Are Consultants Finally Seeing the Light?

Are Consultants Finally Seeing the Light?

In early 2013, the Pittsburgh Public Schools announced it was going to use a $1.2 million foundation grant to hire consultants who would help steer the District through a "large scale visioning process" leading to a strategic plan to be delivered to the Commonwealth by 2014. Some of the work completed by the consultants was reported in a newspaper article and, lo and behold, the consultants found that the District spends more per-pupil than comparable districts in the state (the article did not identify the other districts, and the findings are not on the District website) by a margin of $6,800.

We have written much over the years about per-pupil spending in the Pittsburgh Public Schools so the findings should not be much of a surprise. Based on the statement of the District’s Superintendent ("the board has to have the facts on the table") does this mark a turning point in how blunt consultants working with the District will be?

Consider that in 2005 an audit found that, when examined against various school districts in the northeast and Midwest U.S. consultant data revealed the Pittsburgh Public Schools spent 20-45% more per pupil and spent less than half of their budget on administration and instruction (meaning they spent money on other expenditures) and yet could only recommend closing schools (something that was being planned on at the time) and obtaining savings that would have amounted to less than 5% of the budget. Much was left unanswered.

A year later the Council of Great City Schools came to the Steel City and presented its own set of overly general recommendations and they too left out the critical measurement of per-pupil spending when looking at districts from Chicago to Boston to Orlando. The resulting 59% gap between Pittsburgh and the other cities would have led a consultant to recommend steep expenditure reductions until the gap was closed.

But here we are in 2013 with a new set of consultants still finding a gap in per-pupil spending and there is still a gap in time before recommendations will be delivered and then, possibly, implemented. The District has said it would like to "…cut that [$6,800] gap by $2,000 a student" (the consultants’ adjusted per-pupil amount for Pittsburgh was $18,400 for 2011-12) but based on the 2013 budget ($521.8 million) and the enrollment posted on the District’s fact page (26.4k) the resulting per-pupil amount is closer to $19,718. A decrease of $2,000 per pupil means the budget target would have to be $448 million (if enrollment holds steady) or enrollment needs to grow to 30,000 if the budget stays flat to arrive at per-pupil spending closer to $17,000. And then what? Does the District want to drive spending down past that or make it a one year goal to serve as a baseline for future increases?