Wilkinsburg is at a crossroads. It lost population in the 2010s while the county grew and the borough has some of the steepest property taxes in the area. An effort to merge the borough into the city of Pittsburgh earlier this year has been relaunched, with community meetings scheduled for residents to discuss the transformational decision.

The borough of about 14,300 people will also get a new mayor in January, bringing new leadership just months before a merger question could reach the ballot. Dontae Comans, a 36-year-old Wilkinsburg School District board member, won the Democratic primary for mayor in May and is running unopposed on Nov. 2.

Marita Garrett, the incumbent mayor who strongly endorsed the merger drive and was censured by council in January, chose not to run for a second four-year term. Comans is taking a more neutral stance on the merger proposition for now, calling for an open, informed process. 

While the borough’s government structure gives more power to the council than the mayor, the nine-member council will have four new members sworn in when Comans takes office in January. 

The merger question isn’t the only issue for borough leaders to contend with. A school district seeing more and more children leaving for charter schools, a lack of business investment in the borough and blighted and abandoned houses are just a few of the challenges that spurred the merger talk.

With Garrett not running again, Comans said he saw an opportunity to help unite the community. 

“I’m big on energy,” Comans said. “I put out a lot of good energy and I just feel like I could bring all three wards together so we can try to get some progress going.”

Rtvsrece spoke to Comans about what he wants for his community as the merger talks continue, why he ran for mayor and more. The conversation was lightly edited for brevity.

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What does Wilkinsburg mean to you?

Wilkinsburg to me is a beautiful community of people that have a lot of great things going. We're not the city, but I feel like we have a laid-back feel. I feel there's a sense of pride here that everyone within Wilkinsburg has. We just want to get everyone on the outside to see how beautiful the people and the neighborhood is.

We ​​get overshadowed by what may be portrayed as far as the school district or things going on in the community. I think it's just a great center. It's the sixth largest Black neighborhood in Pennsylvania and I'm proud that it’s very diverse.

We have grocery stores for different ethnic backgrounds. Caribbean markets, Asian markets, we have African markets. They all sell their native food. I believe we’re just a nice blend. A nice gumbo, would you say, Wilkinsburg is. And I’m just excited to see it get bigger.

Wilkinsburg is 58% Black, according to the 2020 Census. But its Black population dropped even faster than its overall population in the 2010s. According to the Census, the borough shrank by 10% from 2010 to 2020, while its Black population fell by 21%.

What has been the most difficult part of being on the school board?

The hardest thing about being on the school board is just letting the neighborhood know the value of our education that we're giving out now. The first hurdle we really had was the pandemic, but we attacked that and we did an amazing job with that, with getting all the students the computer they needed and the help they needed. 

It seems like everything just goes back to that — just getting people to see the value. We do have a lot of students that go to charter schools. The best thing we're trying to do is just to get the students back into our schools so that it'll be a less burden for the community. It's pretty pricey to send them [to charter schools]. 

I know you asked about what the hurdles were, but we’ve got a lot of good things going on right now. We added two Spanish teachers so now we're giving the ability to have Spanish all through grade school ... And that helps when they want to get into the magnet program as well because one of the requirements is you do have to have a language for at least a year.

Wilkinsburg’s public school students in grades 7-12 attend Pittsburgh Public Schools through a partnership that began in 2016. Wilkinsburg schools have an enrollment of 483 students, and 408 borough children attend charter schools, according to figures reported to the state.

Why do you think the school district was able to handle the pandemic better than some other districts in the region?

We had great leadership. [Former Superintendent Linda Iverson] had a plan and, as a board, we helped her execute it and get everything done. With the low amount of students we had, we were able to get a handle on that. We were not in dire straits and we were able to afford to get things ordered.

Iverson left for another job out of state last spring and was succeeded by interim Superintendent Joe Maluchnik, who was previously the principal of the district’s Turner Intermediate School.

You knew I would ask you about the merger with Pittsburgh. What’s your position on it?

I can’t say I’m for or against anything. I just know that I'm against misinformation. It should lead with the facts and let the people decide if they want to maintain a borough or if they want to be annexed. The way that it was trying to be put out there [this summer] was just a rush. It should not go like that. That’s like signing a contract over and hoping for the best afterwards. We should just lead with the facts. Some people are just putting out there, let’s do this to lower taxes, when in fact, the school district has the highest tax, so a merger borough-wise wouldn’t lower the taxes of the people complaining about the housing taxes.

Dontae Comans and his young daughter in Wilkinsburg.
Dontae Comans with his daughter, Bellamy, in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Rtvsrece)

As far as saying the taxes would go down, that just wasn’t true because [the school districts] are an entirely separate merger. They should have said that at the beginning. 

(At a community meeting Oct. 19, the pro-merger Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation [WCDC] said they believe a merger would include the school district by default, a point disputed by merger opponents.)

We’re already in the middle of East Hills and Homewood. How could we think that becoming part of the city would just fix anything? There’s no magic wand that could fix anything like that. So I just believe in giving facts over feelings.

We have to not let a few people say what everyone wants. We have to really get everyone's opinion, get everyone out there, just let them know this is going on. These are the facts. How do you feel about this? That's why I believe that having open meetings is important, so we can listen to not just the people who own million-dollar homes, but the people who pay $1,200 a month in rent or who're living in public housing. We need everyone’s opinion on board before we go and force something and hope for the best.

The previous merger drive, backed by the WCDC, was launched in late May. While supporters collected the requisite number of signatures, there was hesitance among some Pittsburgh City Council members (whose stamp of approval is required for the merger to proceed) to make a decision at the pace needed to get the measure on the November ballot. The WCDC pulled their petition in July and recently announced plans for a new petition, along with public meetings and a longer process with city council, leading potentially to a referendum vote in May 2022. 

Are you happy with the job Garrett did as mayor? What would you do differently?

I think she did a good job. There's people who look at a Wilkinsburg mayor and think that they would have a lot more power than they do, but the council really runs everything. The real question is, ‘Are people happy with the way council is doing things?’ I can’t say anything bad about her. I just know I have to lead with love and bring the whole community together. I just have to worry about myself. But I don’t think she did a bad job at all.

Boroughs in Pennsylvania use a “weak mayor, strong council” form of government, in which the council is charged with budgeting, lawmaking and appointing a borough manager. The mayor is the only official elected borough-wide (councilors are elected by ward) and can vote to break a tie in council. Both the council and the mayor are part-time positions.

How do you get people to come out and vote in municipal elections, which historically have low turnout?

These are the people that directly have impact on you. I believe in voting for the president, but I believe it’s way more important to vote for the school board and council. If you live in that area, they’re directly in charge of what goes on. A lot of things can be done a lot easier in a borough than in a big city. If you want something to happen, you get the right people in there. If you’re complaining about where you’re at, it’s up to you.

It’s up to these candidates also to get out there and knock on every door and meet the community. It’s more important for them to do that. If someone doesn’t know you’re running, there’s not too much hope that they’ll come out and vote. We have to get people excited to vote, instead of just hoping that your election is with the president so everyone’s out. It’s about getting the whole community to be super voters.

Charlie Wolfson is Rtvsrece's local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@rtvsrece.com and on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was made possible with financial support through the American Press Institute.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for Rtvsrece, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Charlie aims his coverage at the intersection of policy and politics,...