Private groups in Pittsburgh halt aid to schools

3 foundations say breakdown in governance led to decision

August 15, 2002|By Stephanie Strom | Stephanie Strom,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a stunning and rare example of philanthropy publicly flexing its muscles, three foundations have precipitated a crisis in the Pittsburgh public school system.

The foundations, the Heinz Endowments, the Grable Foundation and the Pittsburgh Foundation, have indefinitely suspended their payments for programs in the Pittsburgh schools, citing a declining standard of fiscal management and a breakdown in governance.

They are withholding more than $3 million that would have supported a literacy program, math and science curriculum revisions, after-school programs, chess clubs and other projects in the coming school year.

The heads of the three foundations wrote: "The board is divided, the administration is embattled, key personnel are leaving or are under attack, and morale appears to be devastatingly low."

The foundations' grants represent a tiny fraction of the Pittsburgh public schools' $700 million budget, but because federal and other sources of income often depend on the school district's ability to match them in the private sector, the impact will be much larger, said John Thompson, the district superintendent.

Other smaller foundations in the Pittsburgh area, like the Hillman Foundation, have said they, too, are withholding support for the school system, and since private money often underwrites innovations and experiments, the loss is more significant than its dollar value.

"Every time we think we've calculated the devastation of them pulling their support, it gets larger," Thompson said.

But more important, he said, is the message the foundations have sent.

"The key thing is not the money they're pulling out, but the amount of goodwill these people carry in the community," he said. "That's just priceless."

While foundations often stop or suspend grants, they almost never do so publicly, and the three foundations have wrestled with their decision. "It was wrenching for us," said Susan Brownlee, executive director of the Grable Foundation, which was established by Minnie K. Grable, whose husband, Errett, was the founder of Rubbermaid. "Family foundations do not enjoy being in the spotlight especially, and this has gotten us more publicity than anything we've ever done - and we've funded some pretty impressive programs."

But concerns grew about the school system, which serves 38,000 students and has until now largely escaped the problems suffered by most urban school districts. The foundations were concerned about the district's inability or unwillingness to provide reports about budgets, test results and other matters that would allow them to evaluate the effectiveness of their grants.

Assessment has become increasingly important in philanthropy as donors increasingly regard their gifts as investments. To determine a "rate of return" for those investments, grants must be monitored and fine-tuned, even though the kinds of social programs that a philanthropy typically provides are hard to measure.

Grant Oliphant, the director of programs and communications at the Heinz Endowments, said, "We wanted a broad commitment from the board and the school leadership that programs would be sustained, that staff would remain in place for a period of time and that there would be mechanisms to measure progress and give real-time feedback." The endowments were established by Howard H. Heinz, heir to the H.J. Heinz fortune, and his wife, Vira Ingham Heinz.

Grant and Brownlee both ascribed the problems getting those commitments to a dysfunctional school board, and Thompson concurred. "The board majority that brought me on board in September 2000 became a minority" last year, Thompson said. "They have been fighting with each other, and it's just been so public."

When Thompson was hired, the district faced a $36 million budget deficit. His plans for eliminating the gap include closing 15 neighborhood schools with low attendance.

"They hired me to balance the budget and get rid of the deficit, and we've done that," Thompson said. "But in closing schools, I had to close some that some people didn't want closed, including the mayor and several legislators."

When the next school board election was held, a coalition that promised to reopen those schools gained the majority. The new majority has clashed repeatedly with supporters of Thompson's agenda.

"What people don't understand is if we keep governing the school system this way, we risk falling into a tailspin similar to what happened in Philadelphia," Thompson said, referring to the takeover of the Philadelphia school system by the state after the superintendent there lost support for his reform program.

Jean Fink, the board president, was highly critical of the foundations' decision when it was announced. "I can't tell them what to do and they shouldn't tell me what to do," Fink said. "They shouldn't use money as a threat. I don't like being blackmailed."

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