Penn Hills School District’s state allocation only a Band-Aid, board president says
The Penn Hills School District was able to dodge a property tax hike that would have thrust the district to the top-highest tax rate in Allegheny County, but many residents know budgets last only one year.
By then, Earl Jenkins said he and his wife might move down South.
“We don’t have kids in the [school system] anymore and I’m paying taxes on it. We shouldn’t have to do that,” Jenkins said while sitting on his porch that faces part of the high school – one of the two buildings that state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said plunged the district in $172 million of debt.
The Penn Hills school board unanimously approved a $90.9 million budget for the upcoming school year on June 29. The new budget represents a 2.4 percent decrease from last year’s $93.2 million budget.
A last-minute, $3.3 million state allocation meant the district could avoid raising property taxes and recall six teachers, a school counselor and two secretaries.
The board delayed the budget vote a week to see if the General Assembly would include money for the district. Before the $3.3 million boost, the school district was considering a 6.69% tax hike to balance the budget. It would have charged a homeowner about $144 more a year for a property assessed at $75,000.
The current millage rate is 28.6646 mills, already among the highest in the region.
Superintendent Nancy Hines called the state funding a “one-year reprieve.”
“It’s absolutely a mixed blessing – we’re not out of the woods. This money is not guaranteed to be renewable. We have state support and I hope it will be renewed. But it can’t be a guarantee at this point,” Hines said.
Jenkins, 65, said it is partly his high tax bills that could motivate a move.
“I didn’t want a new building to begin with,” he said, adding he grew up in Homewood and graduated from Westinghouse High School.
“I never saw a chandelier in my high school. … They had all these outrageous expenses without asking us – who are the ones who are going to pay for it,” Jenkins said, referring to a February grand jury report that outlined lavish spending on two new school buildings – including a $60,000 chandelier.
The multimillion-dollar upgrades occurred despite repeated warnings and shrinking enrollment, according to the grand jury report. The grand jury blamed school board and district officials of poor leadership, but did not recommend criminal charges.
The $3.3 million allocation, which came from the state Department of Education, follows $4 million in state aid over the last two years. Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and state Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, are credited for securing the money.
The allocation brings the district’s total amount received by both state and federal money to $41.1 million. The district also expects to collect $39 million in real estate tax revenue for the next year, said Eileen Navish, the district’s business manager.
Despite a year-long break in raised tax rates, the budget still includes the layoff of 27 teachers, 12 service aides, one paraprofessional, two health room aides, five custodians and two secretaries.
The board will also cut pre-kindergarten and the high school’s Navy Junior ROTC program. Hines, however, said the board is working to find solutions that will keep the programs afloat.
The cuts will help alleviate the district’s largest expenditures, which include salaries and benefits, charter school tuition, debt services and transportation.
School board president Erin Vecchio said she’s grateful for the relief from the state but acknowledged it is a Band-Aid.
“We’re happy we can give taxpayers relief for one year and now we’re focused on solving the problems,” she said, adding that she and other officials are scheduled to meet with Costa soon to discuss ideas that could reduce the district’s debt service.
She declined to offer specifics on how that could be done, but said “we’re not floating a bond.”
Meanwhile, she continues to seek answers on why no one has been held accountable for decisions that landed the district with massive debt.
An online petition has purportedly garnered nearly 1,200 signatures. Vecchio’s son, Philip, plans to visit the White House and the FBI on July 5 to deliver a copy of the petition that asks federal authorities to “investigate this matter immediately and either decide to prosecute those involved and seek damages — or we demand the immediate bailout of the District’s debt.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .