A PPS tax hike should be a non-starter

A PPS tax hike should be a non-starter

A majority faction of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education is toying with the idea of a property tax increase.

In a climate of extraordinarily high per-pupil spending and extraordinarily low academic achievement?

Talk about chutzpah. The district would better serve itself by putting away its toys and getting serious about belt-tightening and teaching.

This latest tax-hike talk comes on the heels of Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph’s latest red flag over revenue shortfalls. The district’s proposed 2022 school year budget — $690 million, a 2.8 percent increase – carries a ticking time bomb: a $56 million deficit.

And while the district is swimming in federal pandemic relief dollars, that money is prohibited from being used to fill budget holes. Joseph warns the district could run out of general fund money in 2022 without any intervention.

But most troubling is the verbiage of some board members who back a tax increase.

Consider the words of Devon Taliaferro, as reported by the Post-Gazette:

“I always come back to you invest your resources in what you value. When we say we value our children and our children’s academic success, I think we have to be able to invest in that.” 

But, again, the existing high per-pupil “investment” has not led to anything resembling “academic success” for far too many students. Throwing more money at a system that’s badly broken can only embolden continuing failures.

Then there’s board member Pam Harbin. She trots out the old shibboleth that PPS is being starved by nonprofits in the city – including hospitals and universities – that don’t pay their proverbial “fair share.”

“Morally, it is hard for me to say on the one hand, we’ve got these not-for-profits that are not paying their fair share of taxes, but we’re going to have to start talking about consolidating schools and closing school and creating churn where everything is going to be turned upside down,” she’s quoted in the P-G as saying.

But what’s “moral” about maintaining physical plant bloat in an era of continuing population declines and student flight? And what’s “moral” about what can only be described as an instructional blight that delivers not even mediocre educational outcomes?

It is only a minority foursome of the school board that is talking anything resembling sense about any proposed tax increase. Among them are Bill Gallagher and new board president Sala Udin.

The P-G notes that Gallagher says the district must show good faith to the public by working to cut expenses before he would be willing to put more of a burden on district taxpayers. 

Exactly.

And Udin, adds the P-G, says the district has academic problems and other issues that make it hard to sell a tax increase to the public. 

“It’s difficult for me to talk about a tax increase when we at the same time have to complain about 80 percent of our kids are not able to read by the end of the third grade.”

Eighty percent.

Yet a board majority is toying with the audacity of a tax increase. That’s simply shameful.

It’s waaaaay past time for the Pittsburgh school board to stop toying with taxpayers and students and to get serious about fiscal prudence and delivering on academic fundamentals.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).