Eyes Focused on Pupil Costs in the Burgh?

Consultants engaged by the Pittsburgh Public Schools at the beginning of 2013 released a finding that the per-pupil cost in Pittsburgh is about $7,000 more than similar districts in Pennsylvania. Reacting to the finding, the Superintendent noted that the school board needs to “…have the facts on the table”. 



It is not clear if the implication is that the board had heretofore been in the dark about per-pupil costs in the District-the Annual Financial Report always contains data on student operating statistics and duly reports the cost per-pupil in 2011 was $21,177.  None of this will come as a surprise to readers of Allegheny Institute Policy Briefs that have made these points many times.  Likewise the state Department of Education regularly makes such information accessible and reported that identical amount for 2010-11, making Pittsburgh the eighth highest in the Commonwealth out of 500 public school districts.


The consultants, as reported in a news article, looked at spending and made adjustments to the data (removing special expenditures such as payments to charter schools) to produce a figure of $18,400.  Compared to “similar districts in the state” that produced an average cost of $11,600, the resulting difference was $6,800.  A later article identified the peer districts as Allentown ($11,952), Erie ($12,913), Hazelton ($10,917), Lancaster ($14,606), Reading ($12,559), and Scranton ($13,792). 


Give the consultants some credit for at least identifying the per-pupil cost and comparing it to other districts.  Let’s hope the report drives some discussions about the District’s budget and the impending arrival of insolvency that has been predicted to arrive sometime around 2016.  Previous consultants missed real opportunities to look at the data they had produced on per-pupil costs and therefore missed real opportunities to make hard recommendations for the District.


For instance, in 2005 (see Policy Brief Volume 5, Number 25) a consultant was paid $250,000 in taxpayer money for a report telling the District it needed to close schools and achieve other savings of $84 million over five years (combined operating expenditures for the District from 2005 through 2010 was $3.3 billion) and found that Pittsburgh’s per-pupil cost was 23 percent higher compared to five midwestern and northern districts. Lowering the Pittsburgh District’s per pupil costs toward the average of those districts would have produced savings on the order of $100 million per year. 


A year later (see Policy Brief Volume 6, Number 61) another group brought in to help the District also presented a review group of other school districts (across the country) but never calculated per-pupil spending even though they had expenditure and enrollment data.  The Allegheny Institute calculated Pittsburgh spending to be 59 percent higher than the average of the other districts. We recommended the District reduce per-pupil costs to around $12,500 with adjustments for inflation and enrollment, something the consultant should have done based on the data available but did not.  


No matter how you slice it, Pittsburgh spends an exorbitantly high amount on a per-pupil basis. 


If student population (average daily membership) is chosen as the basis of comparison, Pittsburgh spent more than Philadelphia ($14,132), Central Bucks ($13,811), Allentown, and Reading, a group that, along with Pittsburgh, represents the five largest districts in the state from the 205,000 students in Philadelphia to the 18,000 in Reading.


If the comparison is based on the relative wealth of the District-using Pittsburgh’s ranking of 386th on the state’s market value to personal income aid ratio list to compare (1st being “poorest” and the 21 districts tied at 480th being “wealthiest”)-we find per pupil spending at similarly ranked districts was lower. Districts included Fairview in Erie ($12,552), Schuylkill Valley in Berks ($15,618), Upper Perkiomen in Montgomery ($13,882), Dallas in Luzerne ($11,154) and Keystone Oaks in Allegheny ($17,929). 


If the comparison is based on geography and is limited to Allegheny County, districts including Duquesne ($20,564), Brentwood ($20,693), Wilkinsburg ($20,569), and Quaker Valley ($20,046) nudge up against Pittsburgh’s level of spending per-pupil. The average per-pupil expenditure of all districts in the County not including Pittsburgh was $15,500. 


With this new consulting report set to be finalized toward the end of the year along with a hefty reshaping of the school board with four of the nine school board members not returning in 2014, perhaps the board will finally get serious about reducing costs-and improving academic performance.

Pittsburgh School Board Election

In the school board election there have been many of the same old, same old nostrums offered up by the candidates. We need more money, let’s go after the non-profits. This in a school district that spends well over $20,000 per student and has little to show for it in terms of academics. This in a school district with a "Promise program" that offers scholarship money to virtually everyone who graduates. Yet school enrollment keeps falling and preparation for college languishes at abysmal levels. If money were the answer, Pittsburgh schools would be among the best.

There was one comment from a candidate that has a lot of potential. The candidate suggests changing union contacts to remove the overweening influence of seniority on personnel decisions and presumably on pay-although that was not explicitly stated.

There is little question that for too long teachers and the so called educrats who have been in charge have neglected the wellbeing of students, their parents and taxpayers in favor of political correctness, liberal ideologies and self- preservation of the employees and bureaucrats. The citizens of Pittsburgh and the taxpayers from across Pennsylvania who cover about half the cost of the school system deserve better.

Pittsburgh: Exit Act 47, Enter Act 141?

As City officials prepare to make their case to the state that they have progressed to the point where they can shed Act 47 distressed status, just up the road at Pittsburgh Public Schools’ headquarters they are asking whether the District is in such financially bad shape that it will be "bankrupt" in three years. One board member asked "By 2015, are we broke, out of business?" to which a consultant replied, "correct".

