Pittsburgh Public Schools board passes $521.8 million general fund budget

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The Pittsburgh Public Schools board Wednesday night passed a $521.8 million general fund budget for 2013 but will not set a property tax levy until January due to unfinished county property assessment hearings.

The district's spending plan for the coming calendar year is $8 million, or 1.5 percent, less than the 2012 budget. It envisions no additional school closings but will require the district to again tap into its shrinking fund balance to help offset an operating shortfall that could approach $9.8 million by the end of next year.

Officials, who have warned that the district could run out of money by 2015 if changes are not made, said they will work into the new year to find additional savings.

After the board meeting, superintendent Linda Lane said one vehicle that inevitably will be considered to find those savings is leaving vacancies unfilled, but she added that some hirings must occur.

"It's a challenge," she said. "We've made a lot of reductions already, and some of them have been quite painful."

District officials said that between June 2011 and July of this year some $50 million in savings have been realized through school closures, class size and feeder pattern adjustments and staff cuts.

But Ms. Lane said the district faces expenditure increases beyond its control such as health care, pensions and utilities. It also has a tax base that is not growing.

The district has held the line on property tax increases for 11 years, but earlier this month, it recommended that the Board of Education establish a tax rate that would increase property tax revenue to establish a reserve fund to cover the cost of real estate appeals.

Senior Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. on Dec. 10 extended the county's assessment timeline and the Pittsburgh district's timeline to establish a millage rate and Homestead Exemption from gaming revenues.

Officials said the district expects to make those decisions at its Jan. 23 legislative meeting.

The board, which approved the budget unanimously, did set a 2 percent earned income levy and a realty transfer tax of 1 percent.

The board took no action on Ms. Lane's proposal to spend $2 million to $3 million in outside funds to hire consultants for "envisioning a 21st-century educational delivery model." The controversial plan was not ready for a board vote and was pulled from the agenda, officials said.

Also Wednesday night, the board unanimously adopted a resolution expressing "deepest sympathies" to the Newtown, Conn., school district regarding the mass shooting at one of its schools, Sandy Hook Elementary, at which 20 first-graders and six school employees were killed Friday.

Since 2003, when 34,619 students attended Pittsburgh Public Schools, enrollment has fallen by 28 percent to 24,849 as of this fall.

The number of schools operating has been slashed from 93 in 2003 to 53, including four special schools and an alternative school, Clayton Academy.

A workforce that once numbered 5,527 has been whittled to 3,741 after the latest round of layoffs.

Even with those savings, pressure continues to mount on a district that for years was determined not to raise taxes.

Since 2007, Pittsburgh schools have lost $12 million yearly from the state's decision to divert part of the earned income tax to help alleviate the city's fiscal troubles, as well as $4 million annually that it once received from the city's Regional Asset District.

The growing budget deficits that have resulted have meant digging into the district's fund balance, which decade ago stood at $100 million and is expected to be $66 million at the start of the new year.

By 2015, if changes are not made, the district is forecast to have a $53 million deficit, larger than what remains in the fund balance.

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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