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Education

Potential Wilkinsburg annexation leaves unanswered questions for both school districts

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA
A hallway in Wilkinsburg High School during its last week of operation in 2016.

The Wilkinsburg School Board wants to speak with the Pittsburgh Public Schools board about how the annexation of the borough would affect both entities.

As Pittsburgh City and Wilkinsburg Borough Councils weigh the benefits of absorbing the borough into the city, both school districts say they have been largely left out of that conversation.

The two districts entered a partnership in 2015, and now the city schools educate Wilkinsburg middle and high school students. The agreement was recently extended through the 2026-27 school year. But neither board has taken a position on the potential merger, as their members say they need more information.

The Wilkinsburg School Board recently approved a resolution to begin talks with PPS. According to the resolution, the move would most affect the Wilkinsburg district, and the borough council’s commentary has been “negative and seeks to deprive the electorate of the right to make its wishes known through referendum.”

“Whereas in terms of budget, property, number of employees, commitment to public service and respecting the wishes of the electorate, the School Board does not wish to be a passive element of annexation discussions but rather wishes to engage any and all appropriate parties to assess the best path forward,” the resolution states.

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation — a leading proponent of the annexation effort — recently hired PFM, a financial consulting group, to independently analyze the district and Pittsburgh Public’s finances to determine the impact of annexation. School board President Ed Donovan said that report should be made available by the end of January.

The borough and city already share other services, such as trash collection and firefighting. The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation maintains annexation would bring in more money for the City of Pittsburgh and would provide more opportunities for Wilkinsburg residents.

Pittsburgh Public Schools’ solicitor Ira Weiss spoke to City Council, but so far that has been the only public communication from the district.

One outstanding issue is labor contracts. Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg teachers and staff are represented by different unions.

“It is very unclear at this point exactly how that will be resolved. Because this isn’t an agreement, it’s a takeover,” Weiss said.

Additionally, PPS would inherit three school buildings in various conditions as well as the Wilkinsburg district's debt, which is reportedly $27 million.

Also, public schools in Pennsylvania are required to transport students attending parochial and charter schools up to 10 miles outside of the city’s boundaries. Thus, if the line is drawn around Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh would be responsible for transporting students nearly to Murrysville.

“That means students within the city now and within Wilkinsburg who currently attend those schools beyond 10 miles will have a right to transportation," Weiss said.

"Now, the transportation in the school district is about $6 million a year. It’s a huge administrative issue with respect to drivers and things like that. This will undoubtedly greatly amplify that problem,” he said.

Transportation has been an ongoing issue for districts but especially so this year. Pittsburgh’s school year started a week late because it was short on bus drivers. It’s since adjusted schedules so that students have district-provided transportation, but that means that some students are routinely late to school.

Finally, Weiss notes that the Pittsburgh district would have to undergo another reapportionment process, which it’s only now finishing up.

Ultimately, the decision will be made by Pittsburgh City Council, and state municipal laws don’t require a say from city residents.

“These are serious, complicated issues that could end up before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board or in court. These are things that I hope City Council weighs in making its decision about whether to approve this referendum,” Weiss said.

Corrected: January 4, 2022 at 12:05 PM EST
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation recently hired PFM, a financial consulting group, to independently analyze the district and Pittsburgh Public’s finances to determine the impact of annexation. The story initially misidentified the entity that commissioned the report.