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Education

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials ponder staff reductions, consolidations to address budget deficit

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WITF

The state’s second-largest school district is on track to deplete its reserves by 2023 as it continues to lose enrollment and charter school costs grow.

Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph told the Pittsburgh Public Schools board Monday night that he projects the district will be short about $44 million this budget cycle. That comes as little surprise: The board approved a budget last year with a $39.5 million deficit, after rejecting a proposed property tax hike and instead telling the administration to make cuts.

Joseph said that the district can no longer tap its fund balance when it comes up short.

In the long term, he recommended the board advocate for charter school funding reform, but acknowledged that doing so was an uphill climb in Harrisburg.

“We know that this has been a topic for many years but has seen little success in the legislature,” Joseph said. “Something that we need to continually advocate for change on is the charter funding.”

Joseph also suggested lobbying the state to divert tax dollars back to the district that was given to the City of Pittsburgh when it was in financial distress. In the past, that proposal has created tension between city and district officials.

Joseph also proposed the district invest in strategies to increase student enrollment and bring students back who have left for charter schools. He did not detail strategies, though. He recommended that the district use up to $33 million in federal COVID relief funding, which he said would help to stabilize the district and prevent layoffs in the 2022-23 school year.

But Joseph said the relief dollars won’t solve the district’s issue of aging infrastructure and a budget that limits the needed building renovations.

Layoffs are on the table, he said, though he added, “If we are greatly decreasing our workforce, that might not signal to the public that we are a district that is attractive."

Another option involves raising taxes. The district has the authority to increase the property tax rate by up to 3%, which Joseph says would generate an additional $5.3 million annually.

Now that Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters has stepped in, his administration will have to figure out how to balance the budget. He told WESA’s the Confluence Tuesday that while he hasn’t yet had the chance to speak to board members about their priorities, he knows there are tough decisions ahead.

“We need to evaluate and identify additional workforce reductions," he said. "We need to look at potentially increasing the [property tax] rate and really think about our annual capital improvement budget and reducing that. And also looking at our feeder patterns and examining school consolidation as potential short term action steps."

The public is invited to weigh in on the budget during three budget public hearings, which are slated for Oct. 25, Nov. 22 and Dec. 20. The board is set to vote on a proposed budget Dec. 22 — shortly after a new board is sworn in.

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