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PPS eyes big changes to address equity, academic, and infrastructure challenges

People sit at brown tables arranged in a u shape on a black and brown checkerboard floor.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools board members and staff during a meeting on Feb. 26, 2024.

Pittsburgh public school officials presented school board members Wednesday night with a dozen recommendations that could reshape the district’s future.

The school board tasked district leaders with reviewing its physical capacity, academic outcomes, and financial forecast earlier this year.

Strategies on the table include consolidating buildings, changing the district’s feeder patterns and returning some schools to a traditional middle school model.

“Because they need their own space and time with advisory, with support services, with the spaces to really nurture that age group,” said PPS superintendent Wayne Walters.

Only seven of the district’s 54 schools strictly serve students in grades 6-8, according to the district’s website. 16 other buildings house both middle and high school levels or serve both elementary and middle schoolers.

Before even voting to entertain such a change, district officials will conduct several months of data analysis and community outreach. Administrators said they will present all of their recommendations — including any school closures — in August at the earliest.

A final vote, however, won’t come until December, after the district holds public hearings as required by the state.

Walters said that the district’s utilization plan is less about closing the least-full schools, and more about ensuring all of the district’s schools offer equitable opportunities for its students.

Student enrollment in at least one AP course ranges from 7% to 61% across the district, and schools with lower enrollments often offer fewer advanced courses.

Small high schools like Perry, UPrep Milliones and Westinghouse, for instance, each offer fewer than 10 AP courses, while Allderdice High School — where the student population exceeds capacity — offers close to 30.

“And so if we center our district around becoming a district of excellence, and not just pockets of success where people are either happy or unhappy, I think we have a better chance of providing a quality education and bringing those students [who have left] back,” Walters said.

50 of the district’s schools are in urgent need of major systems repairs

Administrators also said changing the district’s feeder patterns could better integrate district schools.

“Pittsburgh is a diverse city, but we’re also a segregated city,” Walters said. “And we know within our communities that we have segregated spaces, but we also have very diverse areas that we all have to congregate in. And I think our school environments should reflect that community at large.”

Many of the district’s recommendations broadly tackle action items officials have sought and failed to remedy over many years, from eliminating racial and disability-based disparities, to addressing inequities in the district’s magnet programs.

For that reason, the opening of the district’s application period for magnet school seats for the 2025-2026 school year will be postponed from October to January. The lottery for spots won’t be held until March, buying the district time as it determines the future of its magnet programs.

The district also intends to contract with a consultant to aid in the development, implementation and engagement around this work. A request for proposals was posted to the district’s website in March, and board members are expected to vote on a contract later this month.

The consultant will work with district officials to review academic and career exploration offerings at each of its schools, as well as the physical condition of its facilities.

Head of operations Michael McNamara told board members Wednesday that 50 of the district’s school buildings are in urgent need of major systems repairs. He also said 44 school buildings lack adequate educational accommodations, according to an assessment of each facility’s amenities.

McNamara said that assessment also revealed that many schools lack dedicated spaces for music, art, science and lunch.

According to the recommendations proposal, utilization rates for 28 of the 57 school buildings stand at or below 50%. The figure is calculated by dividing a school’s enrollment by its functional capacity, which McNamara said doesn’t take into account spaces outside of traditional classrooms.

School board president Gene Walker said that facility data for each individual school has not yet been shared with the board.

“That kind of data is going to be really critical for us to look at, but also the public so that you get that full view of what a building is capable of providing for our students, compared to what we want it to be able to provide,” Walker said.

Reviving the district’s financial forecast, however, requires outside partners

While the district’s 2024 deficit has improved significantly since the budget was adopted in December — from nearly $30 million to $14 million — officials still expect their reserves to dwindle over the coming years if corrective action is not taken.

According to chief financial officer Ron Joseph, the district is projected to deplete its fund balance by 2026, in part due to the barrage of property reassessment appeals approved by the county’s Board of Property Assessments and Appeals Review (BPAAR).

Reductions granted by BPAAR are projected to reduce the district’s revenue by 4%, or more than $4 million. While the district is appealing many of the county’s reassessment decisions, it could be liable to pay back $7.4 million in tax refunds — and that’s for the 2022 and 2023 tax years alone.

On top of that, $22.8 million in earned income tax revenue for 2023 will be diverted to the City of Pittsburgh. It’s a yearly requirement school board members are now looking for outside help to change.

The practice, which dates back to 2007, was intended to help the city avert financial collapse while in the state’s oversight program for financially struggling cities, also known as Act 47. But while the city shed its “financially distressed” status in 2018, board members say the tax diversion will remain unless lawmakers in Harrisburg intervene.

“The city owes the district that money at this point,” said school director Jamie Piotrowski. “And it is entirely unfair to our students, and totally detrimental. Again, it's not the entire reason that we're having this conversation, but it is a big piece of it.”

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.