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The Foreword

In Conversation: Meet New School Board Member Yael Silk

Newest School Board Member Yael Silk. | Pittsburgh Public Schools

On December 4, 2023, Ms. Yael Silk was sworn in as the new School Board Member for Pittsburgh Public School’s fourth district. Ms. Silk succeeded Ms. Pam Harbin, and now represents Allderdice High School, Colfax K-8, and Linden K-5.

Ms. Silk graciously agreed to speak with me about her priorities for her term of service.

Below is our conversation:

Pavel: First of all, I’d like to ask how are you doing today?

Ms. Silk: I am doing just fine on this snowy day. And yourself?

Pavel: Staying warm…right. I wanted to ask you how does it feel, now, to be a part of the Board of Directors, after a year-long campaign and all the stresses of raising funds…for any political office.

Ms. Silk: It feels fantastic.  I am genuinely enjoying the experience. I am honored to be in the room, I’m learning a ton. And, I’m excited for what’s possible.

Pavel: So, you’ve only been in office for a month. How have your meetings gone so far and what are some things, perhaps, you didn’t realize about the board, given that you’re new?

Ms. Silk: So, I have really appreciated how the meetings have gone. One thing that the Board is returning to is an emphasis on in-person meetings. I think it’s a great way to develop rapport with your colleagues and easier to have difficult conversations and engage in stressful topics. When you not only have someone’s words but their body language. You get the chance to connect with them while sitting around the table before the meetings begin. I think that connective tissue really makes a difference…and I think Mr. Gene Walker has been doing a great job as board president and has been checking in one-on-one, which is very helpful. 

Additionally, Ms. Devon Taliaferro did a great job in setting up board training for the new members. So, I got to spend about a day and a half, early in my tenure, really just receiving a firehose of information. But, with many opportunities to ask questions, which I did.

Ms. Silk on the topic of unexpected realizations that she had for the Board, said, “I guess what I would say is there are lots of procedural things that I am learning. And, that’s not at all surprising. Additionally, I think I wasn’t fully prepared for the set up of committees and I also wasn’t aware of liaison positions for school directors.”

I asked Ms. Silk to clarify what a liaison position was in relation to the board, she replied, “There are a number of liaison appointments for board members during their tenure. There are liaisons for the Carnegie Library and Museum, Right to Education Task Force, Title I, early childhood councils, PA School Board Association (PSBA), and others. It’s a way for the school board to be tied into the community and organizations that support the work of schools.”

Ms. Silk elaborated that the liaison role was not for raising money but rather for networking opportunities.

Pavel: Now, for much of the term of the budget process, you were not in office. So, a lot of the stuff that was developed was not done with the correct insight of the people that would eventually be voting on it. What would you do differently this year, as a school director that has experience from the initial start of the budget to the final vote?

Ms. Silk: I do first want to give props to what I think the continuing school directors did as well as staff to helping new directors. Particularly given that we were running unopposed, we were invited into the folding of budget meetings. There were definitely meetings that were open to the public, in advance to any new board directors taking office, that I made a point of attending. Asking questions…we spent so many hours with Mr. Ron Joseph [PPS chief financial officer] in training and he answered so many of our questions. 

I knew that I would be taking office and then voting on a budget that I did not help prepare, within weeks. That was not a surprise so I really appreciated the time and attention that I received, given that unfortunate structure. 

Something that happened before a public meeting when I received some constituent questions about the budget before the vote. And, I was unclear on the protocol for getting those questions answered and sharing them back with the public. So, Mr. Walker talked me through the process and so I shared those questions to PPS staff with Mr. Walker’s CC in the email. To which we received answers. And during the actual meeting, Mr. Walker essentially read the responses into the public record. And, that’s a small wonky detail but I think it’s a really healthy way for boards to operate. Right..that we do have access to senior staff and can get answers to constituent questions…and that it’s important to share into the public record those responses.

Ms. Silk said that her example of Mr. Walker was one she didn’t see in practice enough and highly appreciated the gesture.

Pavel: In relation to the budget, it must have been a very stress-inducing time for you. Especially since you’re new in a position, where you are expected to vote on something that you don’t really have a lot of material on. And, a lot of people compare that to what the general public would know, which is unfortunate, because everyone should know where their tax money is going.

Ms. Silk: Well, and I guess the focus now is on the moving forward piece. We have started working with staff on a timeline on how to make public budget workshops meaningful for the community. One piece that I am really interested in is developing a budget where we are telling clear stories about how the money is supporting our students. 

And, a challenging detail in that is the board budget is the general fund, but there are other buckets of money that fund our district and student initiatives. Often, we take dollars from multiple funds supporting a particular initiative but most people think about their experience through an initiative, learning opportunity, or a staff person. But some of these things are funded through multiple funds, so it’s complicated. And, I think we need to do a better job at telling the financial story of this district.

The district faces issues of public transparency in the development of the passed-budget alongside movement of a facilities utilization plan

I asked her, despite all the challenges, what were positive things she looked forward to.

Ms. Silk: On the more positive side, a priority for me is making sure we are a district that is set up well to collaborate with the amazing partners that we have. Whether they be universities, cultural organizations, tech companies, whatever it is, we have so many potential partners–who are ready to work together. But, we continue to have a reputation of being really hard to partner with. That comes up time and again, with our ability to spend our ESSER dollars because it is hard for organizations to get in and connect with schools.

Ms. Silk: We need to be getting the resources that are needed for our students and school adults. Because, there is a lot of need and also a lot of opportunity out there. 

I think another positive is reframing from a conversation about school closures to really thinking holistically, what do we want our district to look like?

What are the facilities that would best support our students?

The kinds of learning opportunities that we want.

How do we, over a period of years, get to that vision of a district?

Ms. Silk: Making sure that the facilities, and the principals, and the teachers, and the offerings inside those buildings are going to set up our students for the most success. That’s kind of the biggest question that I have, right now.

Pavel: And, a lot of that goes in through the strategic plan.

Ms. Silk: It goes in through the strategic plan, and a lot of that work is, also, going to happen through the Safety and Operations committee which is why I had  it as my top choice. And, I am chair of that committee. 

I briefly asked Ms. Silk about her thoughts on the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers’ collective bargaining agreement (teacher union agreement) set to expire for summer 2024. Asking if she was looking forward to negotiation between the board and union leadership regarding contracts.

She laughed when I asked if negotiating was fun, and she responded, “learning is fun for me so I am really looking forward to learning about the process. But, I don’t have specific comments.”

Pavel: So, my final question is, if you could describe PPS in one or two words, how would you describe it?

Ms. Silk: Untapped potential.

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About the Contributor
Pavel Marin, Staff Writer
Pavel Marin is a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. He serves as Member of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, Ambassador at The Promise, and Youth Board Member of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. Outside of his roles, he enjoys quality time with friends and family, while also keeping up to date with political news and world affairs.

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