Deeper in debt: Taking the Wilson center would hurt city schools

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Imagine a big home that was purchased to accommodate a growing family when both parents were making good money. Now, the parents’ income has dropped significantly and some of the kids are on their own. Should the couple, who can’t make ends meet and don’t need all the space they’ve got, be thinking about buying a swanky second home in Florida?

No way.

The “family” in this tale is the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Like that shrinking family, the district has been losing enrollment for years, as operating costs have escalated. And the unnecessary second home that the school board is considering? The distressed August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Give state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale credit for bluntly calling out the board for even considering a takeover of the 5-year-old Downtown building and its $10 million debt load.

“In no way, shape or form is the school district in any position to assume that type of debt.” His message could not have been more clear.

In the case of board member Mark Brentley, though, it fell on deaf ears.

Mr. Brentley offered a senseless analysis when he responded that the “district has always had debt” and can “work out some creative way” to take over the center. “I’m sure no one is arguing that this would not be considered a good investment.”

Wrong. That’s exactly what Mr. DePasquale, as well as other reasonable voices, are saying.

Mr. Brentley may not be able to listen to reason, but the rest of the school board had better.

The district has too many buildings that cost too much for too few students. Despite the best efforts of district administrators and previous boards, which closed buildings, reduced staff and trimmed operating costs, the district stands to run out of money in 2016 without more, significant cutbacks.

Although the city will benefit when someone bails out the beleaguered August Wilson Center, that’s not a task for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.


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