On the Whole, Would We Rather Be Philadelphia?
School closings, teacher contract concessions, and "difficult choices", many of them related to the loss of students to charter schools and a failure to rightsize operations. Oh, and a $300 million borrowing just to keep the schools operating. And that is with a School Reform Commission running the show for the Philadelphia School District. This year the District will spend $2.5 billion on educating 146,000 K-12 students, and just under half of that budget comes from the state.
The fiscal situation in Philly is pointed out, not only for the implications it has on statewide taxpayers, but because one member of the state’s second largest district, Pittsburgh, recently opined that "bigger must be better" and suggested that there be a merger of the 43 districts in Allegheny County since "We’re working on an agrarian model that’s so out of date it’s not funny." A consolidated Allegheny County district would have roughly the same enrollment as Philadelphia’s school district, based on calculations of PA Department of Education data.
Unless the state were to just consolidate the districts in Allegheny County, which is doubtful since school districts are not governed according to county borders, or the board member goes back to the Nordenberg report that suggested consolidating only the County and the City and leaving the other municipalities and the school districts in the County alone and amends it to gain some interest nearly five years later, the cast a wider net approach so we can spread financial problems over a larger area is a non-starter.
There has been one merged district, Central Valley, in the last five years and that came as a voluntary arrangement. It was upheld as a model when the previous gubernatorial administration pushed the idea of cutting the number of districts from 500 to 100 in order to reduce "back office" costs and improve educational offerings. But our work found that the largest district in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, had more "non-teachers" per 1000 students than a sample of other districts in the County, the exact opposite situation one would expect to see.
Pennsylvania has largely trended the way the U.S. has with the number of school districts: much of the consolidation came in the 1950s and 1960s; by 1972, according to the Census of Local Governments, the significant drops in numbers of districts had stopped and this year the totals in PA and the country are slightly smaller than where they were nearly four decades ago.