School districts face uphill battle in reversing declines

| Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

The Wilkinsburg School District struggles in just about every way that matters — financially, academically and with enrollment.

Superintendent Lee McFerren knows that merging with another district could help, but no district is willing to take on the challenge, he said.

It's a common cry from distressed districts that essentially have “lost their right to exist,” said Maureen McClure, associate professor of administration and policy studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There's no tax base to hold them,” said McClure, a school director in Riverview School District. “They just don't have enough of a tax base to do the basic things it needs to do, and those are the districts nobody wants.”

In general, she said, school officials and politicians have “little appetite” for school consolidations.

“One of the main reasons is that, for many, the costs outweigh the benefits. Costs often don't go down by much. Most districts don't want to be paired with ‘losers.' That's what sets off the cannon fire,” McClure said.

A study by Standard & Poor's, commissioned by the state Senate Budget and Finance Committee, found that 97 of the state's 500 districts are “potential candidates” for consolidation. The study revealed 61 percent of those districts were willing to merge but likely would face strong community opposition.

The study found economic reasons, along with loss of local control and identity, longer bus rides for students, higher property taxes and closing of neighborhood schools as reasons.

Before McFerren was hired in July, Wilkinsburg school directors discussed merging with Pittsburgh Public Schools, but McFerren said he has not raised the issue with Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane.

“My hope is I will be able to implement programs in the fall of 2014 that will be ... aimed at parents keeping students in Wilkinsburg and bringing some students back,” McFerren said.

Wilkinsburg's problems seem insurmountable:

• District taxpayers are saddled with the highest millage — 36.6 mills — in Allegheny County, McFerren said.

• The borough has nearly 700 abandoned structures, according to its revitalization plan.

• Wilkinsburg taxpayers owe the district $16 million in delinquent property taxes. To offset a declining tax base, 80 teachers have been furloughed in the past three years, and the district borrowed $3 million to pay bills, McFerren said.

• Just 58 percent of students graduate, compared with the statewide average of 83 percent, according to the state Education Department.

• Nearly 53 percent of the district's high school students are economically disadvantaged, according to census figures.

The district lost 300 students to charter or cyber schools, leaving slightly more than 1,000 in kindergarten through grade 12.

“Our survival depends on whether or not we can stop our students from exiting and going to charter schools,” McFerren said. “That's the largest detriment to our district.”

Officials in Somerset County's tiny Turkeyfoot Valley School District understand the situation.

Turkeyfoot leaders expressed interest in merging with neighboring Rockwood School District, but Rockwood officials declined.

Rockwood Superintendent Mark Bower said his district borrowed $500,000 to pay bills and closed a school in 2007 because there were only 10 students per class. He said finances finally stabilized, and the school board is reluctant to enlarge the district.

Turkeyfoot, one of the smallest districts in the state with 386 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and Rockwood with 895 students, are rural districts. Rockwood covers 146 square miles; Turkeyfoot covers 103.

Bower said Turkeyfoot is on the state's warning list for districts that failed to make adequate yearly academic progress.

McClure said small, struggling districts such as Wilkinsburg and Turkeyfoot face an uphill battle in reversing their declines.

As long as academic failure is a factor, parents will continue to move children from the districts, further eroding the tax base.

“Money follows the child,” she said.

Richard Gazarik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6292 or

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