Saturday, May 12, 2012

Urban Redevelopment, the Race and the Clock

This is always most complex.

The City last week diverted the next five years worth of parking tax revenues from certain new Hill District parking lots (not to exceed $2 million) from the City's general fund to the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, for use in projects related to what appears in the Hill District Master Plan.


Councilman Bill Peduto said he supports Hill District redevelopment, but he thinks Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow Council to divert parking tax revenue like this. (EPR, Noah Brode)

That heated argument did not make it to the final round, perhaps having to do with this measure's similarity to the Pittsburgh's notable 2010 State Pensions Takeover Avoidance Act, of which all Council members were supporters.

Yet at final action,

Mr. Lavelle, Mr. Burgess, council President Darlene Harris, Patrick Dowd, Theresa Kail-Smith and Corey O'Connor voted for the bill. Voting no were Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Natalia Rudiak, who had expressed concern with using legislation to allocate parking tax money to a specific neighborhood.

"It strays away from our usual capital budget process," she said. Ms. Rudiak said she would, however, be willing to vote for a capital budget amendment that allocates money to Hill District projects. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

In other words, she is saying there is a time and a place for neighborhood groups to ask for limited City resources for special projects -- and it is done all at once, at the end of the year, so we can prioritize needs across town, in a political process, so that everyone who manages to be in power gets a fair cut of the action.

Which is normally fine, if you discount the great drama surrounding Pittsburgh's Hill District and the hope that it provides alongside Downtown. I must say I am deeply impressed that the Hill is now by so many being considered a special and unifying priority -- both for its past involving a now-demolished arena, and out of recognition of its recent arduous campaign for direct benefits in conjunction with its new arena. A cause which once brought African-Americans and organized labor powerfully together.


But let's take a look at what is in today's Greater Hill District Master Plan, whose existence, purposes, processes and funding were provided in that 2008 Community Benefits Agreement. At a glance it foresees:

Those 20 general categories house such things such as signage, a community newsletter, a trail, a history center, historic preservation, education programs, a neighborhood watch, homeowner and tenant support, a "housing innovation zone" and other housing programs, a vacant property strategy, workforce development, a business incubator, Center Avenue economic development, green spaces, urban agriculture, play spaces, transportation, streetscape improvement, a street grid for mixed use development in the Lower Hill, apparently still a deck over the Crosstown Expressway, a pedestrian-friendly expanded residential corridor at Crawford Street, transit-oriented development Uptown, a revived Bedford Avenue residential corridor, something that takes advantage of the great views atop the hill while transitioning from high-rise public housing, an inviting gateway at Kirkpatrick Street, an amphitheater, new stairs, a Herron Ave. commercial corridor towards Oakland, more mixed use development, and improvements at Robert Williams Memorial Park.

For that, we are bringing $400,000 per year to the table for five years.

To give some perspective, it is costing $1.3 million simply to "stabilize" the New Granada Theater, which would one day contribute towards some of that material. Things cost serious money. This master plan looks like it could consume many hundreds of millions of dollars.


So with the pittance the City has brought to the table, what comes first? Will it go to more planners, consultants, and designers in anticipation of those bigger-ticket items way down the road? Will it go directly to entrepreneurs bearing sound-seeming and strategically relevant business plans? To non-profit and social entrepreneurs?

As provided in the community benefits agreement, the Master Plan was guided by a steering committee. It included folks from many different government offices as well as One Hill, the Hill EDC, the Hill District Consensus Group, Crawford Square Homeowners, Uptown Partners, the Ujaama Collective and some clergy.

However, this wide-open and neighborhood-inclusive body's determinative role would seem to be at an end.

The city's contribution will be determined by the URA and the SEA, and the relatively few politicians who constitute them. These folks and their staffs know something about market viability, urban design and project feasibility for sure. We also know that as institutions, these folks once reneged on lofty promises and short-shrifted community integration in such a comprehensive manner, it might well have been attributable to some sort of structural cognitive deficiency.

The Hill District seemed unified in wanting just that. So they're getting it. Hopefully rolling the dice with The System will work out better this time. But Councilman Lavelle also made mention of this being a "down payment", and this funding stream might not be all they require and the only way they require it.

What these policy commitments do not provide that the Dollar a Car campaign does are resources that can be used by Hill District residents and stakeholders as we see fit.

Fundamentally, the act of taking the Lower Hill with eminent domain was an act of violating our right to self-determination. The Dollar a Car Campaign, while not restoring order by any means, will at least be a resource that we can use for our own self-determination. (HDCG Front Page)

And video here, including a reality check involving a walkway and a statue.

That is what I'm talking about. The only sound reason to vote against these taxes being diverted for Hill development, would have been to leverage more greater funding streams being delivered, and in ways better suited to the need for community re-empowerment.

Yet even then, if the actual community could not be made keen on that political stratagem, drop it and fight the war on another day.

It is not always easy or natural to vote for something that comes from that other side of the hall, that goes to the URA, that has real imperfections or what have you. But "voted against Hill District redevelopment" has an oddly awful ring to it.


More in the series I'd hope soon...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Public Education, Redevelopment, the Race and the Clock

Alright. Where are we?

Under the district's plan to furlough 450 teachers based on seniority, Faison School in Homewood would lose 21 of its 42 teachers; Manchester School would lose 10 of 26 teachers; Martin Luther King Accelerated Learning Academy in the North Side would lose 14 of 38 teachers; Arlington Acclererated Learning Academy would lose 12 of 33 teachers; Weil Accelerated Learning Academy in the Hill District would lose eight of 24 teachers; and Allegheny Traditional Academy in the North Side would lose seven of 30 teachers.

