PPS: A silver lining in financial crisis

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Despite the Pittsburgh Public School District’s struggling financial situation, school officials say there’s a silver lining. The financial crisis has forced administrators to reconsider the district’s education delivery model and redistribute resources to increase equity across schools.

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TEEN BLOC— Student activists Tia Torres and Dominque Payne prepare to rally against the governor’s budget cuts in Harrisburg. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart)

“One of the big takeaways is we realize we’re in crisis, but from crisis comes opportunity. We know that our current structure isn’t serving our children equitably,” said Jeannine French, chief of school performance. “We’re looking for solutions that will increase our equity and achievement, and that will make us financially sustainable.”

The district faces a $21.7 million deficit in 2012. In an effort to balance their budget, the district has been using funds from its operating budget, but this fund could disappear by 2015.

“We have a problem that’s been sneaking up on us. The past five years, we’ve been spending more than we’re taking in,” said superintendent Linda Lane. “You don’t need to be a mathematician to know that doesn’t work.”

Lane said the district’s problem could be attributed to underutilized classrooms, greater competition from charter schools, uncertain federal and state funding, retirement costs going up, healthcare costs increasing, and pension costs increasing. In order to combat the deficit she said the district is considering further central office reductions, restructuring transportation, and the elimination of some middle school athletics.

“I was with a man on the elevator and he said, ‘Dr. Lane, when am I going to get my job back? I’m losing my apartment tomorrow,’” Lane said. “That really brings it home.”

The district’s new equitable education delivery model will give every school one fulltime counselor or social worker, library access, art and music class, advanced placement courses, world language offerings, and dedicated resources for family and community engagement. This could leave schools with fewer dollars for afterschool, summer and sports activities, but the district is looking for ways to subsidize these programs through outside partnerships.

“Absolutely we wish there were more librarians, more library services, art and music, but one of the things we realized is its better to at least have some at every school,” Lane said. “I think what we’ve got to do is use our resources the very best we can.”

A few days before the meeting, A+ released their annual financial analysis of the district. The report highlights the district’s previous success in reducing the budget deficit to $30 million from $100 million, but said the district must focus on protecting its fund balance, a reserve that reflects the financial health and solvency of the PPS.

“As difficult as it has been to take these necessary actions, the work is far from over,” said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools. “Subsequent decisions will be successively more difficult yet must be addressed with a sense of urgency never before experienced.”

In their report A+ suggested the district continue the current hiring freeze, and impose a temporary wage freeze for employees not covered by the collective bargaining agreement. They also said the district should look for ways to change the state’s School Employees Retirement System and reduce healthcare costs.

Representing the student voice were three girls from Teen Bloc, a leadership-training program for high school students enrolled in PPS. They asked the district for books in each classroom, equal programs, advance placement classes at all high schools, college preparation, and resources for teachers, but also had challenges for state legislatures and parents.

“Parents if you are with us in equity, we need you to stand. We need you as parents to pay your taxes. We need you to vote in every election,” said Tia Torres, a senior. “We need you to be involved in what’s going on in your children’s schools. Join your school’s PSE (Parent Student Engagement) and we need you to be engaged in your child’s academic achievements.”

In other news, the district released a formal apology to the community for its mishandling of Westinghouse High School. The apology was proposed by District 8 Rep. Mark Brentley.

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