Merger Hopes Meet Union Reality

The product of the Commonwealth’s first voluntary school district merger-Central Valley District in Beaver County-could be headed for a work stoppage. That’s right: the district that had to deal with how to align schools, levy and collect taxes, and come up with a unified name and mascot apparently didn’t pay enough attention to its workforce. As the head of the PSEA stated "our members want to see this merger work. They also need fair and reasonable contracts."

And in Pennsylvania those members can walk off the job without punishment and shut the school system down. With issues of vacancies, transfers, work hours, and health care in contention, it is not much of a stretch to think that there are hurdles with how to align the separate work units that existed in the previously un-merged districts. Recall that is a recent blog we pointed out how the high school would have two principals.

Merger advocates-whether they be in the camp of combining school districts, municipalities, or counties and municipalities-take note: public sector unions are not an issue to take lightly in a proposed consolidation. Even the task force charged with studying a Pittsburgh-Allegheny County merger sidestepped the thorny issue, noting that "personnel costs often rise when two different pay and benefit systems are integrated, because, most typically, employees move to the more generous compensation and benefits package". Think that dynamic is not at work in Central Valley?

Music City Turns to Pittsburgh for Fine Tuning

This weekend, a group of representatives from Nashville is coming to Pittsburgh to learn about, among other things, waterfront development, improving public schools, green building, and how Pittsburgh "…was able to generate public support while planning its transit system".

Hopefully they aren’t going to devote massive amounts of time on the last point to the North Shore Connector, because that process was massively lacking in public support. Recall that the Connector moved along because of the "use it or lose it" belief of officials that the Federal money would go away if not dumped into the Connector’s maw.

And improving public schools? If the visitors look at recent enrollment, expenditure, and performance statistics they might be too impressed.

What’s most surprising is that the delegation is coming to Pittsburgh instead of the other way around. Consider that Nashville and its parent county, Davidson, have been a merged entity since the early 1960s. Its metro government provides services through an urban services district (Nashville proper) and general services district (remainder of Davidson) much like the ill-fated Nordenberg panel proposed.

After merging, Nashville’s Census population ballooned from 170k in 1960 to 448 in 1970. Since that count the merged entity’s growth has remained positive (up 21% from 1970-2000). Maybe the delegation is mad that Pittsburgh officials visited new-kid-on-the-merger-block Louisville and did not venture further south to Nashville and is using the opportunity to bring its message to the City.

A 2008 PG op-ed even noted an opinion piece that appeared in a Nashville paper by an academic whose son moved to Pittsburgh and "…among the first things that he noticed was how uncoordinated its local governments were. Pittsburgh, with more than 30 governmental entities within Allegheny County, was simply a mess".

Whether the delegation will be singing Pittsburgh’s praises or giving the City the hook remains to be seen.

Principals of Merging

Upon visiting the newly merged Central Valley School District-hailed as the first voluntary merger of independent school districts in the Commonwealth in anyone’s memory-the PA Secretary of Education noted last September that "No one really talks about the wastefulness behind the scenes in schools…Where there’s waste is having seven or eight different people doing payroll in a county when it could be done by one."

Note that the Secretary made the same point at a hearing of the Senate Education Committee a month earlier (a hearing at which the Allegheny Institute testified). So it would be interesting to hear how the Secretary would react to the news this morning that Central Valley High School will have not one, but two, principals: one to handle academic programs and one to handle student programs. The superintendent of the district said that "they do not want to feel, nor do I want to see, a pecking order…they are both principals."

So which principal has the ultimate authority at the district? It won’t be clear until a problem arises. But it is easy to see why merging governmental units is very difficult, especially with powerful public sector unions will resist consolidation and would strongly resist changes that would downsize the workforce. Sounds like a compromise meant to satisfy competing interests. But it certainly is a far cry from the talking points of merger proponents that claim consolidation will go a long way to wiping out duplicative functions (two police chiefs, two fire chiefs, two auditors, etc.). The teachers and administrators in the merged district that did go as a result of the merger took buyouts to leave. Imagine what an organizational chart of larger merged entities would look like.

Mr. Ravenstahl Goes to Harrisburg

Unlike Mr. Smith who went to Washington and attempted to do the noble thing by defending liberty and attacking graft, Mayor Ravenstahl is going to Harrisburg to plead for state money to help the City with its perennial and seemingly unfixable fiscal problems. After rebuffing the Legislature’s efforts to help the City with its pension difficulties last year, the Mayor might get a polite but cool reception when he shows up in Capitol City.

This time he is coming with the purported support of yet another newly formed coalition of corporate, university and elected officials. Interestingly, one of those is the Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh who vigorously fought the Mayor’s effort to impose a tuition tax on college students in the City. The Chancellor also headed the task force looking into a City-County merger. A task force that recommended strongly the City and County consolidate duplicative services. In two years since, there is no measurable progress in that direction. Now the Chancellor is back as a member of the new coalition agreeing to help lobby the state for additional sources of revenue for the City.

