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City school board narrowly approves nearly $680 million budget with no tax increase

Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA

In a five-to-four vote on Wednesday night, members of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board approved a $678.3 million budget that prioritizes maintaining current staffing and buildings.

Board members did not discuss the budget prior to the vote on Wednesday; they previously held three workshops to discuss the plan at length. Two board members, though, indicated last week that they did not support a budget that carried a deficit.

The $9 million deficit for this year — while smaller than the $27 million deficit last year — was unnecessary, according to board member Gene Walker. He said it is the responsibility of the board to have the hard conversations necessary to balance the budget.

“I would hope and expect that conversations start [at the] beginning of the year … to think about what is it going to take to get our spending in line and get our school footprint in line with enrollment so we have a district that has a chance of surviving through the next decade or longer,” he said.

Walker voted down the budget along with board members Tracey Reed, Jamie Piotrowski and Kevin Carter. Walker also asked if it would make sense to hold off on capital projects until the district makes decisions about the future of its buildings.

“So that we don’t start to spend millions of dollars on plans and projects for schools that may not be a part of this district in a year or two,” he said.

The average age of a Pittsburgh Public School is 89 years, with the oldest at 115 years. Its 58 buildings are at 57 percent capacity. Chief Operations Officer Mike McNamara said last week that the capital projects planned for the next year will keep schools operational.

“When you look at the projects, they are mostly major maintenance-type projects to keep the buildings open and safe and dry and heated … knowing that we are going to continue on hopefully with conversations about modernizing our footprint,” he said of the district’s buildings.

Carter said he agreed, although he added that at no time during his nearly eight years on the board did the district spend money on unnecessary capital projects. He said the board has discussed changes to the district’s footprint for four years but the hard conversations are often “kicked down the road.”

“Here we had an opportunity to look at our budget and either eliminate expenses or look at ways to increase our revenue … and we’ve done nothing [of] the sort over four years. We talk about it, and then we figure out someway to pad the budget with one-time money like [COVID-19 relief money] or take the money out of our fund-balance reserve, all of which are unsustainable sources of funding,” he said.

Carter recently announced that he would not seek re-election after two terms on the board. He is running instead for City Controller.

District leaders during the past two administrations have said that the district’s budget is no longer sustainable while expenses outside of its control continue to grow, including payments to charter schools that educate city students and costs associated with employee retirements.

Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph said his office can propose cuts to only about 40 percent of the budget. One of the few areas of long-term financial planning the district has control of is the capital plan.

School safety

Most district departments will see increases in spending under the 2023 budget, including funding for its security aides and police officers. Board members Pam Harbin and Devon Taliaferro voiced concern about those increases during budget workshops during the past two months.

Taliaferro said that she wants the district to get to a point where it’s not focused on hiring more police officers or sending security aides to the police academy but rather on hiring staff to support the district’s restorative-practice work. The district received a large federal grant a few years ago to train schools to prioritize student well-being and find the root causes of disruptive behaviors.

“Conflict-resolution is an issue. Students don’t know how to deal with conflict in this district,” she said. “How do we have the proper staff that support those types of things so it doesn’t get to an escalated level where you need school police officers to intervene?”

Board member Pam Harbin noted during a budget workshop that the district should focus on paying security officers more because at present their only option to make more money is to become a police officer instead.

“I think what we should be encouraging is paying our school security aides the right amount of money because they’re the ones that are mostly in our buildings, and they’re not giving citations and arrests,” she said.

During a public hearing on the budget, Angel Gober said she wants the district to divest from school safety personnel and hire full-time “school climate coordinators” to implement restorative justice programs throughout the district. Gober is the executive director of 412 Justice, a group focused on educational justice issues, among other things,

“We can’t continue to fund ineffective and harmful policing practices in schools while failing to fund restorative justice, community schools expansion and student support services. It expresses value in controlling and criminalizing Black and brown young people instead of supporting them,” she said.

Remembering Franco

Also during the meeting, board members and district staff reflected on the impact that late Pittsburgh Steelers player Franco Harris had on students. Harris served on the board of The Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program for 15 years and was its chair when he died Tuesday night.

Board President Sala Udin and Superintendent Wayne Walters both said they had planned to have lunch with Harris in the new year to discuss their work to support Pittsburgh students.

“Whenever there was a need, Franco showed up,” said board member Sylvia Wilson. “He would be at any celebration or just be a good neighbor.”

Board member Walker, who worked for the Promise for nearly a decade, remarked that Harris genuinely cared for students and was his authentic self both in public and private.

“He loved our kids and our promise. He celebrated them in their successes, encouraged them in their struggles, and even danced with them in their job,” said Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril in a statement.