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Pittsburgh school board to consider property tax hike, $56 million deficit in this year’s budget

Robert F. Bukaty

Though the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration originally proposed a budget without a tax increase, the board will consider a tax hike during its last meeting of the year.

The increase would amount to an additional $30 on every $100,000 of assessed property value. While the district’s $690 million budget includes a $56 million deficit, the tax increase would raise about $5 million more a year.

Some board members say money raised is a drop in the bucket and not worth putting more of a burden on taxpayers. Enrollment has declined by more than 4,000 students in the last five years, and for the first time in modern history, K-12 enrollment is below 20,000. The district operates 54 buildings, most are under capacity and the district has said that they’re costly to maintain.

Other board members argue that not increasing taxes ignores opportunities for students.

More than half of the district’s budget goes to salaries and benefits. Board member Pam Harbin noted recently that the “cuts” board members have called for would mean reducing staff and programs.

The tax hike wasn’t originally on the table. Chief financial officer Ron Joseph recently asked the board if they would like him to include a property tax increase in the budget. He said he wanted to gauge their interest rather than propose an increase. For the last two years, the budget department has had to adjust the budget at the last minute when board members and former administrators suggested increases.

Joseph has also warned the board that if something doesn’t change, the district will deplete its fund balance at some point in 2022 and won’t be able to pay its bills in 2023. The PPS fund balance is similar to a savings account that allows the district to maintain operations when revenues are short.

During the board’s monthly public hearing on Monday, James Fogarty the executive director of education advocacy group A+ Schools said that the current funding to the district’s schools is more equal than equitable.

“Adding funding to a system that privileges schools with low concentrations of poverty and [students] with disabilities will only exacerbate current inequities. Please do not pass a budget without making clear what the district will spend at each school until the public knows prior to the budget passing if the allocations are equitable. And if they aren’t, why not?”

Parent Karey Kluesner asked the board to vote “no” on a tax increase.

"There has been insufficient urgency from the district and the school board to reverse a budget shortfall that has been forecasted since at least 2017," Kluesner said.

She said that she agreed with board member Tracey Reed, who requested that the budget include proposed per-school funding to ensure equity.

“I would like to see schools with the poorest outcomes get more money to reverse those trends,” Kluesner said. “Also any staff reductions should not only be in-school staff but a combination of district administration and staff in schools.”

The board is set to vote on a budget Wednesday during its 6 p.m. meeting.