How ironic. The state is facing serious fiscal problems of its own and to make matters even worse, revenue is coming in a half billion dollars below projections in the current fiscal year-an additional shortfall to be made up somehow. The universities have complained about the inadequate funding they receive from the state while many municipalities and school districts will also be pleading for more state funds. And the answer from the Chancellor is to lobby for more or higher taxes on already strapped Pennsylvanians to fix Pittsburgh’s spending problem.

Perhaps it never occurs to these folks that the voters in Pittsburgh were silent partners and enablers in creating the monstrous fiscal mess the City finds itself in. And, it must be noted, the state has helped with new revenues several times already over the past couple of decades. If more revenue would solve the City’s financial problem, it would have been solved. Even under supervision of two state watchdog groups for the past six years Pittsburgh has failed to make substantial progress. The real problem is the City cannot bring itself to make the serious cuts it needs to make and it has refused to take the steps other communities have taken to reduce expenses through outsourcing.

Basically, Pittsburgh’s government is run by and for the people who work for the City government. Until that situation changes, Pittsburgh will never get well.

District Confronts Declining Enrollment

If demographic projections come to pass, the Keystone Oaks School District (based in the South Hills and comprising the communities of Castle Shannon, Dormont, and Greentree) will lose 17% of its current enrollment (2,231) in ten years. Those projections are a bit sunnier than the Department of Education’s numbers (a 20% loss in 10 years) but not by much. Since its early 1970s high point of an enrollment of 5,459 in nine school buildings, a fall to 1,881 by 2018 would represent a 65% loss over the last thirty years.

In comparison to other districts that loss is likely worse than some, better than others.

Now armed with the numbers, the school district will have to address what to do with its five current buildings (three elementary schools, one in each community, a middle school and a high school) almost as if it were the Base Realignment Commission. The consultants and architects for the district present no less than 17 recommendations for what to do with the buildings and how to distribute the student population. Everything from school closings (the district has reduced the number of buildings from 9 to 5 over the last three decades) to classroom additions and more specialization (K-4 or K-5) are on the table. The board now has to set a timeline on what they want to do (the board president noted that "The board wants to take our time on this") all the time realizing that 80% of the district’s residents do not have children in the school system.

Could Transit Pact Pave Way to PAT Savings?

If a proposed agreement between Washington County and the Port Authority is executed bus riders in Washington County could see an estimated 15 minutes shaved off of their 90 minute trip to Downtown. How? By the Port Authority permitting use of its busways to GG and C Company, a private operator, to get people to and from Downtown from Washington (the company cannot pick up riders in Allegheny County due to state laws).

And the surrounding counties could adopt SmartCard technology (sort of like the Turnpike’s EZ Pass) that would eliminate the use of cash and coins for transit use.

Good innovations both-but could the presence of neighboring counties’ bus service (some of whom contract out service) be a way to whack away at the Port Authority’s costs? Consider that the Port Authority has a monopoly on bus service and the transit union has a monopoly on labor and enjoys the right to strike and shut the system down. That means there are never really any major changes to the labor force aside from attrition.

The Port Authority management could commit to a hiring freeze and state that when 20% of the workforce is gone they will turn that portion of service over to another operator, the neighboring counties with their contracted service certainly being in the mix. That would hopefully bring competitive pressure on wage and benefit growth downward, instead of a regional transit authority merger which would likely push wages and benefits up to the unsustainable Port Authority level.

Recent Years Show Mixed Record on School District Consolidation

Friday the Allegheny Institute participated in a hearing on school district mergers and consolidations to examine whether PA should downsize the total district count of 500 to something smaller and if such a downsizing would save money without affecting academic performance. The administration likes the number 100, but offered no real explanation as to why that number was selected. The bulk of the work on this matter would fall to an appointed commission to weigh the costs and benefits and determine a course of action.

A good place to start is to look at what other states with independent school districts (defined by the Census as districts with independently elected officials and not subordinate to some other governing body) have done with district counts in recent years, 1992-2002. Of the 45 states with independent districts, 9 saw an increase in the number of districts, 12 made no change in the time frame, and 24 reduced the number of districts, with four of those states (NE, MT, MA, and OR) making reductions that amounted in the neighborhood of 30% or so.

Naturally, questions arise: why did some states increase the district count? How did they do it? In states with reductions, were they voluntary, mandatory, or both? What did the changes do for non-instructional personnel counts and costs? Was there any effect on school performance or other aspects of education, such as travel, community pride, or advanced programs?

Another Blow Against City-County Mergers

Advocates of a city-county merger between Pittsburgh and Allegheny County constantly tout the economic development benefits they promise are sure to follow. It is claimed that consolidating City and County economic development agencies will make it easier to attract new firms. Of course they offer no credible evidence this will happen or that it has happened in other city-county mergers. But why let minor details such as convincing arguments or evidence stand in the way?

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