Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane asks board to close Woolslair next fall


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Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane has proposed closing the district's smallest school, Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border, next year as part of a plan aimed at saving as much as $45 million a year through potential cuts ranging from mowing grass less frequently to moving some special education students from regional classrooms to neighborhood schools.

Ms. Lane has delayed the release of her final proposal until next month, but she presented various ideas to the school board at a board education committee meeting Monday.

While the full plan won't be out until after four new members are sworn in early next month, Ms. Lane called on the board to vote Nov. 26 to start the public process for considering the closure of Woolslair, which this fall has 110 students, 65 fewer than the prior fall, a drop of 37 percent. That would be followed by a public hearing, a public comment period and a final board vote in March.

Ms. Lane would like to transfer the Woolslair students to a school a half-mile away, Pittsburgh Arsenal PreK-5, which opened in fall 2006 in a building that also houses a middle school. Arsenal has 287 students in K-5.

She noted that, because of its small size, Woolslair costs nearly twice as much per student as some city schools. If the school is closed, district officials estimate $650,000 to $950,000 a year will be saved.

While she didn't name any other schools, Ms. Lane said, "We do believe additional closures are needed and appropriate."

She called on the board to decide on a public process for determining schools to close in 2015-16.

Pittsburgh City Council, which does not control the school district, has called for a moratorium on school closings. Asked after the meeting whether this influenced her decision, she said her bigger concern was the impending board turnover and the board's desire for a "more public process" around school closings.

She said she still suggested closing Woolslair because it's so small.

She also called for a citywide effort -- a "convening of community" -- around tough issues faced by schools and children in their neighborhoods.

The district is trying to improve academic achievement and reduce a deficit that is expected to grow to $46 million a year in 2016, in which case the district would run out of money,

As for other cost savings measures, the board was given a range of possibilities that could save from $17 million if some changes were made to $45 million if more aggressive measures were taken.

Ms. Lane called Monday's suggestions "just a piece of a much larger list of changes."

Here are some of the cuts being considered in the district's $522 million budget:

* Central office, which accounts for $30 million of the budget, could face cuts ranging from 10 percent to 21 percent, including less usage of contracted, legal and actuarial services; deferred renewal of equipment leases and a less robust employee assistance. The biggest percentage cut could be 42 percent in central office information technology.

* School operations, which accounts for $85.8 million of the budget, could have cuts up to 20 percent, including cleaning classrooms, showers and buildings less frequently; mowing the grass and shoveling the snow less often, fewer security workers, changes in middle school start times and less frequent interoffice mail. There would be no cuts in utilities.

* Special and gifted education, which accounts for $64 million of the budget, could have cuts of 3 percent to 7 percent, including assigning some special education students now in regional classrooms to neighborhood schools, saving about $2 million in transportation. The gifted education centers would continue.

* The schools that account for $174.3 million of the budget, could have cuts from 2 percent to 8 percent, including larger high school classes, changes in allocations of librarians and reduction in number of periods in high schools. While the school day would remain the same length, there would be fewer electives. There are no changes proposed for allocations of social workers or counselors.

* Other school spending could face cuts of 10 percent to 15 percent, including longer cycles between technology replacement, fewer sports in middle and high schools and less frequent replacement of textbooks.

Ms. Lane noted four academic milestones she would like to emphasize: kindergarten readiness, third-graders reading on grade level; algebra readiness by high school; and graduates who are ready for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships and college and careers.

She also wants to emphasize three developmental skills and habits: learning-related skills such as self-regulation and motivation, socio-emotional competence and citizenship and college and career goal setting.

Her proposals are part of a $2.4 million envisioning effort that is being supported by foundation grants.

Brian Smith, executive director of strategic priorities for the district, said the board had a low probability of being able to increase its revenues.

Board members had mixed reactions.

Board members Mark Brentley Sr. and Regina Holley didn't think the plan was visionary enough.

"Where's the vision?" Mr. Brentley said.

Board member Jean Fink said less frequent snow removal would lead to accidents. She also said, "We have always taken pride in the way we kept our buildings. To start letting them look a little rough around the edges is not going to make people feel confident in our using our schools."

Board member Bill Isler said that while he was not advocating it, he thought the prospect of outsourcing should be examined.

Ms. Holley was not convinced that the special education students would get appropriate services if they were moved from the regional centers.

Board member Theresa Colaizzi said the board previously had examined the start time of schools and possible savings, calling that part of the presentation "deja vu."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

school closing - Woolslair - Linda Lane - Pittsburgh Public Schools

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