Pittsburgh Promise Raises Money, But Misses Primary Goals

Last week was a bounty of good news for boosters of the Pittsburgh Promise.  It was announced that $160 million had been raised over the past four years, putting it well on its way to a ten year target of $250 million.  The first recipients of money from the 2007-08 graduating class that went to a four year program just completed their studies.


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Strike Two!

As we wrote in a blog earlier this year, the Neshaminy School District in southeastern Pennsylvania had a teacher strike, the first in the 2011-12 school year. As of Monday, teachers in that District walked out on the picket lines again, (first time was in January) and they are allowed to stay out until next Friday the 15th so as to leave enough time to complete 180 days before the end of June per state law.

The board and the teachers’ union are still working on a contract that expired in June of 2008. It is important to look at the "three e’s" of the District, all obtained through the most recent CAFR, that show what has happened in recent years.

Enrollment-it has fallen since 2002, about 11%, and stands at just over 8,500.

Employment-it has also fallen since 2002, but at a slower pace than enrollment (7%).

Expenditures-are up 33% since 2002.

That means per pupil expenditures in the District have grown significantly in the last decade, but as with many negotiations the issues of pensions and health benefits are center stage. Taxpayers don’t want to pony up more for benefits in a district where the median salary is over $89,000, even though union officials have suggested a tax increase is one way to go toward ending the impasse.

Some ABC’s of the School Budget

On the heels of a Citywide referendum that approved a tax hike for libraries (1/4 of a mill) and the 1 mill increase by County Council Tuesday night, residents of the Pittsburgh Public School District (City of Pittsburgh and Borough of Mt. Oliver) can be relieved that the 2012 budget contains no tax increase. But they should be concerned that the trends that have plagued the District show no signs of abating.

Enrollment continues to fall; it stands at 25,031 for the 2011-12 school year but the District is planning for additional school closings, realignment, and possible additional layoffs in 2012. And the same legacy cost issues that have impacted other local governments in the region are present in the District. The superintendent’s budget message points out that "despite [headcount] reductions…benefits and pension costs will rise by $31 million over the next four years. From 2004 through 2012, our pension cost per employee increased by 82 percent.." Health care costs fared no better, and both outpaced inflation.

The budget has $508 million in revenues and $529 million in expenditures, requiring the District to dip into the fund balance. It is interesting to note two facts on the revenue side of the equation: first, the local-to-state split in funding is 53% to 46% and second, based on the assessed value of real estate characteristics outlined in the budget (taken from the state equalization board) residential value accounts for 57% of total assessed value. Of the 43 districts in Allegheny County, nine others besides Pittsburgh have less than 60% of their total assessed value represented by residential property.

Pittsburgh Schools Losing Students Because of Violence

No one should be surprised by this morning’s Tribune Review report on the role violence in Pittsburgh schools is playing in driving kids out of district schools. It is completely rational to assume that caring parents will not allow their children to be placed in a physically unsafe environment. And certainly not one that arises out of thuggery and contempt for normal rules of behavior.

But the truly sad part of this story is the fact that the violence has been around for a number of years and apparently is getting worse. So the question is, who is to blame? The school district spokespersons and its die hard defenders will put the blame on parents of the misbehaving students. They will blame societal pressures, television programs, music, and so and so on. No doubt some of that is true. But it is also true that the decades of lax enforcement of disciplinary codes and tolerance of disgracefully poor academic performance-stemming largely from the influence of political correctness and political pressures brought by the community-have contributed to societal dysfunction by lowering standards of acceptable behavior and eroding the notion of personal responsibility for one’s actions.

It is all of a piece: Compulsory education combined with excusitis from the school board and the community, the know-it-all, nothing-to-see-here education establishment, do-gooder groups and too much taxpayer money and too little accountability to taxpayers and students who want to learn.

And do all the District’s failures lead to Board proposals for massive reform, including scholarships for students who want to escape the unsafe, academically deficient City schools? The answer for the decades covering the slide of Pittsburgh schools is a resounding NO. Just give us a little more time they say. Pathetic.

