Hearings of the Board of Directors of Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) are not known for being scintillating affairs. Various petitioners will speak for a few minutes each on an issue to the Board and members of Central Administration, who will, in turn, placidly listen to the speaker before moving on to the next. The whole affair is often wrapped up in less than the hour allotted for it; the galleries where petitioners and listeners sit rarely, if ever, become standing room only.
That was not the case on the night of Monday, February 23rd.
That night, the galleries were filled to the brim with Obama parents, students, and teachers opposed to a district plan to cut Obama’s budget by roughly one million dollars for the 2020-2021 school year. Their objections and grievances were aired by a remarkable 21 speakers, all Obama students or parents, who spoke about the harm the cuts could cause.
The roots of this collective effort go back to December 2019, when PPS released its 2020 Preliminary General Fund Budget. The budget, publicly released as an intractable collection of figures organized somewhat cryptically, is condensed every year into site-based budgets that are sent to the principals of the district’s 54 schools. In January, after receiving Obama’s site-based budget, Ms. Colbert informed select faculty and members of the PTSA about the severe cuts Obama faces. When applied to the school, the one million dollar figure is equivalent to cutting 2.5 teacher positions and much of Obama’s support staff, plus potentially dozens of students.
For those wondering why PPS would choose to reduce Obama’s budget so dramatically, the answer lies in what is known as the “educational-delivery model.” This allocates funding to district schools (both overall school budgets and per-pupil expenditures) based on the number of students enrolled in them. Not unlike the microeconomics principle of economies of scale, this model inherently benefits larger schools, as increased students do not necessarily incur a proportionate increase in cost (a school of 1,000 pupils does not spend twice as much on administrative and upkeep costs, for instance, as a school of 500 pupils). Conversely, the model punishes schools like Obama, which last year reduced its enrollment by 83 students to decrease class sizes and improve academic achievement. It is worth mentioning that Obama is currently in the midst of a district-mandated process to improve student performance; one teacher The Eagle spoke to questioned how the school would effectively execute that plan without an increase in funding, let alone a reduction.
Upon being informed by Ms. Colbert of the budget cuts, Obama’s PTSA swung into action, organizing parents to protest the cuts at Monday’s hearing in what it’s calling its “Code Purple” campaign. One PTSA member, Ashish Badjatia, reached out to the leadership of the Youth and Government club to see if any students would be willing to speak out at the board meeting about the detrimental impact reducing Obama’s budget could have on the school. Mr. Badjatia told The Eagle that the response far exceeded what he expected: on Monday, February 17th alone, 14 students volunteered to speak at the board meeting. Despite parent concerns about student reliability, only one of that number ended up being unable to speak on Monday night.
Most Obama speakers donned purple t-shirts reading “PURPLE ALERT” on the front and “IMAGINE A BETTER OBAMA ACADEMY” on the back, and each of them touched on a facet of the challenges Obama already faces and the extent to which budget cuts would exacerbate them. Taken collectively, their testimonies represent a massive manifestation of support and pride in Obama, despite often criticizing the current state of affairs at the school.
A number of parents and students—including Miriam Spak, a 7th grader—talked about the dearth of a consistent 7th grade math teacher. One mother, Tazio Hilbert, shared the story of how her son, a 7th grader, had come home from school one day with a black eye, which she assumed was from gym. It was actually from that math class, when he had been hit in the face with a hard object while the lights were turned off during what should have been instructional time. Ms. Hilbert told the Board that a teacher who had been hired to teach the class ended up quitting less than halfway through the year—after crying during one of her lessons and telling students that she had given up her dream job to teach them. The collective horror of the room at the statement was palpable.
Other speakers focused on the vast inequities between Obama and other magnet schools in the district. Comparing and contrasting with CAPA was a popular choice, with many speakers offering graphs and data to bolster their argument that Obama had been financially neglected for too long while students at PPS’s other magnets had been given access to, for example, personal laptops. A favorite technique was to riff on the district’s recently launched Imagine PPS initiative by asking listeners to imagine a worse—or better—Obama as a result of the budget cuts or budget increases, respectively.
At times speakers strayed into polemics. Sophomore Jonah Woolley told the Board and Central Administration that he was “disgusted” with their actions; sophomore Elise Silvestri that she was “disappointed” that she had to be fighting for her school before them. Sophomore Dylan Shapiro quoted Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s words back at him; senior Amila Nikšič made a veiled reference to a widely criticized trip to Cuba taken by Dr. Hamlet. Senior Michael Eddy Harvey reminded district stakeholders that while being the “underdog” might serve as motivation in a football game, it’s not nearly as fun when it comes to education.
Even though much of the speakers’ time focused on Obama’s difficulties, the night was not without positive moments. Every senior who spoke shared their pride in attending the school, touching on strengths like the IB program, fantastic teachers, and a welcoming student body. Some shared the colleges and universities they’ll be attending this coming fall as a measure of Obama’s rigorous academic standard and capable counseling department. A parent, Daniel Crow, talked about the passion and resilience students had developed as a result of overcoming challenges, urging Board members: “Do not retrench.”
For every one member of the Obama community who spoke, two were in the audience, including several teachers, making their feelings known through rousing applause following each testimony. Support for the cause was so overwhelming and testimony so compelling that one speaker, at the meeting for an unrelated reason, took time out of his allotted three minutes to voice his solidarity (widespread enthusiastic cheering ensued).
By the time the hearing ended, nearly half an hour later than scheduled, it was clear that Obama was collectively intent on strenuously resisting any plans that would harm the school; many speakers made clear in their testaments that their efforts would not stop at making public comments at Board meetings. It remains to be seen how intently the Board and Central Administration listened to those who spoke. If they decide to ride roughshod over objections, as many of the parents and students The Eagle spoke to expect, they are likely to find an even more invigorated opposition waiting for them.
Editor’s note: Listed below, in order of speaking, are the names of each individual who spoke under the aegis of “Equity at Obama” at Monday’s Board hearing. Some of the speeches that were delivered are available for interested readers. To access them, simply click on the hyperlinked names.
Parent: Lisa Harris
Parent: Jana Vogt
Parent: LaShelle Hollie
Parent: Tazio Hilbert
Parent: Rebecca MacLean
Parent: Ashish Badjatia
Student: Isaac Degenholtz
Student: Sam Bisno
Student: Dylan Shapiro
Student: Chazzlyn Burke
Student: Jonah Woolley
Student: Elise Silvestri
Student: Amila Niksic
Student: Arhan Badjatia
Student: Miriam Spak
Student: Daevan Mangalmurti
Student: Aubree Peterson-Spanard
Student: Aastha Singh
Parent: Daniel Crow
Student: Michael Eddy Harvey
Parent: Lavonne Davis