Penn Hills School District’s recovery plan includes cuts, furloughs and tax hike | TribLIVE.com
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Penn Hills School District’s recovery plan includes cuts, furloughs and tax hike

Michael DiVittorio
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Michael DiVittorio | Tribune-Review
Penn Hills School District Chief Recovery Officer Daniel Matsook presents his recovery plan.
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Michael DiVittorio | Tribune-Review
Penn Hills School District officials approved 57 furloughs at a board meeting May 20 as part of a financial recovery plan.
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Michael DiVittorio | Tribune-Review
Penn Hills School District property owners may pay more in real estate taxes next year as part of the district’s 2019-20 budget.

Two program cuts, 57 furloughs and a real estate tax hike of more than 6 percent are all part of Penn Hills School District’s proposed 2019-20 budget and financial recovery plan.

School board members at a meeting Monday night stressed both plans are preliminary, and that anyone furloughed could be recalled.

They made those statements before and after voting to layoff 33 teachers, 12 service aides, one paraprofessional, two health room aides, five custodians, four secretaries and 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.

Board President Erin Vecchio said the employee unions require a 30-day notice of any potential furloughs, but she does not support the plan.

“I think we need more administrative cuts instead of teachers,” Vecchio said. “We’re here to educate, and you’re getting rid of the people who do that. I am not voting on a tax increase. They have to find the funds from the state or somewhere else because I will not tax these people out of their houses.”

A town hall meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. June 3 at the high school to discuss the recovery plan and future of the district.

The board will vote on the budget, tax ordinance and recovery plan at 7 p.m. June 24 at Linton Middle School.

District Business Manager Eileen Navish discussed the proposed budget and state-appointed Chief Recovery Officer Daniel Matsook presented an overview of his plan Monday night. Both documents are expected to be made available for public review starting Tuesday at the superintendent’s office and on the district’s website, www.phsd.k12.pa.us.

Proposed budget

The proposed 2019-20 budget is balanced at about $90.2 million. Salaries, benefits and pension obligations make up a majority of the costs.

“Over 90 percent of our expenditures are fixed,” Navish explained. “We will continue to make adjustments as additional information comes in.”

Expenses include about $34.7 million in salaries and benefits, $9.3 million in pensions, $7.3 million in transportation, $16.2 for charter and vo-tech schools and $12 million in debt service.

Revenues include $52.24 million from local sources, including real estate taxes and $33 million in state subsidies and reimbursements.

The proposed tax hike is 1.9172 mills, or 6.69 percent. The current millage rate is 28.6646 mills.

The hike, if adopted, would mean a person with a $50,000 property would pay about $96 more in real estate taxes. Someone with a $75,000 property would pay about $144 more next school year.

Vecchio hopes state Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, will be able to get $2 million or more in additional state grants for the district to reduce the tax hike and staff cuts. Costa was able to get Penn Hills $4 million in grants the past two years.

Recovery plan

The district is more than $172 million in debt largely due to the construction of the high school and elementary school.

The state put Penn Hills in financial recovery status in January and appointed Matsook to help turn things around in February.

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.

It will be submitted to the state for review and approval prior to the district’s June 24 meeting.

“The plan is pretty comprehensive,” Matsook said. “It’s thorough. There’s approximately 73 initiatives. Some of the initiatives are small ones, some are large, some are in progress as we stand here even though the plan’s not approved because of the diligence of the school board and the administration. Many of the things in the plan are represented in the budget.”

It includes a “balanced narrative” with demographic information about the district and community, enrollment trends and academic programming as well as finances.

“I think this balanced narrative about the good and the bad is critical in the turnaround of the Penn Hills School District,” Matsook said.

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.

“I did the best that I could to make sure that we’re protecting the integrity of the educational services that are offered in our buildings, and I think I have,” Matsook said. “The bottom line is, their enrollment has drastically declined, and we are overstaffed … Nobody wants to do this, and it’s something that we have to get done. Just like we have to have a tax increase somewhere along the line to some degree. If we don’t act fast in the first year, it’s just going to slow down the recovery and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels. There’s no other way to do it short of the state bailing us out, and the state’s not going to bail us out completely.”

He said the two programs being cut impact the least amount of students, and all other programs and sports are intact.

Matsook said some of the district’s strengths include its advance placement courses and tests, curricular and extra curricular opportunities, elementary Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System scores and CHIEFS Academy, the district’s in-house cyber school. He said Penn Hills needs to win a competition against other cyber/charter schools and bring more students back to the district.

Matsook, board members and other district officials pledged to continue to work on the recovery plan and budget to ensure they’re doing all they can for students and taxpayers.

“I’m always concerned to make sure a plan’s accurate and reasonable,” said Rob Marra, board member and finance committee chairman.

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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