They don't want to be the next Duquesne.
That refrain echoed through a Wednesday afternoon state House Democratic policy committee hearing attended by about a dozen state legislators, district officials and around 40 community members.
"We don't want to see the state come in and tell us what to do," Tracey Evans, a Wilkinsburg council member and executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp., said in her testimony.
She said there has been investment in the borough, but the ailing school district makes attracting businesses and families a challenge.
In a packed meeting room on the first floor of the Wilkinsburg School District administration building, district officials reiterated their financial woes: vacant housing, high millage rates, tax delinquencies and increasing charter school payments.
And even though these issues have been presented before, there is a renewed sense of worry that the state will take control of the district if its financial situation worsens.
That scenario has been playing out in the Duquesne City School District, where the state has been in control for most of the past decade.
In March, Wilkinsburg was placed on the state's financial watch list, which identifies financially distressed districts. State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, said he requested Wednesday's hearing because he is worried the district's financial situation might precipitate a state takeover. "I just want to get the [state] department of education to the table," he said.
The state legislators who attended -- all Democrats -- were highly critical of Gov. Tom Corbett for what they see as a failure to put more state dollars in districts like Wilkinsburg.
Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said even though the district got a 1.4 percent bump in funding from the state this year, over the past three years, funding has fallen by about $750 per student.
"All school districts in the Commonwealth, especially in Wilkinsburg, are getting shortchanged," he said.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who held a community meeting almost two months ago in Wilkinsburg, said the district is "unsustainable" and reiterated his willingness to consider the possibility of a merger with other school districts. He plans to hold another community meeting 6 p.m. Aug. 8 at Hosanna House.
But despite criticism of Mr. Corbett, no specific proposals for reforming the district were offered.
"If the school district doesn't take the lead, the state will," said Leon Haynes, executive director of Hosanna House, adding that the school board doesn't have the resources to gather comprehensive data and rigorously assess all of its options.
"No one in this room is going to make a decision that is best because there are too many pieces that are not connected. We can't expect the school district to figure it all out."
Some community members criticized the hearing's focus on the financial state of the district instead of how to improve educational programs.
Among those critics was Jessica Harvey, an 18-year-old Wilkinsburg student struggling to graduate. "All I heard was money, money, money," she said of the hearing. "It's not about kids, it's not about education."
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909.