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With declining enrollment and a looming deficit, Pittsburgh school leaders resume closure talks

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public school board members are relaunching conversations about closing some district buildings to cut costs.

PPS Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph told board members Monday that increasing charter tuition payments have driven up the district’s expenses — accounting for 85% of the $28 million operating deficit projected for the 2024 fiscal year.

While the district is projected to have enough in its fund balance to offset that deficit next year, Joseph said that without action, the district will be in the red come 2025.

“We really need to look at our footprint, the number of buildings we have, feeder pattern — those are things that all need to be considered because we are operating more buildings than we should,” he told the board during its business and finance committee meeting Monday.

The district has lost 25% of its student enrollment since the last time it made any consolidations to its school buildings, Joseph said. PPS currently has capacity for 40,000 students — double its enrollment during the 2022-2023 school year.

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It’s not the first time school board members have considered consolidating in recent years. The district proposed closing six school buildings — Woolslair K-5, Pittsburgh Montessori, Fulton, Miller K-5, Manchester and Morrow — over two years in February 2021, though board members tabled that discussion indefinitely.

At the time, board members said the district had not done enough to engage community members on its proposals. Board member Devon Taliaferro told administrators Monday that she would walk alongside the district in these conversations this time around, but she urged administrators to begin engaging the community on the issue now.

“If it does not include the voice of community, I’m not interested in having the conversation because those are the people that it’s going to impact and affect,” Taliaferro said.

At the same time, however, Taliaferro noted it’s a conversation the district cannot ignore, especially as families struggle to afford to live within the city limits.

While Superintendent Wayne Walters told PublicSource earlier this year that the district's design principles won’t necessarily speak to the closing of schools, they do prioritize an 80-90% utilization rate at all district school buildings. Such priorities will help to guide PPS’s next five-year strategic plan, which is in development.

Board member Gene Walker said conversations on the topic of “modernizing the district’s footprint” have begun in safety and operations committee meetings. Walters told the board he plans to wait until the new year to present its ideas to the board as a whole in a public meeting.

He attributed that to the timeline of notification and public hearings required by state law, which would preclude the district from taking any action on the matter before the board votes on the 2024 budget in December.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.