With a budget deficit of $68 million looming for the Pittsburgh Public School District in 2012, administrators have been looking for areas to cut spending and reduce costs. Despite an already $8.7 million deficit projected for the district in 2011, an additional cut of $15.2 million in state funds, has exacerbated a crisis some administrators, education activists and experts have long seen coming.
“The district was warned about that years ago. They were told to cut spending and they chose not to do that. This board made a willful decision to not do the things we needed to do,” said Randall Taylor, former District 1 school board representative. “They are misleading the public by saying this was the governor’s fault.”
However, while many activists and experts say administrators could’ve done more to curb the financial crisis, they admit a portion of the district’s large budget can be attributed to the special needs of urban areas where a high number of students come from families living in poverty. In order to right the crisis, they say the district must balance cuts while maintaining services essential to helping low-income students.
“Pittsburgh has a very thriving special education program as far as people with special needs. People have even moved into the district because the services are so good. But that’s one of the reasons the cost is more,” Taylor said. “There are two separate reasons for why we got to the cost we’re at. We also have emotional needs classes that other schools might not have. So these are the things that go into that.”
The district’s $540 million budget makes it the largest in Allegheny County, but the district’s population of more than 25,000 students also makes it larger than any other district in the county. Still, the district’s per student cost of $21,300 is higher than most other school districts in the area.
Comparatively the Mt. Lebanon School District spends approximately $15,000 per student. And while the district has far less transportation and infrastructure costs than the PPS, Mt. Lebanon has not been forced to fire or furlough teachers due to Gov. Tom Corbett’s cuts to the state’s education spending.
“If you look at per student spending nationally, you’re not necessarily going to find that urban districts spend more than suburban districts. I wouldn’t want to jump to the conclusion that urban district always spend more than suburban,” said PPS Superintendent Linda Lane. “However, in urban districts that have a lot of families in poverty, those students are going to need additional services. Those safety nets do cost money. In some districts there’d be less of a need for that because kids come to school with stronger social capital and higher literacy levels. I think emotional and mental health are other good examples of important services we offer because some of our kids are dealing with circumstances that are flat out hard.“
Wilkinsburg School District, an area more demographically comparable to PPS spends just under $18,000 per student, while nearby Penn Hills spends $15,000. Gateway School District in Monroeville also spends just under $18,000.
The Woodland Hills School District is one of the few whose per student spending is higher than PPS at approximately 21,600. In fact, PPS spends more per student than most other districts in the state, including Philadelphia, a school district situated in an urban setting similar to Pittsburgh in terms of poverty.
“Usually school districts money is tied up in people so I think it’s pretty clear we have more adults per student than other districts and its more than Philadelphia,” Lane said. “Obviously as I’ve told everyone we’ll have to look at everything. I’m telling people that we’ve already reduced in administration. The amount of reduction that’s going to be necessary here is not going to allow us to pick out a few things here and there. Even though the governor’s budget certainly made it worse, this is certainly the district’s problem as well.”
While the special needs of urban students can be a contributing factor to high per student costs, other expenses such as transportation, teacher salaries and benefits, and the cost of maintaining more than 65 schools and vacant buildings make up a large portion of the PPS budget. However, some contend the largest problem and one that has long been identified, is the district’s declining population.
“Not looking at how hard it is to educate kids in need, Pittsburgh spends a lot of money. There’s a lot of administrative costs with running a huge district, but fundamentally the problem is the population has been dropping like a stone in water. Unless you’re going to fire teachers or furlough them, if kids are leaving, you’re going to have smaller class sizes. So what’s going to happen to per pupil spending, it’s going to go up,” said Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “The fact that spending is so high reflects a lot of fixed costs, an older teacher force and low enrollment.”
(This is the first part of a four-part series comparing the Pittsburgh Public School District with other school districts in Allegheny County.)