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PPS Weighs Property Tax Increase To Help Make Up For Budget Shortfall

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

For the first time in five years, the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration has recommended the board increase its property tax rate as the district faces an operating deficit of $27.3 million.

With fewer students, some residents and one board member have questioned the need for a tax increase. District leaders say it needs additional funding to make up for spending more on teacher salaries, retirement costs and charter school payments.

The city has the lowest rate in Allegheny County at 9.84. Most suburban districts range from 12 to 31 mils.

The board will vote Wednesday night on a proposed $665.6 million budget, which includes raising the city of Pittsburgh’s millage to 10.07. For a property valued at $100,000, an owner could expect to pay an additional $23.

The proposed 2020 budget is $15.6 million higher than last year’s.

A majority of the 13 speakers at the board’s monthly public hearing Monday said they support the hike as a necessary step toward balancing a future budget.

Two speakers spoke out against the increase. Michele Traficante of Brookline said she didn’t think an increase would lead to safer schools or better academic outcomes. She blamed families for what she called a lack of commitment to education.

“A tax increase will do more damage as property tax paying families will leave the city. Following the parks tax increase, fueled by Mayor [Bill] Peduto, you cannot go back to the same people and continue to deplete their financial resources.”

While the mayor supported the referendum, it was the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy that funded and advocated for the measure. Traficante questioned the district’s need for more money as enrollment continues to decline and said higher taxes would “force families to leave the district.”

Angel Gober, the western Pennsylvania director of activist group One PA, said that logic is flawed as Pittsburgh has the lowest school district property tax in the county.

“Pittsburghers claim ‘oh I’ll move out of the city.’ There is nowhere they can actually move [in the county] where [school property] taxes are less,” she said.

She blames the district’s financial problems on charter schools. The district sends money from the state to charter schools that teach Pittsburgh students. That accounts for 15 percent of the proposed budget, about $97 million. At the hearing she encouraged the board to lobby for more funding in Harrisburg.

“The charter school people are really good at it. And if we’re not going to fight them on their applications and they can just appeal board we need an alternative. We need a plan B,” she said.

The state Charter School Appeal Board has the power to reverse school district decisions on charter school applications, and does so frequently.

“If we don’t increase taxes and this board decides to start having a conversation about closing schools, I guarantee you will make me have all gray hairs because I will turn out the entire city of Pittsburgh if you start talking about closing schools in black neighborhoods,” Gober said.

Her organization has recommended the district eliminate its school police department.

“If we’re not going to raise taxes, we’re not going to think about other revenues, then we need to also consider divesting from over-policing our students and over-criminalizing our students,” she said.

Allison Patterson, a PPS parent, noted Monday that charter costs grow faster than enrollment in the city.

“The issue in front of you is whether or not you will close public schools to account for increases over which we have no control,” she said.

Only one board member has openly said he does not support the increase. In a Post-Gazette Op-Ed this week, Sala Udin, who represents District 3 including the Hill District, said the district has not explained why more money is needed for fewer students or how the tax increase will help improve academic achievement.

“The Pittsburgh Public Schools administration owes the board and the taxpayers a justification for why we should support an increased budget and increased tax burden in the face of dwindling student enrollment and academic failure,” he wrote.

The board meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the administrative building in Oakland.