The Villagers Storm the Castle

The School Board in Mt. Lebanon had a public meeting last night, and its members got an earful from more than 400 angry residents.

One person who attended what she called the "smackdown" wrote me privately to pass on this view: The School Board is coasting on the District's reputation, taking advantage of the community's historic pride in the quality of its schools and not doing enough to respond to what people (students, parents, and other taxpayers) today really want and need -- or can afford.

Sorry as this episode is, it doesn't present quite the same problem as the incompetence, arrogance, and corruption that we have seen for years in the City's School Board. Arrogance, for sure; incompetence and corruption? Who knows.

What the case illustrates, and the City's School Board problems doesn't, is how the merits of the debate (it should be clear that we still don't have the merits of the actual case against the Superintendent) track the broader outlines of Pittsburgh's history. A small group of establishment insiders are entrusted with stewardship of an extraordinary economy -- in this case, the schools of Mt. Lebanon; historically, Pittsburgh as a whole. Decisions are made and implemented regarding the future of that economy, on behalf of the citizens and in what they are told is their best interest -- but without their real participation. (The decisionmakers, of course, are the School Board of Mt. Lebanon and, for Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Conference. Decisions rest on the assumption that all is well, the economy will continue to prosper, the population can afford its cost, and the citizens shouldn't complain -- because, after all, this is a special place. We have had more than our share of Pittsburgh exceptionalism; it may be exceeded by Mt. Lebanon exceptionalism.

Yet the economy changes, and the population changes too, and eventually the citizens wake up to find that their "stewards" have been asleep at the switch, spending money they didn't have and refusing to respond to perfectly legitimate demands for reform. Pittsburgh is in the functional equivalent of bankrutpcy. Mt. Lebanon is hardly in bankruptcy, and its schools are hardly failing. And yet . . .?

What happens next?


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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