Many residents who came to a public hearing Monday on the 2020 Pittsburgh Public Schools budget didn’t focus on the spending plan that includes a 2.3% rise in property taxes collected by the district, the first tax increase in five years.
Instead, the bigger concern was the district’s spending on school security and policing instead of allocating more resources to counseling and intervention programs for students. Dr. Claire Cohen, a psychiatrist from Point Breeze, said the district needs to allocate more funding to counseling and mental health programs for students and less to police and security of schools.
The budget proposal includes $7.2 million to be spent on school safety and includes 92 positions. The support staff of the district, which covers services such as the counseling and intervention programs Cohen referenced, makes up $11.7 million of the budget and has 88 staff members.
After the hearing, board member Sylvia Wilson of East Liberty said those concerns by residents are noted, but maintained some security is needed.
“We still have to take care of our kids,” said Wilson, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher who represents District 1.
People also asked for chance to participate more in the process of drafting the budget.
On Nov. 12, Mayor Bill Peduto called for state oversight of the school district’s finances, similar to the Act 47 oversight the city was under from 2005 until 2018. Cheryle Diethorn of Crafton Heights supported Peduto’s position and said the district needs to spend the money it now takes in more responsibly.
“We’ve proved increasing taxes doesn’t make achievement better. There has to be a better way,” Diethorn said after the hearing. “I’m concerned about the achievement of our students.”
People move from the city to the suburbs because suburban schools have better reputations, Diethorn said.
In early November, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet raised the idea of a property tax hike. The 2.3% hike in would help cover a $27.3 million projected deficit in the $665.6 million budget proposed for the schools.
At the same time, Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph recommended readjusting the wage taxes distributed to the city and schools. City residents pay a 3% wage tax. Originally, 2% went to the schools and 1% to the city, but when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, a 2005 reform changed the formula to 1.75% to the schools and 1.25% to the city.
Joseph said reverting to the original formula for wage taxes would shore up the district’s finances and allow it to refrain from a property tax increase.
The idea of restoring the portion of Pittsburgh wage taxes diverted since 2005 was “purely an inquiry,” said Wilson, the board member from East Liberty.
“What about that tax money that we’ve been giving to the city? Where is that? The city is not in crisis anymore,” said Wilson. “The city is not in the crisis it was at the time.” Pittsburgh exited Act 47 oversight in February 2018. The city’s last fiscal oversight agency was closed in July 2019
Wilson would welcome a meeting with the mayor to discuss the issue, she said.
Peduto said school district spending has increased by $137 million since he was elected mayor in 2013 while the student population has dropped and the number of district employees has increased.
The city’s balanced budget is based on formula established in 2005, Peduto said, “so for this year’s budget there’s no discussion that we’re willing to have on that issue. Looking to the future I really believe that there needs to be more of an explanation of where that $137 million is going to,” Peduto said. “The city and the city schools are the same system. As our tax revenue goes up, their tax revenue goes up, and it’s gone up $137 million, but yet they need to raise taxes and it doesn’t make sense why.”
He said he met regularly with former Superintendent Linda Lane and under her leadership the district had the largest surplus of any school in the state.
“Things have changed dramatically in just a few years,” Peduto said. “I’d like to get back to where it was when Dr. Lane and I would meet.”