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 Takes the Prize: Can It Keep It?

Officials in Nashville are mad. They just saw the most recent ranking from moving company U-Haul that ranks "growth cities" which are "…determined by calculating the percentage of inbound moves vs. outbound moves for each area." The Music City has been dethroned by the Steel City, with the company noting Pittsburgh had a 9% rate in 2012.

Actually there has been no news out of Nashville (it finished 8th in 2012) because of a phenomenon noted in a 2007 Brief we did when Pittsburgh was named "America’s Most Livable City": when a city-to-city or metro-to-metro list or ranking of "most" or "best" is put together it is often dubious. The London Times stated "the publication of the Almanac sets off a round of preening from mayors of winning cities and huffing and puffing from the losers." One has to wonder if losers or runners up even bother to fume at all.

The company has produced the ranking at least as far back as 2008 and if patterns hold taking first place as a growth city is fairly volatile: only Santa Monica has repeated as a first place finisher (in 2009 and 2010); Nashville appeared in 9th place in 2008, disappeared from the top ten in 2009 and 2010, and then finished first last year; 2008‘s winner Wichita has not been in the top ten since that year. A handful of cities-Austin, New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland-have appeared more than once in the top ten. (The company also produces a destination city ranking based on a person making a move to a city of more than 50 miles away from the origination point and does not take into consideration the percentage of inbound and outbound moves like the growth city methodology, and Houston has finished first in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012).

We also pointed out in 2007 the best measure of the attractiveness of a place is whether people stay or leave. Recent numbers show that the metro area and Allegheny County are seeing a small uptick in population (0.2 in the metro, 0.5 in the County from April 2010 through July 2012). When the net domestic migration as a proportion of total population for the 25 largest metros was measured from July 2011 to July 2012 the region did better that Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and seven others but rose slower than fourteen other regions including Tampa, Seattle, and San Antonio.

Allegheny County’s Tax Hike: A Regional Perspective

Setting aside all the madness surrounding the reassessment process that began with the mailing of new values to property owners in Pittsburgh and Mt. Oliver, it is important to recall that Allegheny County Council voted to increase the County millage rate from 4.69 mills to 5.69 mills effective for 2012.  One member stated “the draconian cuts in the state budget” were the cause for the 21 percent millage increase.


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Population Changes in Allegheny County Municipalities: 2000 to 2010

In last week’s Policy Brief (Volume 11, Number 56), we documented the per capita spending and revenues for most of Allegheny County’s municipalities noting the high, low and average values for several spending and revenue components. We also found a strong correlation between population count and total general fund spending and revenues. 

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Debunking Demographic Hype in the ‘Burgh

Giddy editorial writers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette nearly hyperventilated recently upon learning the City’s median age had declined from 35.5 years in 2000 to 33.2 years in 2010.  As they portrayed it, the reason for the significant decline in the median age was a 7,642 increase in the number of people aged 20 to 24 and a nearly 13,000 person drop in the over 65 population.  The editorial lauded the decadal shift in age opining that new stadiums and other attractions around the City are finally paying big dividends.

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Has Allegheny County’s Population Loss Ended?

Has the population decline in Allegheny County that dates back to 1960 finally ended? The latest Census figures show the rate of population loss since 2000 appears to have slowed to a halt-at least temporarily. The question is: has the County turned the corner and is it now poised to begin reversing the decades-long pattern of population loss, or is it more of a momentary pause in losses stemming from the effects of the deep national recession? 

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Counting PA’s Cities

The official numbers from the decennial census will be arriving in the coming months. What does the existing estimate data show now? From the official 2000 census count through the estimated July 2009 period, the state’s population increased 2.6%.

The state’s ten largest cities exhibit various trends in population change over that same time frame. Not counting some minor changes in position of ranking, the cities that constituted the top ten in 2000 (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Reading, Scranton, Bethlehem, Lancaster, Altoona, and Harrisburg) did so in the 2009 estimates. Philadelphia, with 1.5 million residents today, is 30 times larger than the 10th largest city of Altoona, with 46k residents.

Quite a mixed bag in terms of results: Philadelphia (1.9%), Allentown (0.9%) and Bethlehem (2.8%) grew; Pittsburgh (6.9%), Scranton (6.6%), Lancaster (1.8%), Altoona (6.1%) and Harrisburg (2%) declined in population; Erie and Reading remained virtually unchanged.

The extremes overall? Tiny New Morgan Borough in Berks County (increased 225%) and Collegeville Borough in neighboring Montgomery County (down 36%).

Population Change: How Does Pittsburgh Stack Up?

In anticipation of the formal count of population under the decennial Census comes the 2009 estimate of "incorporated places and minor civil divisions". Looking at the list of the 276 places that fit the criteria of being over 100k people-all the way from New York City at close to 8.4 million to Boulder, CO at a scant 160 people over 100k-shows a population count of 311,647 for Pittsburgh, ranking it 61st. Year over year decline has slowed since the earlier part of the decade, and overall Pittsburgh has lost 6.6% of its 2000 estimated population of 333k (the official Census count was 334.5k).

How does Pittsburgh’s estimated change over the decade stack up? Revisiting our research back to 2004 when we started looking at cities in a comparative perspective provides an idea.

Our peer group report looked at ten other cities of similar population size (we used a range of 305k-380k from 2000 estimates). All of the cities increased in population-from a 0.6% bump in Cincinnati to 39% in Raleigh. That latter city, along with Colorado Springs and Minneapolis, no longer fit the population range we defined six years ago having reached more than 380k in 2009.

We then looked at Rust Belt cities-here Pittsburgh finds more company with Detroit (-3.7%), Buffalo (-7.5%) and Cleveland (-9.5%) posting decreases. Philly (2%) and Milwaukee (1.2%) netted positive numbers.

Lastly, our Benchmark City-a concept much broader and one we have revisited twice-shows all four regional hub cities growing over the decade. Salt Lake City is up 1.1%, Columbus 4.9%, Omaha 8.1%, and Charlotte is up 21%.

Analyzing County Population

New Census data on 2009 estimates for counties in Pennsylvania and the U.S. is now available. Here’s what it shows for Allegheny County-population as of July 1, 2009 stands at 1,218,492. That’s down 5% over the decade from the July 1, 2000 figure of 1,279,929, a drop of just about 61,500 persons.

If the estimates data holds the 2008-2009 change represents the first net increase of population change in the County this decade. The 2008 population was 1,218,227 so the 2009 total would represent a small positive uptick of 267 people. Certainly a far cry from year over year losses earlier in the decade, some of which were quite significant (losses in the 2003 to 2005 period were reported at over 10k each year).

As a percentage of the seven county metropolitan area population (Allegheny along with Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland) Allegheny County fell slightly from representing 52.6% in 2000 to 51.7% in 2009.

Population Slide Continues in City and Region

City Office BuildingThe recently released 2008 population figures show the City of Pittsburgh posting a yearly loss of nearly 1,700 residents, continuing a trend that has been ongoing for several decades. City officials and apologists were heartened by the fact the drop was smaller than in previous years and all atwitter about how the City was finally nearing a turning point and that population growth is just around the corner-arguments they have made for years. What they need to do is to face up to the reasons people leave the City such as high taxes and a poorly performing school district and begin to make meaningful changes to stop the ongoing exodus. 


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