Frank, informed voice of Jean Fink leaves Pittsburgh school board after 33 years
November 29, 2013 9:58 AM
By Eleanor Chute / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jean Fink, seen here at her home in Carrick, is leaving the board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools after more than 30 years in office.
Jean Fink, seen here at her Carrick home with her dog, Tippy, is leaving the board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools after more than 30 years in office.
Jean Fink on Nov. 4, 2013
When a fellow Pittsburgh Public Schools board member suggested asking some graduates who are successful rappers to promote the district, Jean Fink's retort combined her decades of experience on the board, her status as a great-grandmother and her traditional values.
Noting her years of service, Ms. Fink, who attended her last school board meeting this week, said she was against it.
"When we as educators, start promoting and glorifying young men who preach the coolest thing is to get high on weed, and every other sentence in their songs contains the F-word, I'm sorry. I think it's wrong. I don't think we should be promoting these people," said Ms. Fink, who knew of some of the rappers.
In recent times, Ms. Fink, a resident of Carrick since 1964, didn't necessarily comment as often as she did in her early years when she fought against forced busing for desegregation.
But her voice still provided frank insights and a dose of institutional knowledge.
"Probably over her tenure, she's played many different roles. Her current one is like the elder stateswoman," said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy group. "She really brings some wisdom to some conversations."
Ms. Fink has served on the board for 33 years.
On Monday, her successor in District 7, Cynthia Falls, will be sworn in. The district includes all or part of Carrick, Overbrook, Bon Air, Knoxville, Mount Oliver, St. Clair, South Side Slopes, South Side Flats, Arlington Heights and Arlington.
None of the four departing board members -- Ms. Fink, Sharene Shealey, Theresa Colaizzi and Floyd "Skip" McCrea -- sought re-election.
"It's just time," said Ms. Fink, the parent of six, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of four.
"I'm 69 years old. I was 31 the first time I ran. The issues are a lot different. The school district is a lot different," she said.
Ms. Fink is the only board member who goes back to the first days of an elected school board -- something she fought for and joined when it began in 1976.
Previously, the board was appointed, which she said resulted in a disproportionate share of members from the East End and a lack of members who knew their neighborhoods.
Louise Brennen, superintendent from 1992 to 1997, said representing her community was important to Ms. Fink, but "she still maintained a global perspective of what decisions she had to make in the best interests of the school district as a whole."
Ms. Fink has been on the board every year since 1976 except for a four-year term after she lost the 1993 election, which she blames on a vote to increase taxes because the state had changed the funding of special education.
"We needed that to give the proper services to the kids," she said.
Before joining the board, Ms. Fink was an active parent, including helping to form a part of a human chain across Route 51 to win safety improvements for Overbrook students.
Then, as now, Ms. Fink supported neighborhood schools.
"Why should we have money for busing when we don't have money for reading?" she asked in 1972.
As a board member, early desegregation plans she favored didn't go far enough to pass legal muster, but, in 1982, realizing the district was losing in the courts, she voted for the desegregation plan. That plan included some magnet schools -- which have specialized programs to attract students. "At least you could give people choices," she said.
Ms. Fink said today she still doesn't understand the point of forced busing.
A graduate of the now-closed South Hills High School, Ms. Fink grew up in Beltzhoover, a neighborhood that she said was racially mixed at the time.
"We all played together after school. We went to the movies together. We rode our bikes together. We roller-skated together. We were all friends because we were all neighbors.
"If you had kids bused, it was an artificial situation. These were not kids you hung out with on Saturday afternoon. You couldn't get there. It didn't make any sense to me."
Today, city school district enrollment -- 24,525 in K-12 -- is less than half of when Ms. Fink joined the board.
"I never saw that coming," said Ms. Fink, who recounted how students went to Carrick High School in five shifts when she joined the board. Carrick now has more capacity than students.
Noting parochial schools also have faced enrollment declines in the city, she said families are having fewer children, some families have left the city and charter schools have attracted students.
The fight for neighborhood schools today is a different one, with the district having too much space for too few students.
Yet while she thinks parents are more concerned about education quality and safety than they used to be, she thinks the public still wants neighborhood schools.
"I don't think they're gone. In some areas of the city, people do expect to have a neighborhood school, and the South Hills is one of them," she said.
Ms. Fink has been through multiple school closing plans and the board, after her departure, is likely to face others.
Asked whether any school closings were a mistake, she said, "If it was in your neighborhood, it was always a mistake."
For years, Ms. Fink tried to save tiny Bon Air School, at one point succeeding in getting it reopened in 2002 after it was closed in 2001.
However, Mark Roosevelt, who was superintendent from 2005 to 2010, won support to close Bon Air as an elementary school in 2006 although it was used as an early childhood center afterward.
Mr. Roosevelt had called her to his office to explain the economics.
"He made me understand. I wasn't happy," she said.
Mr. Roosevelt said, "I found Jean quite reasonable and willing to listen, but she was also tough when she felt something she valued or felt she needed to protect was at stake."
