Class size could increase to reduce school costs

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At an A+ Schools community meeting, Superintendant Linda Lane gave guests a clear picture of how the budget cuts will impact Pittsburgh Public School District students. Unfortunately, few parents were there to hear it, with parents making up only 30 percent of the guests.

“We still have an obligation to kids,” Lane said. “Although we have some budget issues, I can’t go into a school and say to a child, I’m sorry we didn’t teach you to read because of budget problems.”

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THE BIG PICTURE—Superintendent Linda Lane shares her vision for the future of the Pittsburgh Public School District. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

PPS is expecting a budget deficit of $23.9 million for 2011 and a projected deficit of $68 million for 2012. By the year 2015 this deficit could equal $100 million if reforms aren’t made.

“When the governor proposed his budget, that added to the problem we already had. We have to get to a place where we’re spending within our means,” Lane said. “The problem by 2015 could be a $100 million problem.”

The most recent budget meeting on June 27 at the Pittsburgh Federation for Teachers explored the reduction of class offerings. By reducing the number of classes with low populations and increasing class sizes, the district could operate more efficiently and reduce costs.

“Sixty percent of our classrooms are not full at all, so they’re not running efficiently. One of the things we want is to have average class sizes that are running effectively,” said Jeanie French, chief of school performance. “It seems like an easy thing, but it’s not so easy. This is something that can be done and something that can be done with good outcomes for our children.”

If average class sizes are increased to 25 students in grades K-5, 28 students in grades 6-8, and 30 students at the high school level, the district could save up to $32 million per year.

Although Lane did not discuss possible teacher cut backs, the reduction of class offerings would more than likely lead to the reduction of available teaching positions. Lane did emphasize that of the budget areas the district can control, 80 percent is spent on salaries and benefits.

District administrators are also looking at ways to reduce transportation costs, which make up $36 million of the district’s $540 million budget. Lane said although this would initially mean enforcing rules the district already has in place to keep costs low, it could eventually mean starting the school day for high school students at 7 a.m.

“We’ve started a lot of things, but how are we going to do them really well. There’s energy in starting things, but to hang in there is the important thing. We want to go to high achievement and financial sustainability,” Lane said. “We’re going to be talking to people to explain why this is important and why this matters. And this is just one example.”

Of the teachers, concerned citizens, parents and students polled at the meeting, more people were in favor of consolidating the number of levels of core courses in high schools into fewer options. The majority said they did not want to lose high school elective core or high school elective courses such as sociology or foreign languages.

Although Gov. Tom Corbett’s initial budget saw the elimination of the accountability block grants, the budget currently being worked on in the house has returned a portion of these funds. These grants are used to pay for early childhood education and Pre-K.

A+ Schools Executive Director Carey Harris said the group plans to take Lane’s budget presentation to other neighborhoods around the city in an effort to gain more public feedback. She also said A+ will be doing their own independent financial analysis of the budget.

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