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Cash-strapped Pittsburgh Public Schools to sponsor holiday parade

| Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, 11:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh Public Schools will spend more than $200,000 during the next three years to help sponsor a holiday parade and pay for other promotions to boost its public image, raising questions about expenditures by the financially challenged district.

The school district is the lead sponsor of the 34th annual WPXI Holiday Parade on Saturday. It agreed to a $206,000 marketing campaign deal with WPXI-TV that includes $52,500 per year from grant money to sponsor the parade through 2016 and to increase pride in the district.

Some criticize spending the money on marketing, given the district's financial problems, including a projected deficit of $26.6 million in 2015.

“They're selling buildings. They've had layoffs. Usually spending money on advertising is not something you think of a school district doing when it's complaining about not having enough money,” said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative policy group in Castle Shannon.

“We've heard from our community, from our board, from our parents, frustration about not hearing all the good things that we're doing here in Pittsburgh Public Schools. … (This is a result) of just listening to the community and understanding that we have to tell our own story,” district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

Money for the campaign will come from a $40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that the district received in 2009 to support its Empowering Effective Teachers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools plan, Pugh said.

The Empowering Effective Teachers plan's strategies include increasing the exposure of high-needs students to highly effective teachers and ensuring that all teachers work in learning environments that support their ability to be highly effective.

One way to support positive teaching and learning is through enhancing public perceptions about the district, as with the marketing campaign with WPXI, according to the district.

“This is about making people feel good about where they work and where they attend school. And we think it will impact the teaching and learning environment,” Pugh said.

The district's enrollment fell from about 34,000 in 84 schools in the 2004-05 school year to about 25,500 students in 54 schools this year.

The district's participation in the holiday parade will include performances by school bands and students from the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School; Superintendent Linda Lane, school board members and some students and their families aboard a special float; and the district's students and staffers with large parade balloons.

For decades, the parade was sponsored by Kaufmann's department store, which merged with Macy's in 2006. Macy's continued the sponsorship until announcing in March that its support would end, said Mark Barash, WPXI program director.

He declined to disclose the cost of producing the parade, but said the event would have gone on with or without a replacement sponsor.

“I think it's a lot better because of the Pittsburgh Public Schools' involvement. They are talented kids,” said Barash, who said other school districts will participate in the parade.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is getting a lot for its money, he said.

The marketing deal will include WPXI producing a 30-minute special featuring positive stories about things going on in the school district, four 30-second vignettes about work to improve teaching and learning environments and a digital/mobile campaign around teaching and learning in the district. The station will air them during the school year.

A 3 12-minute informational interview segment with school district spokespeople aired on WPXI on Friday, Barash said.

School board member Mark Brentley said he voted in favor of the marketing campaign Oct. 22 because there is no fair and accurate media coverage of the good things happening in the school district.

“As far as I'm concerned, it's a small amount that was needed,” he said.

The district's 2015 preliminary general fund budget is $556.4 million.

Brentley disagreed, however, with the process of how the campaign was presented to the board for approval.

As chair of the board's Communications Committee, he believed the plan should have come before his committee first so that use of other media outlets could have been explored and compared before the plan was presented to the board.

Pugh said the plan went through the Education Committee because it involved teacher effectiveness.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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