Two candidates are vying to represent Pittsburgh School Board District 4. With current school board member and president Lynda Wrenn having announced her intention not to seek reelection, candidates Anna Batista and Pam Harbin have been busy knocking on doors, speaking with constituents and sharing their messages prior to the May 21 primary.
In separate interviews with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, each candidate related lessons learned from the trail, thoughts on school security and ideas regarding public education.
For both Batista and Harbin, this election represents the first time either has sought office.
Batista is a senior consultant with High Street Consulting Group, where she does policy planning and analysis for federal, state and local transportation agencies.
Running in this election has introduced her to “details of local politics in Squirrel Hill,” she said. “It’s a unique world. It’s something you don’t really pay much attention to unless you’re really involved in something in the political scene. [Learning about] alliances, historical relationships, longstanding beefs, lets you start to build an awareness of this whole landscape of feelings.”
Harbin is co-founder of the Education Rights Network, which empowers parents with advocacy and leadership skills for achieving inclusive education for students with special needs in Pittsburgh. Running in this election has allowed Harbin to rely on past networks, she explained.
“I have been politically active and helped other campaigns. Being the candidate is a little bit different,” said Harbin. “It’s definitely more pressure than I expected, but it’s good. I mean, I have a huge grassroots group of people that are volunteering, so I have parents and teachers and former teachers and students that are helping me. That’s because I’ve been in the education world for 12 years and felt this groundswell of support, so that’s been helpful.”
In discussing school safety, both candidates referenced metal detectors at Colfax Elementary School. This topic comes up more in conversation with adults then it does with students, said Batista.
As for the use of metal detectors at Colfax,“I wouldn’t say I’m firmly on one side or the other. My emotional feeling is I hate that we have them as a parent,” said Batista. “But I also want to be real and I want to look at, Are there things that happen in the schools? Are there instances where kids are bringing weapons to schools? And if so, is this going to help us guard against that? And if the answer is yes, then we have to talk about the world we live in. But if it’s just something to make us feel better and it’s not actually effective, then we can talk about whether we need them.”
When it comes to school safety, there is a disconnect between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, said Harbin.
“The way school safety is being talked about in Harrisburg is interesting because they talk about hardening our schools,” said Harbin. “I understand the reaction to the things that have been happening, but I don’t believe we need to harden our schools, and if you go from metal detectors to armed police to armed teachers to the militia standing in front of the school, I mean, I don’t know where they’re going to go next,” she said.
Harbin pointed to the paucity of guidance counselors and social workers for students within Pittsburgh Public Schools. Ensuring “the right support staff” and dealing with students who are experiencing anxiety or trauma is critical, she explained. “Instead of focusing on the reactive policing of our kids, I would rather focus on the proactive support and the wellness of our students and their families,” she said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools has a current enrollment of approximately 24,000 students. Along with representing those students and their families, school board members are responsible for managing a budget of nearly $643 million.
“Let’s make sure that we’re spending our money wisely, and anywhere where we’re spending money that’s not having an impact in kids’ outcome and experience, we need to rethink it so that we can shift it,” said Batista. “Is it more teachers, more support staff, more guidance counselors? I think that’s where everyone would like to see more. I think that’s what school board members have to think about, and ask the questions, and discuss, look into, get expert opinion and hear from people on the ground.”
As a school board member, fiscal knowledge is essential, said Harbin.
“I have a degree in finance. I was a negotiation specialist in the aerospace industry negotiating million-dollar government contracts, so I had that experience. And I know what’s in the [Pittsburgh Public Schools] budget. I read every budget for 12 years. I testify at the special budget hearing every year,” said Harbin. “I believe somebody who has all that deep knowledge is going to be cost-effective.”
Batista and Harbin are both cross-listed as Democrats and Republicans in next week’s primary, meaning voters could theoretically see these candidates again in the November election. In the immediate future, each candidate encouraged readers to check out their websites (annabatista.com and pamharbin.com) to learn more about their policies and biographies. Additional information can be found at voteschoolboardfirst.org.
As a final bid before next week’s vote, both Batista and Harbin shared messages with readers of the Chronicle.
“I want to do what’s best for our community. I really do,” said Batista. “I want to keep an open line for solutions because we all want schools that just work. We all want a public sector that works and that’s what I want to help build. It takes work. It takes diligence to make that happen. And I am here, ready to ask questions, talk about hard issues and put in that work and effort to see our community thrive.”
“I strongly believe in public education. I believe that it should work for every family and every student,” said Harbin. “It shouldn’t be so hard for parents to have to fight for a full education for their kids, where they get the art and the music and the world languages. I think most people believe in a strong public education, and maybe don’t know the ins and outs of it, but they believe in it. And I want people to know that I believe in it, and I will fight for it every day, because that’s what I’ve done for 12 years and I’m not stopping.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.