With school closings come changes in assigned feeder patterns. In one case, Ms. Fink noticed that a few streets in Knoxville had been erroneously redistricted to a school different than the surrounding streets.
When she went to see that it was corrected, she said she and then-superintendent John Thompson got into a shouting match in the stairwell of board headquarters. She said Mr. Thompson -- about a foot taller than Ms. Fink -- leaned into her face, and she was beet red in anger.
Ms. Fink once had hoped for a new vo-tech school in Oak Hill, between Oakland and the Hill District, but now views such an expense as impossible.
Nevertheless, she is encouraged by the growth in some career and technical education programs, including the return of carpentry at Carrick High School and Westinghouse 6-12 this school year.
"We're finally starting to value that again," she said. "Not every kid is going to college."
Ms. Fink was board president for one year, December 2001 to December 2002, when board meetings were so acrimonious that foundations temporarily withdrew support.
In one closed-door school board meeting in 2002, Ms. Fink, frustrated with a fellow board member, said, "Should I dump this water on your head to get your attention?"
Reflecting on that recently, she said, "It was just difficult to deal with the people I was dealing with."
Former school board member Randall Taylor, who was the object of the water remark, said he remembers it "fondly," adding, "I also looked at it as a time when board members did debate and had disagreements and weren't rubber-stamping things."
Over the years, she forged strong friendships with some board members, including former school board member Darlene Harris, now Pittsburgh City Council president, and Ms. Colaizzi.
"If there was a problem at one of her schools, she was there on the spot," Ms. Harris said. "She had a home phone that was just like an office number. Anyone could get her."
Ms. Colaizzi, who considers Ms. Fink her mentor, said, "I've never seen anybody that is so unselfish and so willing as Jean."
The district in recent years has been awarded $40 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which covers part of the cost of the Empowering Effective Teaching program, aimed at improving teacher quality.
"Although they've given us a lot of money to do a lot of things through the Empowering Effective Teachers, I don't know if the money that we've had to put out is making it worth it.
"There's a lot of good things that come from trying to do things differently, trying to beef up teachers' skills, but in the end, I have to ask myself, 'What is the long-range value going to be?' "
She has seen the pendulum of education swing back and forth.
She opposed particular swings of that pendulum, such as Everyday Math, which she thought was "stupid" but was revised over the years, and the Initial Teaching Alphabet, a confusing alternative alphabet used to teach reading when her oldest daughter was in school, which she called "the stupidest program I ever saw."
"It's constant change. You've got what you know in your heart as a teacher is tried and true and works, but then the next big thing comes along, so you're going to try something else," she said.
Over the years, she has also seen many forecasted deficits.
"It's like snow comes in January," she said.
In 2000, Ms. Fink and Ms. Harris would meet weekend mornings at Ms. Harris' house, calling department heads to find out ways to trim the budget. They came up with what was dubbed the "housewife's special," which suggested $38.5 million in cuts. It wasn't adopted.
Ms. Fink sees the current deficit -- the district expects to go broke in 2016 unless it changes course -- as different.
"Our resources are going to be depleted," she said. "We don't have the resources from the state we used to have. It's just a different world. We can't raise taxes like we used to."
Ms. Fink has been criticized for the fact that family members were employed by the district, among them her husband, Fred, who was a carpenter for 25 years. Her son Fred III is the head mechanic for the district and son Michael is a custodian.
"They applied like anybody else. There's no reason they shouldn't work here," she said.
She remained on the board through personal tragedies as well. Her youngest son, Matt, who was born after she joined the board and attended meetings in a bassinet, died at the age of 22 in 2004; her husband of 45 years died in 2007; and her mother died in between.
Being on the board, she said, "probably kept me grounded. It was a horrible thing, but [the board] gave me something else to think about."
Ms. Fink is an accomplished seamstress, having made wedding gowns, prom gowns and Steelers jackets for a variety of family members. She and her family used to have a catering business, making roast beef, rigatoni, stuffed cabbage rolls -- what she described as "Pittsburgh wedding food."
Her final board meeting Tuesday night lasted about four hours, and she left shortly before 11 p.m., not long before the contentious meeting was over.
"That's probably the worst meeting I've had in 10 years," she said.
"You make your point and you shut up. That's common sense."
At the meeting, in her brief parting remarks to the board, Ms. Fink said, "I made some good decisions. I probably made some bad decisions, but I always did it because I really ... love the kids. I love the school system.
"I just hope that in the future decisions need to be made with care and kindness."
Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.
Obituary: Jean Fink | She loved the kids -- and fought for them
Oct. 16, 1944 -- Sept. 1, 2020
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo
BY JANICE CROMPTON Pittsburgh Post-Gazette email@example.com
SEP 6, 2020 6:30 AM
A member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board for more than three decades and a lifelong advocate for neighborhood schools, Jean Fink took on the unpaid — and largely thankless — job for the love of children.
“I made some good decisions. I probably made some bad decisions, but I always did it because I really ... love the kids. I love the school system,” Mrs. Fink said at her last board meeting in November 2013.
“Jean was a wonderful person and a very honest person who would do anything for her district and the city,” said her friend and former school board colleague Darlene Harris. “Whatever she could do to help somebody, she was there.”
Mrs. Fink, 75, of Carrick, died of heart failure on Tuesday.
Her tenure on the school board was all the more remarkable because Mrs. Fink, nee Neuman, quit South Hills High School in 11th grade to marry her sweetheart, Fred W. Fink Jr.
Mr. and Mrs. Fink married in June 1962. Mr. Fink died in 2007.
“I think she fell in love with the Harley first,” said her daughter Joanne Einloth, of Carrick, laughing at the memory of her parents astride her father’s Harley-Davidson motorcycles over the years. “When she met my dad she was done with school. She wanted to get married and have kids, but you would have never known that she didn’t finish high school or go to college by talking to her. She was very smart.”
After her fourth child was born, the 22-year-old Mrs. Fink obtained her GED.
Mrs. Fink became active in her community as a volunteer at the non-profit Carrick Community Council and as one of the founders of the annual Halloween parade and Corn Fest in Carrick.
When her children were growing up, Mrs. Fink spent countless hours behind the concession stand at Volunteers Park.
“She got all of us kids into sports and every mom had to do their duty at the concession stand. Between all of us, I think she was there 12 years,” her daughter said. “She was very, very involved in the community. It seemed like every little thing that went on, she knew about it or organized it.”
A talented seamstress and thrifty economizer, Mrs. Fink knew how to stretch a buck — an essential skill for a mother of six.
“Mom made a lot of our clothes,” her daughter said. “She even made us winter coats one year. She sewed wedding and prom dresses and costumes. And she took over our yard with her beautiful garden. She would can everything so we could eat all winter. She made pickles and sauerkraut and spent two days every year canning tomatoes. She even grew the dill for the pickles.”
Mrs. Fink employed her baking and cooking skills as a caterer for family and friends, once catering a wedding with 250 guests.
As a member of the Overbrook Elementary School PTA, Mrs. Fink worried about students safely crossing busy Route 51 on their way to and from school.
“She and other parents made a human chain across Rt. 51” to get the attention of local officials, her daughter said.
She lobbied the school board for help and in 1972 convinced them to visit the school and walk the same route as the kids did. Improvements were made.
By 1976, she was among the first group of PPS board members to be elected rather than appointed to the school board. She served continuously until her retirement in 2013, except for the years between 1993 and 1997 — the only time she lost reelection.
“She wanted an elected school board and fought for it and got it,” her daughter said.
But, the road wasn’t always easy.
In the 1970s, she supported integration but not the forced busing of students, and anytime a neighborhood school closed, she took it to heart.
“I believe in neighborhood schools, period, not just in my neighborhood,” she said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December 2001.
But the job could be frustrating over her 33 years on the board, including two years as president.
There was the time she got into a red-faced shouting match with former Superintendent John Thompson in a stairwell, or when she was overheard threatening to dump water onto the head of fellow board member Randall Taylor to get his attention — though Mr. Taylor was quick to forgive the remark and later said he remembered it “fondly,” as a time when board members debated and fought for issues important to them.
“She was a great person and a great advocate,” recalled Ms. Harris, who later went on to be elected to Pittsburgh City Council. “I can’t tell you how much fun she was.”
The two traveled to conferences together and even spent weekend mornings poring over budget figures to find funding to keep neighborhood schools open in 2000 as part of an initiative they called the “Housewife's Special.”
“We were calling department heads and directors, asking them what they could live without and we came up with $35 million,” she said. “A couple of board members thought it was just ridiculous, but they had no idea how much time we spent on it.”
“She would go out for meetings that lasted anywhere from one hour to six hours and she still came home and made dinner and made sure the house was running,” her daughter said. “She was amazing.”
A good example of her mother’s devotion came during the first month of the school year when she inevitably would be slammed with endless calls from angry parents over transportation problems, her daughter said.
“The phone would be ringing constantly and every call was about a bus,” she said. “She would work to help reorganize and reroute schedules. Not everybody liked her, but she handled everything with grace. She would have done anything for the district and for the kids.”
In more recent years, Mrs. Fink was devoted to her grandchildren and loved living with her son Fred “Buddy” Fink III and his wife Debbie, where she was treated like a member of the royal family, her daughter said.
Two of her granddaughters found a special way to memorialize Mrs. Fink, who had a longstanding practice of sending birthday cards with money and a lottery ticket inside.
“She always signed everything with ‘Love, Gram,’ so they got that tattooed on their hands,” her daughter said. “She was just a very giving person and we will miss her.”
Along with her daughter and son, Mrs. Fink is survived by her other children Susan Scherba, of Baldwin; Peggy Tice, of Carrick; Michael Fink, of Carrick; 9 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her son Matthew Fink.
Her funeral was Saturday.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Animal Rescue League at 6926 Hamilton Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15208 or humaneanimalrescue.org.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First Published September 6, 2020, 6:30am