That’s a bit strong. Districts cannot go bankrupt in Pennsylvania as they are not permitted to file by the state (only municipalities can). But there are new provisions in state law under Act 141 that prescribe how the state, through the Department of Education, is to deal with school districts facing financial distress. We wrote about the legislation before it was singed into law this past June.

Act 141 applies to all districts in the state except for Philadelphia. A district can fall into either "moderate" or "severe" distress and for a district deemed as such (the law says there cannot be more than nine at one time) the state will appoint a Chief Recovery Officer who will write a recovery plan. The plan has to be approved by the district’s board, and there are procedures for what happens if approval is delayed. There are a variety of tools for getting a district back to sound financial footing from reopening of budgets, examining contracts, exploring charter schools, and other options. Exit from financial recovery depends on the progress of the district and the determination of the Secretary.

Is Pittsburgh headed here? Who knows? There might be other options on the table, but as the Superintendent noted "We believe there’s a way forward. It may not be something we thought of before. It may not be something that comes to the mind readily. It may not be something that’s easy to arrive at."

PPS: What Results from Staff Reductions?

Following last night’s school board meeting, the Pittsburgh Public Schools will have fewer staff members at the start of the 2012-13 school year, including 176 K-12 teachers. A look at the audited financial statements of the District shows what we have pointed out for many years: enrollment continues to fall. In the 2005-06 school year there were 32,529 students, and at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year that just concluded there were 26,652 students. Note that in the audit enrollment is taken on the first day of school. Recent numbers provided by the District that we reported in a blog put enrollment at 24,624 on the last day of the 11-12 year.

If we use the audited enrollment and audited headcount shows that all classifications of employee groups fell from 2005-06 through 2011-12 with the exception of health service, which reported one more employee in 11-12 than in 05-06. Administration, instruction, pupil affairs, operations/maintenance, and food service all reported fewer employees. The key measure is the group in instruction identified as teachers: in 2005-06 there were 2,722 and the pupil-teacher ratio was 11.9. In 11-12 there were 2,196 and the pupil-teacher ratio was 12.1.

If the layoff/furlough of teachers stands, there will be 2,020 (assuming pre-K teachers who were laid off are not included in this total) teachers at the start of the 2012-13 school year that begins next month. If enrollment at the beginning of the year remains around 24k or so the pupil-teacher ratio will not change much. If enrollment at the beginning of the year slides even further from the 24k, let’s say to 23,900 on the first day of 2012-13 with 2,020 teachers, the pupil-teacher ratio will stand at 11.8.

A Closer Look at PPS Enrollment

Our recent Brief on the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program and its effects on enrollment and achievement can be expanded upon with the arrival of new enrollment numbers for the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 school years. Total K-12 enrollment (measured by the number of students enrolled on the last day of school) fell slightly from 25,042 to 24,624, about 418 students.

Recall that one of the stated goals of the Promise is to "mitigate and reverse…enrollment declines in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS)". Taken at face value, the Promise is not looking to grow charter school enrollment, even though those students meeting performance, residency, and attendance benchmarks qualify for Promise funds. The goal is to entice students to remain or attract new ones to the PPS.

RAND performed the first large scale evaluation of the Promise and focused on enrollment in grades 5-12 two years before the Promise first awarded scholarships (2005-06 and 2006-07) and three years of awarding scholarships (2007-08, 2008-09, and 2009-10) "…in order to gauge whether any ‘trickle down’ effects on enrollment may occur as those students and their parents began to prepare for high school". In actual numbers for grades 5-12 for those five years, enrollment trended this way (in 000s): 17, 17, 15.9, 15.0, 14.5.

Adding in the two new years since the report (10-11 and 11-12) for those grades showed enrollment at 14.8 and 14.6. Slightly higher than 09-10, but lower than the pre-Promise years covered by the evaluation. Boosters could argue that as a percentage of school-age youth in the City PPS enrollment has been steady, but that’s not reversing the trend of falling enrollment. They could say that students are staying in City-based charters, but that’s not stated in the goal, either.

Officials Want to Study Use of Closed School Buildings—A Time Waster

Pittsburgh has 15 closed school buildings and is about to add seven more to the list. City Council members now want to see studies of how to utilize these buildings. The School District is spending $15 million a year in maintenance and debt service costs on these structures.

Here’s a clue. Forget studies that will drag on and on, require community involvement, endless haggling, searches for funding to convert the buildings, and lobbying for government subsidies for politically correct and acceptable non-profit organizations to occupy the structures. Instead, put the buildings up for sale and hold auctions. Let the private sector decide what the best use is and the true value of the properties.

Large non-profits might choose to bid and should be allowed to, but the District should be aware that some non-profits are exempt from paying property taxes. One of the objectives of selling the properties besides getting out from under the costs of upkeep and the deterioration of unused buildings is to return the property to the tax rolls.

More studies are not the answer. They are time wasters and will be sources of controversy the District does not need.

