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Bloomfield school target in Pittsburgh Public Schools' cost-cutting plan

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 9:42 p.m.

Woolslair Elementary in Bloomfield is the first school targeted for closure under a plan offered on Monday by city schools Superintendent Linda Lane, but she may recommend more when a school board takes office on Dec. 2.

“Size is really the main driving factor,” Lane said, noting that the school has only 110 students. She made the comment during a meeting that was part of Pittsburgh Public Schools' envisioning process to figure out how better to educate students while the money it brings in decreases and its expenses rise.

Pittsburgh Public Schools has a 2013 budget of $521.8 million, or 1.5 percent less than in 2012, but officials expect an operating deficit of $46.3 million by 2016 without changes.

Lane said Woolslair is a low-achieving school and expensive. It costs $14,492 a year to educate a student — twice as much as other K-5 schools in the district.

Lane said she did not recommend any more schools for closure because four new board members will be sworn in next month, and she did not want to overwhelm them.

“I'm disturbed that this is the only school singled out to be closed,” said board member Regina Holley. She said that Woolslair's attendance area was split several years ago with Arsenal, a middle school in Lawrenceville that was converted to add elementary students. Lane suggested moving Woolslair students to Arsenal.

Brian Smith, executive director of strategic priorities for the district, said 40 percent or $202 million of the district's operating budget is “addressable.” The remainder cannot be touched because it is governed by state law such as special education or by contract. Expenses such as pensions, debt and charter school payments and health care costs cannot be addressed.

A moderate approach to reducing the deficit would trim between $17 million and $23 million, and an aggressive approach would cut between $32 million and $45 million, officials said. Among the ideas to save money:

• Clean buildings every other day rather than every day;

• Reduce frequency of cutting grass and shoveling snow;

• Replace technology and textbooks less frequently;

• Transport more students on Port Authority rather than by school buses.

School board member Jean Fink warned that ideas such as shoveling snow less often might cost the district money if someone falls and sues.

The district hired FSF and Bellwether Education Partners, two consulting firms, to help it look at innovative ways to deal with its financial problems. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Fund for Excellence, a group of local foundations, are paying for the $2.4 million cost.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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