(Editor’s note: This story has been updated.)
Pittsburgh school district candidates Kirk Burkley and Lynda Wrenn presented their vision for District 4 on Thursday, April 30, at the Jewish Community Center in front of an audience of approximately 30 people. Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition and A+ Schools, the debate was moderated by Cindy Morelock of the Children’s Institute and focused on three categories: finance, teaching and board governance.
Both candidates began by giving a brief statement about their backgrounds. Burkley is an attorney with Bernstein-Burkley specializing in corporate law. He lived on the North Side for years and now resides in Shadyside with his wife and two children. Wrenn has a master’s degree in teaching from Chatham University and participated in student teaching as part of the program, but she entered another field after graduation because schools were closing. She is a former PTO president. A mother of four — two children are in college and two attend Pittsburgh Allderdice — she and her husband live in Point Breeze.
The first few questions the candidates addressed were about the finances of the district. Burkley noted that the school district’s budget did not reflect an accurate picture of the financial state of the school district due to funding sources that likely will not be there again. He stressed the need to plan for funding shortfalls and protecting taxpayers. His ideas included the possibility of consolidating administrative services with nearby districts and deciding whether the district had too many buildings.
Wrenn said that the district is conservative in its budget projections and that is why there is a 15.9 million surplus in the operating budget when a deficit was expected, and that it is important the next school board representative advocates strongly for state dollars as Gov. Tom Wolf attempts to restore education funding. A school district is about more than its budget, she said, and the city has to offer a strong school system to attract future residents.
Neither candidate believed any East End school would be closed in the near future. Burkley spoke about the need to plan for the long term by looking at where families will be in the future and possibly spreading out schools in the district. In one of the obvious differences between the candidates, Burkley talked about the importance of understanding the value of charter schools and to “support those doing good jobs, not [seeing them] as the enemy.”
Wrenn stressed there was a need to see if innovations and best practices in charter schools could be replicated in individual public schools.
A questioner from the audience asked why the district spends more per student than surrounding districts without comparable results. Burkley acknowledged that the district spends one of the highest amounts per pupil in the state. He said that Wolf has proposed $14 million for Pittsburgh, and even if the district received all of that, it wouldn’t be enough. He believes there’s going to be continued pressure from Harrisburg to show results, regardless of how much money the district ultimately receives.
According to Wrenn, responsible cost drivers, such as special education, teacher salaries and pensions, can’t be cut. She also said the district pays $13,000 for each student who attends a charter rather than a public school.
As to what the district could do to attract students, Burkley pointed to the success of magnet schools like CAPA and of charter schools such as Manchester Charter School, which has a waiting list of 700 families. He said the city has to stop “caring about delivery systems and more about results.” Wrenn pointed out that the reason the Manchester Charter School does so well is it has a student/teacher ratio of 13 to 1. She said Pittsburgh schools can’t do that because of budget cuts and instead should try to adapt what’s working in charter schools to the public school system.
Both candidates addressed why their children have not been enrolled in the Pittsburgh school district. Burkley said that his children were enrolled in the Campus School of Carlow University because of its Montessori program and that he and his wife would decide what was appropriate after third grade for their children when the program ends. Wrenn said she has had at least one child in PPS for over 15 years now, but her children did attend St. Bede and Kentucky Ave. School for a portion of their schooling. Public school was her first choice, but she sought other options when necessary, on an individual basis, depending on that child’s needs.
The candidates also touched on inequities in the school system, Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, what they thought the board has done well and where it could be improved, and the hiring of a superintendent.
Not addressed during the debate was Pittsburgh’s low rating of 94 in a compilation of PSSA scores of the 105 schools in the Pittsburgh region, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.
The election for the District 4 school board seat being vacated by Bill Isler takes place Tuesday, May 19.