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City School District’s Kindergarten Class Shrank By 21 Percent; PPS To Propose Tax Increase

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

There are about 400 fewer kindergarten students attending Pittsburgh Public Schools this year compared to last and district administrators say they don’t know why.

“We don’t actually know who those children are. We just know that there are less this year and they did not enroll,” said Ted Dwyer the district’s Chief Accountability Officer.

Statewide, public schools reported a 4 percent decline in kindergarten enrollment. In Pennsylvania families don’t have to enroll their children in a school until they are 6 years old.

Board member Pam Harbin, who represents East End neighborhoods including Squirrel Hill and parts of Oakland and Shadyside, asked administrators this week if parents had held their students back a year due to the pandemic. Dwyer said that could be possible, but the district does not know.

Harbin requested that school leaders reach out to families. She said she does not want to plan a budget that assumes those students will or will not return to the district.

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Credit Pittsburgh Public Schools
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Overall, statewide public school enrollment dropped by about 1.7 percent, or about 30,000 students, according to new state data analyzed by Keystone Crossroads, a WESA partner. PPS enrolled about 800 fewer students according to data submitted to the state. The state does warn that this is preliminary data and could fluctuate.

At the same time, cyber charter school enrollment grew by about 59 percent with nearly 23,000 more students enrolling this year. 

A decline in enrollment won’t impact Pittsburgh Public Schools’ state funding for a few years. Allocations are calculated based on three years of enrollment data.

Other growing costs like charter school payments, retirement costs and special education are outpacing revenues, according to Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph.

He told the board this week that the administration will propose a 2.6 percent tax increase during the Dec. 16 meeting when the board is scheduled to vote on a nearly $670 million budget. The proposed increase is the most that the district can approve without a state waiver or a ballot referendum.

Property owners in the city currently pay $950 for every $100,000 of assessed value. The increase, if approved, would amount to another $26.

Initially the district proposed a budget without a tax increase. Joseph has said that the district will need to make tough cuts including workforce reductions and school closures. It faces a $32 million deficit. In previous years the district has made up for its deficit with a rainy day fund, but that fund is dwindling.

“We feel that given our financial situation, it is imperative that we maximize the amount of revenue that we can generate from year to year. A tax increase is a way to do so,” Joseph said Wednesday.

A PPS spokesperson said Joseph and Superintendent Anthony Hamlet were unavailable to comment on this story.

Harbin said she supported a tax increase even as she acknowledged that many families are suffering. But she said the district needs more money to serve students.

“There’s not a lot of fat in the budget,” she told the board Wednesday. 

Board members Sala Udin and Bill Gallagher disagreed. The two suggested cost-saving measures and going through the budget with a “scalpel.”

Gallagher who represents southern parts of the city including Brookline, Beechview and Banksville, said he would not support a tax increase until moratoriums on travel and out-of-school professional development.

“You break it down so [the increase] would be so much per household. Then every time I make a suggestion about asking for us to look for different sources of income or revenue, you say ‘oh it’s not that much money’,” Gallagher said Wednesday.

The board also debated a tax increase last year. The district proposed a 2.3 percent increase. The board settled on a 1.1 percent hike. 

The public has one more opportunity to comment on the budget during a public hearing Monday. The board will vote on a budget Wednesday. Both meetings can be streamed at pghschools.org.