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Education

Pittsburgh Public Schools board approves 3% property tax increase and $668 million budget

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

City property owners will see a tax increase from Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2022. The board on Wednesday approved a 2022 budget of $668 million and approved a 3% property tax increase.

The proposed budget was $690 million but according to the district, its 2022 budget was reduced to $668 million.

The tax hike will amount to an additional $30 on every $100,000 of assessed property value. That increase will generate $5.3 million for the district next year.

Board members Kevin Carter, Pam Harbin, Jamie Piotrowski, Devon Taliaferro and Sylvia Wilson voted for the increase. Bill Gallagher, Tracey Reed, Gene Walker and Sala Udin voted against it. The budget was approved by the same votes.

Recently board members have weighed if the tax increase would be used in part to maintain staffing and how that would improve academic outcomes.

Gallagher and Udin were the only board members who have been endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to vote against the tax increase, though the union did not back Udin in his successful 2021 run.

Those who voted for the move have all been endorsed by the union.

Udin and the two other board members who voted to reject the tax increase were endorsed by a newly-formed Political Action Committee, Black Women For A Better Education, or BW4BE.

The budget proposed in November included a $56 million deficit. According to a district press release, the approved tax increase, "coupled with reductions to the budgetary reserve, charter tuition expenditures, and the use of ESSER funding to provide short-term stability, reduced the 2022 operating deficit from the preliminary budget of $56 million to the adopted $27 million."

Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph has warned the board that without significant changes, the district will exhaust its fund balance — similar to a savings account which the district has used to cover costs — by 2023.

Some school board members have pushed back on why a tax increase is necessary when the district's deficit is larger than the tax would generate. Gallager was the only board member of those who voted against the tax increase to speak about the budget during Wednesday's meeting.

Gallagher asked if the tax increase reflected in the budget would mean hiring more staff. Joseph said that it wouldn’t. He said that the genreate revenue from the increase would reduce what the district has to take from the fund balance.

"So it effectively reduces the deficit and gives us more time to solve our financial situation," he said. "And helps our financial situation long-term by adding to our revenue."

The board also approved a 1.2% property tax increase in 2019. Gallagher said that the district, "didn’t do any of the things that we said we were going to do," with that money.

"So I’m going to challenge the administration to come up with a plan to help us … start thinking about how we can be financially responsible and how we can be efficient in delivering an educational model that reaches all children,” Gallagher said.

During the Dec. 22 meeting board member Harbin noted that expenses outside of the district’s control have grown, including retirement costs, special education costs and charter school tuition sent to schools that educate Pittsburgh students. She noted that principals have recently asked the board for more resources.

“By saying that we aren’t going to raise our taxes this year because it’s not the easiest thing to do, politically easy for people … we need immediate solutions in our schools,” she said.

The district’s largest expense is salaries and benefits, and as Harbin noted, the district may have to cut positions.

“I don’t think [cutting staff is] a good strategy at this point. Our strategy should be to increase enrollment. And increasing enrollment, to me, is telling our students and families that ‘Yes, we’re going to invest in you. We’re going to make sure you have everything you need this year. And we’re going to look at next year and say what are we going to put into our schools to make sure that people want to go there?'” Harbin said.

Harbin then asked Joseph to explain the timeline for the tax increase. Joseph said that the administration first discussed a tax increase with the board in October during a budget workshop, though it wasn’t included in the budget proposed in November.

“I stated at that time (October) that we already basically prepared the preliminary budget … and that budget was prepared without a millage increase out of respect for the board so that the board would have proper input and the board wouldn’t be blindsided with an increase in there if there had not been consensus,” he said.

At a later meeting, the board agreed to vote on an increase during its legislative meeting.

During a Dec. 8 budget workshop, board member Tracey Reed questioned why hiring has increased as enrollment has declined.

She said that as the district thought about using COVID-19, ESSERS, relief funding to maintain personnel, it needed to think differently about how it will use its staff to improve academic outcomes. She noted that the district has not reduced its workforce to adjust for enrollment loss.

At the Dec. 8 meeting Reed said that she reluctantly agreed to use relief funding to maintain personnel but that administration had to be smart about using the personel in ways, "that are really smart to meet the social and emotional needs of kids in our buildings ... and we're not just trying to maintain personel." She said then the board will have to have the hard conversation about closing schools.

Board member Kevin Carter, who chairs the budget committee, responded at the Dec. 8 meeting by saying that some of Reed's points needed context. Carter said that he agreed that the district should be more strategic with how it prioritizes funding, but that it should be a priority for the next year. He said that reducing personel was hard to do, "particularly at this time of this year," Carter said at the Dec. 8 budget workshop.

"We've gone throughout the entirety of the budget process. But I do agree that these are things that should be very narrowly looked at and we should kind of laser in on these things to maintain the discussion," Carter said during the workshop. "But I do think when we're talking about eliminating staff, it's not a one-for-one scenario here. Because some schools may be losing more students than others. And there has to be a unique balancing act between who's in what buildings and who we can and can't eliminate in a sense."

This story was updated on 12/23/21 at 1:03 a.m.