Special advisory committee formed to help with Penn Hills School District’s financial recovery process | TribLIVE.com
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Michael DiVittorio

Educational and financial experts will work with Penn Hills School District officials and community members to brainstorm ways of bringing the debt-ridden district back to solvency.

School board members voted 7-0 Monday night to approve the 12-member special advisory committee.

School directors Cathy Mowry and Denise Graham-Shealey were absent.

“We are part of the healing process,” said Yusef Thompson Sr., school board and committee member. “We’re part of the problem solving process. Let’s continue to be patient and we will get over the hump.”

Board member and former district treasurer Rob Marra also was appointed to the committee.

“I think I know a lot about the finances and have some ideas on how we can consolidate, save money and I want to be heard,” he said.

Other committee members include Superintendent Nancy Hines, Business Manager Eileen Navish, elementary Principal Kristin Brown, Penn Hills Education Association President Rodlyn Checchio-Kunsa, residents Corey Young and Adeshewa Metzger, Allegheny Intermediate Unit Chief Financial Officer Joseph Lucarelli, Propel Schools Chief Financial Officer Charles Daane, Plum School District Business Manager John Zahorchak and ACLD Tillotson School Executive Director Donna Westbrooks-Martin.

The committee will meet at least once a month with Dan Matsook, the state Department of Education’s financial recovery officer appointed to the district in early February. He has about 12 weeks to formulate a plan, with the committee, to improve the district’s financial standings.

Financial recovery status is one step down from formal state takeover of a school district. That next step would be taken if the school board rejects the committee’s plan.

Committee meetings are expected to be private because discussions will include personnel and related matters, but monthly public updates will be given so more residents can have input.

“There’s definitely room for some cost efficiencies across the board,” Matsook said prior to Monday night’s meeting. “How much room I haven’t determined yet. The workforce will be impacted to some degree.”

Its first meeting is slated for March 7 and the first update is planned for March 27. Time and location are to be determined. Regular monthly school board meetings take place at Linton Middle School. Committee members were vetted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

“What I bring to the table is an understanding of how to help schools that are having some difficulties look at way to bring in additional revenue,” Zahorchak said. “I like to focus on how strategy is effective on day-to-day operations. That work is very important. Hopefully, we can come up with some ideas and create solutions instead of just simply raising taxes every year.”

Plum School District officials increased taxes, closed Regency Park Elementary, reduced kindergarten from full- to half-day and furloughed more than 20 teachers for this year’s budget.

Zahorchak said it has a chance to adopt its 2019-20 budget with no tax increase or major cuts to any programs.

Penn Hills’ preliminary spending plan for next school year calls for maximum tax increases and still has a projected $8.1 million shortfall.

It could become one of the highest taxing school districts in Allegheny County if the budget as proposed is adopted.

School districts have until the end of June to adopt a balanced budget.

Penn Hills is more than $172 million in debt largely due to the construction of a new high school and elementary school.

The auditor general released a report in May 2016 detailing the school district’s “mismanagement and lack of oversight that led to the district’s enormous debt problem.”

The report led Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala to launch a grand jury investigation, which concluded Feb. 5 and resulted in no indictments.

The grand jury instead said the district is guilty of “inexcusable” carelessness that brought “economic ruin” to the district.

It recommended state lawmakers enact new legislation to avoid similar scenarios in the future, and cited concerns over possible ethics violations and conflicts of interests.

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