Seniority Rules: The Last Refuge of the Incompetent and Mediocre

Labor union devotion to the concept of seniority as the basis of determining pay, promotions, work assignment and order of layoff is little more than a means of building total allegiance of members to the unions. The problems created by the terms demanded in labor contracts that require seniority to be used in all manner of management decisions guarantees a continuing slide into mediocre performance, inefficiencies, weak productivity and higher than necessary labor compensation costs and benefits.

We see how seniority has played out in Pittsburgh schools and the Port Authority–indeed, in virtually every government operation where unions control the supply of labor. It has also worked its deleterious effects on large private corporations as well. The long list of firms that have moved operations overseas or closed up altogether is proof of the damage union demands including seniority rules have done.

The unions’ insistence on seniority is evidence of their desire to protect mediocre employees, including slackers and trouble makers. It becomes a form of tenure and a guaranteed-for-working life sinecure-as long as the employer stays in business. Union demanded primacy of seniority is proof positive that unions care not a whit for the economic wellbeing of their employers. Their focus is on getting all they can as quickly as they can even though such behavior is not in the long term best interest of more juniors members who will pay the price of union excesses by losing their jobs.

That is why private sector unions now represent only seven percent of the private sector workforce. The markets simply cannot sustain the stifled productivity and high costs fostered by unions. The public sector employers cannot go out of business for the most part and will not as long as taxpayers can be forced to pay for the labor cost excesses. But many will file bankruptcy. This is a new trend that has emerged and promises to grow stronger because of the enormous damage done to the finances of state and local governments by overly generous compensation packages.

Seniority deepens and ingrains in union members an elevated sense of entitlement that engenders bad work place behavior and causes a chasm to develop between the interest of the workers and the employers.

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.

Education Chief Fails on Performance Pay

The U.S. Secretary of Education wants districts across the country to cast their gaze upon the Pittsburgh Public Schools to see what successful collaboration between administration and a teachers’ union looks like. According to a printed report the Secretary will be coming to Pittsburgh next week "…to meet on Wednesday with Pittsburgh school officials and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers representatives to talk about how the two groups collaborated" on the current contract which included some aspects of performance pay.

As our 2010 report pointed out pay for performance moves compensation away from aspects like educational achievement and length of service and more toward student achievement. But how much of that exists in the Pittsburgh schools currently? Much of the incentives are voluntary and school based. That means current teachers aren’t so much on a pay for performance model; if they want to volunteer to take on additional duties they can earn more. And a school that does meet performance targets has to distribute any incentive/bonus money equally.

The longest and most widespread performance program in the Pittsburgh schools is for principals, who, it must be noted, are not unionized and do not collectively bargain. Even newly hired teachers don’t really link with the pay for performance concept until after their fourth year in the District.

Finally, the Secretary should know that throughout the process-the collaborative process in his view-that the District knew the teachers’ union would hold the cards on how pervasive an incentive program would be. In its request for funding to the Gates Foundation, the District noted "although PPS and PFT leadership support the initiatives contained in this proposal, the PFT membership will be the final voice on collective bargaining issues". That meant any pay for performance model would have to be palatable for the teachers’ union and that the District would not go to the mat to defend a significant move away from the salary step model.

Is It the End of the Line for Pittsburgh Schools?

Has the Pittsburgh School District reached the limit of what schools can do to educate kids? The long history of program after program to improve academic performance is well known. The Promise Program of college scholarships for was supposed to attract and keep students. It has not worked. Spending huge amounts of local and state tax dollars as well as foundation grants has failed to boost the atrocious level of academic achievement of the majority of graduates.

Now the District has decided to shift seven teachers from academic instruction to making students feel safe and welcome. No kidding, that is what the news report said. These seven teachers will be called "learning environment specialists". Which begs the question; aren’t all teachers learning environment specialists? Perhaps a better title for the new positions would be "peacemaking receptionist."

Does the school district not already hire a security force to maintain safety? Don’t teachers, librarians, principals, custodians, cafeteria staff, and counselors work hard to make children feel welcome? If not what has happened in the schools? Could a Dale Carnegie refresher course be a better way to deal with the lack of friendliness?

And then there are the costs associated with the new program. Teachers will be removed from classroom to perform their new assignments. Does that mean the class sizes will rise or will jobs be saved for other teachers who might have been facing layoffs? Either way we can assume that the teachers will be fairly senior and making near top salary with attendant benefits. In Pittsburgh, that would mean close to $100,000 per year. Add to that overhead for office, travel and other expenses and the new position could easily cost $110,000 a year. Seven positions-three quarters of a million dollars. Sounds like a lot in a school district trying to save money but actually not a very large slice from a budget of over $500 million. In this case Gates Foundation money is being used for the experiment.

Beyond the cost and issue of whether we need peacemaking receptionists, there is the question of likely effectiveness. Seven people will have responsibilities for 66 schools, 9 of which are middle and 12 senior high. Clearly, seven people are going to be spread pretty thin covering that many schools. Can they hope to achieve anything or is this money just being wasted like so much before?

When a school district dedicates teachers to non-teaching roles and puts them in charge of making schools safe and welcoming the education world has been turned on its head. What’s left, putting cooks in charge of recess?