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Editorial: Penn Hills grand jury report, recovery plan short on teaching lessons

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, 9:18 a.m.
Penn Hills School District’s administration office
Penn Hills School District’s administration office

You can’t keep digging a hole without making plans to climb out.

Right now, it doesn’t seem like Penn Hills School District will ever find a way out of the dirt.

On Tuesday, a grand jury report used words like “economic ruin,” “egregious” and “catastrophic” to paint a picture of the $172 million pit of debt the district has dug through a combination of “wantonly” ignoring the advice of the state and its own staff and advisers, flagrant spending, and “inept” voting.

“The reckless financial decisions made by the Penn Hills school board, school administrators and their advisors over the past decade plunged the district into an accelerating downward financial spiral that has resulted in the district’s economic ruin,” the report said.

And yet, no one is going to face charges over anything. Much like the 2008 U.S. financial crisis where everyone could point to poor decisions and bad judgment and out-and-out failure, there won’t be much in the way of punishment.

The report amounts to a public scolding of a recalcitrant child by a parent who has no intention to give a timeout, much less a richly deserved move to military school. It is a loudly barking dog behind a sturdy fence. It draws attention, which the allegations of mismanagement and impropriety absolutely demand, but there is more personal consequence to a parking ticket.

The state Department of Education has done more, placing the district in “financial recovery,” a designation a step past the “financial watch” Penn Hills has been on for two years. Former Wilkinsburg Superintendent Daniel Matsook has been named the recovery officer and has been given the Herculean task of filling in the giant hole the district has dug for itself. Or at least preventing the district from tunneling deeper.

And that’s a good thing for taxpayers, who got thrown into that hole with no ladder. But is it a good thing for the school board and administration? Does it help them learn their lesson, or is it just a baby sitter coming in to do their homework for them?

It’s going to take a lot of work for the district, and no doubt a lot of sacrifice for the residents, to actually fill the hole, but it’s a process that can’t be done via shortcut. You can’t cover it up and pretend it’s not there and ignore why.

That just invites someone to fall into the same pit again.

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