PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A $665.6 million school budget with a property tax hike of 2.3 percent brought a number of city residents to a public hearing before the Pittsburgh School Board and Superintendent Anthony Hamlet on Monday.
“Twenty years ago, enrollment in the school district was approximately 54,000. Today, there are only 22,000 students enrolled, and yet our taxes are going up,” said Carol Diethorn, a parent.
The tax hike, the first in five years, was opposed by a number of speakers as not justified given the district’s spending, including the superintendent’s travel, already criticized by the state Auditor General.
“You hurt this school, you went to Cuba, you’re from Florida, we don’t think like that. Why would you go to Cuba?” Grandparent Yvonne Brown said directly to Hamlet.
Others said a tax hike was premature before spending allocations were more transparent and justified.
“Spending per student at CAPA is 40-percent more than at Alderdice and about 30-percent more than at Brashear,” said Vikram Mangalmurti, a parent.
But not everyone opposed the tax increase, even if unhappy with the spending choices.
“With regard to the budget, I wanted to say that while I approve of the tax increase given that PPS has not risen taxes in five years and currently has the second-lowest millage rate in the county, I have serious concerns with aspects of this budget,” noted Ghada Makoshi, a parent.
These concerns, echoed by a number of speakers, was that too much money was being spent on public safety and school police.
“We cannot continue to over-criminalize students, and we understand that having school police in the school buildings and security guards increases those chances,” said Angel Gober of One Pennsylvania. “So if we can actually divest from over-policing students and invest it into more supports like social workers and counselors.”
City residents can voice their opinions at another public hearing on Monday evening, December 16, or contact their school board members directly before a vote on taxes and budget allocations are taken on Wednesday, December 18.
The budget debate comes just after Mayor Bill Peduto worried publicly that higher taxes and poorly performing schools are driving families out of the city.
“I don’t even know why there was such a strong attack,” school director Sylvia Wilson told KDKA money editor Jon Delano.
Wilson rejects the mayor’s premise.
Delano: So you don’t think it’s the schools that are causing people to leave Pittsburgh?
Wilson: The people who have children in our schools will tell you that they love their schools. It’s been researched. Everybody will tell you what they love about their schools, and I don’t think our schools are pushing people away.
Across town, some city council members came to the mayor’s defense.
“We’ve lost over 15,000 families with school-aged children in the city of Pittsburgh,” declared Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith. “It has an effect on our city. It has effect on who’s paying taxes, what we’re doing here, and what we are able to provide to our residents. So it is absolutely something the mayor should take an interest in.”
“It’s about all those children, and I represent those children, too,” the mayor told Kail-Smith and council members.
Peduto says a meeting with the school board is possible.
“I’ve spoken with several school board members in the past week,” he said. “I think the time is right to be able to bring that together, and I think they’re at least three school board members who’d be very interested as well.”
Delano: Do you think the mayor should come speak to the school board?
Wilson: It might be good to have a good conversation with the mayor. I think it would be probably something that we would all be open to.
There is no indication when a meeting between city and school officials might happen, or even if such a meeting can impact the board raising school taxes later this month.