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Pittsburgh Schools Unlikely to Follow Path of Troubled Philadelphia School District

As state lawmakers continue to work with Philadelphia officials on getting school to start on time this year, Pittsburgh Public Schools are slated to start on time, and with no layoffs. Philadelphia's school system faces a $81 million budget gap, and officials there say it could delay the start of the year and lead to layoffs and larger class sizes.

Pittsburgh School Board President Thomas Sumpter said the schools are not in crisis mode, but the system does face challenges.

“It’s not so much the budget as the financial wherewithal that confronts the district as far as accelerated costs for pensions, other costs going up and trying to make sure we have enough cash on hand in reserve, and trying to find where we can cut cost in all areas, looking at any possible way to reduce expenditures,” Sumpter said.

Philadelphia operates 274 public schools and 85 charter schools and employs more than 16,800 people. It’s the eighth largest school district in the nation and the largest in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, the state’s second largest district, operates 54 schools and has about 3,900 employees.

The 2014 Pittsburgh Public Schools budget includes an operating deficit of $14.39 million, and proposes reducing costs by merging or reconfiguring five to 10 schools by the 2015-16 school year, in addition to cutting administrative personnel and delaying technology purchases.

While lawmakers look to raise the Philadelphia cigarette tax to raise money for schools there, officials in Pittsburgh are looking at other options – such as furloughs or selling empty buildings. Sumpter said tax increases are also an option, but an unlikely one.

“More could be done, but we’d hate to go that route as far as raising taxes,” he said. “We don’t want to overburden the tax payer with the brunt of raising taxes to compensate for costs going up.”

Sumpter said besides size, another big difference between Philadelphia schools and Pittsburgh schools is foundation support and resources such as the Pittsburgh Promise.

“Other districts aren’t similarly situated to have those resources in place,” Sumpter said. “We’re on our way to building a better school district, or a first-class school district in terms of competing against school districts around the country and the world.”

State lawmakers are currently considering a proposal to authorize Philadelphia to levy a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to generate more than $80 million a year for schools. It has won preliminary votes in both houses. But in-fighting within the GOP majority over the bill's other provisions has prevented it from being passed and sent to Gov. Tom Corbett, who supports the Philadelphia tax authorization.

School district officials have said they will begin sending out about 1,300 layoff notices by Aug. 15 and that city schools will not reopen as scheduled on Sept. 8 unless the measure is passed.