Penn Hills residents voice concerns about school district’s financial plan
Penn Hills School District residents voiced their concerns about a proposed recovery plan designed to bring the financially struggling district back into the black.
Proposed tax increases and finding alternative means to fix the debt crisis were among the main discussion points of a town hall meeting at the high school on June 3.
“If we keep raising taxes we’re going to lose people,” resident Bill Coleman said. “People can’t take it year after year, after year, after year.”
Two program cuts, 57 furloughs and a real estate tax hike of more than 6 percent all are part of the district’s proposed 2019-20 budget and financial recovery plan. Both documents were posted on the front page of the district’s website, www.phsd.k12.pa.us.
The state put Penn Hills in financial recovery status in January and appointed Dan Matsook in February to help turn things around.
Matsook crafted the plan after interviewing numerous district officials and staffers and working with a special advisory committee of administrators, board members, education experts, community members and officials from neighboring schools.
Superintendent Nancy Hines said she does not agree with all of the plan’s recommendations, but believes it will help Penn Hills.
“This plan is not a silver bullet,” she said. “Our reality – and it is a harsh one – is it may take 10 years or more to get out of this mess. We’ve got to be in it for the long haul … This is about our community, and this district must survive.”
The district is more than $172 million in debt, largely due to the construction of the high school and elementary school.
“How about you get the money from the people that put us here?” asked resident Ryan Walsh said. “This is ridiculous.”
In May 2016, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale published a report that he described as “one of the worst school audits” he’d ever seen. Among the concerns DePasquale cited were alleged mismanagement of funds and district credit cards, bad business decisions and an alarming lack of oversight and internal controls.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. launched a grand jury investigation shortly after DePasquale’s audit was released.
About 130 people attended the town hall, including school board members. Between 15 and 20 audience members submitted questions and a few spoke from the seats. Some asked about the district filing for bankruptcy.
Matsook said bankruptcy is not available for public schools and district officials have explored numerous options.
The recovery plan includes a “balanced narrative,” with demographic information about the district and community, enrollment trends and academic programming, as well as finances.
Matsook told town hall attendees it was important to include that section and highlight student achievement so the plan does not just focus on the numbers.
“A balanced narrative is critical for a turnaround to happen here in Penn Hills,” he said. “We are competing with charter schools in Allegheny County for a small pool of students. As we lose those students to charters, it keeps feeding the downtrend of finances that are impacting our annual operating budgets. There’s a lot of good news that goes along with some of the bad news.”
About 830 Penn Hills students are enrolled in cyber/charter schools.
Data showed district enrollment was at 4,971 in 2008-09 and at 3,360 this school year, a loss of 1,612 students.
Matsook said declining enrollment was a key factor in “right-sizing” district staff.
There are 487 positions in the district’s budget. The financial plan’s “worst case scenario” for reductions addresses 84 positions, but only 57 furloughs were approved so far.
The board voted last month to layoff 33 teachers, 12 service aides, one paraprofessional, two health room aides, five custodians and four secretaries – but no administrators.
Programs on the chopping block are pre-kindergarten and the high school’s Navy Junior ROTC program. Each have about 30 students involved.
Hines said four administrative positions are being eliminated due to attrition.
Linton Middle School
The recovery plan also talks about Linton Middle School and how the environment/culture needs improvement.
Matsook said he wants to form a committee next school year to examine how other middle schools of similar demographics operate, and have a feasibility study to explore the possibility of closing Linton.
He said he is against closing the school, but it may need to be considered.
“I would hope that I could get a study done before the end of next school year, so I had the data in the report,” Matsook said. “From a financial standpoint, it makes complete sense. The question is, what’s best for kids from an educational standpoint? The climate and the setting over there has to be addressed.”
Matsook noted a decline in standardized test scores after students reach the middle school, in addition to unusually high rates of suspensions and expulsions and inconsistent enforcement of district policies.
Matsook said he wants to seek state funding to hire a public relations consultant for the district to promote more positive news.
That initiative is expected to begin sometime in the 2019-20 school year as Matsook works on year two of the recovery plan.
Hines said she is aware of a lot of negativity being spread via social media, and encouraged people to be positive.
This year’s budget eliminated a district public relations position.
Both the recovery plan and 2019-20 budget will be up for a vote at 7 p.m., June 24, at Linton Middle School.
Matsook said minor tweaks may result from input received at the town hall, but any significant changes would depend on how much relief is provided by the state.
The state gave the district $2 million in additional support the past two years.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .