Interview with Patrick Dowd, Pittsburgh Board of Education

Interview with Patrick Dowd, Pittsburgh Board of Education

Dr. Patrick Dowd, born in St. Louis, Missouri, has had a long-standing interest in education and its history. Graduating with a B.A. in History from the University of Missouri-Columbia was only the beginning.

In 1991, Patrick came to Pittsburgh and started his graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1999, he earned his doctorate from the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh.

From 2003 to 2007, Patrick served as president of the Pittsburgh Board of Education. He now works on the Pittsburgh City Council.

Editor's Note: This interview was initially published in 2006, in the middle of Dr. Dowd's term as president of the Pittsburgh Board of Education.

How and perhaps more importantly, why, did you become so interested in education? What drew you to the City of Pittsburgh/why did you choose the University of Pittsburgh to work on your doctorate?

In the early 1990's I became very interested in the history of education and the history of disciplines. For example, how did certain subjects become departments in colleges and universities? I wanted to understand why and how education institutions made changes in courses of study and other things.

Professor Fritz Ringer, who specialized in European Intellectual History and was a leading scholar in this area, was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. Having read his books, I decided I wanted to study with him. He is the person who brought me to Pittsburgh.

What was influential/what was your driving force in your decision to pursue the presidency of the Pittsburgh School Board; how were you selected/who selected you as a candidate for the seat?

As a taxpayer and parent, I believe that public education is the foundation for the quality of life in Pittsburgh. In the late 1990's, many of my friends who were starting families began moving away from the city. When asked, they generally explained that they wanted better services for the taxes they were paying. At the same time, the Pittsburgh Board of Education was in disarray. National newspapers wrote stories about our Board because of the exemplary bad behavior. In order to keep my family and my friends in Pittsburgh, I decided to focus on improving the quality of life in our city. Starting with the school system seems logical to me. The best way to change the quality of education is to change who was serving on the Pittsburgh Board of Education.

In 2003, the situation with the School Board had deteriorated. My representative, who at the time was the president of the Pittsburgh Board of Education, was at the center of the controversies. A number of us got together and decided that things had to change. We knew that running against an incumbent, especially an entrenched incumbent, was a daunting task and that if too many people ran then the incumbent would likely win.

As a teacher and a parent, I wanted to model good behavior for younger people. To that end, all of us interested in this election agreed to go out and find one hundred other people interested and as many potential candidates as possible. We further agreed that we would let the one hundred people meet and interview the potential candidates. After an interview and a rich debate about the issues, we would allow the one hundred people to choose the candidate. By early January of 2003 we had managed to muster the requisite number of people and we gathered at the East Liberty Branch of the Carnegie Library. We held our debate and the coalition selected me as its candidate. By May of 2003 our coalition, which started with less than 12 people, grew to over 2, 000 people.

Your election victory was thought to be unlikely. Why was your victory so surprising?

My election victory seemed so unlikely that on the day after the election the Post-Gazette published a "Brewed on Grant" cartoon indicating that I had run a strong campaign but lost. The Tribune-Review described the campaign as a "David and Goliath" contest. For years, my opponent (Darlene Harris), who was a two-term incumbent, had worked for the senior state senator from Allegheny County and the Chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party. She was also a Democratic Party ward boss and fully entrenched in the Pittsburgh machine. I was seen as a newcomer with only good ideas and a lot of energy. Because of the commitment of hundreds and hundreds of people we were able to build a far-reaching and very active grassroots coalition. It was the coalition that won the election.

Why were so many changes implemented after your election?

During the 2003 campaign, I charged that the Board was not properly focused and that if elected I would work to focus the Board of Education on student achievement. By defeating the president of the Board, I sent a clear message. Change was needed. Shortly after my election, the Mayor's Commission on Public Education, which had spent a year reviewing the public schools, issued a report calling for the end of an elected Board.

Lastly, I see myself as a consensus builder. I was and remain focused on improving the quality of education in the Pittsburgh Public School and was willing to build bridges to different factions to achieve that overall objective.

After I took office, the Board changed its leadership and began to communicate and work more effectively. We forged a clearer understanding of the policy direction for the Pittsburgh Public Schools and are working for its implementation. Ultimately, though, the changes came because we all focused on improving the quality of education in Pittsburgh. That united the Board.

What are some of the tough decisions involved in being on the Board?

