An Internet commenter already likened this to something that would happen to the Simpsons in Springfield. I'm looking out the window amazed everything isn't brightly animated.

It's tough to do the City Paper Slag Heap article on "Colossal Fossil Fuels" justice, but just regarding what is science -- I remember being taught the law of conservation matter, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and that the two sides of an equation need to balance. So the topic of "waste products" would be pretty fundamental to any exhibition concerning energy production, right?

"The real goal [of the program] is to focus on the science," [Equitable Gas president of production Steve] Schlotterbeck maintained. Geology and paleontology, he added, "aren't really controversial at all."


Asked about the controversy surrounding fracking, Marilyn Fitzsimmons, the Science on the Road education coordinator who created hands-on displays to accompany the program, said, "It's more about the science. We don't get into the political [aspect]" (Slag Heap, Bill O'Driscoll)

To review: Energy manufacturing = Science. Also: Dinosaurs = Science. But what happens to the dinosaurs after we're finished with them, and other unintended consequences of energy manufacturing = Politics & Controversy. And of course: Science =/= Politics, or "Children don't deserve controversy in their science, so let's show them just half the equation, and let's make it the business-friendly half where things get sold."

What we have felt from the Science Center perspective is that there’s not been nearly enough of the science of both the energy itself and where it came from and how it got there, but also how we get it,” [Carnegie Science Center co-Director Ron] Baillie said. (Essential Public Radio, Jared Adkins)

To hear the Science Center explain it, this is not about de-emphasizing or shelving the cautionary or less-welcome scientific trivium having to do with energy production, and nothing at all about the money coming in the door from Equitable Gas.


Monday, March 19, 2012

School District Hopes Botched Westinghouse Transition was Rock-Bottom

Board Mumbles Apology in Recognition of Shared Responsibility

At the February meeting of the Pittsburgh Public School Board, members voted to extend a contract for an outside company to continue to managing one of its schools, and ultimately issued a brief statement of apology to the Westinghouse school community after much debate.

Clayton Academy is a privately-run school for "behaviorally challenging," or "at-risk" students. While "increased structure" at the new school and "relief" for the district's other schools were intended as benefits to all parities as it was initiated in 2007, concerns were raised about the anticipated and apparent effects of "concentrating all these problems".

By 2009 some school board members aired complaints about the Nashville-based company's "information sharing", while skepticism about its academic rigor and claims of success were echoed by then-Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. Fewer students than envisaged ultimately returned to their base schools, and those who did failed to maintain their apparent academic improvement.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up this sporadic and biennial City Paper coverage of Clayton with a detailed and very positive news article published two days prior to the School Board meeting:

Under the existing contract, CEP in April [2011] turned the school over to a new wholly owned subsidiary of CEP, called Clayton Academy Management Services, which in turn hired Success Schools to run Clayton... Success Schools made significant changes in the Clayton program. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

The heavy emphasis on "behavioral norms"and on creative systems for encouraging these norms, as well as uniformly positive testimony from students, served to argue strongly that a corner had been turned. Yet the article's adjoining photograph of students walking rigidly in single-file with arms tucked behind their backs rankled some.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis -- president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, who has asked the district to consider using the district's own teachers at the school -- said Clayton "has taken some of the pressure off our schools so our teachers can teach." (ibid)

In the debate whether to renew the contract for another $6 million for two years, School Board member Mark Brentley first suggested that the School District might be able to do this "in-house, at a fraction of the cost". He then raised concerns that the school's function resembled that of a "soft prison" or "holding tank". Next he inquired over the precise relationship between CEP, CAMS, and Success Schools -- which School District solicitor Ira Weiss answered by stating that there is no relationship between the old "Community Education Partners" and the new "Clayton Academy Management Services" and none of the same folks are in control, an apparent correction to the above account from the P-G.

Board member Theresa Colaizzi said she agreed with Brentley's negative inclination to ink an extended deal, citing concerns she had held about the school's setup when it was determined years ago.

However, board member Regina Holley said she has visited Clayton on several occasions and it has "gotten better," and that those students are "not getting what they need at comprehensive high schools". Bill Isler said that the "two year extension will get us trained up" to consider taking on the duty in-house, and that the cost is not over-and-above what the District pays per student. Sherry Hazuda agreed that "the school's now being run successfully", and although Thomas Sumpter inquired a bit incredulously over "where is the doubling of students at Clayton going to come from," he also voted to renew the contract. These views carried the day.

Brentley also raised the specter of whether this contract extension, and the original contract, constituted "no-bid contracts" in the unhelpful sense of the term, or whether the contract amounted to "privatizing students".


