SableGate Fallout

Long-suffering readers may recall my comments last Fall about what I (and apparently no one else) called "SableGate," the unexplained big-money buyout of the contract of the Mt. Lebanon School District Superintendent.

It's time for an update on school district goings on.

First, for sheer farce, Mt. Lebanon has nothing on the City of Pittsburgh. I won't belabor the details; today's entry is here.

Second, the citizens of Mt. Lebanon have been busy. Some of them have channeled their energy into the formation of an honest-to-goodness children's education not-for-profit. I'm all for hoping that this does some good, but Pittsburghers put up not-for-profits like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney used to put on shows. Hey, there's an empty barn! Why not!

There was a group of folks gunning for impeachment of some or all of the Board. So far as I know, that effort is dead in the water.

There was a related group of folks suing to open up the records related to negotiation of the buyout. I haven't heard anything more about that lawsuit, but at this point I think that the issue is moot. The buyout followed acrimony, recrimination, and threats of litigation among people -- citizen politicians -- who couldn't figure out how to get along in carrying out their obligations to their constituents. What more do we need to know now?

There is still another related group doing what I think is the most useful and interesting work: organizing a slate of candidates to challenge those Board members who will be running for reelection later this year. SableGate isn't even at the top of the issues list. A lot of people are raising questions about Board management of the renovation of the District's facilities, and there's a lot more money at stake here than there was with the Superintendent buyout. We'll see what comes out during the campaign.

This last group is the most intersting in part because it's the one that's going to confront some challenges that have longer-term implications. These are challenges that I think face any community in this area that wants to change historic ways of doing business. Mt. Lebanon just happens to be going through this process right now.

Challenge number one is school-specific. This is to figure out just what a School Board is for, and -- probably more important -- just what a School Superintendent is for. There is a lot of research out there that suggests that a School Superintendent has very little power to influence the academic performance of children. In fact, the most important thing that a Superintendent may do, if the office has this power, is to hire good teachers and let them teach, and to fire bad teachers. If union contracts limit hiring and firing, then why care about the identity of the Superintendent at all, except for symbolic purposes and to have a fall guy if things seem to go badly?

Challenge number two applies to school issues and to many other things. This is to figure out how to answer to at least three citizen constituencies: The Historians, the Idealists, and the Pragmatists. All three groups have been evident in Mt. Lebanon in SableGate. Their strength and visibility elsewhere will vary.

"Historians" are the folks who believe that all is essentially well. Trust the leadership to do the right thing. It's worked in the past, and it will continue to work in the future.

"Idealists" are pretty upset with the status quo, because the Historians have screwed things up. This is the group that treats Mt. Lebanon as a special place. "Mt. Lebanon just doesn't do things this way; we're better than all that" might be their rallying cry. SableGate, and whatever may have happened with school renovations, reflect a failure to honor Mt. Lebanon ideals. I happen to think that it's a mistake for anyone, resident or otherwise, to treat Mt. Lebanon as special -- I hear echoes of The Church Lady -- but I recognize that it's a powerful impulse.)

"Pragmatists" are the newest and smallest constituency, but the group seems to be growing. These are often younger families, often not Pittsburgh-area natives, who've lived in other places and chose to move to this area. They've seen the puppet show elsewhere, and they know that this region is a relative bargain when it comes to the combination of real estate prices and public amenities. But they also see high end real estate taxes, and they want to get their money's worth. They're careful to watch out for waste in government, and they think they know laziness and hidebound, backward looking public management when they see it.

The next few months will be fun to watch.


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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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