City schools try to hold line on taxes

Superintendent says it would require spending cuts, dip into reserves

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Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt yesterday proposed that the district hold the line on taxes for the sixth year in a row but slash spending and dip into the dwindling reserve fund to balance a $528.2 million budget for 2007.

The preliminary general-fund budget called for across-the-board spending cuts totaling $10.2 million, which could lead to personnel cuts. The district has eliminated 560 positions in the past two years, many from school consolidation and a central-office reorganization.

While demanding short-term cost-cutting for the second consecutive year, Mr. Roosevelt yesterday also renewed his call for comprehensive restructuring to put district finances on solid footing for the long haul.

He would balance the 2007 budget by taking $21.9 million from the district's reserve fund. That would leave $40.6 million in the fund, only $14.2 million more than the district must hold in reserve to maintain its financial rating.

In a statement, Mr. Roosevelt said the district cannot dip into the reserve after 2007 and "must begin to show continual, if modest, annual surpluses until we reach a more substantive safety net" of $50 million to $60 million.

"This will involve difficult decisions by our board and staff in the coming months," he said.

The district initially planned to tap the reserve fund to balance the 2006 budget of $533.6 million.

That proved to be unnecessary because of savings from school consolidation and a one-time, $20 million accounting change regarding use of special education funds. Final 2006 spending should be about $497.4 million, budget chief Pete Camarda said.

Mr. Camarda said the school board last increased real estate taxes in December 2000. Under the preliminary budget, millage would remain 13.92, with a mill generating about $12.1 million.

About 46.2 percent, or $244 million, of the 2007 budget would be spent on instruction. The district projects spending $32 million on increasingly popular charter schools, 18.7 percent more than last year.

Some costs can't be pinned down now.

The district next year faces contract talks with some unions, including its largest, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Union President John Tarka yesterday said the PFT was carefully reviewing the budget proposal.

Mr. Roosevelt said a financial turnaround will be hindered by the continuing loss of taxes that the Legislature decided two years ago to divert to the financially ailing City of Pittsburgh. From 2007 through 2009, the city bailout package will cost the district $56.2 million in sales, mercantile and wage taxes, according to figures it released yesterday.

The Legislature softened the blow somewhat by adding about $12 million to the district's base allocation for the 2006-07 fiscal year. Mr. Camarda said he's counting on that money in 2007-08, too.

The school district operates on a calendar year. The state operates on a fiscal year that begins each July 1.

While lamenting the district's role as unwilling partner in the city bailout, Mr. Roosevelt also has called the Pittsburgh Public Schools "high spending."

In a report last month on the district's business and finance operations, the Council of the Great City Schools questioned the appointment of 13 additional assistant principals after the district closed 22 elementary and middle schools in June. It also questioned employee health care costs, the length of the high-school day and formula for determining per-pupil spending.

Neither Mr. Camarda nor Lisa Fischetti, the district's chief of staff, could say how the $10.2 million in spending cuts would be achieved.

Ms. Fischetti said each department head would be responsible for making that decision. Richard Sternberg, principal of Grandview Elementary in Allentown and president of Pittsburgh Administrators Association, said the savings could be difficult to achieve without staff reductions.

The spending cuts would be on top of those some schools already have been asked to make because the district's enrollment of 29,445 this school year was 1,703 students below projections.

The school board will take comment on the budget at its regular monthly hearings Monday and Dec. 11 and at a special budget hearing Dec. 4. The board will vote on the budget Dec. 19.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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