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Penn Hills Residents Raise Concerns For Community As District Faces $172 Million Debt

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Penn Hills School Board President Erin Vecchio address Auditor General DePasquale during a town hall meeting about the financially struggling district.

Longtime Penn Hills resident Eugene Berry said he recently advised his daughter and son-in-law to not buy a home in the Penn Hills School District.

He told a room full of more than 200 other community members that he was concerned about the impact the school district’s financial condition would have on the municipality.

“This is an issue of community,” he said. “And community is not going to be built with the issues that we are dealing with today.”

The residents gathered during a town hall meeting just weeks after an Allegheny County Grand Jury report was released detailing the district’s “catastrophic financial condition.” That report built on a 2016 audit of the school district from Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The district east of Pittsburgh serves 3,400 students.

DePasquale hosted the forum at the Boyce Campus of the Community College of Allegheny County in Monroeville. Many residents asked that future events be held in Penn Hills.

DePasquale’s audit found a lack of oversight and mismanagement as the district went into deep debt after building a new high school and consolidating several elementary schools a decade ago. The debt is currently $172 million, according to the grand jury report.

The grand jury report released this month did not recommend criminal charges for those involved in decision-making at the time, something many speakers took issue with Thursday.

The report stated that the financial condition is the result of years of poor leadership, “inept decisions made to promote personal interests and ineffective oversight by those entrusted to serve the interests and ineffective oversight by those entrusted to serve the interests of the students of taxpayers of Penn Hills.”

The reported stated that it is unclear how the suburban district will continue to operate, let alone recover.

Resident Meryl Thomas said she is hopeful that there is potential for financial forgiveness or state oversight.

“I’m not saying they’re going to wipe the slate clean, but at least give us a fighting chance. Penn Hills is a community of people that care who want to see us survive,” she said.

The current Penn Hills School board sent a letter to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday, asking for another investigation. The letter calls the report by the Allegheny County grand jury a “whitewash of any wrongdoing by those individuals involved.”

“We as members of the Board of Directors of Penn Hills School District believe that there was criminality involved in the gross mismanagement of the District and its finances over the past nine years,” the letter states. “We believe that the grand jury report offers nothing more than a social commentary on the affairs of the Penn Hills School District. It offers no meaningful insight into what happened to the finances of the School District, nor does the report offer any real insight on who was responsible for the mismanagement of the School District finances.”

Last month the state put the district in financial recovery status, which means a financial recovery officer is assigned to follow through with a plan. The district has furloughed teachers, frozen some staff salaries, and eliminated administrative positions and educational programs.

The board is also considering a real estate tax hike of more than 6 percent.