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Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto proposes $16M for schools to boost population

Syracuse offers possible model

Mayor Bill Peduto's plans to boost the city's population by improving the city's public schools might come down to money.

School Superintendent Linda Lane pointed to Syracuse, N.Y., as an example.

Syracuse and its school district operate independently, but the city owns school buildings and contributes 55 percent of its operating revenue to the district.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie A. Miner said the city borrowed $300 million to renovate four 1930s-era school buildings, repair roofs on two others and make a master plan for building renovations.

It contributes more than $1.5 million a year to Syracuse's “Say Yes to Education” program, which provides free college tuition to qualifying residents, similar to the Pittsburgh Promise. “Say Yes” provides mentoring, tutoring, health care, legal assistance, academic support and other social services to students and families.

Miner said the work is starting to show results. School enrollment has increased after a steady decline dating to the 1990s to 20,360 this year.

“When people who have children, or are thinking about having children, are buying houses, the first question they ask is, ‘How good is the school system?' ” Miner said.

— Bob Bauder

By Megan Harris and Bob Bauder
Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
 

Mayor Bill Peduto says his pledge to increase Pittsburgh's population by 20,000 in 10 years hinges on improving the city's schools, but other leaders fail to see how the city can help.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris said Pittsburgh lacks cash to throw at the problem, and Peduto doesn't have the authority to compel the embattled district to get better.

“The school district is a separate governmental body,” said Harris of Spring Hill, a former school board president. “I don't think the city has money to give to another governmental body.”

Peduto, who took office in January, said the health of the city is closely tied to that of its schools. Better schools mean families move into the city, which broadens the tax base, puts people in homes and reduces blight, he said.

Long plagued with falling enrollment, Pittsburgh Public Schools has closed more than 20 buildings in the past 10 years while consistently scoring below average on state-mandated tests. The district projects an operating deficit of more than $40 million by 2016.

Peduto isn't certain what his office can do. The city remains under state financial oversight and must find ways to meet $1 billion in employee pension obligations and reduce nearly $600 million in debt. Meanwhile, critical services such as street paving remain underfunded.

Peduto said he would consider refunding to the school district a portion of 0.25 percent in wage tax — which amounted to about $16.2 million in 2013 — that was moved from the district to the city when the city fell under state financial oversight. In order to do that, Peduto said he would need an agreement for long-term payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofits in the city.

Skeptics say the city can't afford it.

“How does the city absorb a $16 million loss?” asked Controller Michael Lamb, also the school district's controller. “If the answer is the foundations and nonprofits are going to kick $16 million into the city, well, I'm all for that, but I don't see that happening.”

Ultimately, Peduto must persuade parents such as Josh Reisner and Kaira Cooper of Squirrel Hill that they should send their children to Pittsburgh Public Schools.

They enrolled their daughter Katie, 5, in the feeder system for Colfax K-8, then moved her to a private preschool where they say interaction with staff is better.

“The days of where you just sent your kid off to school and that was it are over,” Reisner said.

Peduto established a task force to examine the school district's problems, and his office will participate in a summit this year led by the federal Department of Education focusing on early childhood education, after-school programming and helping students get into college.

The mayor said he can use his office to advocate for more money from the state and federal governments.

He hired Curtiss Porter, former chancellor of Penn State Greater Allegheny, as chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer to focus on improving schools and neighborhoods.

Superintendent Linda Lane said she loves the budding partnership.

“Having Mayor Peduto or Dr. Porter's name attached to our efforts could do great things for us,” she said.

Board Vice President Bill Isler said the fact that Peduto is supporting city schools publicly is an improvement.

“It's early, but I think just the fact that he's in office just a couple months and already talking about the importance of early childhood education and the importance of a good school system is a very good sign,” Isler said.

Former Mayor Tom Murphy established A+ Schools, an independent nonprofit that works to improve the school district, in 2004. Executive Director Carey Harris said she perceives huge possibilities in a partnership between the city and school district.

“The key to the future will be one entity not telling the other what to do, and each respecting the role of the other,” she said.

Murphy said Peduto can't come in “with full guns blazing.”

“The city government is not set up to deal with the educational process,” said Murphy, whose son is a product of the district. Even if Peduto improves the school district, he put the onus on parents to make their children's experience a good one.

“If you're going to come into the Pittsburgh system, you need to work to figure out where you want to be, what your kids' interests are. ... You need to figure out the quality of the schools and the feeder plan for that school.”

Julie Peterson, 41, said she and her husband, Jason, worked at it after they moved to the North Side with their then-infant son Evan in 2007. As Evan neared school age, she sought advice from other parents, talked to administrators and visited schools until she found Pittsburgh Phillips in the South Side.

“The families who really want to stay (in the city) find options,” she said. “I don't want my children to grow up in the suburbs. So (the North Side) schools weren't right for us; that's OK. They're still a part of our neighborhood, so we're committed to seeing them thrive.”

Megan Harris and Bob Bauder are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Harris at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com. Reach Bauder at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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