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?

Pittsburgh’s School Buildings to Go Under the Microscope

The Pittsburgh Public Schools has seating capacity for 36k students, but it only utilizing 25k of it, roughly 70%. That means another round of school closures, the first since 2006 when the public school count went from 86 in 2005 to 65 in 2006. In the decade from 2000-09, enrollment fell from 38k to 27k (28%) while the number of schools decreased from 96 to 66 (31%).

Seeing this imbalance, the superintendent noted that "every dollar we spend on underutilized bricks and mortar is one less dollar we have available to spend towards improving the life prospects of our students". Note that the District’s per-pupil cost in 2009 was $19,963, up 11% from where it stood in 2006.

The process in 2011 will use data like student achievement, enrollment, facility condition, racial balance, transportation costs, etc. to decide what to shutter and what to keep open.

Here’s how the overall facility inventory for the District looks: In 2000, the District had 100 buildings (96 schools, 2 administration buildings, 1 operations/maintenance building, and 1 food service building) with 9.5 million square feet (about 247 square feet per student). In 2009, the District had 71 buildings (66 schools, 3 administration buildings, 1 operations/maintenance building and 1 food service building) totaling 7.3 million square feet (263 square feet per student). We have noted the growth in administrative employees (non-teachers) so it is no surprise that more space was needed to house them. Whereas the District carried about 129k of square footage for administration during most of the decade; that amount tripled to 390k in 2008.

Pittsburgh School Enrollment Slide Continues


Pittsburgh Public Schools have seen yet another enrollment decline continuing a trend dating back over a decade.  The student count for the 2010-11 school year fell 3.1 percent (797) below the year earlier reading. Compared to 1997 when the District enrolled more than 40,000 students, the current figure of 25,326 represents a decrease of nearly 37 percent. And the bad news is projected to continue. According to a school district consultant enrollment will fall through 2018.  


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School Bored?

The advocacy group A+ Schools has produced its annual report card on how well the Pittsburgh Public Schools leadership-the nine member elected school board-handles itself. Overall, the board got a B-: on components of the grade they received a B- for conduct (down from a B last year), a C+ for clarity, B- for competency, and B+ for transparency. These last three grades were unchanged from last year.

Perhaps the most eye-opening grade was a C for time management, a downgrade from last year’s B- which was due partially to "The ‘excessively long" meetings’-some lasting more than four hours" according to the group’s director.

If the board was spending hours on end trying to figure out how to improve performance, encourage competitive options for parents seeking to better their child’s education, or how to reduce the massive per-pupil expenditures, then excessively long meetings might be in order.

Ultimately, the best barometer for the board’s performance could be tied to one indicator: enrollment in the District. And on that measure (enrollment has fallen from 32% since the start of the decade and significantly outpaces the overall decline in City population) there can be no above-average grade.

A New Approach for City School Property

Late last week the Pittsburgh Board of Education approved a new set of guidelines on how to dispose of surplus property. With declining enrollment and some buildings not fit for rehabilitation, the District will now have a clear way of proceeding with the sale of property.

Key in this set of guidelines is the fact that charter schools will not be discriminated against buying District-owned property that is for sale. As the solicitor for the District noted the policy "removes the apparent bias against charter schools" who felt that they were not getting a fair shot at buying property. For instance, the URA-which is marketing some closed school buildings-had a note on its website that "the district prefers not to ‘encourage’ competing schools." That language is supposed to be removed as a result of the guidelines.

That does nothing to guarantee that the District won’t continue to stifle actual charter school competition by denying charters (two were turned down last month) but it might give parents who want choice some hope. Consider that the Center of Education Reform’s latest "Survey of America’s Charter Schools" found that 65% of all charter schools have a waiting list, which is up from 58% in 2008. On average, 239 children are waiting to enter a charter school.

If Pittsburgh Public Schools are confident in their product, then they should welcome all competition, especially those willing to take some property off of the District’s hands.