"We're going to retain some of our most effective teachers, but we're also going to furlough some of them," Lane said. (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

Glancing at this once: Oh my! Pittsburgh is losing 450 jobs.

*-UPDATE: At the A+ Schools rally in Oakland on Tuesday (post forthcoming we would hope), this number descended from "400" to later on, "almost 400."

Glancing at this again: Can we just move the teachers who do keep their jobs to other schools? I know Chris Rock said that if you find ever yourself teaching at Martin Luther King, run!!!!, but... if worse comes to worse, it doesn't sound like the new merit-based framework is geared towards balancing individual school populations either.

Or was it? What's the big idea?

As a result of cuts in funding for urban schools such as Pittsburgh's -- cuts so deep that the very bones of education bear the knife marks -- our district will soon say goodbye to hundreds of teachers without so much as a glance at the data, at whether these teachers have been deemed "highly effective."

This is devastating news at our foundations, where we have seen our $18 million and the Gates Foundation's $40 million investment in creating a model for effective teaching just beginning to bear fruit. (Oliphant, Vagt and Behr at P-G)

What is the model named? Do we name it after its distinguishing designer or sponsor (e.g. "the Phil Lowenstein model") or is it given a name to convey meaning (e.g. "Action for Happening")? Is it just "the $50 million model which was supposed to be the $90 million model"? And much more to the point, what is it exactly?

It might well be worth raising a hue and a cry, trying to convince the PFT to work with it. Although that appears to be an uncertain proposition.

We might simply need to thank the administration and the School Board for kicking off the discussion on how best to deal with the massive public funding cuts that are upon us. If this wave of innovative thinking is politically non-implementable, it might be best to default to an austere "No Frills" position.

I'm not sure where else we can take refuge as a school district.

There, and maligning Harrisburg until it remembers that primary education is "important" in a special kind of way.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Another County Property Tax Increase Likely

Time to pack it in.

"I don't see how we can avoid discussing it," Mr. Robinson, D-Hill District, said at a news conference this morning. (P-G, Len Barcousky)

Whatever you do, don't tax or regulate "job creators." Have us fight over crappy jobs only to hand over most of our wages in exchange for rapidly deteriorating services.

Seniority, Schmeniority Forces Rallying

More ink spilled for the sake of the School District being able to furlough teachers by performance measures.

A+ Schools will conduct a rally at 6:30 p.m. May 15 at Schenley Plaza to urge the district and union to agree to consider more than seniority. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

By what mechanism do the foundations and the administration envision this fight will be won? Both slates for the upcoming union elections are falling all over themselves to uphold seniority. State law, collective bargaining law and experience argue that this will remain the case.

Water cooler chatter:

Suspicion? PPS could not comply with its match for the Gates grant and so Gates wants to get its money worth in some other way- like using Pittsburgh as a testing ground for eliminating seniority. If it is done here then it can be used as justification elsewhere. Pittsburgh with its strong labor history is probably not the best place to test this concept, though, and the whole thing will probably end up being a distraction. Seniority will remain but it will serve as a justification for lower scores. (Questioner, Pure Reform)

Since the grant came through, District leadership has changed and its ability to hold up its end of the financing of this program has fallen through. Not encouraging.

Right idea, wrong messenger. The author of the article, William Hileman, is part of the current PFT leadership. That's the leadership that that stood by as senior teachers lost their positions because they weren't picked by the secretive PRC panels. That's also the leadership that stood by as senior teachers were focused, then fired. That's also the leadership that told fired teachers that the union lawyers would not fight for them as it would "look bad" for the union.

And it's not like Hileman (or the PFT president Nina Esposito-Visgitis, for that matter) protested any of this. On the contrary. Hileman and Esposito-Visgitis ignored any teacher who raised objections about the new policies. I regret having to make what seems like a personal attack here. But it really bothers me that the PFT is now suddenly coming out in favor of seniority. Could it only be because it's election time, and they are being challenged by a strong reform slate? I suspect that is the case. And I also suspect that should the current PFT staff win reelection, it will be back to business as usual. (Moe, Pure Reform)

On that blog has been a motif to allege that present union leadership is "in cahoots" with the foundations -- as hard as that can be to believe reading headlines over the past few weeks. But that's all part of the conspiracy theory.

Meanwhile, getting real:

Poor school climates are filled with distractions and disruptions due to behavior issues and make it impossible for teachers to teach and students to learn. In a poor school climate, where District wide behavior systems (including a tiered-based system of interventions and supports) are not available, how can a teacher be expected to improve his/her practice of managing student conduct? The District (not teachers) has chosen NOT to teach students social and emotional skills and has placed all the emphasis on teaching ONLY academics even though for the past 2 years teachers overwhelmingly (28 schools) told the District, in the New teacher Survey, that managing student conduct is the #1 thing keeping them from being able to be highly effective. The reality of our PPS student population, majority low income, makes school climate the most critical factor for student achievement yet it gets the least attention. (Anon May 2 10:50)

There are so many extreme challenges -- financial, structural, cultural -- there is a temptation to urge, let's Keep It Simple Stupid. Back to basics. Instead of picking unlikely political fights and trying to revolutionize education, let's put every nickel we do have into suffusing the School District with teachers. Any teachers willing to teach here.

As opposed to putting resources into the administration of dozens of big, branded ideas which get halfway implemented before everybody moves on, up and out.