The discussion over Mark Brentley's surprise motion to issue an apology to the Westinghouse High School community went much as reported twice in the P-G. His list of particulars for which the community was owed an apology included:

  • Over 300 suspensions and 70 criminal citations among students
  • Lack of correct class schedules until many months into school year
  • Eight changes in administration
  • Software glitches and holdups
  • Merging of 6-8 graders into a 9-12 grade environment
  • Lack of a gradual transition to 6-12 seen at other schools
  • Mandatory single-gender class segregation for students in some feeder patterns
  • Racial segregation in the composition of the reorganized school (it is by all accounts 98% or 99% African-American)
  • Input of the Westinghouse Alumnus Association ignored
  • Failure to provide incentives to attract "great teachers"
  • Failure to recruit teachers
  • Jobs and consultant contracts assigned as "political favors"

Meanwhile, news articles about the situation at Westinghouse include the following:

Nov. 5, '11: Westinghouse High: A Study in Disorganization
Nov. 9, '11: Westinghouse High School Gets Set of Principals
Nov. 23, 11: Puzzling Choices: Not Many are Surprised by Westinghouse's Failure, but Can it Be Put Back Together Again?
Nov. 23, '11: Westinghouse in Chaos
Feb. 5, '12: Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 School Regroups After Single-Gender Plan is Scrapped

Board member Holley agreed immediately that Brentley's "background information is correct. I don't think anybody is going to deny that all of those things have transpired," and that "most if not all of it is absolutely correct."

Yet Holley also suggested that the Board take some time to draft a "formal statement". Hazuda also asked if Brentley would be willing to "wait a month and give us an advance?"

Brentley responded that he "had another section [written] but was fearful [enough] of this." He said instead he was prepared to consider turning over decision-making at Westinghouse to an ad-hoc committee in the community.

Colaizzi reiterated the wish that Brentley not bring such issues at the "last minute", and further not ask them to consider "a long dirty laundry list. I could apologize for an error," she protested, but this list is "degrading to staff."

Board member Jean Fink was the first to object that not all of Brentley's points were necessarily true or contributory to problems at Westinghouse: "We do have successful 6-12 schools," for example. And while Sumpter said, "I don't disagree that any of [the points] did not take place," he said he'd like to "work on the language" and take a more "collaborative" approach. Isler agreed that he'd like to study the document for a while, as "some of it he's heard for the first time tonight," for example the degree of administrative turnover.

Board member Sharene Shealey then offered a rounder critique of Brentley's motion. "Why not apologize for ten years of a lack of education going on in that building?" she asked. "Low quality education had been flying under the radar," she said, citing five students in the whole building being PSSA proficient one prior year. Nor would she attack the concept of single-gender academies, criticizing the Women's Law Project and the ACLU for having used the "hammer" of litigation.

"This ain't about those children," Shealey summarized. "This is about adults and what they think they need." She said it's appropriate to apologize for "things that didn't work," but "don't ever put this in the light of people not being concerned."

Mark Brentley, who is black, responded to the points raised in objection by ruminating upon situations at these School Board meetings he found similar to the present -- those when his colleagues would deflect responsibility to other authorities at the table or bicker over wording and procedure as a smokescreen to avoid accountability for certain decisions. "White board members do not attend meetings at black schools," he asserted on this topic. "You sit back and you make decisions, you make failures -- you make jokes too," he accused. Board members Shealey, Sumpter and Holley, who also are black and who voiced many of the concerns which Brentley was criticizing, did not respond to Brentley's apparent accusation of racism.

The conversation eventually turned upon the point of whether Mark Brentley's sheet would be connected, in any official way, to a more curt and general board statement of apology. School District attorney Ira Weiss replied upon being asked -- several times -- that that was not his understanding of the motion to apologize. Brentley himself would not definitively confirm that answer to that question -- to Colaizzi's apparent frustration -- but he did warn Colaizzi that she was coming "dangerously close to asking me to strike my remarks from the record."

In the end, despite scattered reservations about some of the particulars and a more widespread preference for composing a more collaborative statement, the School Board did at that meeting elect to issue a short, general apology to the Westinghouse community and its stated intention to do better -- with all present voting for the motion, except Theresa Colaizzi, abstaining on grounds that she was still unsure of nature of the motion.

Prior to the meeting, it was announced that the Board had also met in closed-door executive session both on Feb. 5, and again immediately prior to its present meeting, to discuss "administrative vacancies and positions opened and closed."

Meanwhile on the PURE Reform blog, which has followed reform initiatives of the Pittsburgh School District since July of 2008, some commenters are calling for an "investigation" of what happened at Westinghouse. Many decry the relatively recent influence of "carpetbaggers" from the foundation community and elsewhere. Fears include that the new crop of educational consultants are out of touch with real teaching, and that schools like Westinghouse are being utilized by District administrators to offload and jeopardize the careers of teachers and administrators perceived to be uncooperative or to hasten parental demands for new charter schools and school vouchers.