The most difficult decision I have had to make came in January of 2005 when I voted to severe the Board's contract with Dr. John Thompson. While campaigning and after taking office, I talked repeatedly of building a new type of contract between the Board and the superintendent. After taking office, we worked to build a new type of contract with Dr. Thompson but those efforts failed and ultimately I had to cast a vote severing our contract with him. At the time I was severely criticized, but we moved forward on a national search and in about six months hired a new and dynamic superintendent. Of course, his contract was an "accountability contract."

Today, the Superintendent Roosevelt of the Pittsburgh Public Schools works under a performance-based contract and is held accountable for the academic and financial performance of the district. Not surprisingly our school system is better performing.

It was also very difficult to close schools. Before my election in 2003, the Pittsburgh Public Schools had tremendous excess capacity. Simply put, taxpayers were paying for tens of thousands of empty seats. Before my election, the Board of Education had a difficult time trying to reduce excess capacity by closing schools. Schools were closed in one year, elections held the next and school re-opened the following. There was a lot of political infighting and a lack of focus on how best to provide higher quality education at lower costs.

Since taking office in 2003, the Pittsburgh Board of Education has all but eliminated excess capacity. Although I am not proud that we had to close schools, I am proud to say that as a Board, we have put aside the political infighting and are focused on providing higher quality education services to our students. At the same time, the closing of schools has enabled the district to spend more of its resources on programs and faculty. As we improve the quality of our education, we will eventually attract families back to the City and the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Eventually, we will be able to open new schools.

Talk about education reform in Pittsburgh.

The education reform process in Pittsburgh has been very exciting. It has involved bringing new and dynamic leadership to the district. It has involved taking a very close look at the services we provide and trying to find new and better ways of delivering the same services. We have, for exampled closed schools and opened new Accelerated Learning Academies. It has involved looking at the curriculum and overhauling it, asking fundamental questions about what we teach and why.

Education reform in Pittsburgh has also involved setting target goals and allocating the resources necessary to meeting those goals. This is best exemplified by Superintendent Roosevelt's "Excellence for All" plan, which the Board of Education adopted in July of 2006. For the first time in decades the Board, administration and public are working together to meet those goals.

Education reform in Pittsburgh also involves the wider community. No progress can be made without the fullest participation of all Pittsburghers. Superintendent Roosevelt and his administration have developed plans that will bring families, corporations, non-profit organizations and many other groups and individuals into the process of creating a high performing school district.

Finally, education reform also means reform for the Pittsburgh Board of Education. We are slowly working our way to and through that task.

Financially, have positive changes been made/what is the current status of the deficit?

One of the core promises of my 2003 campaign was to help the Board be more fiscally responsible. Since taking office this Board has forced the administration to realize operational efficiencies rather than seeking tax increases to cover revenue shortfall.

For 2006, the administration estimates that the district's financial position will be neutral by year end. The current 2006 financial outlook has improved from prior projections primarily as a result of one significant non-recurring $20 million adjustment to Special Education, coupled with savings from Right-Sizing and the State's recent subsidy increase of nearly $12 million annually for Pittsburgh.

For 2007, however, the District still faces a significant operating deficit. The administration estimates that the 2007 operating deficit will be in the range of $25-$35 million based on an escalating gap between estimated revenues of $500 - $510 million and expenses of $525 - $545 million.

What does the future hold for education reform in Pittsburgh?

The future of public education in Pittsburgh is bright. Accountability and performance are increasingly becoming the foundation of the work of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. As this occurs, ever more attention will be given to our students and improving the quality of their education.

This Board and Superintendent Roosevelt are committed to a reform agenda that promises to have 80% of all Pittsburgh third graders proficient in reading by 2009. The agenda, Excellence for All, calls for improving at all grade levels the number of students who are proficient in mathematics. Excellence for All also calls for revitalizing our high schools and increasing the number of students who take the SAT's and Advance Placement exams as well as improving their scores.

Looking forward, I also see increasing levels of choice for students and families in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Whether it's new types of programs or new model schools, students will have access to more education in the Pittsburgh. In the not too distant future, I envision the Pittsburgh Public Schools as a high-performance district helping all children realize their fullest potential and making all decisions based on the outcomes for student performance. When this occurs, the Pittsburgh Public Schools will begin attracting students and families to our schools and our great City. It begins with greater accountability and a focus on performance.

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