PPS should restart its building closure plan this year

February 1 will mark two years since Pittsburgh Public Schools’ (PPS) board of directors tabled a resolution to close six school buildings.  Those closures were part of a plan to relocate, reconfigure, add and close school programs that was estimated to produce net capital savings of $46.1 million and annual operations savings of $2.6 million.


At the time of the board’s action, the district’s buildings had an average age of 87 years and the average functional age (number of years since last major renovation) was 40 years. The district’s utilization percentage (enrollment divided by functional capacity, which is how building space is used and can change annually) was 55 percent with 20,370 students and capacity for 36,924.


Besides buildings getting two years older, PPS’ enrollment has continued to fall. The enrollment count taken on Oct. 1, 2022, shows there were 18,660 K-12 students, a 2.6 percent decrease from Oct. 1, 2021.  If the functional capacity of buildings did not change, the utilization percentage fell.


Having excess space compounds the problem of PPS’ high costs, driven by buildings as well as personnel.  The district’s 2021 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) shows that from 2019 to 2021, school enrollment decreased 11 percent.  Though instructional employees decreased by 10 percent in that time frame, headcount in administration, pupil affairs and food service employees had double-digit percentage growth.


Overall, total employee count fell from 4,002 to 3,955, or 1.2 percent. If employee headcount fell at the same pace as enrollment, PPS would have had 3,562 employees in 2021. The cost per pupil was a stunning $34,343.


Moving forward with closing buildings and selling them is imperative for PPS to benefit the district’s taxpayers.  A Policy Brief from three years ago (Vol. 20, No. 5) detailed PPS’ effort to sell four buildings and a parcel of land.  A review of those properties show two buildings sold in 2021 and are now taxable and no longer the responsibility of taxpayers.  That’s good.  But things could be a lot better if the remaining properties are sold.


Consider that at the end of 2021, 10 months after the board tabled the building closure resolution, the property tax rate increased from 9.95 mills to 10.25 mills.  That might have been avoided if there was more emphasis on reducing costs.


What would taxpayers choose for 2024, a district with a smaller footprint that has sold off buildings and realigned schools or another millage increase? It is likely the former, which should prompt the board and the administration to move in that direction.



Revenge of the Three Rs!!!

Facing many challenges at the same time, from "uncertain federal and state funding" to "declining school enrollment" to "increasing costs", the most telling piece of data from an October 20th budget presentation on the Pittsburgh Public Schools is the one that states "we can get greater efficiencies because others are delivery services for less". Surely the presentation meant delivering services for less; either the grammar teacher with the ever-present red pen must not have been nearby to correct the budget department or the number-crunchers did not re-read their statement.

The arithmetic, however, shows what plagues the City schools: based on the 2009-10 average daily membership, the cost per pupil in the Pittsburgh Public Schools was $21,027. Seven other urban districts in Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia with 207,000 students to neighboring Wilkinsburg with 1,560, don’t even come close to that level of spending. The range covers $10,414 in Wilkes-Barre to $18,619 in Wilkinsburg. On average, the districts (excluding Pittsburgh) spent $14,130 per pupil: roughly 50% less than Pittsburgh. It should not come as a surprise to anyone inside or outside the District that per pupil costs are far out of line-we have been pointing it out for years.

Surely the lackluster performance results could be achieved for a lot less per pupil. Districts spending much less have official state overseers at this point or had them previously. Now another round of school closures/realignments is slated for PPS and there could be more layoffs. But the per student cost continues to rise. To say that greater efficiencies could be found is an understatement.

Win, Place, or Show?

In its May 19th presentation "Building a Sustainable District" the Pittsburgh Public Schools laid out its fiscal challenges for the coming year. What was bad (close to a $9 million deficit in 2011) is projected to grow worse ($24 million deficit) as a result of the state budget. The 2012 budget does not look any rosier.

So why-when one looks at the page that lists various PA districts, average daily membership, the percentage getting free or reduced lunches, and the cost per pupil-did the presentation say "PPS is in a better place than others?"

Pittsburgh’s cost per pupil topped the fifteen district list at $19,634. The closest was Harrisburg at $17,674; Philadelphia was $12,449; the lowest was Reading at $10,720. So were they referring to Pittsburgh being in a better place because it spends the most per pupil?

Or were they referring to the percentage of students that qualify for free/reduced price lunch? Pittsburgh was 66%, not as high as Harrisburg (89%), Reading (87%), or York (81%) but certainly higher than the local districts of Penn Hills (44%) and Woodland Hills (59%) and a few others around the state.

Could it have been enrollment? Pittsburgh is the second largest district in the state, but its enrollment is about seven times smaller than the biggest district (Philadelphia) and has been falling, thus prompting the calls earlier this week (discussed in Monday’s blog) for more school closures.

So again, how is PPS in a better place than others?