City school board merits some fiscal credit

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With the election behind us, this nation must now summon its inner Evel Knievel as it heads toward a fiscal cliff.

Fun? Betcha!

The Democrats control the White House and Senate, but Republicans still control the House. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed refreshingly conciliatory in the wake of President Barack Obama's re-election, though.

"If there is a mandate," Mr. Boehner said, "it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs, which is critical to solving our debt."

It's anyone's guess how that might translate at the precipice of New Year's Day, when automatic payroll tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts would take effect if nothing changes. But if Congress is looking for a model, might I suggest the Pittsburgh school board, which has maintained fiscal rectitude for more than a decade.

A lot of you probably think I'm kidding. Pittsburgh's been controlled by Democrats since the New Deal, and these folks are, by conventional wisdom, all tax-and-spend liberals. Yet almost alone in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Public Schools has gone more than a decade without raising the tax rate.

That's hard to do. Ask anyone who had a fondness for any of the roughly 30 city schools that have shut down since 2001.

If still not convinced, look at what suburban school districts have done in the same period. Seventeen districts in the county have raised their millage rates more than 30 percent since 2001, which means their rate hikes have surpassed even the rate of inflation. Seven of those districts have raised rates more than 40 percent. Three of those -- Deer Lakes, East Allegheny and South Fayette -- have seen rate hikes above 50 percent.

That's what the millage rates posted online by the county treasurer suggest anyway. I'll try to avoid loading up this space with a lot of numbers, but I don't think the city's unpaid board has gotten enough credit for its performance.

Some might say it had no choice. Pittsburgh had an infrastructure built for 50,000 to 60,000 students, but -- as this century dawned -- it was down to around 39,000 students and sinking fast. Enrollment kept shrinking as schools disappeared, but that precipitous drop has leveled off in recent years to around 25,000. This year, kindergarten enrollment is the highest it's been in at least five years.

Bill Isler, who's been on the board for 13 years -- with five of them as president -- said the district was very lucky to get support from foundations to help with instructional costs and to finance the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program as it made these cuts. "The support was unbelievable."

School closings look inevitable only in retrospect. At the time they're announced, they're heart-wrenching. Once they're made, the questions never stop. Hundreds of citizens have signed an online petition with the goal of reopening Schenley High School, for instance.

Schenley closed in 2008 after an asbestos finding that critics now say was overblown. This petition comes even as the board seeks a buyer for the building and is being warned by its budget guru that the schools could go broke by 2015 if more changes aren't made.

Evidently, even the strongest fiscal stands have only short-term rewards. If supply-side fables were true, empty nesters would be flocking to the city right now to get millage rates that are a third less filching than suburban rates. In the real world, though, few even realize city schools haven't raised taxes since before some middle-schoolers were born. That's at least partly because most eyes have been on county real estate assessments, and because the only taxes most folks care about are the ones they've been paying.

Throw in the fact that there's still a 3 percent wage tax on those living and working in the city (with two-thirds of that going to the schools) and the kitchen-table math gets tougher still.

Maybe there isn't much parallel between the fiscal problems of a growing nation and those of a downsized school system, but the choices are no less tough. Just watch what happens if a fellow suggests that the defense budget still seems built for a Cold War that's been over for almost a quarter-century. (We won, by the way.) Anyone think rightsizing that will be a snap?

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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