Dilemma for a Small District

Cut positions in order to save the district. That’s the position taken by the administration of the Northgate School District, a district serving the North Hills communities of Avalon and Bellevue. Population has fallen in the communities, as has public school enrollment, but there are more teachers now (115) than there were in the 1995-96 school year (110). Thus, the proposal to layoff 23 teachers and 10 aides at a meeting this week. As we have written before, Pennsylvania only allows layoffs of public school employees when there is a drop in enrollment or a program is shuttered, not for economic conditions.

Consider: in 95-96 enrollment was 1,644 students and the pupil to teacher ratio was 14.9. In 12-13 enrollment was 1,211 and the resulting ratio was 10.5. Laying off 23 teachers-and assuming enrollment does not change dramatically for next year, say it stands at 1,180-the pupil-teacher ratio would be 12.8, lower than the national average of 15.1 and that of Pennsylvania (13.8) as of 2010. Curiously, a November 2011 article detailing a new four-year contract for teachers recalled three teachers who had been laid off and stated that it had "eliminated the need for additional layoffs".

The superintendent-who was hired last May-went on record saying he would not support merging with another district due to losing the character of neighborhood schools that serve the district. Property tax rates went up 24% in the District from 2001 through 2012 and, at 28.6 mills now, the District has one of the highest millage rates in Allegheny County. Northgate, like all districts in the state, are facing steep increases to pension costs. How does the District work its way out of this situation?

Partial Price Tag Put to Shell Exemptions

If the much-hyped cracker plant decides to put down roots in the Beaver County site that is a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) and if the company invests at least $1 billion in capital and creates at least 400 new full time jobs within seven years it will enjoy a tax-free existence for fifteen years. An article yesterday detailed a legislative hearing on the proposal and local officials were able to detail how much the exemptions would cost.

The annual total for the town and the school district would be a combined $315,000 annually based on the amount of real estate taxes collected on the facility on the site now. That’s $4.7 million over fifteen years. The totals rise when other taxes are added in, and the county (which also collects property taxes) did not have its share included in the calculations.

Much of the talk back from boosters of the project is sure to be along the lines of, sure, you have to give up tax dollars, but the benefits of the jobs, spinoffs, corollary development, etc. will far outweigh the foregone tax revenue. It was what was brought up when nearby Butler County, Cranberry, and Seneca Valley School District had to decide to buy in on the Westinghouse project, which was not a KOZ but a Strategic Development Zone project that likewise waived taxes for fifteen years. One company official told local officials in 2007 that "It’d be great if you didn’t have to do it, [but] it’s not the reality of today’s world. If a region wants to be competitive, you have to do it". Spirits are high now that the move has been completed in June and the new location has 3,500 employees that transferred from eastern Allegheny County. But time will tell if the exemptions there, and the ones planned for the Beaver site, will pay off.

How’s the 911 System Doing?

In April of 2004 the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County announced the merger of 911 emergency operations, with co-location coming first and then a complete merger in 2005. As of the 2010 sunset review report, the merged 911 center provided full dispatch of police, fire, and EMS for 103 municipalities, partial dispatch of those services for 16 municipalities, and "ringdown service" with no dispatch for 11 municipalities.

In May the state’s Legislative and Budget Finance Committee reviewed 911 operations in Pennsylvania, and some of the data points in the report are quite enlightening. In 2010 Allegheny County received 1.024 million 911 calls, about 1.5 calls per worker per hour at a cost of $22 per call (based on total expenditures/calls). There were 13 providers of 911 service that took more than 128,000 calls in 2010 and the cost per call for that group averaged $24, placing Allegheny just under.

Other data points:

  • In 2010, surcharge revenue covered 74% of total expenditures in Allegheny County. This was slightly higher than the average for the state (72%) and higher than the only other county that generated more calls (Philadelphia at 61%).
  • Allegheny’s cost per staff member (personnel expenditures/call taking dispatch staff) was $62,208; fairly close to Philadelphia ($61,398) but higher than the state average ($55,359).
  • As a percentage of total expenditures, Allegheny’s personnel costs represented 71.7%. This placed the County 13th from the top (Bucks County was the highest at 82.4%).
  • Allegheny had 9.5 dispatchers for every 1 supervisor; Philadelphia had a ratio of 9.1 to 1;