Pittsburgh schools chief pushes cuts, revisions

While the city has lost nearly a third of its school-age population since 2000 and the school district faces bankruptcy in 2016 unless it changes course, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane believes doom-and-gloom isn't a great motivator.

Her recommendations to address financial and academic challenges -- made Wednesday at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 in a state-of-the-district address -- highlighted both cost-cutting and new initiatives.

The cost-cutting includes closing, consolidating or reconfiguring five to 10 schools in fall 2015 as well as decreases in transportation, larger class sizes in 6-12 and 9-12 schools, reduced custodial services, return of some special education students from regional classrooms to feeder schools, and other reductions.

The new initiatives include turning an existing elementary school into an arts magnet, universal preschool for 4-year-olds, early literacy strategy, middle school blended learning pilots, early college high school, and expansion of an Advanced Placement training and incentive program.

The proposed changes, many of which require board approval, are part of a report called "Whole Child, Whole Community: Building a Bridge to the Pittsburgh Promise," which is a reference to the Promise postsecondary scholarship program.

PG graphic: Proposed cuts
(Click image for larger version)

The report is available on the district's website at www.pps.k12.pa.us/wholechild.

Using grants from the Fund for Excellence and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the district is paying $2.4 million for envisioning help from consultants FSG and Bellwether Education Partners.

Wednesday's upbeat presentation to school and community leaders included music from CAPA students and a video of a wide array of community leaders expressing support for the city schools.

The plan calls for the district to work with "cross-sector community partners" to "determine a common agenda for a multi-year, branded collective impact effort" by July 2014.

Ms. Lane emphasized the report is a first step, with more board and community discussion to follow.

The report suggests cuts that could yield savings of $17 million to $44 million a year by 2016, depending on which options the board chooses.

The new initiatives combined could have a one-time cost of $3.8 million to $8.7 million and annual recurring costs of $4 million to $9.9 million.

Some of the choices will spark lively discussion, including the $3 million to $5 million a year that could be saved on school closings, consolidations and reconfigurations.

Only Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border -- which, at 110 students, has the smallest enrollment in the district -- has been proposed for closing next fall. The board is expected to vote on that in March.

No other schools have been named. A process of community and board discussion is expected to begin in March or mid-August and be completed by November.

The district's enrollment has been declining and reached 24,525 in K-12 this fall. The city's population ages 4-17 was 37,000 in 2010, compared to 52,000 in 2000.

After the presentation, Ms. Lane said she recognizes the pain school closings cause but "it's going to take so much from every single section of this district" to solve the problem of a deficit that is expected to grow to $49.6 million in 2016. The 2013 budget is $522 million.

"We're going to have to do some other things that are going to be highly unpopular," she said.

Now some of those choices have price tags, such as these:

* About $3 million could be saved if custodians cleaned classrooms every other day instead of daily, with another $4 million possible if desks, showers and locker rooms were disinfected once a week.

* About $1 million could be saved if all high school students except those at Brashear took Port Authority buses. Another $2 million to $2.5 million could be saved if middle-level school schedules were changed so the same bus could do three runs: elementary, middle and high school.

* About $600,000 a year could be saved by eliminating intramural sports; middle school volleyball, swimming and wrestling; and high school golf, swimming and tennis. Another $400,000 in athletics could be saved by shaving the budget for uniforms, transportation and other purchased services.

* About $600,000 a year could be saved by closing 13 vacant positions in school safety and another $500,000 if 10 additional security positions are eliminated.

The proposal calls for reducing the number of full-time equivalent employees in central office by 10 to 12 percent -- which would be about 15 to 20 of the current 164 employees -- to save $2 million annually. An additional cut of 8 to 10 percent in central office would save another $1 million.

It is likely some of the other proposals would have the ultimate effect of reducing staff, including teachers.

Fewer teachers are needed if there are fewer periods in high schools, class sizes grow in 6-12 and 9-12 schools and some elementary at the elementary level teach two grade levels together.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. First Published December 4, 2013 9:45 AM

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