Rough road: Pittsburgh’s schools have tough choices to make

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Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane doesn’t sugarcoat the problems confronting her district.

A comprehensive, two-year planning report she released last Wednesday said that, although more city high school graduates are heading for college than five years ago, academic performance has declined in the last two years, 10 of the district’s 50 schools are running at less than 50 percent capacity and costs must be cut by nearly $50 million by 2016.

As Ms. Lane has done throughout her tenure as head of the district, she prepared a plan to attack the budget while implementing measures to improve student achievement.

The report, “Whole Child, Whole Community: Building a Bridge to the Pittsburgh Promise,” includes ambitious goals for transforming the district. Under her sound approach, many of its details will be worked out during consultations with the community and the school board. The document includes a range of options, particularly dealing with finances, and there the school board will need to be particularly aggressive.

The topic that always draws the most fire is the possibility of closing schools. As had been discussed previously, Ms. Lane makes a convincing case for closing Woolslair K-5 in June because its tiny enrollment means per pupil costs are double the rate of other Pittsburgh elementary schools. That alone won’t be enough.

Pittsburgh’s school-age population has fallen by 29 percent since 2000 to 37,431, the district has too many buildings that are under-utilized and its student-teacher ratio is lower than its peers in other Pennsylvania cities. Under the report's most ambitious option, closing 10 school buildings by the fall of 2015 would save as much as $5 million.

That would move the district in the right direction, but other elements of the plan could generate even larger savings. Eliminating classes that are too small, changing the high school schedule from nine periods to eight and reducing library services could save as much as $14 million. Reducing central office personnel and spending could reduce administrative costs by $6 million.

Deferring technology purchases and reducing student athletics — intramural sports; middle school volleyball, swimming and wrestling; and high school golf, swimming and tennis — could save $2 million. Maintenance costs could be lowered by $7 million if facilities were cleaned and disinfected less often. Having most high school students travel on Port Authority buses and realigning start times for other schools to cut down on school bus trips could save another $3.5 million.

Ms. Lane and her staff have looked into every part of the operation for ways to cut costs, without losing focus on the district’s fundamental mission of preparing its students for success in both higher education and the workforce. There is a lot of work to do.

The school board and its community partners now have a road map that can move Pittsburgh Public Schools toward the fiscal stability the district needs to fulfill its goals.

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