Wayne Walters, Pittsburgh Public Schools interim superintendent, was surprised at a celebration in his honor at Obama Academy. Photo by Ann Belser.

Sylvia Wilson of Larimer was elected to her first term as president of the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools on Dec. 2, 2019. Ten days later, doctors in Wuhan, China were treating the first patients who all were exhibiting similar symptoms as they struggled to breathe.

The Covid pandemic continued into Wilson’s second year as president while the district was simultaneously dealing with a superintendent scandal.

On Dec. 6, 2021, the board elected a new president, Sala Udin of the Hill District. As Udin comes into the leadership of the district, he says the focus needs to be on healing.

There are still deep divisions in the district’s Board of Directors. On Wednesday, Dec. 22 the board voted 5 to 4 to raise property taxes in the district by 0.3 millage points to 10.25 mills. The tax increase will add $45 a year to the tax bill of a home valued at $150,000. Udin voted against the tax hike along with William Gallagher, Dr. Tracy Reed, and Gene Walker. Wilson voted in favor of the tax hike with Kevin Carter, Pam Harbin, Jamie Piotrowski, and Devon Taliaferro.

Wilson had been board president for only four months when PPS, like the rest of the country, was thrown into disarray by the Covid shutdown.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Director Sylvia Wilson. Photo by Ann Belser.

Pittsburgh did not have enough computers for children to learn at home. The ability of the schools to obtain computers for all students was hampered by shortages as every school district in the country tried to obtain laptops.

Once children had the devices, some were stopped again by the lack of Wi-Fi connections.

Parents who were home helped their children with classes. Other children went to learning hubs where aides tried to help them navigate online learning.

During Wilson’s second term, as schools were struggling with issues of reopening, including a shortage of bus drivers, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet resigned after an investigation by the state’s auditor general found he had violated state ethics rules by accepting payments from vendors and pocketing reimbursements that were meant to be paid to the district for his travel expenses.

Wilson characterizes her two terms as “the most difficult time that anybody, any board member, has had, except when we were having so many issues over desegregation.”

She says there were a host of questions as the schools entered the pandemic: “How do you educate kids? How do we have meetings? How do we deal with teachers and how can the teachers do their jobs?”

But then there was the technology issue.

“There were people who felt that the district should have had one-to-one computers at that point but we didn’t,” Wilson says. “That wasn’t part of our plan and so getting them took time and we just got criticized for everything. There was absolutely nothing anybody could do that was OK.”

Udin comes in as president after the board appointed Wayne Walters as interim superintendent. The former principal of Obama Academy 6-12, Walters had been named assistant superintendent of professional development and special programming in 2017.

The Obama Academy Marching Band and cheerleaders perform to honor former Principal Wayne Walters on Dec. 11. Photo by Ann Belser.

Teachers, administrative staff, students and their parents at Obama so love Walters that parents and teachers held a special breakfast and outdoor fete on Dec. 11 to celebrate his appointment as interim superintendent. The celebration included the school band and speakers, including Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, whose oldest daughter graduated from the school and younger children are students there.

Walters, who started in the schools as a music teacher before rising through the system, says he knows Gainey first as a parent.

“There is no question that he will be a support to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. There is no question that we will be working together,” Walters says. “Together we will bring the city back because a city cannot be a city without a strong school district and so, they are inseparable.”

In thanking the parents and teachers for the surprise celebration, Walters noted that his students know him well. “They know my standard, they know nothing in life is so complicated that it cannot be achieved by discipline” — and his students finished the sentence with him — “and hard work.”

Wilson says Walters has spent his early time in the position meeting with staff across the district.

One decision he has already made is keeping the mask mandate in schools, despite the state Supreme Court ruling that Acting State Health Secretary Alison Beam lacked the authority to mandate that masks must be worn in all schools.

“Health and safety first,” Walters says.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Board President Sala Udin. Photo by Ann Belser.

Udin says while he is pleased with the work Walters is doing, he wants the district to conduct a national search for Hamlet’s permanent replacement.

“I think it is important that we assure ourselves that we have the best possible selection, but the process of selecting a superintendent is an important community process as well,” Udin says.

But even more important, he adds, is that the schools have to help students get through Covid.

“I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that we are in a crisis and that our kids are in a crisis and that their families are in a crisis and the first thing we need is to learn to get through this crisis.”

While Udin says he is not in favor of turning the schools into a place for providing mental health and social services, “I think the schools have to reformat and do what we can to facilitate getting what students need. We have a history of closing off our mission at the school doors.”

In the schools, Udin says, a major focus has to be to improve teaching reading and mathematics.

He says that as he walks through the schools, he sees “fear.”

He says the staff is afraid of failure. “I don’t think we have a confident grasp that we are doing well and I think many staff are just eeking by and they know that is not enough.”

He notes the teachers are well paid, but that they did not go into teaching for the money.

“Our teachers love teaching and we need to give them what they need to flourish and be all they can and be,” Udin says. Adding that the district needs to reinforce “all the reasons why they went to teachers colleges in the first place.”

As for parents, he knows they “are desperate to find a quality education for their children. Our concern about losing student enrollment is directly related to parents’ desire for a quality education. And if we are the source of a quality education, we don’t have to worry about children going to the charter schools. They will come to the regular public schools.”

Ann Belser

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel...