TribLIVE

| News


 
Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

School districts face uphill battle in reversing declines

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Traffic is slow along Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. The street runs through the community's business district.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Traffic is slow along Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. The street runs through the community's business district.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Jai'Den Law, 8, of Wilkinsburg plays in the parking lot behind South Avenue United Methodist Church after a toy giveaway at the Wilkinsburg church on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Jai'Den Law, 8, of Wilkinsburg plays in the parking lot behind South Avenue United Methodist Church after a toy giveaway at the Wilkinsburg church on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Vines creep over a boarded-up house on Thursday, Dec. 19 2013, in Wilkinsburg. The neighborhood is dotted with vacant commercial and residential buildings.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Vines creep over a boarded-up house on Thursday, Dec. 19 2013, in Wilkinsburg. The neighborhood is dotted with vacant commercial and residential buildings.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Signs encouraging an end to violence dot front yards in Wilkinsburg.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Signs encouraging an end to violence dot front yards in Wilkinsburg.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Janet Reene-Wilson, 62, of Wilkinsburg waits outside South Avenue United Methodist Church in Wilkinsburg to get toys from a giveaway for families on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Janet Reene-Wilson, 62, of Wilkinsburg waits outside South Avenue United Methodist Church in Wilkinsburg to get toys from a giveaway for families on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A boarded-up window in a vacant Wilkinsburg house is painted with a blue curtain.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A boarded-up window in a vacant Wilkinsburg house is painted with a blue curtain.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Dee’s Southern Style Cooking is among the vacant businesses in Wilkinsburg.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Dee’s Southern Style Cooking is among the vacant businesses in Wilkinsburg.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Jai’Den Law (right), 8, shows her friend, Sequolia Fields, 8, her gifts from a toy giveaway for families in need on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in South Avenue United Methodist Church. The event was organized by Wilkinsburg High School student council members.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Jai’Den Law (right), 8, shows her friend, Sequolia Fields, 8, her gifts from a toy giveaway for families in need on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in South Avenue United Methodist Church. The event was organized by Wilkinsburg High School student council members.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Pieces of a drop ceiling lay among letter tiles in an abandoned storefront window on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Wilkinsburg.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pieces of a drop ceiling lay among letter tiles in an abandoned storefront window on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Wilkinsburg.

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.
Related Stories
By Richard Gazarik
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 rgazarik@tribweb.com.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.

 

 


Show commenting policy

Most-Read Allegheny

  1. Kennywood fanatic, 82, rides Jack Rabbit 95 times in a row
  2. Memorial Day service in National Cemetery of the Alleghenies still growing
  3. Early success in White House race a pleasant surprise for Carson
  4. Mixed-income apartments in flourishing East Liberty applauded
  5. 2 suspects sought in fatal Homestead shooting
  6. 4 dogs found dead in Beechview home; woman charged
  7. Neighbor arrested after McKeesport house fire, authorities say
  8. Duquesne University, union spar over labor laws
  9. Newsmaker: Rich Jones
  10. Governor decries low voter turnout for primary election
  11. 9 juveniles charged in connection with opening day disturbance at Kennywood