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Auditor general to begin review of Pittsburgh Public Schools

| Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, 1:24 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said on Monday that his office will begin auditing Pittsburgh Public Schools next month, with a goal of finding solutions for its operational deficits and tax hikes.

“If you want to have a vibrant city, you've got to have a school system that people have confidence in for the long term,” DePasquale, a first-term Democrat who grew up in Pittsburgh, said during a news conference with Mayor Bill Peduto.

He cited concerns about fiscal struggles related to pension payments, charter school costs and declining enrollment.

Pairing with Peduto for the announcement signaled the “new model” of collaboration he is hoping for, DePasquale said.

Peduto said he hopes research and numbers will “find common solutions.”

No one from the school district attended the press conference.

Pittsburgh's school district has more than 29,000 students and 56 buildings, according to state School Performance Profile data, sustained with a 2014 operating budget of $529.1 million. In 2011, the district graduation rate was 68 percent, compared to a state average of nearly 83 percent, state data show.

The school board this month voted to raise property taxes by 2 percent because of an estimated $17.4 million operating deficit. Spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the administration recently started a 10-month process, “Whole Child, Whole Community,” to improve student outcomes and balance the budget deficit.

“We encourage Auditor General DePasquale to view the recommendations of the plan, and look forward to any additional recommendation that the auditor may have,” Pugh said in an email.

Peduto said he hopes to be a mediator who can help build consensus between the district and its teachers as they begin contract negotiations. He plans to lobby state lawmakers in Harrisburg for any necessary legislative changes.

The first step, Peduto said, is hard data: “What we need is good information to make a good decision.”

Audit findings could become a “baseline” for contract talks and could provide the city with information for its discussions with tax-exempt nonprofits regarding a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement.

Some city school problems are symptomatic of statewide decisions, DePasquale said. He pointed to nearly $50 million in charter school payments the district made in the 2011-12 school year — up nearly $10 million from the year before — because of changes to state funding.

“Urban education and poor districts, in a little bit broader terms, have taken a very, very tough hit from state budgets, and there is an impact from that,” DePasquale said. “This is a state responsibility that right now, in my view, is not being met.”

DePasquale said he does not have a deadline for his auditors to complete a full report.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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