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PA Auditor General to Scrutinize Pittsburgh Public Schools

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale was in Pittsburgh with Mayor Bill Peduto on Monday to announce an upcoming audit of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

DePasquale said the audit is part of a larger statewide effort based on a new three-tiered system that ranks schools based on financial risk.

“We are starting our first wave of high risk audits, and Pittsburgh is our first high risk audit for the Western part of the state,” DePasquale said. “That’s not just because of the size of the city, but simply the financial challenges that the city school district is facing.”

Peduto said he has concerns about PPS’s solvency, and that without some serious changes, the district could be bankrupt within two years.

“This is not about casting blame for past decisions. This is not about throwing stones,” said DePasquale. “There may be items in the report that may point out past mistakes, and there may be things that will point out good decisions that were made. The goal of the audit is to fix the problem.”

Part of the problem, according to DePasquale, has been caused by Gov. Tom Corbett’s elimination of charter school reimbursement funding for school districts in 2011.

The total budget for PPS has decreased from $540.9 million in 2011 to $524.3 million in 2013, and charter school tuition payments have increased from $38.9 million to $52.7 million over the same time period. That represents a jump from 7.2 percent of the total PPS budget to more than 10 percent in just two years.

DePasquale said this funding structure has amounted to the state’s failure to fulfill its obligations to Pennsylvania’s children, as spelled out in the state constitution.

“It says it is the responsibility of the General Assembly to provide for a thorough and efficient public school system. That’s what it says,” said DePasquale. “This is a state responsibility that right now in my view is not being met.”

DePasquale said the audit will look not only at PPS’s financial situation, but will also assess student performance, test scores, safety and school nutrition.

Late last year, Pittsburgh City Council vowed to become more involved in the school system, passing a will of council resolution calling for a moratorium on school closures. Both council and the Mayor have said they want to work together with the PPS Board of Directors to address the district’s problems.

“I just want to be able, hopefully, to have a series of recommendations … that are just based off pure data,” said Peduto. “Recommendations on how much we’re spending for child, where we could be able to do better, where we need to invest more, where there’s a proven ability to get better results.”

However, without any real power to mandate changes in PPS, Peduto may find it difficult to actually implement any recommendations that come out of the audit.

Peduto has said he wants to attract 20,000 new residents to the city of Pittsburgh in the next decade, but DePasquale said that goal is unattainable without a healthy school district.

“You’ll do anything for your kids, including leave a city you love if you don’t think they’re going to get a good education,” said DePasquale. “If parents don’t think their kids are going to get a good education, they’re going to put a for sale sign up. Let alone trying to attract new residents in. That’s just the reality.”

DePasquale said he expects the audit to take no longer than a year, but that he is not giving his team a deadline as he’d rather have a thorough audit rather than a speedy one.

Four other school districts will be included in the first wave of high risk audits: Indiana Area School District, Harrisburg School District and Easton Area School District. DePasquale said he plans to audit the Pennsylvania Department of Education as well.